Welcome to the clouds

A new festival aims to enrich lives and nourish the community. Is it the real deal or is it just cloud cuckoo land?

With around 900 festivals in the UK, and many claiming environmental credentials, it is a challenge to find something truly unique. But perhaps Cloud Cuckoo Land, nestled in Somerset’s stunning Mendip Hills, really is different. The festival (formally known as Godsplash), which took place on 5-7 August this year, is billed as a Transition Festival and is attempting to help inspire the shift to a more sustainable future.

Siblings Amy (26), Marcus (24) and Rosie Letts (22) started the festival 10 years ago as a fundraiser for their mother who was diagnosed with cancer and sought an alternative to conventional treatments (the money raised helped pay for a new metabolic therapy at a pioneering centre in Mexico).

From these humble beginnings as a ‘garden party’, the festival now boasts a lively playlist, guest speakers and a platform for some inspiring initiatives.

“The aim over the next few years is to really push boundaries in terms of how a festival can enrich lives and nourish a community,” explains Marcus.

Cloud Cuckoo Land takes its name from a utopia first described in The Birds, a 2500-year-old play by Aristophanes in which Mr Trusting and Mr Hopeful erect a perfect city between the heavens and the Earth.

“Small is beautiful,” says Marcus about the festival’s approach, echoing the words of pioneering economist, E. F. Schumacher. “There is a pressure for successful independent festivals to grow,” he says, warning that this can end up compromising the intrinsic values of an event, “but Cloud Cuckoo Land is not-for-profit and hopes to develop without losing its integrity.”

I went to this year’s event to see if it could live up to Aristophanes’ vision. And for three individuals under the age of 30 it’s certainly a commendable effort; there’s a feeling of something truly different going on.

Capacity is limited to encourage an intimate atmosphere, organic food is sourced locally (and cooked lovingly by volunteers from the People’s Kitchen in London, who make free meals out of commercial food ‘waste’), power is generated renewably and waste is recycled creatively on site. All of this takes place on Fernhill Farm, an operational eco-farm with permaculture gardens.

The sun was shining, the location beautiful and the weekend informative and at times truly inspiring. Talks from Green Party MEP Keith Taylor mixed effortlessly with presentations from the next generation, represented by the UK Youth Climate Coalition (UKYCC).

Workshops of Yoga, Zumba and Capoeira kept people active engaged and for the more industrious there was food foraging and ‘upcycling’ (an alternative to recycling, where unwanted items are used for a new purpose).

But by no means was it a purely educational foray. If like me you enjoy an eclectic mix of sounds in the summer sun then you wouldn’t be disappointed. There was dub, reggae and roots music, with horns, whistles and a blend of fantastic collaborations. Lesser-known artists, such as Joe Driscoll and Goodnight Lenin, shared the line-up with groups such as Magic Drum Orchestra, which you may have come across at festivals such as Glastonbury or Bestival.

The festival culminated with a stand out performance from live favourites Yes Sir Boss, who brought the Cloud Cuckoo Land sounds together in an energetic display of musical charm and sincerity.

Underlying all the music, performances and workshops that took place, was a Festivals In Transition manifesto, which the organisers have developed with Transition Network (the organisation assisting the Transition Town movement) and Sunrise Celebration, another festival which takes place on the same site. The document is a blueprint for small, independent festivals to develop an uncompromising, principled approach to the environment and sustainability.

Proceeds from this year’s Cloud Cuckoo Land will go towards establishing The Koyaanisqatsi Trust, a charity which aims to provide peer to peer funding and expertise for grassroots, environmentally-conscious people and projects, in both the UK and abroad. Koyaanisqatsi is an ancient Hopi Indian word meaning ‘out of balance.’

A festival such as this breaks down everyday constraints and preconceptions, and in doing so it engages new audiences and attracts fresh thinking around the principles of sustainability and community. It shows that consumerism can be challenged, the scale of this environmental crisis can be comprehended and people can be empowered.