How Secret Garden Party Made Festivals Palatable for Posh People
Photo by Andrew Whitton/Fanatic

How Secret Garden Party Made Festivals Palatable for Posh People

It took festivals to the middle classes, centering it on "experience" and performative hedonism.
March 7, 2017, 1:54pm

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK. It's one of those nights where time speeds and slows. Where it wobbles, bending to the whim of whatever substance you've consumed, and you find your memory rushing from a giggle shared with a stranger to some music playing in the background—is that Little Dragon, live?—to your own voice screeching on a ferris wheel, your hand clasping your best friend's.

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It was the peak of summer right before the 2012 Olympics in London, and I was one of about 20,000 people squelching through a field in Cambridgeshire. A friend from uni had snuck me into Secret Garden Party, slipping an artist wristband onto my arm in the carpark. We strolled in together and within about seven hours I'd tried to fish a borderline unconscious man out of a stream, cheerfully introduced myself to some guy I forgot didn't know me because I only recognized him from a school friend's Facebook photos and then sprained my ankle.

This all sounds faintly romantic and lovely, but hang on and you'll see that I'm not just about to lead you through a misty-eyed list-piece of All the Good Times I Had at a Festival. Instead, this one's over. After 15 years, Secret Garden is due to open its doors to the public for the last time this July, cementing its run as the boutique event that basically warped the British festival landscape for good and ripped music festivals from their roots as grubby parties centred on live performances.

"I hope you don't find the timing Machiavellian," wrote Secret Garden founder Freddie Fellowes, in the press release announcing the end of his event last Thursday, "however there is never the perfect time to drop this bombshell—too early or too late and people are going to miss out and be disappointed. Hopefully we have struck the middle ground here." He went onto highlight that, as has been the festival's tradition, it would whip out one final annual theme. This year, "it is ultimately going to be a huge celebration of the people who make the garden party: you."

Photo by Samantha Milligan/Fanatic

And that very idea, that Secret Garden is a participatory event; that your fancy dress outfit makes the party; that your naked mud wrestling or karaoke injects SGP with its relevance, sits at the core of the festival "experience" that we're increasingly sold now. Yes, Secret Garden became an escapist fantasy for plenty of middle-class kids looking for a good time each summer, but mainly did so by ripping off ideas established by Burning Man and Glastonbury, repurposing them for an audience that didn't want to face the grimness of "classic" camping festivals. By repackaging both participation and giddy indulgence as some sort of life-changing dream world, it transformed British festivals, steeping them in a performative hedonism tied to fancy dress while never ambling too far from the event's aristocratic roots.

You may not have known it unless you'd spent time googling "Secret Garden Party founder," but Freddie Fellowes went to Eton, is heir to a £35 million fortune and reportedly used to withhold his surname in early interviews. His father, John Ailwyn Fellowes, maintains an official title of 4th Baron de Ramsey, and stands in a long line of MPs, agriculturists and environmentalists. The land's been in his family name—it's known as their family "seat" if we're being proper—since the 1700s, with the current festival site on some of the reported 6,000-acre estate. The family live in a building called Abbots Ripton Hall, the baron's home since the mid-20s. In short: the festival's roots are bougie as fuck.

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In the early days, Freddie downplayed the link between having loads of land to spare and running a party on it. Before the first party in 2004, he'd been chatting to Red Bull about a space for a rave. "I asked my father if there was anywhere on our farm that would be suitable," he told the Sunday Times back in 2011, "and he came up with the site. We decided it was too good for Red Bull, so we put on our own party for our friends. Essentially, the Secret Garden Party happens at the bottom of my father's garden."

In the same year, Lord and Lady Rotherwick founded Cornbury Music Festival on their property. Their festival ended up picking up the nickname "Poshstock," and often features alongside Secret Garden in articles highlighting things like the new "aristocratic entrepreneurs who are creating a whole new summer season of festivals" or the "new social season"—rich people's summer seshes—and how they've grown "so relaxed and inclusive." Branching out from events like the Henley Regatta, Ascot Races and other days out that seem to merit the appearance of at least one Made in Chelsea cast member, festivals became the new frontier for summer parties that blended glitter beards with a sense of—gasp, oh Tilly, you didn't—over-indulgence stitched into a three-day bender that still always felt safe.

Secret Garden's origins among the upper classes don't somehow automatically take away all of its merits. There isn't a rule dictating that no rich people should ever use their money or land to host a party. In the UK, we're too far down that route already, with Kendal Calling, Glade, Standon Calling—and to an extent Glastonbury, reportedly helped on by the late Arabella Churchill—all linked to well-off families. But, as Fellowes himself acknowledged in a roundabout way in his statement about the festival's end, it set a template for the "boutique" event that's sanitized our festival culture.

Photo by Gobinder Jhitta/Fanatic

Places like Standon Calling, Festival Number 6 and, Wilderness—run by Secret Garden's production company—have followed on from Secret Garden's use of themes and a sense that to get the most out of an event that isn't necessarily about music, you as a punter take on the responsibility of making the party worthwhile. The audience becomes a part of the show, in a way that just doesn't work at fully commercial, music-led festivals like V, Reading and Leeds. And once that becomes the new way of doing things, it's divorced from its reactionary roots—ie: trying to ape Burning Man's fiercely counter-cultural ecosystem—and becomes the comfortable option for all the Esmes and Olivers who want to have a nice time that looks good on social media, without the risk of eating another slimy bowl of noodles or being in their tent while someone sets it alight on the last day of the festival.

Look, you don't have to take my word for it. Dr Roxy Robinson, an events consultant and lecturer, wrote 2015's Music Festivals and the Politics of Participation and says as much herself. "When I began my research into festival cultures," she wrote, "the patchwork model of production that defined the boutique festival as a more democratized, mixed arts event was seen as a new alternative, and today, this model has become the norm—music festivals that limit their focus to music are now in the minority as the diverse blueprint has become widely absorbed into mainstream production." Essentially, stripping festivals of their focus on music has turned them into the experiences they are now. And replicating that idea has made it the norm.

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Just as apps vie for our time, festivals too have started to see us all as potential customers with a limited budget to spend each year on weekends away. "Festival theming has offered a method for grabbing the much-divided attentions of the consumer," Robinson continued, "by clothing its spaces for human consumption with layers of symbolic meaning and experiential association. This has occurred to such extents that … their connotative dimension overwhelms other aspects." In translation: festival themes are savvy ways to keep us interested, imbuing one weekend in a field with more meaning than really exists. It's working. A six-year 2014 report by the Association of Independent Festivals found that, on average, 53 percent of more than 19,000 people said the "general atmosphere and overall vibe, character and quality of the event" was their main reason for buying a ticket. "The music generally" mattered most to about 27 percent of those people surveyed.

Fellowes has always insisted that "we call ourselves a party, not a festival: we're trying to do something different, [not just] seeing how much production you can pile on to Arcade Fire's headline performance." And so, you're left with the unanswered question: what was Secret Garden for? Should it have remained the private party it was set out to be, a fun weekend for Fellowes and his closest friends? Should it have worn its influences as blatantly on its sleeve? Fellowes and his production team referenced taking life-changing journeys to Black Rock City for Burning Man in interviews, but last Thursday wrote, straight-faced, about how "as imitation (being the sincerest form of flattery) proves, [Secret Garden Party] has set the bar for everyone else going forward". So Secret Garden was the influencer, rather than the event that picked the best bits of other leftfield events and made them palatable for a posh crowd? Interesting.

Now that the most devoted sesh gremlin can lose their mind and friends at BoomTown, or the yummy mummy can take her toddler to workshops in the kids' area at Wilderness, Secret Garden's lost its monopoly on the space it spent more than a decade carving out. Competition can be a bitch. Chances are Fellowes has realized this, and is making the move to get out now before it becomes to hard to differentiate Secret Garden from all the other festivals—sorry, parties—that have popped up since it grew from 800 people to 22,000. Ultimately, Secret Garden was about facilitating other people having a good time, couched in the "twinkly hippy" aesthetic that makes its way round to a few upper-middle class people who discover hemp trousers, embroidered bags and psy-trance raves at some point during the first year of uni.

Now we'll just have to see what remains of the festival scene left in Secret Garden's wake. Luckily events like End of the Road, Green Man, Larmer Tree and others have found a way to couple a love for music with a weekend that doesn't become about mobile phone companies and beer sponsors bigging themselves up at top volume. In the meantime, "your head gardener" Fellowes has bowed out, signing off with "Peace, Love and Tree Hugging Hippy Shit". Said like a true baron.

You can find Tshepo on Twitter. (Lead image of Lissie performing at Secret Garden Party 2016 by Andrew Whitton/Fanatic)