Jake had been to an illegal rave before. In fact, he’d been to seven in his lifetime, but this one was different – this one was illegal-illegal.
After all, at that time you still couldn’t go to the barbers or the pub. You could only meet one other person not from your household, provided you met them outside, but not in a garden, and only on a Thursday afternoon, if there was a red sky and the Union Flag was flying, full mast, above Buckingham Palace. The crystal-clear instruction to “stay at home” had been replaced with the ambiguous message, “stay alert,” which felt like a tall order against an invisible virus which would later claim the lives of over 45,000 people.
But on the eve of the 25th May, as Dominic Cummings confessed to breaking the government’s own coronavirus guidance live from the rose garden at 10 Downing Street, 200 revellers thirsty for a night of pre-lockdown nostalgia began googling directions to Kirkstall Valley nature reserve in Leeds.
20-year-old politics student, Jake (whose name has been changed to protect his identity), was one of them. As with many of the illegal raves that have happened since the start of lockdown, rumours of a free party circulated on Snapchat the day before. To prevent these events being shut down before they’ve even started, the time of the event and its location is given at the eleventh hour, just as the rave is starting.
At first, Jake and his three housemates were sceptical the Kirkstall rave would even go ahead. It was the height of lockdown, Leeds city centre was still dead, and it was a Monday – even during these trying times, who goes raving on a Monday? But around 6pm that evening, as Jake and his mates soaked up the afternoon sun in Hyde Park, another Snapchat message swept across the city. The rumours were true, the rave was on.
Jake admits he’s usually the instigator of the group, but on this occasion, it didn’t take much to convince his friends to abandon their day out for an illegal rave in the woods.
“When I suggested checking it out, I expected them to bail. We’d been sticking quite closely to the lockdown rules up until then, but by that point we were two months into it, and I think everyone was just fed-up with it all and needed a release.”
“I was already a bit tipsy from the few beers I had in the park, but now we had a motive, so we called our dealer and picked up,” he continues. “Once you’ve committed to going out, you don’t go along half-heartedly.”
They embarked on the 45-minute walk from Hyde Park to a small island, reserved for the protection of local waterfowl, in the middle of the 10-hectare nature reserve. “I couldn’t tell if I was coming up on the way there or if it was the sheer excitement and adrenaline rushing through me,” he says.
The rave organisers had set up some basic decks and strobe lights under a grey marquee. To access it, ravers had to wade through a shallow stretch of the River Aire separating the island from the rest of the reserve. Some later required assistance by the local fire brigade who were called to prevent revellers from being whisked away by the current.
“Crossing the river, I started to feel nervous and the heavy drum and bass began cutting through me,” Jake says. “It was daunting. There were a lot of people already there, it didn’t feel intended or structured. It was a free for all, really. Everyone seemed to forget about coronavirus. People were hugging, getting off with each other.
“I split off from the main crowd with my mate and spent most of the night chain smoking and watching people from the side. I saw a girl we vaguely knew from previous nights out in Leeds, dancing with this muscley guy in the middle of it all. At one point he turned around, lifted his top and she licked his sweaty back.
“At any other rave you might not even look twice at shit like that, but to do that during a global pandemic was bizarre to say the least.”
By 10:30pm, police were on the scene and had dispersed the crowd, seizing the decks and arresting three people in the process. The next day volunteers spent three hours cleaning up the site. For the administrators of the Kirkstall Valley Facebook page, the rave had been a “disgraceful act against nature”.
Less than a month after the Kirkstall rave, over 200 people attended a gathering in a woodland area in Kirkby and Rainford. On the 13th of June, the trend hit its peak with over 6000 people attending two separate illegal raves in Daisy Nook Country Park in Oldham and at an industrial estate in the village of Carrington, Greater Manchester.
The illegal rave in Carrington was branded as a gathering in the woods to celebrate the birthday of “Kuca”, a group that have been hosting raves in clandestine locations around the city for the past year. One attendee who does not wish to be identified, shared the advert on her Instagram story, adding, “those positive thoughts are slowly coming back. Not been out dancing since feb [sic], polishing those dancing shoes off.”
The excitement was also felt by 22-year-old Willem who joined his friends at the Carrington rave at around 8pm. “At the start the vibe was good, everyone was buzzing. It was the first time everyone had been out in a while.”
Over the course of the evening, however, 2000 revellers swamped the site as police struggled to maintain order. “The organisers started telling people the event was cancelled, but that was just a cover story; I think they quickly realised they had bitten off more than they could chew. I had only been there about half an hour before it started kicking off,” he says.
Video footage uploaded to social media the following day showed groups of young people wielding machetes and a 25-year-old man was arrested at the scene for possession of an offensive weapon. Three people were stabbed, an 18-year-old woman was raped, while five miles away at the Daisy Nook rave, a 20-year-old man collapsed and later died from a suspected drug overdose.
However, the violence did little to quell the party or detract other organisers from broadcasting similar events in Leeds and Southport the following weekend. “I don’t regret going and I plan on going to more,” Willem says. “People need a release as well, which is why these have happened and will continue to happen.”
He blames the increase in illegal raves and a general disregard for social distancing rules on the controversial actions of Boris Johnson’s senior aide, Dominic Cummings, who refused to resign after it was discovered that he flouted government guidance by driving 260 miles from London to Durham in April.
“Boris Johnson letting Dominic Cummings off the hook was the ‘get out of jail free’ card for me. If it’s good enough for MPs and other senior government figures to break lockdown, then it’s good enough for me.”
In the media, the lockdown ravers have fallen into two categories; depicted either as hooligans high on so-called “hippy crack” or as the next generation of teenage revellers, experiencing a “third summer of love” and evoking technicolour images of acid house raves from the ’80s. But is it right to label groups of teenagers inhaling nitrous oxide in clandestine areas of the UK a countercultural movement during a global pandemic?
Dean Silver, one half of Manchester-based DnB duo North Base, argues that the raves were a disaster waiting to happen, recalling a time before lockdown when the pair would DJ at venues like Manchester’s Warehouse Project. “Our raves are safe. We’ve got security, they didn’t have security. We have the ambulance service on site, and they didn’t have any medical staff or welfare.
“They’re just doing this because they’ve been stuck indoors for three months and they think ‘let’s have a party’ without thinking of the consequences. It’s wrong.
“When I was young, I was going to illegal parties but then it was safer,” Silver says, implying that the attitude of partygoers has radically shifted since the ’90s when the illegal rave scene reached its cultural apex. “People weren’t getting stabbed or taking the drugs that they’re taking now. There was more unity back then.
“I’m hating lockdown,” he continues. “It’s been horrible for us at the moment, our income is completely gone. I don’t want to play by the rules, but I have to, we all do. Another spike in coronavirus cases could happen because of the raves at Daisy Nook and Carrington but we won’t know that for another few weeks yet.”
Silver says the increasing number of illegal gatherings could impact the public perception of rave culture, jeopardising the work of legitimate DJs, promoters and organisers. In 1994, John Major’s Conservative government passed the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which gave the police powers to disband gatherings of 20 or more people playing music. Officers have shut down the recent raves and charged suspected organisers under the 1994 act, and Silver is wary of the potential for restrictions to be tightened further.
“A lot of DJs before me have worked for the past 20, 30 years to legalise raves. There are people that have put in a lot of work and lost a lot of money so we can rave.
“I know there’s some who like to throw two fingers at the government, but the last we want is for them to turn around and say you’re not having any more parties. We could lose it all.”
For Jake and his mates, however, the night at Kirkstall Valley nature reserve was a way to temporarily forget the mundanity of lockdown and to find a sense of normality while the UK’s night-time economy is decimated by the closure of clubs, bars and the cancelling of music events.
“The older generation of ravers are sticking by the rules and speaking out against the recent raves,” he says. “And then there’s this young, almost libertarian, generation of ravers who are care-free. I was aware that going to Kirkstall wasn’t right, but I can’t say I regret going.
“I just thought, fuck it. I’ll deal with the consequences tomorrow.” After all, in the moment, when nothing else matters but the music and the people around you, who cares about the horrific comedown?