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Lockdown raves
Illustration Callum Abbott

Inside the UK’s illegal rave scene, flourishing in lockdown

From rural Wales to London warehouses, illegal parties continue to grow and get more creative to defy government regulations

TextBrit DawsonIllustrationCallum Abbott

As the sun dips between the trees in a field near Manchester, a huge crowd of people bounce to the beat of Room 5’s “Make Luv”. The scene is fairly unremarkable for a summer’s evening: people inhaling nos from yellow balloons, phones scanning the crowd as they snap footage for Instagram, and friends screaming song lyrics into each other’s faces.

In 2020, however, it’s happening against the backdrop of a global pandemic, during which these kinds of parties are outlawed. Hovering above the crowd’s heads is a reminder of this: a black banner that reads, ‘Quarantine Rave’.

The event attracted 4,000 people and was eventually shut down by the police. It’s just one of many illegal raves which have taken place since the UK imposed stay-at-home orders back in March. Other parties in Wales, Leeds, London, Norfolk, Essex, and more, have enticed thousands of revellers, some of whom have been slapped with the government’s maximum penalty of £10,000.

This summer’s raves were seemingly organised by a disenfranchised youth, as an attempt to escape from reality. It’s reminiscent of the outdoor parties and warehouse raves of the late 80s and early 90s, before the UK passed its 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which banned unlicensed parties featuring “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”.

Though these raves never really went away – but were instead forced further underground – in recent years, they’ve seen somewhat of a resurgence. This came to a head in 2020, with experts predicting in June that England would experience a “summer of rave” not seen since 1989. With coronavirus cases dropping, lockdown restrictions easing, and government figures brazenly flouting their own rules, it’s easy to see why “socially starved” young people might turn to partying as a release from the uncertain anxiety of pandemic life.

“I was so desperate for a night out,” says 20-year-old Sarah*, who attended a rave in the first lockdown. “It is a bit selfish, but young people need some sort of social life; some sort of release. For me, that’s being in a space surrounded by people entranced in the music and moving together.”

The raves being organised fit into a handful of categories. A recent VICE explainer outlines these as: established unlicensed parties – set up by an experienced crew, and with safety measures in place – established free parties – at which the community self-polices, including returning to clean up afterwards – and ‘moneygrab’ parties – advertised online with the aim of making money.

One of the most notorious free parties of the summer happened over the August bank holiday, when 3,000 people descended on the Welsh village of Banwen. Though authorities hit the organisers with hefty fines, the locals went viral for their laidback attitude, which saw them make cups of tea for the ravers.

“It is a bit selfish, but young people need some sort of social life; some sort of release. For me, that’s being in a space surrounded by people entranced in the music and moving together” – Sarah*

Not all the raves have been quite so wholesome, however. Two simultaneous events in Greater Manchester saw a 20-year-old man die of a suspected drug overdose, three people stabbed, and an 18-year-old woman raped. Local police officers said they were met with violence when they attempted to break up the party.

Experts have warned that illegal raves are now flourishing under the new regulations, after the UK entered its second lockdown at the beginning of this month. “Hundreds of events have taken place over the last few weekends,” Michael Kill, the CEO of the Night Time Industries Association, said in an email statement to Dazed. “People are frustrated, they have missed festival season, summer holidays abroad, nightlife, restaurants, pubs, and social gatherings in general.”

Unlike in the summer, when you could turn up to a field in a t-shirt and survive until the early hours, Kill says the winter weather “has meant that many of these events are now taking place in warehouses left empty by businesses which have failed during the pandemic”. This poses a number of problems, most starkly the fact that COVID-19 is transmitted more easily indoors.

A report by the Oxford COVID-19 Evidence Service states that “acute respiratory infections (like coronavirus) appear to be the most common infectious disease trasmitted during mass gatherings”. Researchers suggest that multiple-day events with crowded communal accommodations, much like cruises, are most associated with the risk of virus transmission, though big gatherings in general also increase the risk. 

Last month, 150 people partied in a derelict pub in the east London suburb of Beckton, while hundreds of others joined a “plague rave” in Barking. On November 1, police broke up an illegal rave in Bristol, which saw 700 people cram into a warehouse. The following day, 200 people attended a rave in a Poole warehouse, before officers turned up to shut it down. Last week (November 14), organisers of a rave at a Welsh mansion openly advertised the event online, charging £25 for entry, and asserting they’re “sick of listening to the news trying to programme us with fear tactics”. It’s unconfirmed if this event went ahead.

Unsurprisingly, most attendees say social distancing guidelines aren’t followed at these events, with hardly anyone wearing masks, nor using hand sanitiser. “I even snogged someone,” 25-year-old Finn* tells Dazed. “Sue me.”

“It felt somewhat justifiable during the summer since the COVID numbers were going down and it was possible to be outside a lot. The situation now feels quite different to me” – Kelsey*

Ravers at an event co-organised by 25-year-old Penelope* didn’t socially distance, but decided to avoid sharing drugs “in an attempt to follow some sort of rules”.

This lack of COVID safety doesn’t seem to bother partygoers, though. “I wasn’t worried about COVID,” explains Sarah, who found out about the event through a friend, “nor about the other people there. We’d all made the decision to be in a mass gathering, and young people aren’t really physically affected by the virus unless they have underlying health conditions. My only worry was if any of those people came into close contact with anyone vulnerable after the event.”

34-year-old Kelsey* says that although she was “a bit anxious about going”, when she arrived, “the worries gradually dissipated”. Looking back, however, she says she does feel guilty – to an extent. “I know it was a potentially dangerous thing to do, and probably quite selfish, but I don’t know anyone who hasn’t broken the rules in some way. I think most people have been trying to stick to them as much as they can, but people will break the rules at times in order to cope with the situation – it just varies how.”

Kelsey says she felt comfortable attending a rave during the first lockdown, but that she won’t be partying this time. “It felt somewhat justifiable during the summer since the COVID numbers were going down and it was possible to be outside a lot. The situation now feels quite different to me.” 

Penelope, on the other hand, doesn’t think there’s any point feeling guilty because “we’ve already done it, so there’s nothing that can be changed now”. Addressing potential critics, Penelope says she does have empathy for the situation, and does understand the consequences of the virus, particularly because she lost a close relative in March and couldn’t have a funeral for them. But, she says, “we did it out of frustration and loneliness”, explaining that she was missing her friends and “feeling crazy” around that time. She also points out that “it’s hard to follow the rules given to us by a government who can’t seem to adhere to them themselves”.

“The government is continuing to handle things badly,” agrees Kelsey. “It seems like nothing has been learned from shutting things down too late the last time. Their messaging is still confusing, and some of it’s illogical. Fining promoters £10,000 is completely out of proportion. People are losing their livelihoods, and we’ll likely lose a lot of small venues off the back of this too. It’s obviously a culture that garners little appreciation from the government and the authorities, so they’re not even interested in finding a way (to allow these events to happen safely).”

“It’s hard to follow the rules given to us by a government who can’t seem to adhere to them themselves” – Penelope*

Kelsey isn’t wrong. After shutting down the recent event in Bristol, the Avon and Somerset Police Department criticised those who attended. “Their actions were wholly irresponsible and I am sure will disgust the overwhelming majority of people who are making huge sacrifices to limit the spread of the virus,” the department said in a statement.

This sentiment was echoed by Lord Bethell, who used to manage London’s Ministry of Sound. Speaking in the House of Commons, the minister said: “I used to organise raves, I used to love raves, but I implore all those who organise raves to stop, because you are creating a massive public health disaster. Please, look into your conscience, stop the raves, protect lives.”

Home secretary Priti Patel said: “These gatherings are dangerous and those who organise them show a blatant disregard for the safety of others.”

Many of the ravers I speak to believe that, by attending these raves, they’re prioritising their mental health over their – and, admittedly, others’ – physical health. “Mental health is a massive issue that scares me,” says Sarah. “I think that the vulnerable should be protected, and the people who aren’t affected by this should keep the economy going and look after themselves mentally by being allowed to socialise.”

Mental health has been a personal, political, and national health concern amid the pandemic. This month, a new report found that nearly one in five people who contract coronavirus are later diagnosed with a mental illness. Psychiatrists have also warned of lockdown’s toll on our mental health, with young and old people equally impacted. A July study found that 80 per cent of teens and young adults said their mental wellbeing has worsened since the crisis, while a report by Age UK revealed that the proportion of over 70s experiencing depression has doubled since the start of the pandemic, as many lose the confidence to do the things they used to enjoy.

While many young people have the luxury of being able to flout lockdown to improve their mental health, elderly people who are more at risk from the virus can’t do this. When viewed from this perspective, it’s easy to condemn those who break the rules, particularly to attend illegal raves with thousands of others. However, it’s understandably hard for young people to feel motivated to follow guidelines issued by a government which has consistently shown its disdain for them, and even baselessly scapegoated them for a second spike in the virus.

“Our generation is having to deal with so much that has been done by generations above,” asserts Sarah. “We have the repercussions of the climate crisis, Brexit, and now the virus. I feel like this has all impacted my decision to be more lenient with breaking the rules, especially with the new campaign encouraging creatives to retrain. There’s a lack of support from our government, and I think a lot of raves now are a statement.”

*Names have been changed