Katie Hopkins looked at me during WTF and said: ‘I smell a virgin’

“I smell a virgin…” Katie Hopkins said, looking straight at me. “I smell lefty, pressy scum!”

The far-right commentator was addressing an audience of 500 people in a soggy tent in a rural corner of North West England.

I was standing at the back but that didn’t stop her singling me out. The crowd theatrically booed me, as if I was a pantomime villain. I blushed.

Officially called the Weekend Truth Festival (WTF), this was one of many strange moments I witnessed at the three-day event that some may call a conspiracy theory gathering.

As well as being called out by Hopkins, I saw children chanting anti-vax slogans and had a magnet applied to my arm to prove my COVID vaccinations are the antenna of a bioweapon.

This was the first WTF and its organisers hailed it as a success.

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Its programme featured talks from speakers, including celebrities of the movement like Hopkins and former Southampton footballer Matt Le Tissier, as well as workshops and other activities with dozens of RVs and tents arranged around a giant marquee.

The festival attendees, who describe themselves as part of the “freedom movement”, paid a £100 donation to see their “truth heroes”.

There are many political and ideological dividing lines in British life, but perhaps the deepest, and most damaging, is that which was on show here – when one part of the population rejects the others’ view of reality.

This summer will see a number of similar truther gatherings held across the country from Glasgow to Dorset, with the biggest having a capacity of several hundred.

Attendees paid a £100 donation to see their 'truth heroes'
Attendees paid a £100 donation to see their ‘truth heroes’

That’s why I found myself in a muddy field on the first May bank holiday, to understand why a movement born in lockdown appears to be evolving out of the dark corners of the internet into real-life meet-ups like this.

My presence there was the result of careful negotiation with the organisers, who agreed to let me come and report. They wanted the world to see what it was really like.

“It’s a gathering of like-minded people who basically think alternatively to the mainstream,” said organiser Kevin Dowling, a man in his fifties with a dry sense of humour.

He, along with Nicola Mayoh, whose blonde hair stood out against her bronzed skin and neon orange hoodie, organise regular meet-ups in Buxton, near Manchester, in the top room of a pub.

But this was much bigger, and they’d spent a long time preparing.

I asked whether this movement had longevity beyond the headline-grabbing pandemic protests.

“I think COVID woke people up to other things that go on,” Nicola said. “We’ve gravitated towards each other because we’re all very similar.”

I got lucky with where I pitched my tent – next to Theresa Clark and Andy Ryan, friends from Stockport, who met through the movement. They make unlikely conspiracists and their journey from COVID scepticism to WTF attendees was revealing.

My tent at the three-day conspiracy theory gathering, WTF
My tent at the three-day gathering, WTF

Both were in their sixties. Theresa, a former civil servant, was wrapped up in a parka coat with a woolly hat covering her blonde hair, while Andy was similarly attired in a padded black jacket.

They were warm and friendly, and offered me relentless cups of tea from Andy’s stove.

On the first night, I found myself sitting around a blazing fire, sharing a glass of wine with them.

Theresa explained she wasn’t originally an anti-vaxxer; she made sure all her children and grandchildren had their recommended vaccinations. But then came COVID.

Living alone during lockdown, Theresa connected with online groups that led her here. “It’s been a great journey for me because I’ve met such wonderful people,” she told me.

Her path first crossed with Andy, and many of the other people who have come to Cumbria, through an activist group called Rebels on Roundabouts.

At the height of lockdown, they gathered on roundabouts and held yellow signs up to passing motorists with slogans such as “Please don’t jab kids” and “Media masking truth”.

This summer will see a number of similar truther gatherings held across the country
This summer will see a number of similar truther gatherings held across the country

Since the pandemic, they’ve expanded. Their Telegram group now has more than 3,000 members.

Their website currently lists events from Newcastle to Tunbridge Wells, and explains their belief that COVID was “ruthlessly exploited by a global elite through their puppet politicians and the mainstream media” and is part of a “sinister CONTROL and DEPOPULATION agenda”.

What does that all mean?

Let’s take Theresa as an example. She went from lockdown and vaccine scepticism to thinking there was a bigger conspiracy at play.

Central to that view is a concept called the Great Reset, originally a short book from the World Economic Forum (WEF) outlining the post-COVID recovery.

But many of those in the movement see it as a blueprint for a totalitarian world government headed by the WEF.

“That scared me,” Theresa said. “Is that the world that we’re aiming for?”

The Great Reset is arguably not the smartest name – it does have an air of the conspiratorial. And those at the festival were willing to connect all sorts of unconnected things – net zero, Ultra Low Emissions Zones (ULEZ) or Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) – as proof that the WEF was trying to take away our freedoms.

The magnet supposed to prove my COVID jab is the antenna of a bioweapon
The magnet supposed to prove my COVID jab is the antenna of a bioweapon

I pushed back on the idea that the WEF is able to control the world to that extent, suggesting it was an influential lobby group but not a shadow government.

“It’s not a fiction book, is it,” Theresa pointed out, in reference to the Great Reset.

Her views, like many others who gathered round the campfire, were deeply held.

They relished the chance to set me – the embodiment of the loathed mainstream media – straight. Behind much of their thinking, it seemed, was strong emotion.

Not least for Theresa.

Her father moved into a care home just weeks before lockdown, something she only mentioned after we had been talking for more than an hour.

“It wasn’t nice to go and visit your father and see him through the glass,” she said, tearfully.

“Those last few months, to not be able to give him the love that he deserved… You just don’t get over that.

“These are the harms the COVID lockdown did.”

Crowds gather for an event at WTF, which took place over the bank holiday
Crowds gather for an event at WTF, which took place over the bank holiday

That said, there were some limits to her beliefs. For instance, she was sceptical about reptilians, the idea pushed by conspiracy theorist David Icke that suggested shape-shifting lizard people control the world.

Many consider the theory antisemitic, although Icke has always strongly denied this.

Theresa admitted that it was a “bit far-fetched” for her. “But then who am I to say to somebody what you’re saying is utter rubbish. That’s their belief,” she added.

The next day, the sun was shining as Gillian England showed me the ley lines in the field behind the festival site and explained that the weather had improved because she “thanked the elementals”.

“I’m a being from a realm beyond planet Earth,” she said, as we walked through the field.

“My job is to assist the developing consciousness of humanity… I believe in the higher Galactics. I’ve got my star family that I connect to, but this is the fifth dimension and beyond.”

“And where is that?” I asked.

“Well, it’s beyond this reality.”

The Freedom Movement is a broad church that includes people like Gillian, a former NHS psychotherapist turned mystic healer. As we approached a stone circle, the divining rods in her hands started to twitch, then crossed. We had found our ley line.

Gillian and Tom Cheshire
The divining rods in Gillian England’s hands as we reached a stone circle

You might wonder what Gilian’s new age vibe had in common with anti-lockdown protests on a roundabout, or the Great Reset, or what ley lines had to do with ULEZ.

But when COVID prompted people to do their own research, they found a world of conspiracies ready and waiting to draw them further in. People like Gillian who already had their own alternative understanding of reality and were willing to help those along the same journey.

It doesn’t mean signing up to all the exact same beliefs. Another attendee told me: “I hate that woo woo stuff. There’s loads of that here.” But they were all on the same side, against the mainstream.

“COVID woke people up,” Gillian said. “They were stuck at home, got off the rat race for a little while and started questioning.”

Down at the festival site a little later, Gillian and other adults gathered the children – mostly primary school aged – in a tent near the food stalls. They had dragon puppets, glitter and music and were teaching them to chant the freedom movement slogan: “I do not consent”.

This was the most troubling part of the festival, where legitimate free speech perhaps crossed into something darker.

Among the more troubling claims made by speakers were that COVID was an attempted genocide and a Satanist cult was planning to murder everyone. But just as quickly, a party mood returned.

Matt Le Tissier gave an entertaining talk with occasional anti-vax comments. Then it was time for drinks and dancing.

The DJ played fairly hardcore techno. The crowd ranged from young adults to pensioners and the fashion was hemp hippies meets cyber ravers. Theresa waved as she boogied away.

This is perhaps the true counterculture of the UK now. It may not have its own music or fashion, but it does have its own Podcasters, Twitter users and YouTubers who reach hundreds of thousands.

Theresa and Andy make unlikely conspiracists and their journey from Covid scepticism to WTF attendees was revealing
Friends Theresa and Andy met during lockdown

On the final day, I wandered down to the main tent. A man had put up a large placard advertising the formation of a “people’s party”. Many people here insist they are neither on the left nor right, but many of the talking points echo the far-right.

Mark Steele, a self-styled “weapons expert”, was one of the speakers. He served time in prison back in the 1990s for shooting a teenage girl in the head.

He believes that ULEZ cameras can be used in conjunction with vaccinations to turn people into literal zombies and cast doubt on Rishi Sunak’s Britishness.

As we spoke, he held a magnet to my arm to prove my COVID vaccination was the antenna of a bioweapon. If a ULEZ camera activated a beam at the right pulse it would be “carnage”, he warned.

After packing up my tent, I caught up with Nicola and Kevin who were delighted with how it had gone.

When I said I found some elements surprisingly aggressive, Kevin’s response was that there “has to be a bit of edginess” because as a society we are facing “difficult conversations and difficult times”.

The first Weekend Truth Festival took place in a rural corner of North West England
The first Weekend Truth Festival took place in a rural corner of North West England

He also reminded me that I wanted to use my visit to test the “political climate and how people are feeling about things”.

That’s true. And what I found was a wider sense of alienation from the main parties, with several attendees talking of finding candidates to stand as independents in the general election.

Hopkins was the final speaker and I followed the rapturous crowd into the main tent to watch her.

Theresa and Andy were there, enjoying the show, although Theresa said she felt sorry for me when Hopkins called me a virgin.

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After saying my goodbyes, I watched them walk up the hill in the twilight, hoods up, carrying their camp chairs, readying themselves for another evening by the fire.

While they had lives and families outside, in that moment this was their people, and this was their place.

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