Can an August bank holiday getaway be simultaneously a straightforward camping weekend and – shhh, keep it quiet under your psychedelic felt hat – a small and rather lovely festival? This is a conundrum of the quantum Covid world we now inhabit where nothing it seems is as it first appears. I asked my friend Dr Schrödinger for the answer, but he was jigging around in the socially distanced mosh pit and just muttered something unintelligible about a cat.
But hush now, The charming organisers of We Are Not a Festival billed it as a camping weekend and who am I to argue? There are of course understandable reasons for this billing and, anyway, why on earth would a bijou stage, a substantial live music line up, a handful of DJs, a quorum of food purveyors (including a good selection of vegan, veggie and gluten free options), a well stocked if a little-bit-pricey bar, a lakeside healing area, copious glamping bell tents, a variety of workshops, and a gorgeous woodland lighting display make anyone think it was a festival? Crazy. Perish the thought. Certainly none of the almost 500 attendees thought so, even if they did enthusiastically enjoy the festivities. It was a camping weekend and I’ll hear no more dissent from you dear reader.
Benign firebrand Beans on Toast headlined with a couple of excellent sets, on the Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, and as we’re all aware he has certainly never been near a festival in his life. There was something beautifully wholesome and homespun about his performances, notwithstanding his many drug filled and politically sharp lyrics, with his nonplussed toddler daughter joining him onstage and a rolling collection of other very young and unimpressed visitors coming to sit on the edge of the stage beside him. It all had more than a whiff of the Waltons to it (going back a bit I know, but Beans does mention them in a lyric so I will too), with Beans a worthy mole-free John Boy for the millennial generation.
As ever at a (non) festival the live performances were mixed, but there was most definitely some quality about. In addition to Beans On Toast, most notable for me were apparent jumble-sale glam rockers Karyo, who very much surprised with their unexpectedly high tempo alt Hip Hop afternoon set, and borderline-ethereal country music fairy Ciara Rafferty. I first heard her voice from far away in the healing area and it felt like the trees and lake were singing to me. Mind you I’d just done a meditation workshop and a sound healing workshop on the bounce and I was already lost somewhere decidedly otherworldly.
While I’ve possibly given the, hmm, erroneous impression above that this was a full-blown festival I do need to offer a caveat, and that is if you go along to We Are Not a Festival next year you might be disappointed if your expectations of a classic festival weekend are set too high. At its heart this event is a generous smattering of likeminded quirky souls of all ages camping in a very beautiful Ashdown Forest field (and wood) and having something of an informal community love in. Indeed, even accepting socially distancing and other Covid related restrictions – masks in the bar, colour coded showers and loos, etc – it managed to be one of the most genuinely friendly and relaxed festivals I’ve been to. Even the security people were full of something approaching smiles.
On the downside the weekend was unseasonably cold and occasionally wet, and with only the one stage it meant if any particular act didn’t get you dancing you were stuffed and icy for its duration. It might have just been me, but this was a definite issue with the DJs who for reasons I can’t fathom, very possibly my own lack of aching hipness, didn’t grab me with their musical choices and so left me standing around in mildly disgruntled mystification in the increasingly freezing evening air. The nadir was a graduate from the Alan Patridge School of cool who insisted on playing one awful ‘80s track after another. Someone really should tell him – and all those other wedding DJs – that the ‘80s was with a few notable exceptions the worst decade for music ever. Perhaps he was being millennial-ironic and I just wasn’t in on the joke?
I don’t want to dwell on the half empty though as overall this festival – sorry, camping weekend – was a generous feast of gentle pleasures. Somehow the relatively high number of young children in attendance didn’t impact at all on more bacchanalian adult shenanigans, as bacchanalian as you can get with a 10pm music curfew anyway, and more importantly perhaps vice versa. As well as tearing around the wood and stage area like lunatics the adults – I mean the children – also enjoyed making monkeys out of something like hessian, creating monsters out of play-doh, hanging from an aerial trapeze and attending various other workshops. Three doughty young lads for example took part with a rabble of very un-Maori looking adults in the fierce and funny Hakka workshop.
No self-respecting festival review can of course ignore referencing the state of the toilets and showers, normally noting their deplorable state and huge queues. In this instance I can happily say that neither was true. Perhaps this was in part due to Covid as we were, as mentioned above, assigned colour coded loos to ensure a limited mixing of, er, fluids, but whatever the reason the loos remained clean throughout the weekend and I saw no queue for the showers at all. Festival heaven.
We Are Not A Festival is then, far from the most spectacular, busy or hip (non) festival on the circuit, but it is a lovely way to spend a relaxed and low key weekend camping, chatting and dancing in the enchanted Sussex countryside, making new friends and letting the harsher realities of your life ebb away for a few days where it’s just possible to believe that all is right with the world.
Published on 07 September 2020 by Neil del Strother