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Katie Hopkins looked at me during a Weekend Truth Festival and said: ‘I smell a virgin’ | UK News

“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.

Guilt free flying or clever PR? What it was like on Virgin Atlantic’s new 100% sustainable aviation fuel flight | Climate News

“It works!” declares Virgin Atlantic founder Sir Richard Branson as we cross the Atlantic on this record-breaking flight using 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), largely made up of used cooking oil.

In his affable way, he recalls the times he had to be rescued from the very same ocean during previous record-breaking attempts. We smile along, a little nervously.

There are no ordinary passengers on board the Boeing 787. Instead, milling about the cabin are engineers, scientists, aviation officials, Mark Harper, the transport secretary, and journalists.

So what’s it like to travel on the “fat flyer” as it’s been dubbed?

Well, perhaps a little disappointingly, just like any other flight.

SAF looks, smells and performs just like normal aviation fuel and can be dropped in normal engines without the need for modification.

Sir Richard and Virgin know how to make a big noise about their achievements so, as I look out of the window over the ocean, I ponder is this just another great way to get attention, or actually another important step along the flightpath to what the government likes to call “guilt free flying”?

The truth is, probably a bit of both.

Sky News presenter Jonathan Samuels on the Virgin Atlantic flight using 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), largely made up of used cooking oil.
Sky News presenter Jonathan Samuels on the flight

Virgin Atlantic has, like British Airways and other UK-based airlines, genuinely committed to trying to find a greener, cleaner way of flying.

After all, in a highly competitive market they know passengers are demanding it.

Virgin points out it has one of the youngest and most fuel-efficient fleets in the skies which has already reduced carbon emissions by more than 20%.

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The airline is working hard to reach the government’s ambitious target to increase the use of SAF to at least 10% by 2030.

This flight however is not 100% emission-free, but rather “net zero” with the airline offsetting carbon emissions made during the journey.

Plus the very process of making SAF uses lots of energy, and SAF critics argue there simply isn’t anything like enough raw material or “feedstock” in the UK to produce it.

WhatsApp picture of a Virgin Atlantic plane being refuelled from Jonathan Samuels
The Virgin Atlantic plane being refuelled

The Royal Society estimates more than half of all the UK’s agricultural land would be needed to produce enough SAF to replace the jet fuel used by Britain’s aviation sector.

Pressure is being put on the government to help invest in SAF technology and to scale up production.

Green campaigners also point to the growth in flying.

The International Air Transport Association expects the number of passengers to nearly double by 2036, and many environmentalists say the best way to save the planet is to drastically reduce our air miles.

So as flight VS100 ploughs along over the pond don’t be mistaken into thinking it is the answer to all our climate-friendly flying prayers.

Instead, SAF is a mid-term solution to helping make a decent dent in decarbonising aviation while other greener technologies, like hydrogen, are developed.

Virgin Orbit explains first satellite mission from UK failed to reach orbit due to rocket fuel error | Science & Tech News

The first satellite mission from UK soil failed to reach orbit last month because a rocket fuel filter had become dislodged, Virgin Orbit has said.

Virgin Orbit sent up a jumbo jet carrying the rocket from Cornwall on 9 January.

But excitement turned to disappointment when the rocket failed to deploy its payload of nine satellites.

Virgin Orbit chief executive Dan Hart said the company would “proceed cautiously towards the launch” of its next rocket.

The opening part of the mission went according to plan as its plane took off from Spaceport Cornwall, Britain’s first such site, at Newquay airport.

A converted Boeing 747 named Cosmic Girl flew to 35,000ft over the Atlantic Ocean off Ireland’s southern coast.

There it jettisoned the 21-metre-long rocket containing nine small satellites, which would have been the first launched into orbit from the UK, or anywhere in western Europe, towards space.

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Why did the UK’s rocket fail?

But the organisers of the Start Me Up mission soon identified an “anomaly” which led to a “premature shutdown” that meant LauncherOne failed to orbit.

According to an investigation conducted by Virgin Orbit and overseen by the US Federal Aviation Administration, as well as the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch, the craft “successfully executed pre-flight preparations, carrier aircraft take-off, captive carry flight, and rocket release.”

The statement added: “The ignition, first stage flight, stage separation, second stage ignition, and fairing deployment of the LauncherOne rocket were nominal.”

All these milestones were described as “first-of-a-kind achievements” for any orbital launch attempt from western Europe, however from this point things started to go wrong.

Cosmic Girl was carrying Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket
Cosmic Girl was carrying Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket

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After the second stage first burn a fuel filter in the feed line became dislodged, causing a fuel pump to operate at a reduced level – eventually starving the engine of fuel.

This caused the Newton 4 engine to overheat to the point of malfunction which resulted in the second stage thrust prematurely ending the mission.

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‘LauncherOne has suffered an anomaly’

According to the statement “the second stage and its payloads fell back to Earth, landing in the approved safety corridor in the Atlantic Ocean.”

Mr Hart said the failure was “painful for all involved” but that the team was determined to “understand all contributing elements and to thereby get back to flight with a better system and a wiser team.”

Virgin Atlantic suspends gender-neutral uniform policy for England World Cup flight to Qatar | UK News

Virgin Atlantic suspended a policy allowing its crew to choose gender-neutral uniforms on its flight taking England’s World Cup football squad to Qatar.

The airline said the decision followed a “risk assessment… considering laws and attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community and expressions of identity”.

Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar under Islamic Sharia law, and there have been concerns about the conservative country’s treatment of LGBTQ+ tourists attending the tournament.

England’s World Cup squad left their St George’s Park HQ to set off for Qatar on Tuesday.

Their flight from Birmingham was believed to be on an Airbus A350 plane called “Rain Bow” – a symbol of LGBT+ pride.

A Virgin Atlantic A350 Airbus, featuring Rain Bow ahead of departure at Birmingham airport. The plane called 'Rain Bow' is believed to be carrying the England's World Cup squad to Qatar. Picture date: Tuesday November 15, 2022.
Virgin Atlantic plane at Birmingham airport taking England’s World Cup squad to Qatar

In a statement, Virgin Atlantic said “We’re proud our leading Gender Identity Policy allows our people to express themselves through uniform choice.

“Following a risk assessment, it was recommended the policy was not applied on today’s charter flight to ensure the safety of our people.”

Virgin Atlantic introduced a “fluid” approach in September, allowing staff the option of wearing its red or burgundy uniforms based on “how they identify or present themselves”.

A Virgin Atlantic A350 Airbus, featuring Rain Bow ahead of departure at Birmingham airport. The plane called 'Rain Bow' is believed to be carrying the England's World Cup squad to Qatar. Picture date: Tuesday November 15, 2022.
A Virgin Atlantic A350 Airbus featuring Rain Bow at Birmingham airport

An ambassador for the World Cup in Qatar recently described homosexuality as “damage in the mind”. Khalid Salman told a German public broadcaster that being gay was “haram”, which means forbidden in Arabic.

England skipper Harry Kane is one of several national captains who plan to participate in the “OneLove” campaign during the tournament. Players will wear a rainbow-coloured armband to campaign against discrimination.

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Wales were also making the trip to Qatar on Tuesday for the country’s first appearance at the tournament in 64 years.

Wales' Matthew Smith departing for Qatar from Cardiff airport, Wales. Picture date: Tuesday November 15, 2022.
Wales’ players arriving at Cardiff Airport

Jets of water were squirted over the Wales team’s plane as it departed from Cardiff Airport.

Soccer Football - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - Wales Departure for Qatar - Cardiff Airport, Cardiff, Wales, Britain - November 15, 2022 An arc of water washes over the Wales team's flight as they depart for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Action Images via Reuters/Matthew Childs
An arc of water washes over the Wales team’s flight as they depart for the World Cup

Wales and England are in the same group for the tournament, and will face each other in two weeks.