The Edinburgh Festival is the largest arts festival in the world. Attending it is a unique experience every time, no matter how much of a veteran you are. The city is transformed into a whirling cacophony of bright colours and loud speakers.

The streets shine, bejeweled in a million discarded leaflets and the odd smear of crimson from a street chainsaw juggling performance. The scent of kerbside barbeque mingles with the sweat of a million tourists, somehow emerging wholesomely invigorating and sitting alongside the little boy doing shy covers of Radiohead, just up from the brashly bold Italian magician calling enthusiastically to all passers.

If this sounds like an overly romanticised view of the Edinburgh festival, that’s because it is. Something that has the capacity to sweep people up so totally in its atmosphere is easy to get romantic about. That said, it’s been harder for me this year and the feeling seems to have been echoed by others too. Comedian Stewart Lee, for example, recently wrote an article in the Guardian about the increasing commercialisation of the festival and the controversial split between the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Edinburgh Comedy Festival. His points about the subservience to populism and mass appeal overshadowing the, well, fringier bits of the Fringe ring true, as they do in so many aspects of our culture, but this is the first year I have been unable to ignore that shadow in Edinburgh.

The more you talk to the performers, the more the happy, show-must-go-on facade fades and the harsh reality of the festival peeks through. Of course, there are many performers who do well here every year, but in a time of rising living costs and decreasing wages, austerity has bitten hard.

The cost of performing at the Edinburgh Festival can run into the thousands, leaving many performers in debt and wagering it all on securing enough work as a result of their festival run. That is certainly not a new problem, but it does seem to have become more apparent in the last few years, as margins get even tighter.

Thankfully, there are people who decide to tackle a problem, rather than moaning about it in a magazine article published in a totally different city. Peter Buckley Hill is one of those people. He founded the Free Fringe in 1996 when it only consisted of one show – his own. In 2012, the PBH Free Fringe is hosting 385 different shows in 35 different venues for which you pay nothing, unless at the end you feel it’s worth it. It is staffed by a dedicated team of volunteers and in my opinion represents a way to travel back to those heady days of experimental art and comedy that the Edinburgh Festival was, kind of still is, and should always be a Mecca for. I’m certain that only at a Free Fringe show could I have witnessed a man unexpectedly given viagra live on stage.

The venues donate their space rather than charging performers to use them and it doesn’t cost hundreds of pounds to get in the programme. True, performers must still cover their costs of living while they’re up here, but that’s a much easier prospect than funding a full festival run and – warning, romanticism returning – there is a greater sense of community and camaraderie among free fringe performers. Instead of fighting over flyer spots, the accepted policy is to drink cider together. A policy that I’m sure you’ll agree makes the PBH Free Fringe smarter than your average bear. Roll on next year.

Sara Hill.