Festival All-Star: Freddie Fellowes, Founder of Secret Garden Party
“The parties you remember are to do with the people you meet. A really great party engineers scenarios where people talk to each other despite being English, reserved and terminally embarrassed or shy. The best way to engineer that is getting people involved and giving people ownership of the party.”
If you were ever looking for the aptest summation of the appeal of Secret Garden Party – which last weekend threw its 15th and final festival – then it would be this statement. It’s not, therefore, surprising that the words were said by the festival’s founder and self-appointed Head Gardener, Freddie Fellowes.
Since SGP’s first edition in 2004, the reputation of both festival and founder have grown to the point where they can lay claim to be one of the chief influencers for the current generation of experience-led festivals. Along with a couple of others – namely Rob da Bank of Bestival and Alex Trenchard of Standon Calling – Fellowes has helped alter the festival landscape, moving it away from a mindset where the most important people at the festival are the musicians playing on the stage. At SGP the heroes are the punters in the crowd, decked out in fancy dress, paint, glitter or perhaps not wearing anything at all.
SGP started life – as independent festivals often do – as a party in Fellowes’ backyard. His garden lawn is a little different from your average yard, with his family owning a sprawling 6,000-acre estate in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire. As befitting such a vast country home, Fellowes is the son of a Lord and was educated at Eton College, England’s finishing school for ultra-privileged youth which counts Princes William and Harry amongst its alumni.
That first year saw 1,000 descend onto this verdant slice of the English countryside, after Fellowes offered to stage a party for a friend. Secret Garden Party grew at incremental rates until 2006, which is widely acknowledged as a pivotal year in the festival’s development.
“We had gone from being a party to running a festival,” says Fellowes. “That year we had people turning up with picnic chairs, and printing out programs and moaning about there not being a VIP area,” he says, seemingly unimpressed with this propriety and entitlement encroaching on his bacchanal of art and misbehavior
He’d landed a major trump card in booking Lily Allen – at that time Britain’s biggest new pop star with a number one single and number two album in the locker. “We lucked out,” Fellowes told Shortlist. “We booked her a long time before for a very small fee. It’s a testament to her and the agent that she played it. It was a landmark moment for us.”
Unfortunately, the Party felt the wrath of two negative forces that year: vengeful police and an angry Mother Nature. Thanks to 2005’s post-festival party that chugged on until Tuesday and the deluge of neighbour complaints that followed in its wake, SGP was denied a music late license just 24 hours before the 2006 festival was due to begin. Fellowes also had the misfortune of torrential rain from start to finish, resulting in overflowing portaloos and a waterlogged campsite unprepared for the 6,000 punters descending onto an event designed for 2,000.
It was a deep ebb that inspired a period of naval-gazing from the organizers. Fortunately, salvation and inspiration was to come in the form of a certain celebration of art, participation and self-expression way out in the Black Rock badlands: Burning Man.
Fellowes freely admits that his time on the playa has shaped his thinking on what the Garden Party could be, and went back for eight years in a row after 2006.
“Going somewhere that shared certain similar ideals to us, that has gone through this evolution of nearly 20 years to become something so startling, was a huge influence. A huge encouragement,” he says.
From there the festival never looked back, and became the by-word in British festivals for skewed art and slightly silly hedonism. It truly is the event where you can expect to see anything and nothing is off-limits as long as everyone’s having fun. Sock-wrestling, pig-racing and more swinging balls and bouncing boobs than you shake your stick at; it’s all good to go. This has also helped encourage a generation of artists and creatives who cut their teeth at the Party; indeed, the festival had a grant system wherein artists could apply for money to run tents and areas that cater to their deepest desires.
They hit headlines in 2008 after blowing up their pirate ship stage in the middle of the festival’s lake, a trick they repeated five years later. Every Saturday the festival congregates for the Saturday Spectacular before the main headliner, and 2017 saw them outdo themselves with a vast house being blown up on the lake, which burnt out to reveal a huge flaming heart at its centre that kept burning for the rest of the event.
Amongst all this flame and flamboyance, the Party also a strong moral centre. They’ve long-championed CALM, the male suicide charity trying to the reduce the UK’s horrendous record of deaths among this demographic. Last year they pioneered the UK’s first ever on-site drug testing, where the harm reduction NGO The Loop tested punter’s drugs with the backing of local police. It’s hard to quantify just what an important moment this was, both in the battle to keep people safer when they’re taking drugs (which, let’s be honest, is an intrinsic part of many people’s festival-going adventures) but also the wider story of the battle against the UK’s archaic drugs policy. Rather sweetly, Fellowes shrugged it off this monumental personal and business risk as an exercise in “basic, common decency.”
And so it comes to the future: What of it? There was a telling quote in a recent piece with The Independent, where Fellowes said: “I’ve been very outspoken about finding it rather uncomfortable that an idealistic venture such as the temporary autonomous zones in a festival format could be commodified and made accessible to a wider audience, but that’s the way of the world.”
If you read between the lines – or just read the actual words – killing off the Party was the action of a man who feels he’s pushed the medium as far as he could, and that the boutique festival has lost its verve now it’s become de rigeur. Perhaps he’s got a point, or perhaps after 15 years he’s just taking a well-earned break to reconvene and come back with something that’ll reposition him firmly away from the mainstream.
Either way, something tells us the party’s not over yet.