‘It felt safe’: Inside the dutty illegal coronavirus raves getting shut down by police

There were over 20 different speaker rigs at the Bath event this weekend

The pandemic has brought with it a lot of strange trends, some new, some old. One has come back from the 90s at full force, with a dummy in its mouth and acid house smiley faces plastered all over it: the rave. Just two nights ago an illegal rave of 3000 people was held in a disused airfield around the Bristol and Bath area, which went on from 11pm that Saturday night to 12pm the next day, eventually being broken up by the Avon and Somerset Police. One arrest was made, sound equipment was seized, and there’s an investigation ongoing into finding the organisers of the event.

Since the Bath rave, or “free party”, was held pictures have emerged of massive speaker set ups and heavy police presence. Masses of people can be seen sat on speaker rigs, there are stages and DJs and different sets, people wearing masks on their chins and ket spoons around their necks. The whole thing is enough to make you think you’re in some kind of nightmare, which you awake from in a cold comedown-esque sweat, shouting “SUPER SPREADER” at the top of your lungs. But the attendees of these free parties maintain that they are safe – and the best night of your life.

The Tab spoke to one rave goer, Alex, who’s name has obviously been changed so Avon and Somerset police don’t come down on them with the force of a thousand suns. Alex refuses to out the organisers or explain how she heard about the party, but she did open up a little about what it was like on the dutty airfield amongst thousands of other ravers, off their faces and on their feet for twelve hours straight.

‘They’re so common, but just getting coverage now because of corona’

Alex dislikes the term illegal rave, preferring to call them free parties. “The term illegal rave has come up since corona and I think that whole name has been part of why the stigma around these events has become SO negative. When actually these have been happening regularly for a really long time, people just haven’t known or they’ve referred to them as ‘free parties’.”

Alex insists that the events are very frequent in the South West usually, but had halted until lockdown was lifted. “The event in Bath is the first free rave in the South West that has been held since the beginning of COVID-19,” she said, “which is why it was a lot bigger than the usual free raves and of course why this time it got the police and media coverage which it normally wouldn’t.”

‘The location isn’t dropped until 30 minutes before the party starts’

“Most people do drive to the events,” Alex said, “but I saw some pre-booked buses and taxis as well. I can’t tell you how I knew where it was, but the location reveal is extremely last minute. You will set off to leave before you actually know where you are going – the location is revealed about 30 minutes before the event begins. I left home at 10:00pm, drove in the general direction the event had been rumoured to be in, was told the exact location at 11:30pm and arrived at 12:30am.”

‘There were 20-25 speaker rigs at this event’

These free parties aren’t just one big amp in a field. Oh no. Nor are they one big stack of amps in a field. Alex told The Tab there were 20 to 25 different speaker rigs at this event, with different DJ’s or pre-made mixes. And this isn’t a rarity: “The South West free parties regularly have a mixture. There are multiple set ups at each free party, so much like a festival you can walk about and find a rig you enjoy. There’s a variety of genres so something for absolutely everyone.

“There are lights at each rig, all different because the rigs are all owned by different people. There are some very cool ones – one of the ones I saw at this one was a fire breathing dragon with a DJ in the middle. Exactly the kind of shit you’d see at a regular festival but of course less advanced. The day time view is very different to night time, it all becomes so much clearer because at night you can’t see a fucking thing. But equally as cool in daylight and at night. Only different is that when the sun comes up you can see how terrible everyone looks after being up all night.”

‘The organisers hadn’t made it corona friendly’

In terms of masks, hand sanitiser or basic PPE, “nothing was set up by the actual organisers,” Alex told The Tab. “But there were people who had taken it upon themselves to bring masks and hand sanitiser. I got offered it on multiple occasions by random rave goers. I saw a lot of people wearing masks. Definitely not a large majority of the overall population but there were a fair few. I think a mixture of both people doing it to stop the spread but also as a statement, I couldn’t tell you for sure but masks were worn by some.”

‘The majority of people didn’t social distance’

Alex explains that the majority of people didn’t socially distance at the Bath rave, but could if they chose to. “Free parties are a lot more spread out than a usual rave, but that is because they are hosted outdoors so there is naturally a lot more space. It was nowhere near as cramped as a rave in Motion in Bristol would be, for example. I was never pushed or squashed against anyone. I had the choice to be a metre away from people if I wanted to be. Some people definitely chose to keep their distance, but admittedly the majority of people did not.”

‘It wasn’t as cramped as the pub on 4th July’

Despite not adhering to social distancing guidelines, Alex maintains that the rave was no more dangerous than the clustering that occurred when pubs reopened. When asked if she felt bad for attending the rave, or that she may have risked a spread of the virus, Alex responded: “If I am completely honest with you, I didn’t feel bad. I respect that COVID-19 is still very real and very serious, and if the Bath rave had been held in previous months I wouldn’t have even considered attending. The reason I didn’t feel bad or guilty is because if you think about it realistically, in terms of space and social distancing this event was no different from everyone going to the pubs at the beginning of July.

“I personally went out to the pubs on the night they were first opened, and the distance I had between people in those pubs was just as bad, if not worse than at the rave. I bumped into tonnes of people, had to sit tightly next to people, people would stand out in the smoking area hugging and touching their friends and groups of people they hadn’t seen. The free rave was held outdoors which in the first instance is better than sitting inside a pub where coronavirus can spread easier, and better than sitting at and touching potentially dirty tables, chairs, cutlery etc. Of course, 3000 people is far more than you can fit in a pub, but the risk of being able to touch things, sit on things that could be infected is much smaller, as well as obviously it being outside and the distance between people is much larger than in the beer garden of your local Wetherspoons on a Saturday night.”

‘People brought their own drugs’

If the close proximity of 3000 dancing up close at speaker sets wasn’t enough to worry someone, the realisation that they could all be sharing keys and notes would be. But according to Alex, people did their own gear and she didn’t see anything being sold. Of course, drugs were present – as you’d expect at an event like the Bath rave, that went from 12am to midday. “There was a lot of weed, I saw people sniffing so I’d assume cocaine or ketamine too. And nos. I feel like there was probably a bit of everything there just like there would be at any other rave. Most people were drinking though, almost everyone had a drink or a bottle in their hand. You have to keep drinking or take something to be able to stay up that long, or just sleep all day before you get there. I think most people do take some type of stimulant at some point though.

“In terms of how fucked people were – definitely far less than at a legal rave. I drank far more than I usually would but I wasn’t half as near as bad as I usually would be. Nobody around me looked completely crazy either, whereas normally you come across people who literally look like they’re completely gone from the planet. I’m not sure if this is just to do with the vibe, how long the event is or whether people know they have to drive home at some point, but people are definitely less mashed and fucked up (to the eye).

Alex says she’s been to free parties before where she’s just been drunk and she’s managed, but says she is “a bit crazy though” and doesn’t sleep a lot, “so that might just be me”. While the majority of people do drugs, it isn’t necessary. “The person who introduced me to free parties had been going to them for three years before he ever started taking drugs,” Alex said.

‘The vibe is free and very hippie’

Alex says the South West free parties like Saturday’s Bath rave are “much different” to up North, like the Manchester rave a month ago where a man was stabbed. She told The Tab: “The free parties held in the South West always tend to have the same sort of vibe, which is a very ‘hippie’, festival, free country vibe as opposed to the extremely cramped and mainstream vibe you’d come across in one of the events that have been help up North in recent.”

‘The police can’t shut them down, they’re too big’

Despite first reports of the rave being made to the police by 11.20pm that Saturday, police didn’t shut down the Bath rave til around 4pm the next day. “They’re just too big to shut down”, Alex said. “The police didn’t really break it up. Due to the scale of the free parties, the police are very rarely able to break them up. They will do what they can to prevent people getting to them, so for example they shut off any access roads. But people will park elsewhere and walk an hour to get to the event – if people want to go, they will. It would be physically impossible for the police to shut down an event of that size, and even when the free parties are a lot smaller they are still too big to break up. The police sit onsite and will make any arrests they feel necessary or test anyone where they feel it is necessary. They have a presence all night.

“Around 12pm the afternoon after the event has began, most of the population decide to leave, so the police will typically shut it down when the event is small enough to police. I believe there were 60 people left at the time the police were finally able to shut it down which was supposedly 4pm, however I had left a few hours before that. The police don’t always find the free parties so sometimes they do go unnoticed, but this specific one wasn’t hard to spot with the amount of cars and pedestrians who were travelling the same way.”

‘I’d give up any legal rave or club night for a free party’

“Free parties are honestly unreal,” Alex said. “I don’t know how to describe it to you fully. You wouldn’t be able to understand it until you go. If I could sacrifice every single legal rave in a club or warehouse for more free parties in the outdoors in the middle of nowhere, I would. The people you meet are completely different… An obvious different is definitely the age groups. I see a lot of very clearly underage people at legal raves who have obviously used fake ID or got in through other means. Free parties tend to be people at the age of 20 and over… Of course there are some 18-19 year olds and a few who are underage, but the general population is a lot older than in the clubs in Bristol, for example.

‘Everyone wants to keep you safe. It feels safe’

Despite the general feeling that the illegal raves of late are decidedly unsafe, Alex says they feel anything but. “I have met so many dangerous and malicious characters at actual legal raves. Particularly in Bristol clubs, I have met individuals looking to start fights, I have met individuals selling fake and potentially dangerous substances. At free parties it’s a completely chilled out, happy vibe. A completely free vibe, that’s the best way to describe it. There’s no sense of danger, everyone wants to keep you safe. If people feel there is a dangerous individual around, they will let you know and try to remove them from the event. There is no presence of any type of weapons or anything like what happened in Manchester recently. Everyone wants you to feel safe, be safe and be happy. People sit on top of rigs dancing, and they’ll hold your hand and invite you up to dance with them.

“You’ll meet people who will become your best friends for life, you’ll meet people who will share everything with you, from their life stories to their favourite jacket you told them you loved. It’s surreal, it’s exactly what I grew up thinking a festival would actually be like.”

If you’ve been to an illegal rave or free party (like Saturday’s Bath rave) since the pandemic hit, get in contact with your stories via [email protected].

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