A collage of kate middleton dancing at a ravey festival
Collage: Alisa O'Connor / Images: via Getty

The Secret Force Behind UK Music Festivals? Landed Gentry

Aristocrats are making a killing renting out their estates. Did the 1994 Criminal Justice Act do literally anything good?

When the Princess of Wales was photographed drinking a margarita at a 24-hour techno festival, it felt like the world had finally, truly gone mad. It soon made sense, though, when we found out she’d been dining on the Houghton Hall estate that night with the landowners, her friends the Marquess and Marchioness of Cholmondeley. The couple reportedly suggested heading down to the grounds and she acquiesced, knocking down a few of the people’s cocktails and leaving a hefty (and wholly out of touch) £700 tip for the bar staff. 


It remains unclear whether the future Queen graced any of the dance floors – which probably have some of the highest ratios of gurn monsters in Britain – but her Norfolk sojourn did spotlight how aristocrats are making a pretty penny by loaning out their estates for music festivals which, sort of paradoxically, have their roots in the counterculture movement of yore. 

The controversial 1994 criminal justice act made festivals even more subject to the whims of the landed gentry after authorities moved to suffocate radical alternative culture following a free festival attended by 30,000 people. It prohibited parties and suppressed free festivals on the two percent of land in England and Wales that remains ostensibly free.

“It’s a feudal system,” says Nick Hayes, author of The Book of Trespassand Right2Roam campaigner.  “There's no legal ability to set up a group of musicians to play on land that you don't own because of how it suppresses free festivals. It can put you in prison for six months.”

Today, it’s not just the Houghton estate that morphs into an annual no-holds-barred Seshlehem depending upon the grace and favour of the aristocracy. Secret Garden Party takes place at Abbots Ripton, the seat of the 4th Baron de Ramsey; Wilderness festival occurs on the Cornbury Estate, home to a recently retired Tory peer who sat in the House of Lords. The 12th Earl of Shaftesbury’s 5,000-acre Dorset estate is the new home of We Out Here. The list goes on.


The roots of today’s land inequalities are embedded in Britain’s colonial past. Peasants’ rights to common land were severed from the mid-18th century. Then, flush with newfound wealth amassed from overseeing forced labour and extraction in the global south, elites carried out a series of land enclosures in the UK — forcibly marking out their ever-widening estates. “People were excluded from the land on pain of transportation [to penal colonies in Australia] or hanging,” says Hayes. 

A number of spontaneous gatherings, roaming festivals and fixed yearly events were curtailed as a result. But a sanitised flavour of them remains accessible to the well-heeled. “You can stay in a 1700s-look Romany gypsy wagon at Wilderness festival for £2,000 in a field where 150 years ago, real bow top wagons lived in by traveller people would have been pushed off the land,” Hayes continues.

In one leafy enclave of Oxfordshire, where Hayes lives, the landowners of the 900-acre Hardwick estate are in the process of transferring it to community ownership. “Most English estates have no awareness of the land reform movement,” says Miriam Rose, a human rights activist who was in line to inherit the land with her brother, to the Henley Standard. “We want to raise awareness about opening ownership and governance of estates. Inheriting an estate can be a toxic environment.” 


Aside from any possible toxicity — understandable, when generations of people live to serve the landowning families — there’s a perception that Britain’s aristocrats have been in genteel decline in recent years: Cash poor and crumbling-asset rich. “Festivals provide a welcome income stream for the landed classes,” reports Lindsay Baker for the BBC. “If Downton Abbey were set in 2015, Lord Grantham would probably be hosting a festival to help keep the family afloat.” 

An article in Town & Country magazine about the estate of Nick Ashley-Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury, described how it’s recently played host to “a festival of thought, a two-day celebration of chillis, several weddings and a growing number of increasingly energetic parties”. The staging of such events has been part of a mission to restore the decaying ancestral family home to its former splendour. Any income from this year’s 18,000-person We Out Here four-dayer, which featured an impressively diverse lineup from Knucks to Bonobo, would surely help.


But the spurious view that the upper classes are in dire straits was undermined by recent research, which shows how the gentry saw their wealth double in the last 30 years. Perhaps that stems partly from allowing the public to run amok inside of their fences once a year amid the increasing commercialisation of dance music, and frankly, everything else. 

But the wealthy have always licensed their land for dance music, says Ed Gillet, author of Party Lines: Dance Music and the Making of Modern Britain. “If you’re looking for somewhere outside of a city that’s not otherwise in use, the land is more than likely going to fall within the vast swathe of aristocratically-owned property,” he adds. “The British countryside, by definition, is unequally divided with a disproportionate amount of it in a very small number of hands.”

A New History of Rave Music

Even in 2023, manor houses sit in splendid isolation on estates which, in land mass, dwarf nearby villages and minor towns where residents often live in comparative poverty. A recognition of this led Secret Garden Party founder Freddie Fellowes – heir to the 4,000 acre Abbots Ripton estate, where a number of other festivals also take place – to adopt a social enterprise model this year and commit two-thirds of profits to good causes. 


With funds gathered from the yearly event, his family is establishing recording and production studios and art spaces, which will be provided at cost price. Organisers are also working with charities to establish accessible music technology tuition courses and apprenticeships on the land.

“It's about giving people from undervalued communities or emerging talents that would not usually have the opportunity to record or film music videos to come and stay and meet other artists,” Fellowes tells VICE. “We want to make the land mean more all year round than just having a hard time growing crops. But this isn’t just a way to supplement farming income. We have a privileged position that would be unjustifiable unless we do something as good as possible. That has always been the driving force of the party since its early days.”

Medicine festival takes place on the Wasing estate owned by Joshua Dugdale, son of the 3rd Baronet of Wasing Place, whose ancestors founded an 18th-century map-publishing company. Attended by a sold-out crowd of over 6,000 people this year, it’s an even more radical operation: a community interest company. It didn’t break even this year, but in 2022, the festival – of which Dugdale is a cofounder – donated all of its profits to indigenous causes. The fact that it’s also a no-alcohol, “conscious” event speaks to a changing culture where people are becoming less environmentally wasteful and more spiritually connected, too. 


While critics claim there’s an inescapable tension between environmental justice and aristocratic land ownership, others maintain that private land can be a force for social change. Last year, the Psilocybin Access Rights campaign was launched at Medicine festival, and each year a group of indigenous “wisdom keepers” from communities across the world are invited to share their songs and teachings. 

“If the landowner really buys into the vision and understands that as part of their giving back to community, the land is part of a vehicle that enables a ceremonial journey to take place, then what is embodied in the festival is different to my mind, than what you might find elsewhere,” says Medicine co-founder Remi Olajoyegbe. 

“If it's just suddenly a landowner saying, ‘Great, this is a nice gig, and this is what I'm going to earn from this particular job’, then it's transactional. This is not like that. Most of us work for very little or free – we’re not profiteering.”

John Rostron, CEO of the Association of Independent Festivals, says that the relationship between landowners and its members is incredibly varied and includes private hires, council land, and festivals run by farmers who own their land. “Without those permissions and support, many festivals in the UK wouldn’t happen,” he says. “Finding willing, supportive landowners is the bedrock of a brilliant event.” 


Festivals on local authority land see councils lease public parks to the highest bidders and can have even more cumbersome regulations and oppressive policing than events on private estates. But in Europe, some festivals are even purchasing their own land. 

Boom festival in Portugal acquired its 450-acre site for £850,000 in 2016 – partly funded by a loan – and made access to it public. “We wanted to develop a project of human transformation and land regeneration,” the festival’s organisers tell VICE. “There’s an ethical duty, indeed a human duty, to contribute to the preservation of the territory. Boom takes place in a small part of the estate, but our work involves the whole region, and it’s a positive influence already.”

For Hayes, though, nothing short of radical reform will do in Britain, where fenced-off estates “are not just symbols of the partition of people” but its cause. Free festivals must return en masse, he proclaims. “If you can afford to be in the countryside, you’re welcome. If you can't, then you’re excluded from the culture.”

Whether £250 is good value for a weekend ticket for Houghton – jiving to the very best electronic DJs and, um, potentially brushing shoulders with the Princess of Wales – will divide opinion. But considering this estate permits non-stop music for three entire days (that’s 72 hours of straight sniffing, for some), maybe the aristocracy isn’t so evil after all.