Having attended several festivals visited by the tens of thousands, from my first and unforgettable Download festival in 2008 to Isle of Wight in 2015, the last three summers have taken a laid-back and more sober turn towards festivals that welcome only several thousand people: Shambala in Northamptonshire, Jungle Beat in southwest Germany and Appletree Garden Festival over the weekend just gone by in northwest Germany.
Appletree is the first festival I’ve been to in a group snugger than 10. To be more specific, this year’s group featured myself and Jacob, who had wanted to go to Appletree for years. Since the festival was sold out, we emailed the organisers and asked if we’d be able to volunteer in return for our tickets. Luckily they needed helpers and after a few emails back and forth, we were on our way north to Diepholz.
Over the four days, we worked for a mere ten hours. Donning green vests, gloves and rubbish grabbers turned out not only to be quite fun and therapeutic but also rewarding as it raised awareness amongst the festival goers to clean up after themselves. We danced around, picking up rubbish, enjoying the environment and were praised by co-boogiers.
Festivals tend to be four-day long environmental disasters as people become careless and wasteful in their euphoria. Shambala and the following year’s Jungle Beat presented me with an alternative picture in which festivals can exercise active eco-friendliness in the form of compost loos, fair-trade textiled merchandise, an absence of one-way plastic and a €10 rubbish deposit which you get back if you return a full rubbish bag at the end of the festival.
Shambala was my first festival where the days were spent participating in workshops around eco-building demonstrations, permaculture talks, shanty sing alongs, dance lessons and nipple-tassel design classes. The festival felt like one big TedTalk on how to love each other, yourself and the planet.
Appletree, a small festival with five thousand attendees, had the familiarity of Jungle Beat and the quality of well-known artists that I haven’t experienced since Isle of Wight but was lacking the environmental progress of Shambala. Although there were deposits on bottles to encourage people to give them back, the organisers themselves were well aware that they’ve still obstacles to overcome if they want to be known as an eco-friendly festival, the first being to separate rubbish.
Amidst the love and friendliness of festivals, there is a repulsive neglect for the land as leftovers are strewn all around. Shambala and Jungle Beat have set benchmarks of eco-standards but for me, hundreds of rubbish bags full of paper plates and cutlery instead of plastic doesn’t quite cut it. My ideal festival would be as zero waste as possible and I believe we each have a responsibility to contribute to that. Why not bring your own spork and cup? It may be inconvenient to carry along, but why do we have to spoil ourselves and the planet with recyclable luxuries?
In a pleasant contrast to the packaged snacks and curry sauce on chips from previous festivals, we came prepared to Appletree and were able to cook coffee every morning and a warm meal in the late afternoon. Taking the rime to cook, rather than queuing 18 minutes for an €8 burger, to be consumed in 88 seconds, felt a thousand times more wholesam.
One of our main reasons for coming to Appletree was to see Käpt’n Peng, a philosophising and funky Douglas Adams inspired crazeball. My favourite song of his is “Sockosophie” in which the Captain of the (Big) Bang discusses life, the universe and everything to a sock on his hand.
On the Friday night, however, there was an almost record-breaking amount of rainfall and storm during which we found refuge in our tent and listened to the thundering rain on our shelter and appreciated how sacred it is to be protected. Our tent withstood the torrents but as we emerged two hours later, we learned that the night’s acts had been cancelled and two bus loads of people had been evacuated from their sodden shelters and taken to the local sports hall.
We returned downhearted to our tent and after some time heard music again. Even in the rain, festivals are warm places. Everything is telling you to go to the others and your tent is cold and empty and quiet compared to the steaming crowd. The rain was letting up and they’d managed to set up Käpt’n Peng and Boneparte on the one tent-covered stage. An ocean of onlookers waited outside, ourselves included. We waited and hoped and eventually wandered off to the camp ground. The only semidry spot was the coffee and breakfast bar so we huddled under the tarporline with a hundred others and danced on. The people selling food also deserve a mention as they continued to serve the hungry and wet festivalers over the two metre tall fence that separated the stages from the campsite. Good show.
Due to the festival’s small size and to the deposit on bottles, there was hardly any broken glass and half of the festivalgoers were therefore able to frolick barefoot harmoniously in the huge puddles and borderline swamps. There was splashing and dancing and sound systems blaring out into the night.
The next day we shared the two jobs of guarding the stage area that was shut until 2pm and helping the other volunteers spread wood chippings across the waterlogged land.
We were asked in a publicity interview what it was like being here just the two of us. After two years of responsibilities in Trier having just come to an end, to hang out in a field for four days with your loved one, without signal, with inspiration, without stress and hugged by a sense of freedom and relaxation couldn’t have felt more approrpiate.
What my three small festival experiences have in common is a shared familiarity, cosiness and awareness. Whether hugging the crying guy next to you during Kate Tempest’s poetry or cuddling with four strangers under an umbrella in the queue for the loo, contact with others is just a smile or question away.
“But why do people go to festivals?”, quieried our interview anew. Some say it’s a get away from daily stresses and yes, skipping about barefoot and half-naked in mud and sun for four days is pretty liberating, but more than escapism, festivals are a chance to be creative and step our of your comfortable normality.
At smaller festivals there are workshops, talks and moments to engage with others. I spent my teenage festival years in a hedonistic drunken haze, as did the entirety of that friend group. Whether it was peer pressure, a social norm or a nervous twitch in my hand that cracked open tin after tin, it’s what I learned a festival to be.
Moving to incredible music in a sea of strangers and next to your best friends is an extremely profound experience and it’s a shame to be numb to its beauty. That’s what I mean by awareness. It’s something I learnt at Isle of Wight back in 2015. My flatmate at the time hardly drank a drop. She said she wanted to appreciate the music and experience everything as clearmindedly as possible and not have to run off to the toilet every half an hour like the rest of us. Paulo Nutini, Fleetwood Mac, The Black Keys, she was right and I had such a huge respect for her at that moment and a realisation that we’re lucky to even be here.
Although Download was far from “green and clean”, it will possibly forever be my favourite festival. To give them credit, they did reward several pence for each plastic-cup returned to the bar which immediately meant less landing in the fill.
I was 12 years old and went with three boys from my class and their dads. The music was every emo-teenagette’s dream: Simple Plan, Bullet for my Valentine, Kiss, Jimmy Eat World, Lostprophets, Biffy Clyro … I was in heaven. Hours of wailing along to My Chemical Romance could finally be put into practice. And the best part? We were too young to drink and our childish joy soaked up every minute. I also felt very looked after, particularly when I lost my left shoe in a moshpit and Keith, Tom’s dad, took my sobbing self to buy a new pair. We also had the advantage of being so small that people threw us onto their shoulders at every opportunity to protect us from the walls of death and so that we could see what was going on. “You wanna go up?”, asked a friendly and almost crazed Australien during The Offspring’s set. Seconds later I was being crowdsurfed to the front. I can’t ever forget that.
I’m grateful for my experiences up to this point but I’m not happy with the wasteful hedonism that festivals induce. Whether it’s rubbish picking at the festival itself, a blog post afterwards or contacting the organisers, it starts with this conversation.
Isle of Wight 2015
Jungle Beat 2018
Appletree Garden 2019