Saved by the rave: British youth are reclaiming public land to party, even during a pandemic

Fed up with government hypocrisy, young people are escaping to the countryside in pursuit of freedom and release. Photographer Laurence Ellis documents the outdoor parties where communitarian spirit rages on

“Waiting until midnight to find out where it’s going to be. Getting in the car and trundling off to wherever the fuck you’re going. All of this worry—is it going to be good? What’s going to happen? And then you get there, and you get fucked off your face, you have a great time…. The sun comes up and you’re there with your mates in a beautiful place. Going to a rave is, in my opinion, one of the most intense things you can do in the UK.” So says Harry, a 22-year-old rig (sound system) owner from Sheffield.

In 2020, going to a free party—a ticketless, multi-night outdoor rave—has taken on a countercultural significance that reaches beyond the most subversive dreams of an anti-authority raver in the halcyon days of the late ’80s. In the throes of a global pandemic, the ominous portent of COVID transmission poses a genuine moral dilemma for the nightlife scene not seen since the AIDS crisis—one made all the more polarizing by an echo of the sensationalism that dominated the public discourse about raves in the ’90s. Hypocrisy and double standards from UK government officials ride roughshod on the back of years of austerity, uncertainty, and struggle, and with pubs across the country resuming business as usual, the mandate to “Stay Home, Save Lives” rings hollow for a swath of young people who draw much of the meaning and joy in their lives from the communion of the rave.

It’s easy to see why those only socializing within their own age group and in the lowest risk category for the virus would shrug their shoulders at any perceived doubts around safety, dial up the party line, and drive off into the night in pursuit of a beautiful, tangible experience. “The vast majority of people at a rave are between the ages of about 16 and 23,” says Mr. Shindig, a 26-year-old DJ and scene documenter from Somerset in the Southwest. “Most of the people there are young. Most [have] it rough. You’ll never own a house, your job’s on a zero-hours contract, all that rubbish. Most of them are not long out of education, and that’s a very hierarchical system with the relationship between you and the teachers and the other students. And then you come to this place, and it feels like everyone is exactly the same, nobody’s a boss. Everyone’s on a level.

“In the pub, there’s no rules, but it’s the social [expectations]… you’re supposed to buy a drink, you’re supposed to dress up, you’re supposed to have your mate to go with,” Shindig explains. “If you go to a free party, you can go with not a penny on you. You can just be there for the vibes. It’s very inclusionary.”

Left: Hands in the air, dancing somewhere in a field, but I’ve lost track of which one.

Right: A police helicopter monitoring a rave in Norfolk. A plethora of new laws prohibit mass gatherings, free parties, and the use of public land in the UK. One bans dancing in bars and pubs. As the legendary choreographer Martha Graham once said, “A dancer dies twice—once when they stop dancing, and this first death is the more painful.” Let us not die twice.

Finding out about parties is not a straightforward process; participants are vigilant about bad actors and undercover police, and a recent crackdown from the authorities has added a new level of urgency to the scene’s already clandestine nature. Under the banner of the Coronavirus Act, the UK government moved to impose £10,000 fines on party organizers. This has kept some people away from raves, but it’s also galvanized the attitude of those betrothed to the subculture: The stakes are higher for everyone, and passing someone a phone line (the primary means of discovering a location) is a solemn act of trust only granted to those deemed ‘safe heads.’ It’s redolent of the scenes in the ’90s, when the Criminal Justice Act was imposed to outlaw unlicensed raving and move dance music culture into licensed clubs and events.

Despite the covert nature of the scene, it’s also a community that prides itself on acceptance. “There’s proper hippies and road men, you know?” says Annabelle, a 22-year-old illustrator and raver from Bristol. “You’ll see guys in puffer jackets and people with dreadlocks down to the floor. There is every type of person, but everyone’s really nice to each other for that little set time. It’s like a community that forms for a few days.

“Even though it’s illegal—there’s no police, there’s no law, there’s no one in charge—the people who run the sound system will look after you. If anything happens, they will make sure it’s sorted out. I feel a lot safer walking around by myself at a party than I do going out at night in town. I’m a girl, and I’m small, and I’ve walked around a party mashed, speaking to random people, on my own, loads of times, and I feel totally safe. But if I was on a night out in town, and I left my friends for more than 10 minutes, I would not feel safe.”

“In the past, [we had] places like community centers, and I think our society is really missing these now. I think the prevalence of free parties [during the pandemic] is a response to the loss of spaces for people to come and socialize and be equal with each other.”

Emily, 22, from Leeds agrees. “I’ve seen more antisocial behavior in clubs and bars from people drinking than I have at any party I’ve been to. I feel like the sexual harassment women face in those places gets ignored, and they have bouncers and staff who are paid to keep you safe. No one’s ever sexually harassed me at a free party.”

Contravening the popular public presentation of raves as lawless, chaotic orgies, the free party scene operates by its own unwritten code of ethics, which ranges from drug welfare (“We’re all experienced drug users, we know when to call an ambulance,” says Harry) to respect for the land they access (“We stay behind afterward to try to leave the place spotless,” says Annabelle). They prize acceptance of all people within the community, although it’s undoubtedly a predominantly white scene. That, according to Emily, is largely down to the rural location of the parties, away from larger populations of ethnic minorities. While most of the surface-level discussion about the parties focuses on hedonistic pleasure-seeking and social interaction, there are other ideas at play in an act which can’t help but be political in nature.

“I think a lot about the concept of ‘third spaces,’ ” says Harry. “It’s basically talking about spaces where people are equal. In the past, [we had] places like community centers, and I think our society is really missing these now. I think the prevalence of free parties [during the pandemic] is a response to the loss of spaces for people to come and socialize and be equal with each other, and just feel like they can be free and talk to someone.”

‘Third spaces’ inescapably have a more vital function for those living without the luxury of privilege. As more municipal buildings and outdoor areas are sold off to private entities, people without the means to define their own spaces are left with few places to go other than the home they rent or the place they work. In that light, the value of the space created by a free party becomes deeper for those who join in. Class isn’t a defining factor amongst the mixed crowd at a party, but this temporary claiming of space purposefully kicks back against an increasingly privatized landscape and provides a much needed sense of agency for those often at the mercy of capitalism’s land grab.

Left: The DJ at a party in Norfolk.

Right: Isbo on the outskirts of one of the parties in Peterborough. I remember the near-total darkness and the Moon above her head, hoping that both she and the Moon made it into the picture. I met some of her friends at another party; the more parties I went to, the more I found the same faces or friends of friends. It didn’t matter that the parties were often hundreds of miles apart, the same extended family kept showing up. 

“A lot of people who go to these parties are a very specific breed of individual,” Harry adds. “They tend to be quite smart. They tend to have drug issues, and they tend to be depressed or anxious. And I think that these things are a response to wider society now.”

Even before the pandemic, when a free party was almost guaranteed to be taking place every single weekend somewhere in the UK, the erosion of public spaces—coupled with conservative austerity policies—had cut a swath through many aspects of British society. Funding cuts to education and youth-oriented programs had collided head-on with looming environmental crises and a pervading sense of fatalism; for many young people, the arrival of the pandemic has only exacerbated an already fragile state of mind.

“This pandemic has affected millennials and Gen Z so much,” says Emily. “Every part of our life, our careers, people’s education…the government has done massive u-turns on things, and fucked up people’s A-level exams. People were graduating university from their bedrooms after spending, like, £9,500 on their degree.

“Downers are definitely a way bigger thing [in the party scene] now, like K [ketamine], Xanax, all that stuff that makes you feel really numb. That plays a part in us switching off, because it’s just like, you unlock your phone and there’s all this horrible stuff going on. All the racism in America, Brexit, and coronavirus, to name but a few, and I feel like numbing drugs are definitely more popular.”

“The way everything has happened in the world has changed people’s perspectives. It made a lot of people think, ‘This is the sort of thing that used to give my life a lot of meaning, used to fill my life with a lot of energy and people and wholesomeness.’”

While other ‘party’ drugs such as MDMA, cocaine, and speed still keep people dancing for long stretches at free parties, the prevalence of sedatives points to a way to detach from modern life. “It’s the escapism of that drug,” says Mr. Shindig, “because all the other drugs, you engage more with the world, you engage more with the person sat next to you. Ketamine is, ‘I’ll sit here in my own fucking bubble, and I don’t even know what the world is.’ Over the last ten years, it has gone through the roof as the world’s gone through the floor.”

When the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the UK, the free party scene responded on its own terms. Ahead of the nationwide lockdown in March, the frequency of and numbers at events were down. Whereas a party in Salisbury might have expected 300 people, only 100 would show up. Communities of rig owners and associated scene elders in different parts of the country made it clear anyone throwing parties would be ostracized. For nearly four months the vast majority of sound systems fell silent, while the media labeled random gatherings of frustrated teenagers as ‘illegal raves.’

One of the first major parties to happen in the Southwest took place between Bristol and Bath on July 18. Dubbed ‘Return to Scumerset,’ it made national news as an estimated 3,000 people descended on a disused airfield and partied from Saturday night through Sunday afternoon.

“When the lockdown started, the free parties stopped,” says Mr. Shindig. “All the sound systems said, ‘Okay we have to work as one with the whole community, as we’re all in the same shit together.’

The main rig at one of the raves in Peterborough. It was late afternoon, the party had started around 9pm the night before. Being in a state of sobriety gave a heightened perception of the various moods and emotions which collectively washed over people throughout the day and night. The police were already there, standing out of sight. There was a sense of disappointment and mourning over the inevitable end. The comedown felt close.

“[At the Scumerset rave] people were quite emotional to be back. The way everything has happened in the world has changed people’s perspectives. It made a lot of people think, ‘This is the sort of thing that used to give my life a lot of meaning, used to fill my life with a lot of energy and people and wholesomeness.’”

Just over a month later, an even larger party took place on the Southwest side of the Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales. While everyone readily acknowledges the questionable safety aspects around social distancing at a rave in the midst of a pandemic, they’re also quick to offset that argument against the government-sanctioned drinking taking place in pubs up and down the country seven nights a week since some lockdown restrictions were eased at the start of July. The phone lines for the rave reminded people with symptoms to stay away—even in the perceivably ‘lawless’ free party community, a sense of responsibility about the pandemic prevails. As with so many aspects of life affected by the virus, the risks around attending raves are balanced against the perceived benefits this self-reliant community brings to people.

“Parties coming back has given a lot of people hope,” says Annabelle. “For a lot of people, their mental health during lockdown has been absolutely ruined, and this has been a really nice escape.

“It’s not just partying. From being involved in the party scene, I’ve started my own business, Smoke My Tea, selling custom-designed vinyls and furniture. A lot of the sound systems have posted my work on their page, and a lot of people from the scene have bought my stuff and supported me. I used to work a horrible minimum-wage job, standing on my feet for nine hours a day, and it was mind-numbing. Because of all the links I’ve made through parties, I’ve made enough money to be self-sufficient, and the work I’ve built up helped me get an illustration degree at uni.”

Lovers being lovers. The parties’ lack of sponsorship or branding meant much of what we did or saw felt timeless, as if it could be generationally interchangeable. Something familiar took on new meaning; knowing that reality, once we left the rave, would be anything but this.

The modern fixation on competition and individualism is a pervasive aspect of the world we live in; but for young people, the communitarian spirit of the free party scene has been a source of nurture, support, and solidarity. The early 20-somethings I spoke to consider themselves older in the spectrum of free partygoers, thinking ahead and gathering emotional and practical tools and connections to help them navigate the wider world as they grow. Harry says the path for his sound system is a transition toward a legitimate business, something he and other fellow rig owners consider a rite of passage as they grow weary of the cat-and-mouse antics of free parties. Emily only goes to larger, multi-rig parties like the one in Wales now, but she relies on her nationwide network of friends gathered dancing in front of the stacks. Even if this wave of dancers and dreamers eventually move on to other callings in life, in the present moment the scene’s operation outside authoritarian jurisdiction puts a unique responsibility on its shoulders. As the UK continues to grapple with the pandemic, the government seems prepared to leave millions in the nightlife industry unemployed in what feels like an ideological move rather than an economical one.

“I’m not sure what’s gonna happen right now,” says Mr. Shindig as we face down a bleak autumn and winter, “but it’s not like when this is all over people are just gonna forget the raves exist. I don’t even know what’s gonna be left of the events industry by the time all this is finished, and raves are still gonna be there. Raves aren’t going anywhere.”