Shambala 2014 is drawing to a close. It's Sunday evening and, as has become tradition here in the not-so secret location within Northamptonshire, we are gathered around the lake looking out towards the stately hall on the other side. This marks the passing of summer. Yes, there are festivals to still cling to such as End Of The Road and Bestival but for many of us, this is where we're going to put our tents away for another year. It's tough not to feel a little sad this August Bank Holiday.
In previous years, this slight sense of chill and sadness has been warmed and illuminated by Shambala's fire show, a colossal theatre piece, burning red, lighting up the night sky. But, perhaps as a result from comments by traders that the sparks and embers had got a little out of hand, tonight we are treated to something more melancholic and majestic. A solitary tightrope walker appears, high up in the night sky, above the lake. Spotlit, this bird on a wire takes staggering, slow steps towards the middle of the lake. He's aided only by the horizontal, balancing pole that evens out his distribution of weight. If he has a safety harness I can't see it and this probably explains why many are watching through their fanned hands.
The tightrope walker gets to the middle of the lake. Here, our attention is drawn to a wire hanging vertically below. Sat inside a metal loop at the end of that wire and also above the lake is a female gymnast. The tightrope walker reaches out to the gymnast who stretches and contorts herself within the ring. There's a romantic beauty about this moment, a sense of the unattainable and a feeling of loss. The tightrope walker continues onwards on his journey across the lake. The audience cheer when he reaches the other side and presses a button to confirm he has traversed safely.
This signals the beginning of Shambala's 2014 firework show. Timed to fit in with the music that pumps around this lakeside setting, this explosion of sparkle, colour and glitz lights up the night sky and reflects within the water of the lake. The trees from the nearby woods are hauntingly illuminated as the fireworks build to their climax. For the thousands gathered around the lake it's a social orgy. We 'ooh' and 'aah' as the fireworks reach their orgasmic peak. Yes, Shambala has once again reached those heights.
But, you might have been forgiven for wondering when stood in the ridiculously long queue to get into the site a few days before if Shambala was beginning to lose its touch. I don't know if the organisers weren't expecting so many people to arrive on the Thursday afternoon when the gates opened, whether the new entry system was flawed or whether more stringent search requirements had been imposed but there's little excuse for people to be stuck in drizzling rain outside the main perimeter fence for hours waiting to get in. This was a queue that you'd be reluctant to accept on a Wednesday morning at Glastonbury. The capacity of Shambala is much smaller though and there were honest grumbles and moans both from those wanting to party and those who had arrived with family in tow.
Once on site, it became clear that the camping space available had had an overhaul. When I first started to come to Shambala, family camping merged in with general camping but now the whole camping area has expanded considerably. The family camping fields seem to take up more space than the general ones. Middle class kids, probably named Jemima and Henry, throw frisbees as parents struggle with their 12 berth tents (for a family of four no doubt). Other parents return to their 4x4's with wheelbarrows and trolleys (for the fifth time). They return with the kitchen sink. I wonder to myself if one of the fabulous things about the Shambala from previous years is diluting; for then, this was a model of a perfect society. Young and old living together, this was a festival with an edge; a festival at which you could party hard whilst being respectful of the little ones toddling around. Now, it's losing that and the voice of the parent is taking over. This mightn't be a bad thing. I certainly wasn't moaning about the relatively short shower queues this year. I count at least forty cubicles around site.
It's easy to see where this proliferation of Jemima and Henry's has spawned from. Mums talk with other Mums when picking up their little angels from school about their great summer experience and things snowball. Kids could spend the whole of their summer holidays here and probably not exhaust the range of activities on offer to them. Woodland tribes offering den building, tunnel digging, monkey nets and roasted marshmallows; all of the food stalls offering kids options; wonderfully visual carnival processions in which the whole family can dress up; trampolines, parachute games, glitter monsters and bubbles galore. And, of course, those Jemima and Henry's grow up as well. Offer such an extensive range of activities and you're future-proofing your festival for when the kids become teenagers and young adults. Am I being hyper-critical about a festival that still ranks as one of the best in the Country? Probably. Has Shambala focused too heavily on the young family this year though? Probably.
This isn't to say that you won't find much that appeals at Shambala if you don't come with a truckload of kids. Late night hidden venues running until the early morning, random workshops offering things like Sunday supplement cock-drawing and nipple-tassle making, healing fields with as wide a range of therapies and yogic treatments as you'll see at any festival, an extensive range of real ales and ciders in the Wonky Cock bar, late night horror films, talks, lectures and an eclectic, diverse range of music.
Early Sunday afternoon and I am nursing a bit of a hangover. Last night I was dancing until the early hours, getting bumped and barged in a packed out and slightly aggression-fuelled Kamikaze tent whilst Andy C did his DJ thing . I am now experiencing something much more tranquil and calmer. I lie down on the ground and rest my eyes whilst letting the beautiful sounds of Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita wash over me. On paper, a merging of Welsh folk played on a harp and African protest played on a Kora doesn't necessarily work but Catrin and Seckou are recommended by Songlines for good reason. Moulettes played songs from their musically varied new album at a festival I went to much earlier this summer. It's great to see how the songs from that album have now become firmly embedded in their live set. Planes create a spectacle as they fly overhead yet many of us remain transfixed by the sounds coming from the stage.
These aren't the only highlights on the main Shambala stage. The hour spent with The Beatbox Collective on the Friday afternoon is time well spent. This is something of a Shambala tradition now but still this orchestra of world class, champion beatboxers astound with their microphone magic. On this open air stage, Friday night headliners, Public Service Broadcasting, prove that their public information films and sampled sound doesn't need to be under canvas to work. Saturday lunchtime and Joe Broughton gives the sound technicians a headache when his 47 piece The Folk Ensemble take to the stage. Crammed on the stage, they make an impressive cacophony. I find myself wondering if this band get plus ones.
Saturday night is a cold one. We’ve been treated to mild nights this summer but layers are the order of the night when Slamboree take to the stage. A rain shower doesn’t detract from the spectacle on stage and we all huddle closer together in an effort to feel the warmth of the fire-eating, acrobatic, electro-swing. It’s similarly cold when the legend of Ethio-jazz, Mulatu Astatke headlines on the Sunday. My feet feel like they are wrapped up in blocks of ice. Much as I want to boogie I can’t.
The Chai Wallah’s tent has an impressive line up across the weekend. We spend a fair proportion of it sat on the wooden seating just outside chatting to random strangers. Some are still queueing to get onto the site when By The Rivers play on the Thursday but those that are in and settled cannot fail to be charmed by the happy, harmonious skanking on stage. Jungle by Night occupy a similar space to By The Rivers but they’ve had to travel from the Netherlands to get here. Everybody who sees their ska laden Afrobeat is suitably impressed and marks them as ones to watch.
It’s fruity Friday and time to bend genders. It doesn't take much persuasion for me to throw myself into the festival spirit and after a couple of cans of cider (you can freely take your own around site if that's your desire - when festivals operate such freedoms, it always seems like their bars are busy) I allow myself to be made up. With blue eye shadow, flowing red wig and a sparkly golden top, I'm slightly disappointed to discover that I look more like a failed glam rocker from the 1970's than the woman of my dreams. Nonetheless, we nip into Sham City where the fabulously decadent Bearded Kitten are doing their thing. In this open air amphitheatre of straw, we witness cross dressing fashion shows, Samba bands and party games involving banana's, whipped cream, baby oil and vomit. It's all done in the best possible taste though and it's a fine way to flutter away a couple of hours.
Shambala cannot be criticised for the responsible approach it takes to environmental issues. In fact, in this regard, it's a trailblazing festival. Last years trial to rid the site of plastic pint glasses and water bottles remains and proves successful again. Environmental care is embedded within the fabric of Shambala. From the increasing number of compost loos to a policy that distributes any left-over food to organisations working with vulnerable people, this is a festival with a heart in the right place.
Sunday morning and I am sat in the Wandering Word tent. This is one of those spaces in which you're supposed to remove your shoes on entry. I oblige but I note that many people haven't. I sit to the side of the tent and allow the words of the poets on stage to wash over me. There's poetry with puns, earnest experiments and a jovial compere bringing it all together. A woman comes into the tent and sits next to me. We acknowledge each other and I offer her a can of cider. Frustratingly, I recognise her face but cannot place where or when we have previously met. It could have been in a shower queue just a few hours earlier or it might have been at another festival this summer. She clearly recognises me as well but is more than likely in this same space of brain-wracking wreck. As I go to rescue my shoes from the tents entrance, we mumble something about seeing each other later. We don’t. The opportunity to place that face is lost.
Indeed, there is so much going on at Shambala that it can often feel like a festival of missed opportunities. I get to see John Hegley engage in all manner of audience interaction in the 500 seater Playhouse theatre on site yet that is the only show I see within this impressive space. In the Social Club, I laugh at the spoof X factor cabaret on offer. Punters (mostly young, stagestruck Jemima’s) show off their talents and get criticised by Shambala’s very own panel of judges. But again, I don’t return to see the aerial acrobatics and other assorted wonders that this tent offers. I appreciate the art in the woods but really should have spent more time indulging in the multi-sensory installations on offer. I never did find the puppetry tent.
The final firework has exploded in the night sky. I turn away from the lake and head towards the Wonky Cock. I don’t notice the empty pushchair in front of me and stumble over it. An enraged parent, toddler in arms, gives me a look and calls me a rude name. It’s the last night of a wonderful festival and I don’t have the heart to argue my case. I had simply made a mistake and I’m sure that this parent was simply stressed after a few nights of camping in the bitter cold. The 15th Shambala still offers a satisfying ‘Adventure in Utopia’. It continues to be one of the best festivals you will find in the UK, especially if you’re a parent of youngsters.
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