Jarring noises ring out across muck-strewn grassy plains of an airbase, as screams mingle with the sound of Merlin engines and otherworldly reverberations. Close your eyes and frightening echoes of a time since past come to mind. Open them however, and it’s a different story. The screams are ones of pleasure, belonging to teams of runners who, drenched in sweat, dirt and debris, are throwing themselves down a waterslide into a bubble-filled trough barricaded by hay bales. The Merlin engines belong to a Spitfire and a Hurricane performing a flyby in honour of the Queen’s birthday. And the reverberations are the bass-tinged thump of Middlesbrough electropop artist Serinette, floating down wind towards a gaggle of grime-covered girls, all with the biggest grins on their face.
“It was by accident, completely,” co-founder and director Rich Burnett says when asked how the festival came to exist. “We thought we could add something a bit different with our skills, and we fancied a go at it.” Burnett is part of AWOL, a media company with previous experience in shooting mud runs. The genesis of the event sprung from such a venture three years ago, where he and additional work colleagues broached the idea of putting on their own event to raise money for the RAF Benevolent Fund, after several of their friends returned, both physically and mentally scarred, from their time serving in Afghanistan.
Dressed in a red shirt with the logo emblazoned across his chest and shorts, the thirty-one-year-old Burnett cuts a youthful figure of excitement as an organiser, opposed to the tetchier types who often make the executive decisions surrounding festivals. He radiates boyish excitement as he paces the finishing straight of the course, cheering on runners, and speaks passionately of how the event has progressed from initially a singular mud run into a three-day music festival with two smaller sister events.
“I think, the first time we did it, about eight-hundred people turned up,” he answers in regards to their initial venture. “We had a few bands on, as a bit of entertainment in the evening since people wanted to camp over. Then we started to realise it had a festival feel anyway and decided we should just take the leap. The name Mudfest just clicked into place – and it went down pretty well with attendees too.”
The festival feel that Burnett speaks of has only intensified over the past few years. Its main arena may be quite compact, but there is still a roaring trade in stalls and vendors. Three rows of outlets offer everything from fresh fish and chips to pork pie hats, from running shoes to shisha pipes. It’s bookended by a main stage dubbed The Hanger and a second stage hidden away inside a Big Top tent. Perhaps best of all, the main onsite bar, a large wooden structure, is advertised as a Pilot’s Mess Hall, in keeping with its aviation roots, garnished with quotes and old ‘Dig for Victory!’ posters to give it a period vibe.
But it would fall flat were it not for the sense of community that runs thoroughly through the attendees. Competing in groups ranging from two to a hundred-and-two, mud-running truly is a team event, with five and ten kilometre courses running throughout the day. One four-man unit stagger on the last few obstacles of the course; two men in the act of crossing the finishing line spin round at the groans and jog back to help. There’s no competition here; only commitment to a good cause.
“It’s our first one, and it’s been difficult,” admits Andy, running with family members Ed, Sarah and Keeli, after they complete the longer of the two runs. They are raising additional funds for leukaemia, and as a group, have little experience of distance events, in mud or otherwise. “You want to raise the funds, but there’s no point doing it unless you really challenge yourself.” When asked on whether they’d do it all over again, all four nod emphatically grinning. “Definitely. It’s been one of the best afternoons we’ve had in a long time.”
The runners are not the only ones caught up in the vibes, with praise for the event coming from the multitude of musicians filling the festival bill. Mudfest’s expansion has allowed for an increase in acts, with Welsh comedic-rap outfit Goldie Lookin’ Chain and rising rockers Lonely the Brave topping on co-headline duties alongside the aforementioned Scouting for Girls. One band who truly grasp the spirit is indie pop group The Rogues, who enjoyed it so much in its inaugural year that they came back for round two.
“They’ve vamped it up a lot this year,” says bassist Sam Dawson, as the band wind down following their mid-afternoon slot. “Last year we played in the aircraft hanger itself, but the outside stage adds another level to it.” He shares an easy camaraderie with lead singer and guitarist Alex Martin – the pair have been playing music together since they were six years old – and they describe their original booking as “the best kind of accident”. “There’s a wonderful feeling of togetherness here, with all these grassroots bands. They’re doing a real part in helping new music to flourish.”
But Mudfest’s community spirit goes deeper than its straw-covered surface. At its heart, the event reaches out, through the RAF Benevolent Fund, to those who are struggling both mentally and physically in the wake of service in the line of duty. There is no shame or judgement here, no taboo; instead, it is a collection of individuals who are unafraid to admit that they struggle and are willing to face it head on.
“There’s always this sort of stigma, about admission,” Martin muses introspectively when the topic is broached. “As a band, we’ve hit rock bottom before, and what kept us going was our friendship and belief in each other. That applies to all walks of life too. There shouldn’t be shame in suffering from mental or physical problems; they should be embraced by those affected, both directly and indirectly.”
Burnett agrees with this summary too. “This is basically escapism in its finest form. People don’t care about body image or mental problems or anything like that here, it’s all just about having fun.” He pauses, and looks around at the latest batch of runners staggering over the line, arms linked and held aloft in joyous triumph “It helps, just getting out and being in the wild. Being out of your house, being in a tent, just chilling out with your mates. It’s a unifying thing for sure.”
Four hours later, as Scouting for Girls take to the stage, that feeling of exuberance lingers on. When asked about the future, Burnett chews on his lip for a moment before replying that he hopes for a gate of “about ten thousand” in five years’ time. “But without selling out,” he stresses. “There are other mud runs out there that have got corporate sponsorship and thousands of pounds being pumped into them. For us, that’s not being true to the spirit of these things. For us, that’s not Mudfest.”