Friend Festival: an offbeat, vegan hootennany

This has got to be the queen of all alternative festivals. It is certainly well hidden. The event has a Facebook page but seems to be promoted only to the eponymous friends. As such, the festival is fairly quiet, with only around a hundred people at any one time. It feels slightly like intruding on a private party although everyone is very helpful and hospitable.

The festival is located in a field in Kent, roughly a ten minute drive along country lanes from Paddock Wood station. It is possible to buy tickets on the door for £20 and this gives you access to the campsite for the entire Friday to Sunday event. Once you have passed through the gate, you can see the festival site in all its wild glory. The idea is to host a vegan music festival on a farm where animals are happy. It is a strange combination and yet it works.

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There is a central stage adorned with bunting, on which a startling variety of musicians play over the course of the weekend. Every genre from gentle acoustic country music to jazz to angry punk rock is given its turn.

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There are food stalls selling vegan fry-ups, brownies and home-brewed fruity ciders. A large pit stands waiting for the evening camp fire and people dressed in shawls hang around smoking spliffs. Dogs run delightedly through the gathering crowds. The rest of the field is occupied by camper vans, cars and a colourful array of tents. Signposts chant boldly about the benefits of a vegan diet and the individuality of the farm animals.

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The farm itself is home to many rescued and injured creatures.  Everyone talks with great reverence for Marion, who established the festival and used to care for the animals. She died this year, yet everyone continues to admire her strength of character. I met one chap who claims that she was able to turn people vegan in a day. The festival as a whole seems to be almost a tribute to her, so moved are people by her passing. Although I am a newcomer and have never met Marion, I feel touched to see such affection for her. The roaming sheep, goats and llama are barely contained by the crippled fencing. Pigs relish the belly rubs from tipsy partiers. The turkey, ducks and geese provide endless entertainment for the shrieking children and are not bothered by the distant throb of music. It is easy to see how you could claim that they are ‘happy’ animals. Certainly, they will never have to meet their untimely deaths in a meat factory.

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There is an air of acceptance and peace at the festival despite the activity. For the most part, the people are older; there are middle aged parents with their young kids in tow and nostalgic friends who have been visiting year upon year. Perhaps it is the heavy understanding that comes with grief or the calm of living a life of restraint that makes these people so peaceful. Although an animal rights van is parked aggressively by the stage and the most anticipated band is named Active Slaughter, these people are considerate activists. Despite being only a vegetarian, I was made to feel welcome. Everyone I spoke to was appreciative of sexist issues or able-bodied privilege. There are only two bins, yet everyone is extremely respectful of the environment and I did not spot any litter all weekend. This intersectional approach to activism is wonderful to see in a specifically vegan orientated music festival.

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It is with reluctance that we deconstruct the tent on Sunday and hurriedly rustle it back into its case in order to hitch a lift back to the station (it is too remote for buses to run here on Sundays). My mind is full of angry vegan lyrics and the smell of goat dung. In my mind, I imagine us next year, volunteering to clean out the cow barn, having wheelbarrow rides over assault courses of hay bales and enjoying another cider. But, then again, perhaps the sawdust toilets were a bit too wild for me.

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