Peak Experience? Inside a secret rave in the English forest

Mike had a point. Children probably shouldn’t be eating ecstasy.

Just before midnight we had taken a taxi to a secret location in the Peak District national park, in search of the elusive illegal ‘free party’ scene. The organizers were known for throwing raves throughout the Sheffield area, but recently they had grown tired of gatecrashers and now the pop-up parties were a closely guarded secret. Mike had been made aware by a friend in the know.

The taxi driver took a few deviations, but eventually we were dropped at the correct location, high in spirits. We hiked through the forest, the distant bass rising to crescendo as a white gazebo materialized from the murk.

The disagreement had occured when we had encountered a man and his two teenage sons sitting in a circle on the ground.

One of the youngsters had pulled out a small bag of orange pills and placed one on his tongue before swallowing. He looked up at us as we approached.

“Do you want to buy some pills?” He said. “Three for a tenner.”

“What are they?” I said.

“Space Invaders.”

Mike looked troubled. He put his hands on his hips. “How old are you, man?”

The boy’s father was rolling a cigarette. He glanced over, his interest piqued by the question.

“Thirteen.” the teenager said. “Why?”

Mike shook his head. “What are you doing taking pills at your age.” He said. “It’s wrong.”

The boy grinned but said nothing.

“It’s not good for you.” Mike said, appealing to the boys father.

The man sat crosslegged, a serene smile on his face.

“We let them choose their own path.” He said. “Everyone has a different view on life.”

He licked his cigarette and sealed it. “Anyway, MDMA isn’t as bad for you as everyone says. Look into the research. You might be surprised.”

Mike thought for a minute then shook his head. He began to open his mouth, then appeared to appreciate the futility. Shaking his head again he sat down on the grass.

The beat goes on…

Monotonous techno music filled the forest clearing. Shiny-eyed youths leapt around under the white gazebo as the DJ nodded his head to the beat. Middle-aged men sat cross-legged on the peripheries, entranced by unseen reveries. The earthy funk of marijuana drifted all about.

I noticed an old woman sitting on the steps of a traditional Romani caravan. Draped in an purple cloak, she rolled a huge joint with precision before sparking it. Exhaling, she surveyed the scene in silence.

What forking paths had brought her to this weird scene, amongst the contorted grins and flailing limbs of these drug-twisted ravers. Inscrutable as she was, I imagined the fact she had brought her home to the party probably marked her as a veteran of the scene.

I trudged down the hill in search of something new and soon discovered another group clustered around a huge speaker stack that was blaring reggae music. Dreadlocked women with saucer-like pupils sat under a tartan blanket, shivering.

A man in a jester hat danced past me on his way to the hill. He turned back to face me. “Acid?” He appeared to be chewing his tongue vigourously and had a wild look in his eyes.

I shook my head. “No thanks.”

He nodded and continued up the hill, laughing maniacially to himself.

Mike had followed me down and we began to dancing amongst the crowd. Peharps my beer intake was catching up with me, as I became hypnotized by the movement of the bass woofer at the centre of the speaker stack. Time seemed to slow down as I was captivated by the speaker’s vibrating concentric circles. The pitch of the music became distorted and it slurred to a sluggish pace.

A muffled comment which seemed to be directed at me shook me out of my torpor. The music snapped back to its normal pace.

“What!?” I said, bewildered.

A grimy woman in a headscarf appeared ahead of me. She had a the craggy face of a hardened raver. “You need to drink some water, love!”

She grinned. “You’ll get dehydrated otherwise.”

I nodded. “We didn’t bring any water.”

“No problem. There’s a stream up ahead.”

She walked us over to the stream. Two of her friends were scooping water into their mouths with cupped hands. Childlike grins plastered on our faces, we drank deep.

“It’s so fresh.” I said, slurping more water.

“Who are you guys anyway?” She said. “I haven’t seen you before.”

“We’re good friends of Rich.” I said. I had never met the guy who had told Mike about the party, but didn’t want to blow our cover.

She seemed satisfied with this knowledge and began to dance again with an elated grin.

The circus leaves town

We had been dancing for hours. By the time we returned to the white gazebo, the first signs of daylight were creeping over the horizon. The pace of the revellers had reduce to a low simmer. The music pulsed on. Restless legs continued their two-step, propelled by addiction to the beat and cheap amphetamines.

We looked on in awe as a weatherbeaten man wearing only tigerprint trousers lurched around the clearing, ostensibly to the music.

Birds twittered in the trees as dawn broke and we ambled back down the slope. I squinted as the sun blared above the horizon. A few stragglers continued to shuffle lethargically, but the majority had begun to pack up their belongings and were huddled in groups, chatting.

Mike and I returned to the section of stream we had been drinking earlier. The cold light of day revealed a dirty brown stream filled with detritus.

“That water doesn’t seem so fresh now.” I said.

Mike grimaced.

The regulars appeared to be saying their farewells and it seemed a good time to call it a night.

“How are we going to get back?” I said. “We’re twenty miles from anywhere.”

“We can hitchhike.” Mike said.

“What time is it?” I said.

“Seven-thirty.”

I doubted whether anyone would feel the compulsion to give a ride to a couple of bedraggled youths out here in the sticks, especially at seven-thirty in the morning. We started down the road, thumbs thrust out in hope.

The kindness of strangers is so often underestimated in the modern world. Thankfully I was proven wrong after only half an hour a car pulled up at the side of the road. The old man was friendly and despite our protests offered to drop us right outside our door. Weary from the long night, I sat back and closed my eyes.

It had been a trip to walk into this secret forest gathering. We had both been to raves before, but this one was different, more like sneaking into a stranger’s wedding, perhaps tolerated only because no-one was quite sure if we were so-and-so’s second cousin twice-removed.

With great powder comes great responsibility

Teenage ecstasy-eating notwithstanding, these people had carved out a movement for themselves, striking sparks in the wilderness, ephemeral micro-societies dedicated to dance music. The risks of prolonged exposure to this scene were clearly visible, I had seen nearly constant pill-swallowing, gum-rubbing with unidentified white powders and chain-smoking of hefty joints. It could be argued that these drugged-up hippies should be immediately shut down and castrated for the good of society.

Are the nightclubs in any large city any better though? There were no belligerent drunks there, no surly bouncers. People have got wasted and danced in the forest since time immemorial, an ancient rite, perhaps a necessary catharsis for many if not all. For this community, this was their therapy – they had created an environment out there in the pines where positivity and non-judgement could flourish, however briefly.

12 Replies to “Peak Experience? Inside a secret rave in the English forest”

  1. You write in a way that makes me feel as if I’m right there beside you. It has sort of a mystical haze like quality that opens to the light of day when it’s all behind you. Sounds like quite a night 😊. Well done.

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  2. first of all this post has really good writing! what an adventure you got there. I agree that children should not be allowed to use these pills. There are some cases that kids die from this kind of pills.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great piece. Yes, for millennia people have wanted to go out into the wild and take sensory-enhancing substances of some kind, so I suppose this is never going to change… Gives the idea of an ancient gathering … Maybe 13’s a bit young though! Although it doesn’t outrage me, lots of them drink at this age and some consider that worse…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Your post made me ponder! Yes we’ll written.
    Hedonism is a part of the human way whatever form it takes and there is not much distinction in where it happens for people, night club, rave etc as you say. The only thing that jars with me is the impact on the natural world, the mess left after the rave!

    Liked by 1 person

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