Totally Shambalic!

Less than 48 hours since I returned home from Beautiful Days, I was off again, to Shambala festival. It was less a case of unpacking than throwing the dirty clothes into the washing machine and adding more neon orange items for the fancy dress day. Stocking up in Morrisons, I discovered that they do their own boxes of vintage 7.2% cider actually made by Weston’s, the lovely Herefordshire cider makers. If you love cider, try this blog.  http://ciderpages.blogspot.co.uk/ The writer is on a mission to taste as many ciders as possible – and no, I don’t think it’s written by a tramp – that would be me at my current rate of sleeping under the stars and consuming alcohol!

Shambala is in an allegedly “secret” location in Northampton, but it’s made its home in the grounds of a beautiful country manor for several years now, using its beautiful lake, woodlands and views of the gently rolling countryside to create a magical wonderland. Shambala is a festival with much more than music to enjoy – and it combines a family-friendly atmosphere with all-nighter venues for the party animals. There’s something to suit everyone. It’s only a two-hour drive from Sheffield. I picked up a passenger in Loughborough and we arrived on a beautifully sunny afternoon.

We stayed in a new staff campsite which was in fields near the beautiful old farm. We’d turfed a herd of beautiful British White cattle off their field – they were confined into a barn for the weekend, but they had lots of company with stewards minding the farm gate all week and people coming to talk to the cows. They were lovely cows with black ears and noses, but if anyone upset them, they set up a choral “mooing” that went on for ages. Our new campsite undulated in ridges, typical of the medieval “ridge and furrow” field systems, and at the briefing, the Oxfam co-ordinators told us that we were sleeping on the remains of a deserted medieval village.

Setting up camp, it was strangely normal to be with many of the people I’d been camping with in Devon, just two days earlier. It felt as if we were part of a travelling circus! it was lovely to see my friend Fraser, who I’d not seen since Glastonbury, and he brought a giant hat made of carpet with him. It was far too heavy to wear, so it sat in the middle of our events shelter for the week and became a coffee table. The first night was the usual routine of drinking, talking to old friends, meeting new people, and attending stewarding briefings.

I wasn’t working on Thursday, so it was a good chance to explore the site and ease myself gently into Shambala. Fraser and I had a great wander. The only downside was the wasps, which were determined to buzz around everything: food, cider, people, bins, furniture. Even as a committed animal lover, they try my patience, but they do have their uses, as the RSPB explain here. Perhaps we should learn to be “at one” with the wasp after all. Maybe they’re just misunderstood (or maybe they’re little stripy stinging gits!)

On my Thursday wander, I discovered the Wide Awake Cafe, who do amazing foot-long veggie hotdogs, and even have a film made about their festival adventures. Veggie hotdogs have become my new favourite festival meal! http://www.karges-land.com/wide-awake-cafe-movie.html We then wandered into the Meadow to enjoy the healing fields. It was so relaxing in there, that we fell asleep around the fire pit for an hour – and woke up in time to join in with a shamanic ceremony to bless the festival. I played a djembe drum while people made a procession around the fire. We made a parcel of leaves, feathers, berries and seeds called a despacho, to be burned in a closing ceremony at the end of the festival. Taking part in the ceremony was a lovely, gentle experience. Feeling all spiritual, I persuaded Fraser to join me in a yoga class – Forrest yoga, which is designed to help with the strains and stresses of modern living. I used to do yoga every week and I’m a little rusty, which would explain why my core stomach muscles took days to return! We also explored the amazing disco-themed main entrance to the festival (which goes to so much effort for its ticket-holders!), and some amazing sculptures including a dalek woven from willow.

Later on Thursday, we watched ska and reggae bands at Chai Wallah’s, which is a beautiful, souk-style covered music venue and bar, rather than a tea shop! Eventually, we ended up in one of Shambala’s many secret venues, the Swingamajig Speakeasy, a 1920s themed venue accessed via a time machine! I headed to bed fairly early, as I had a daytime stewarding shift on Friday.

My allotted area to supervise was the accessible campsite and the artists camping and car park. Not bad at all. My only hair-raising moment was when a disabled man was stung by a wasp and he didn’t know if he’d be violently allergic to the sting. Fortunately, all was well, but the medics sped into the campsite on a buggy with their emergency kit within a few minutes. They found the patient calmly eating a sausage sandwich, which was probably the best reaction. I had enough time to chat to the stewards, and we were also able to watch the comings and goings of walkabout performers, such as a brass band, who were  always in very bright fancy dress; a mechanical horse on wheels who played Klezmer music and breathed fire at night; and the Police Rave Unit!

After I finished my shift, I took part in the Car Boot Bingo Disco, where participants learned a disco move for every ball drawn out, which eventually became a dance routine. I also caught the sparkling cabaret of top act Trevi Fontayne with his inimitable crooning style. I headed back to the campsite to recharge my batteries, have a nice chat and stock up with alcohol. I’d discovered that the wine I’d brought with me was completely hideous, so I bought some fruits of the forest juice to mix with it. It tasted nice at first, but by the time I’d got to the bottom of the bottle, I’d still drunk a bottle of cheap wine, which didn’t leave me feeling too good eventually! But that was a long time away, and I joined Fraser at the main stage to watch Dr Meaker and Friends, Skip and Die and The Skatalites (for the second time in less than a week!) If I’ve got one criticism of Shambala, it’s that there are so many small venues and soundsystems, that it tends to drown out the sound of the main stage, so even if you stand relatively close, you can still hear the thump of something else going on nearby. It was very atmospheric though, and a beautiful evening. We explored some of the secret venues, but they felt a bit claustrophobic.

After the Skatalites, we discovered the most far-flung secret venue, Naughty Morty’s Secret Ska Bar, on the far side of the main campsite. It was in a lovely clearing in the woods, with straw-bale seats and fire woks to site around, and a very random music selection, from The Wurzels and to classic disco. The terrible red wine was catching up with me though, but we had time to explore the enchanted woods with its late night music and amazing art installations, before bedtime!

On Saturday, I had my daily shower, then headed out into the festival. I was feeling a bit washed-out but I was energised by a contemporary dance workshop which was very freeform, and I overheard a man say to his small son: “some of these people haven’t been to bed yet, and they’re still dancing, but some of them have had a nice sleep and are having a dance to wake themselves up”. There were certainly a few people looking a bit wild-eyed, covered it glitter – but we’re all covered in glitter at Shambala and it takes days to wash off! Feeling invigorated, I went for a sit-down and some random conversation in the healing meadow. I had a deluxe veggie hotdog from the Wide Awake Cafe – there was so much salad in it that I couldn’t pick up the bap, and had to eat it with a fork! I listened to a discussion on the theme: “Love Conquers Everything”. Surprisingly, the motion was defeated – although love is powerful, sadly it was decided that love couldn’t conquer everything! Then I met some friends and did some knitting to contribute to a special Shambala blanket.

The last activity before my shift was one of my favourite things ever at Shambala! It’s the Dreams and Whispers 90s Dance workout crew. A gang of crazy people dressed in shell-suits and giant afro wigs, or a glitter body stocking, talk a large crowd through a mass dance routine. We Vouged, did angry punching dancing, Irish dancing and hip-hop dancing, culminating in a very silly choreography to ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ by Bonnie Tyler, starting as seeds, growing into trees, crying and stroking each others’ faces. I think you have to be there to understand it! I didn’t take any photos as I was too busy laughing and dancing.

I put on my orange neon fancy dress – including tutu and pixie ears and went on shift. It was a shame to miss Saturday night’s excitement, but at least some of it came to us, with plenty of campers and artists in fancy dress. The shift went smoothly, even though it started to rain. I caught part of Amandou and Mariam’s set on my break, and we could hear it well from Accessible Camping. After my shift, I met Fraser, but he’d been drinking for hours so he was up for a dance, whereas I suddenly felt the need for a sit down and a chat. Luckily, I stumbled across the Permaculture area, and I had a lovely chat with some permaculture experts based in the beautiful Yorkshire town of Holmfirth for hours. It was also hammering with rain and I didn’t fancy moving from their cosy fire. I decided to have a solo wander when the rain died down a bit, and I rounded off my evening with a good dance to a mash-up of quality funk soul, hip-hop and big-beat tunes in the Social Club, one of my favourite venues at Shambala, with its cheery pink and blue striped marquee and proper wooden dance floor, having a great time boogying with strangers in fancy-dress to turntable trickster Jimi Needles.

I was determined to have a busy but gentle Sunday, as I had a night shift starting at midnight. We headed to the main stage for a mass meditation at midday. It was quite strange coming across hundreds of strangely-dressed people sitting cross-legged, but surprisingly relaxing. I had a bite to eat before another favourite activity at Shambala – the sea-shanty singing workshop! Sea shanties were work songs sung by sailors to entertain them and pace their work. The voice workshop yurt got a bit hot and stuffy, so we spilled out onto the meadow, and gathered an intrigued crowd of people. I love being part of a choir – some people were doing harmonies, but just the feeling and sound of a group of people singing heartily together always sends goosebumps down my spine – and it’s always better if the songs are about rum! Here’s a bizarre combination of sea shanties and anime I found on YouTube.

I had a final sit down around the fire in the meadow, before enjoying a camera obscura – and personal camera obscuras made from waste paper bins, which you put over your head, giving you an upside down, fish-eye view of everything! Very disorientating. Then Fraser and I took part in a mass wedding in another daft Dreams and Whispers dance workshop (shhhh – I haven’t told my other half yet!)

My musical highlight of the festival came next, with Dizraeli and the Small Gods (reviewed by me here), and there innovative mix of hip-hop and folk. It was the perfect music for a sunny afternoon. I then wandered over to the spoken word area The Wandering Word, where I should have spent far more time. It’s in an incredibly large yurt, with luxurious carpets and straw bales covered in material to lounge on. I thoroughly enjoyed the children’s poetry slam – young people had been doing poetry workshops all weekend, with amazing results. Hopefully next year, I’ll encourage more young writers in their own performance slot at Bearded Theory festival. It was very inspiring.

I enjoyed exploring the Enchanted Woodlands in daylight, with a gentle acoustic band playing, and families relaxing in the sunshine, before heading back to the campsite to gather everything I needed for my night shift. It wasn’t time to stop yet though. I enjoyed a reading of a play called “Spring Tide at Mablethorpe” by Julie Wilkinson – who is such a fantastic solo performer that I was completely sucked into her world. It’s about a not-too-distant future, when the effects of climate change are causing a massive flood on the Lincolnshire coastline. It was gripping and frighteningly real, but with a dark sense of humour.

I had a drink in the Wonky Cock pub with some Oxfam friends, and then we watched the “Big Burn” and the fireworks. The bonfire had been constructed in the shape of a magical castle and it made one of the biggest bonfires I’d ever seen. Our friends Graham and Gaelle had been looking after a honeydew melon with a face – Kevin the Melon – since Boomtown festival. He was now going a little soggy in the bottom and rather than face a slow, sad demise, they’d decided to sacrifice him to the flames so the organisers had agreed to put Kevin inside the house before the bonfire started.

I rounded my evening off by watching Tankus the Henge, a band who put on a brilliant stage show, combining ska, space-rock, gypsy punk – and a bit of Chas ‘n’ Dave, with a singer who plays a beaten-up piano and sometimes an accordion. They certainly got the crowd dancing enthusiastically.

My nightshift had finally arrived, which was very quiet. The main challenge was to stay alert and awake after all that excitement! We kept warm around the campfire in the accessible campfire and kept ourselves entertained by talking to increasingly “spangled” people as the night wore on. We were very tired by 8am, but very glad to get our Oxfam “Shambala Silliness” badges!

Shambala may be the end of the festival season for 2013 for me (although I’ve got my fingers crossed for a volunteer place at Festival Number 6 in Port Merion). It’s certainly been an epic summer, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my adventures. It feels like time to calm down, give my poor liver a rest and concentrate on my free-range career as a writer, editor (I can edit well, despite this rambling prose!), and creative writing tutor. I’ve already got some exciting things lined up for the autumn, and I can’t wait to tell you all about them!

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