Shambala festival 'friendly, eclectic and liberating'
"I love a fellow princess," joked the drag queen to her captivated audience of five-year-olds at the Shambala story time session.
Dressed in shiny rose sequins and a luxurious pink wig, Carmen Monoxide read children's stories to a packed tent of families whilst extolling the virtues of kindness, tolerance and being yourself.
Like everything at this Northamptonshire festival, the session was not a sermon but an experience emphasising inclusivity within a laidback and positive environment.
The three day event held at Kelmarsh Estate over the August bank holiday weekend is probably unlike any other festival in the UK.
The blend of old and young, queer and straight, white and black - and everything in between - is seamlessly melded together in a flash of glitter, colour and extraordinarily inventive costumes.
With the strap line 'Adventures in Utopia' the festival directors have created a truly unique space where everyone is welcome and boundaries are limitless.
There are female urinals, dedicated spaces for breast feeders, a Red Sea Travel Agency for menstruators and a queer clubhouse. Run by the LGBTQ+ community the Sanqtuary provides a platform for queer people to connect and create whilst also offering family sessions to support gender non conforming children who are often isolated by peers or not given the support they need until adulthood.
Also or the first time this year the festival included a teenager-only space hosted by the Mayflower Project enabling youngsters to hang out, play music and get creative without the watchful eye of their parents.
But although there are these separate, safe havens at the event, Shambala is really about bringing people together, uniting around the two main themes - Freedom Friday which encourages body positivity and cross-dressing, and the Saturday Carnival where this year festival goers were encouraged to interpret Avant Garden. Think insects, plants and Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men.
This was my family's second time at Shambala, and although we had a sense of déjà vu we soon realised what really makes the festival special is not the acts and entertainment, but the people.
On our first night camping our warm and welcoming fire pit drew the attention of many passersby who without invitation sat themselves down alongside us to take in the heat.
Somewhat ironically, the first visitor was Adam, dressed in drag with a short black dress, pink wig and feather boa, who spontaneously started playing celestial music on our fire pit by tapping on its rim. We heard his life story of living sustainably off the land in Portugal before a forest fire obliterated his wooden cabin.
As Adam stumbled off into the night, a second, younger man appeared at the fireside with stories of all the weird, wonderful and disgusting things he found whilst cleaning the festival showers, his unenviable job for the weekend. Meanwhile two men dressed as Doctor Who from different eras popped by and an older couple who stopped to get some warmth soon found that our eldest son was entertaining them with a magic rope trick a stranger had taught him earlier in the day.
For our two boys - aged three and five - Shambala was an amazing opportunity to see and try new things whether it be dressing up as bees for the festival carnival, listening to drag queen story time or taking part in a drumming and percussion session.
They spent several hours running around in their costumes offering imaginary honey to every single person they saw and not one stranger declined as they were more than happy to play along.
Despite the downpour on Sunday we were able to entertain the kids with loads of indoor activities including a circus, cinema, talent show and monster making workshop.
For the adults there was plenty of live jazz, Afrobeat and electronica music, environmental talks, food demonstrations and more quirky activities such cock drawing, visiting the womb with a view and paddle board yoga.
Yes it is obscure, infantile and provocative but I can honestly say that Shambala is the friendliest festival I have been to in the UK and for a truly eclectic, liberating experience there really is no better place to go.