A market town was turned into a ‘scene out of Mad Max’ after some attendees of a Gypsy Christian festival supported by travellers ran amok including allegedly looting shops, drag racing on rural roads and maskless youths having a massive food fight in McDonald’s.
Residents in Oakham said the town is in a ‘state of panic’ following reports of physical and verbal abuse of staff and locals after 1,500 travellers came to attend a religious event at the Rutland Showground.
Others criticised what they perceived to be a lack of a serious police presence in the town as the festival continued. Business owners reported CCTV feeds of their premises showed people trying doors after hours, while one man claimed gangs of men were ‘driving around the villages looking for things they can take’.
Around 1,500 travellers in hundreds of caravans descended on Rutland Showground for the Pentecostal Gypsy-led Christian event, called the festival of Light and Life – but organisers admit ‘a lot of non-Christians have attended’.
Pubs and restaurants were forced to close early, teenage McDonalds workers were reduced to tears and 4X4s were seen drag racing on the town bypass. But despite the anger and fear in Oakham that has left people too scared to leave their homes.
But a traveller helping organise the event has denied there was chaos in Rutland over the weekend, insisting it was ‘nice and peaceful on the field’ and hinted that any criticism may be stoked by anti-traveller sentiment.
He told the BBC: ‘We are inviting the locals to come down and have a look for themselves, listen to what it’s all about and come have a cup of tea and a sandwich any time. Obviously there has been the odd disturbance but it is a minority and they are nothing to do with the organisation.
‘With us being a gypsy and traveller organisation it always comes with the stigma of us causing trouble, but we are just preaching the gospel.’
Residents in Oakham said the town is in a ‘state of panic’ following reports of physical and verbal abuse of staff and locals after travellers came to attend a religious event at the Rutland Showground (pictured)
Residents in Oakham said the town is in a ‘state of panic’ following reports of drag racing after travellers came to attend a mass event in Rutland Showground (pictured) in Leicestershire
Elijah Ward, from the church’s Darlington branch which organised the event, said that if there was trouble it was not caused by his church’s followers.
Mr Ward said: ‘We are a Christian community and we are followers of Jesus. A lot of non-Christians have attended. Jesus says we should go into the community and preach the good news of the lord and that is what we are doing. We are trying to preach the gospel to them… to help them change their ways.’
Many people questioned why the Life and Light festival had been sanctioned at Rutland Showground when the forthcoming Festival of Food and Farming has been cancelled due to Covid restrictions.
Life and Light Missions started as Vie et Lumiere in France about 50 years ago, and took off in the UK after French Gypsies brought the Gospel over about 30 years ago.
In 2017, attendees at a similar Light and Life event in Thame, Oxfordshire, were accused of inflicting ‘chaos’ and crime, including theft and abusive behaviour towards local residents.
Zoe Nealson, the town mayor, said the community was ‘on edge’. She added: ‘Residents have endured massive levels of disruption and anti-social and threatening behaviour.
‘It’s extremely worrying. This is an organised festival which went through the proper channels but it appears to have got out of hand very quickly.
‘Lots of people have reported police disinterest but I have also seen pictures showing lots of police vehicles on the bypass.’
One woman writing on social media told how she had been forced in to the curb as she drove her children home after swerving to avoid ‘two big trucks racing each other along the bypass’.
Organisers said that it was ‘peaceful’ at the site and suggested criticism could be because the locals are anti-traveller
Another resident said his 17-year-old daughter had endured her worst ever shift at the local McDonalds, where customers thought to be attending the festival ignored mask and social distancing requirements and began throwing food around the restaurant.
Among hundreds of angry comments on Rutland Showground’s Facebook page was one from Dean Collins who warned that ‘shops are being looted and closing down early to avoid trouble’.
Meanwhile Ian Stewart wrote on Saturday night: ‘Just walked the dog down the bypass, it’s like a scene out of Mad Max, the bypass is more like a drag strip tonight. A brand new Range Rover almost pulling a wheelie, Mustangs letting rip, trucks turning round in middle of the highway, hundreds and hundreds of caravans.’
Martin Underwood added: ‘It’s 21.40 and there are clearly drag races on the roads, alcohol and more and more vehicles arriving. No police, no responsibility by the showground and this will cost a fortune to clear up.’
Residents claim some attendees have been attempting to steal from nearby shops or break into premises, while there have allegedly been reports of fighting in the area, according to The Sun.
One resident told the publication: ‘We’re scared to leave our houses. They have blocked one of the bypasses with their trucks and some local staff in shops have been physically and verbally abused.
Police confirmed that they made a number of arrests on Sunday evening following reports of ‘anti-social behaviour’ at the showground.
Oakham residents have claimed that anti-social behaviour linked to the religious festival has caused deep distress, while one resident described cars racing along the Rutland bypass as like ‘something out of Mad Max’.
Rutland Showground issued an apology on its Facebook page after a ‘minority of people’ disrupted the religious event and caused ‘significant problems’.
Elsewhere, other people took to social media to question whether the mass outdoor gather should have been allowed amid a national spike in Covid-19 infections and a four-week delay to remaining lockdown measures lifting.
One asked the Rutland Showground: ‘How have you allowed a huge event to take place which threatens a community which has obeyed the rules and kept covid levels low? This beggars belief. Time to shut the event down.’
Another tweeted: ‘It’s all kicking off in #oakham, the local showground has taken a booking of 30 for a religious gathering and 3000 ‘travellers’ have descended. Drag racing, looting and anti social behaviour.’
A third fumed: ‘Disgusted to see a mass gathering on the Rutland Showground this morning- 700 caravans (and rising) on site for a ‘religious event’… I can’t see my son compete in his sports day because of covid rules but this is allowed… shocking.’
A statement from Ruthland Showground read: ‘We are currently hosting a religious festival on our site which we are aware is causing disturbance to our neighbours. We wholeheartedly apologise for this.
‘We agreed to the booking after assessing the organisers risk assessment and with the belief that this was an event primarily about Christian worship.
‘However there is a minority of people who are disrupting the event and causing significant problems in around the showground.
‘Our priority is to help maintain public order and minimise disruption and allow the event to refocus on its Christian worship as quickly and quietly as possible. We have been in contact with the police who have been onsite today.’
Supt Adam Slonecki, from Leicestershire Police’s Specialist Support team, said the force had received reports of anti-social behaviour relating to the ‘private event which is legally authorised’ on private land.
‘With permission from the organiser we will be regularly going into the event and continue to engage with the event co-ordinator to ensure they are Covid safe,’ he said.
‘We would like to reassure residents that we have extra foot patrols, a dedicated roads policing car and a specialist drone team operating in the area. In addition, local officers will be engaging with local businesses and licenced premises.’
In a statement, Rutland Showground said the booking for the event was accepted after organisers produced a risk assessment which covered the management of Covid risks and other issues.
The statement added: ‘It is being managed by 90 pastors supported by a team of 40 stewards. In addition, we have a team of security staff on site.
‘The event which has around 1,500 adults and children in their own motor homes/caravans has also attracted a minority who have been causing a disproportionate amount of antisocial activity.
‘We are working closely with the organisers and liaising with the authorities to minimise and contain this antisocial activity.
‘We regret the disruption that has been caused and apologise to all those affected.’
Leicestershire Police said officers would be regularly going into the event to speak with the event co-ordinator and ensure the private gathering remained Covid safe.
While Rutland Agricultural Society CEO Kevin Tighe said the outdoor event was self-contained and using no onsite facilities across the 45-acre fields and was being managed by 90 pastors and supported by 40 stewards.
Mr Tighe said a risk assessment had been done prior to the event, which covered issues including Covid risks, and said this was being implemented ‘to the best of his knowledge’.
He said the event attracted 1,500 attendees in caravans and motor homes, but insisted it was a ‘minority’ of others who caused a ‘disproportionate amount of antisocial activity’.
Responding to concerns on Twitter, Alicia Kearns, MP for Rutland and Melton, said: ‘I’m aware of concerns around reckless driving and incidents in Oakham today related to a large event at Rutland Showground.
‘I am liaising with the Council and the Police regarding compliance to COVID regulations and monitoring concerns.’
Supt Adam Slonecki, from Specialist Support at Leicestershire Police said: ‘We can confirm we have received information from local residents in Oakham and Rutland in relation to anti-social behaviour in the area.
Residents claim some attendees attempted to steal from nearby shops or break into premises, while there have allegedly been reports of fighting. Pictured: Caravans at the showground
‘This relates to a private event which is a legally authorised event on private land between Light and Life and Rutland Showground.
‘With permission from the organiser we will be regularly going into the event and continue to engage with the event co-ordinator to ensure they are covid safe.
‘We would like to reassure residents that we have extra foot patrols, a dedicated roads policing car and a specialist drone team operating in the area.
‘In addition, local officers will be engaging with local businesses and licenced premises.
‘We continue to work with the event goers and organisers to ensure disruption is kept to a minimum.’
MailOnline has contacted Rutland Showground for further comment.