Festivals, greater or lesser, each with a peculiar quality, unique and yet related to those preceding and succeeding, have built up the dance of the year,” wrote Lawrence Whistler in English Festivals back in 1947.
Firelight flickers over faces and gilds the silhouette of a bicycle tossed to the ground as we join a small crowd of people sitting on strawbales around a musician and his acoustic guitar. Suddenly I’m awash with serene joy and equanimity. I often get this feeling at festivals, like I do after days spent hiking – a kind of fusion with the landscape, but at festivals it’s also about shared human spirit.
The morning had been more chaotic. “Why am I going backwards?!” I’d cried before my kayak careened into the riverbank, giving me a faceful of twigs. I’ve had festival mishaps before – waking up in a swamp at Sheep Music when the River Lugg burst its banks – but I’ve never been stuck in a willow tree. Then again, this is no ordinary festival.
The Big Shakeout, held every September in the heart of Derbyshire, is designed to appeal to lovers of the outdoors. So while there’s music at night, by day festival-goers can try out a huge range of outdoor activities, from canoeing to mountain biking, caving or climbing.
As you might expect, children thrive on adventures like this, so the festival is popular with families enjoying one of the last warm weekends before summer turns to autumn. But it’s not only kids who get to experience the buzz of trying something new and exhilarating. Despite my clumsy start, kayaking was an absolute thrill. The River Derwent was a tunnel of leaf-filtered light in which we learned to read its rhythms, pivot on a paddle and power through its currents.
The Big Shakeout is not alone in appealing directly to outdoor lovers. Small and small-ish festivals are springing up all over the country and while music is the common theme and still dominates many such events, it’s becoming more popular to add outdoor activities of various kinds to the festival mix.
At the National Trust’s South West Outdoor Festival in September at Cheddar Gorge, festival-goers can “hike and bike, kayak and canoe, camp, climb, cave and run”. The Good Life Experience, set in the ground of Hawarden Castle in Flintshire, offers a more eclectic mix, including crafts, book readings, cookery demonstrations, bushcraft, archery and meditation.
Small is beautiful
The setting is important. The Big Shakeout is set in the grounds of Thornbridge Hall, a couple of miles northwest of Bakewell. The estate is surrounded by swaley dales and drystone walls, woodland and fine Peak District countryside for walking, while the River Wye winds through its deep green dale to the west and south.
The modest size of the Big Shakeout also appeals to some visitors. “I don’t like big crowds,” says Spud from Norwich, “but this small scale is great.” Spud’s last festival was The Isle of Wight in 1970, and he had to be persuaded to come here. Does the music live up to his Jimi Hendrix experience? “Yes!” he says. “The Buffalo Skinners from Sheffield were fantastic.”
Festivals have been entrenched in our culture since well before 1970, of course. It’s thought that more than 4,000 years ago, one tenth of the British population celebrated the winter solstice at Stonehenge, and we’ve been gathering ever since, to mark occasions such as harvest or spring-time, with carousing, feasting, dancing and drinking.
By dusk, everyone is preparing for an evening of music and talks by adventurers such as Sarah Outen, fresh from her circumnavigation of the globe by bike, boat and kayak.
Liz and Matt from Newbury are cooking curry outside their tent. “We normally go to bigger music festivals,” says Matt, “but this is much more civilised. We’re getting a bit old for dancing all night.” The kayaking has inspired them to join a canoe club, and they loved caving, too. “We got soaked and covered in wet claggy mud – it was brilliant,” says Liz.
Mud, it seems, is hard to escape. But then learning to love it is part of the point. And later, as we drift contentedly back to our tent, warmed by bonhomie, music and wine, the glow from the campfires yields to the brighter light of the stars.
Julie’s Festival Kit
There’s an art to enjoying festivals. From long experience, I now treat festivals like weekend-hikes and never pack more than I can comfortably carry – so no wellies, though there’s always room for glitter in my pocket. When it’s over, I carry my rucksack to the nearest shuttle-bus or station, passing revellers wrestling with un-pop-downable pop-up tents; or dragging trollies of dangling duvets with mud-caked wheels; or waiting
for tractors to tow their cars out of the mud. I regard them all with fond nostalgia, because festival disasters are a rite of passage.
They are also avoidable. Canny packing helps, while volunteering gets you a free ticket, new friends and a support network. And at the hundreds of small family-friendly festivals (with clean toilets!), you can sometimes even park near your tent. Showers, seating, and glamping are often available. And many are in glorious rural locations.
1) Small resilient tent and a good camping stove
You can always extend your pitch with a trekking tarp. Pitch and guy carefully, with minor mudslides in mind! Our one-person Trangia does for two, but a Solo Stove fuelled by twigs is on our wishlist.
2) Lightweight hiking boots
More robust than wellies and just as waterproof.
3) Good sleeping bag and mat
Essential for a good sleep (ear plugs can help). Remember that summer nights can be cold.
4) Coffee and dried food
Festival food is deliciousness on a cardboard tray but you’ll save a fortune by bringing these basics.
5) Waterproof jacket, trousers and peaked hat
And if the forecast’s bad, bring gaiters and a rain poncho too!
6) Several flannels
They’re more eco-friendly and just as effective as wet-wipes.
7) A lightweight folding seat
Support for your back, if you’d rather not dance.
Main image: gettyimages