The Guardian, 31st August 2020
Private loos and distance dancing: how ALSO defied Covid to become Britain's biggest festival
Our writer joins the lip-syncers, wild swimmers and sourdough masters at the tiny Warwickshire event and asks – is this the future of festivals?
On Saturday morning, I emerge from my yurt all groggy and bleary eyed, still wondering how I confused a box of wine for a pillow at the end of the previous evening. Soggy boots slipped on, I get my bearings: dotted around me are tents, campervans and awnings, all facing down the slope towards a smattering of marquees, food stalls and a small, open-air stage.
A socially-distanced yoga circle has just started by a lake. A pram-pushing dad wearing fur coat and suspenders nods in my direction as he makes his way past. And then there’s that sound: of newly feral kids, distant music and early-morning panels – the comforting familiarity of a music festival’s dawn chorus, its underlying hum.
By this late stage in the summer, most seasoned festival-goers like myself have become accustomed to this assault on the senses, but today it feels like a hazy deja vu from a previous life. Because, even with the loosening of some lockdown restrictions, this summer’s festival season was all but cancelled. Hundreds of major gatherings with revellers from across the country dancing in close proximity? The antithesis of our new, isolated world. But this bank holiday weekend, one small Warwickshire event opened its gates for some Covid-compliant festivities: the team behind Also festival (“Where ideas run wild”) were determined to find a way to go ahead.
The previous day, punters and performers were given temperature checks on arrival. Vehicles were permitted alongside pitches to reduce trips back and forth – and to reduce close contact with other people. Campers were instructed to spread out and take up as much space as possible, private portable loos were available to rent for bubbles keen to keep their germs to themselves. There were no showers on site and no covered dance spaces either. Also usually has a capacity of at least 2,000, but only 600 were allowed in this year.
Down at the festival’s hub at 10am, I find a hive of activity: a foraging walk is setting off into the forest, a professor is discussing the scale of Covid-19 on stage, and friends Kate Norfolk and Farah Sayeed are chatting about what convinced them to come. “I didn’t decide until yesterday,” says Sayeed. “My parents have been shielding. But seeing all the safety plans reassured me. This is the way to go for festivals, small and spacious – a chance to reset.” Norfolk, meanwhile, is still buzzing from a night spent dancing under a tree dressed as a fisherman. “I didn’t realise how much I needed a break from the city,” she says, “to tap back in, as much as possible, to the freedom of a pre-Covid way of life.”
The festival sits in the shadow of Compton Verney, an 18th-century manor house in Kineton, Warwickshire, overlooking gardens and a lake designed by Capability Brown. As psychotherapist Philippa Perry takes to the stage to discuss her graphic novel Couch Fiction, I head to a backstage boathouse to meet Pauline Lord and Helen Bagnall – two of Also’s organisers – who were as surprised as anyone to find that a modified version of the festival’s seventh instalment would be allowed to go ahead.
Back in March, Lord and Bagnall had been preparing to make their yearly trip to Ibiza, where they meet colleagues to coordinate their event’s offering of food. The night before their flight, Spain went into lockdown. “What was supposed to be a lovely two days,” says Bagnall, “turned into a 48-hour hell.” Instead of jetting off, the pair looked on as festival after festival in the UK was cancelled, with no end to the Covid crisis in sight.
It wasn’t just the lack of insurance that made the Also team reluctant to cancel. Their project is one of passion. And some of their regular guest speakers – notably Oxford University human geographer Professor Danny Dorling, who’d been monitoring the statistics and science – suggested that if they delayed their event from June until the end of the summer, there was a chance it could be safe. Ticket-holders were offered refunds, a space at the next year’s bash – or the chance to sit tight and see if the team could pull something together. Three quarters of people who had planned to attend opted to take that punt.
“The beauty of our size,” says Lord, “is that even though we’d spent a long time planning and a bit of money, we’re a small team with a small festival and so could wait and see how we might adapt.” This, she says, allowed them to press pause and reassess later: “Bigger festivals just can’t be pulled off in a matter of weeks.”
By June, they were back in touch with Stratford-on-Avon council. At meetings with its representatives from the emergency services, environmental and public health, as well as other local agencies, the Also team was informed that central government had still not published guidance. “They told us to start putting a risk assessment and event plan together and to think about how it could look,” says Bagnall. “Each agency would have to give us the green light for it to happen.”
Their proposals went into minute details: wristbands would be packed into envelopes at least three days in advance to ensure no cross-contamination, microphones would have replaceable protective covers to be changed between acts. One by one, the agencies came back with a yes. The result is a pared back event, similar to Also’s earliest iterations. Still, it’s the largest legal gathering of its size this year. “This wasn’t a decision we took lightly,” says Lord. “But people need community and connections, and we were confident we could do it properly while keeping it magical.”
While welcoming us the previous day, Bagnall had encouraged guests to adopt a “make the most of what’s there” attitude. And so I take her advice. I duck into a sourdough-making workshop and then weave a flower crown. I dance – at a distance – on a pontoon with a family from Hampshire, while wild swimmers plunge into the water around me.
It’s evening by the time a proper party atmosphere descends, and occasionally it feels a little more like an extravagant wedding celebration than standard festival fare, with only one entertainment option at a time. I see quite a few bored kids sitting on deckchairs, but then the torchlight procession begins and fireworks come flying from an oak tree as bar owner and DJ Ferdie Ahmed drops a heady remix of David Bowie and Sean Paul.
“As you can imagine,” says Ahmed, “this lockdown has been tough for DJs.” You can livestream all you like, he says, but it’s just not the same. “This is the first set I’ve done and you can feel how much people here need a release. You can’t recreate this kind of atmosphere in any other way.” And he’s right. At first, I’d had my doubts but, whether in a crowd of thousands or a distanced few hundred, the contagious joy of dancing in nature surrounded by strangers remains.
I think back to a conversation I’d had with psychotherapist Philippa Perry a few hours earlier. “As human beings,” she’d said, cava in hand, “we need mass gatherings. It’s good for us to be part of something bigger than ourselves.” Her words feel almost revelatory in my now semi-drunken state. The night comes to a climax with Miss Baby Sol’s gig. She’s clearly thrilled to be back, belting out covers of Proud Mary and Lady Marmalade to her giddy, 200-strong crowd.
In the 12 months before May last year, according to market research firm Mintel, over a quarter of the UK’s adult population attended a music festival. For many, they’re an essential break from mundanity, a chance to let loose. Over the bank holiday weekend, police received dozens of reports of illegal parties. Clearly, we’re still desperate to get together for communal experiences exposed to the elements.
Without a vaccine becoming available before Christmas, it’s hard to see how the UK’s bigger festivals – which juggle huge costs - can plan for 2021. But Also has proven that smaller events, where careful controls can be imposed, can be executed successfully. Bagnall and Lord intend to run a free event for other independent teams, to share what they have learned and answer questions.
There are certainly upsides to being at an event of Also’s size: a short commute from tent to entertainment; a consistent phone signal; no time wasted pointlessly flocking to some field’s far-flung corner for a rumoured secret set that never happens. Lectures about Covid and how we face the future might not sound festive – but, given what we’ve all been living through, time spent thinking, alongside listening to music, made sense.
While it can’t compare to the vastness of Glastonbury, Latitude or even Wilderness and their star-studded bills, Also has its own charm: after months of near isolation, this felt busy, and a community spirit formed that kept all respectful. Thoughtful debates and small pockets of distanced dancing might not replace the pleasures of writhing around in a pack to dawn-lit disco. But for now, if I can’t watch Taylor Swift headlining Glastonbury, I’ll happily cheer on families lip-synching to Shake It Off instead.