We Are Not A Festival – Proving we can still be together and connected whilst staying apart

Camping with art workshops, wild yoga and woodland illuminations – offering a festival spirit without the crowds. The shape of We Are Not A Festival grew as co-founders, Shelley Styles and Luke Brown, spent the Spring of 2020 building an allotment, getting their hands dirty and enjoying the simplicity of seeing plants grow and flourish. As the nation craved outdoor space, conversations of how to make time in nature possible for more people developed; utilising their experience of large scale festivals and international events they created a safe yet exciting experience – camping with extra.

They wanted to offer a safe environment for families and groups of friends to camp out and enjoy the beautiful and much-loved Pippingford Park. Celebrating the important things that impact our wellbeing – time with loved ones, nature and open spaces to play and wander, creativity and a sense of curiosity through free activities and pre-booked workshops – all in a calm and spacious environment. With just several hundred campers onsite rather than the thousands the site can manage – giving acres of space for guests!

While we’ve got everything crossed, cautious but hopeful that festivals can go ahead this summer, the dark shadow of 2020 still looms over us. The live events industry all but ground to a halt and we didn’t think our tents would see the light of day at all last year, so when our friend and sometimes Portobello Pixie, Shelley, contacted us needing tents for a new festival she was curating we jumped at the chance!

Hosting a brand new outdoors event in the summer of a pandemic may not sound like a recipe for success, but with a thoroughly researched and formulated Covid Policy, it turns out it was exactly what people needed.  In fact it was such a success they’re doing it again for Summer Solstice, but before we give our review we had a few questions for WANAF founders Shelley Styles and Luke Brown, namely what on earth were they thinking??


We have to ask, what on earth made you decide to launch a brand new event in possibly the worst summer in the history of events?

During the 2020 lockdown, we were very lucky to have access to outdoor space and decided to start an allotment. We soon realised how many benefits we were enjoying from spending our days in nature and knowing so many people were also craving time outdoors, our conversations turned to action. We utilised our event experience to create the opportunity for others to get the same benefits of nature and got to work planning a camping weekend. Following the government guidance closely, week by week, we began to introduce elements, until it grew from a simple camping weekend, to the event we know today.


What was the biggest challenge?

The most important objective was to ensure everyone was safe and the risk of covid was minimised in every way, whilst also creating a sense of freedom so many had been craving. Our feedback was incredibly positive from guests to suppliers – the environment was relaxed and they felt the organisation and consideration around covid supported that.


The shower and toilet system was genius, who came up with that?

The toilet and shower system essentially means each person has a specific colour, reducing the number of guests sharing facilities. Compared with the guidance on numbers of facilities per person for an outdoor event it’s hugely reduced. It worked really well and fits well with our ethos of festival spirit without the crowds.


Were you nervous about whether people would adhere to rules about mask wearing and looking back now at how people behaved, what are your thoughts?

The rules around social distancing and wearing masks may continue beyond 21st June, and for us, we knew our 2020 weekends had been an enjoyable and safe experience. It’s taking everyone a little time to adjust to being out and about this Spring, and we’re so happy to be able to offer a weekend away where people know it will be a respectful and spacious environment. For our 2020 events, it was a huge part of our risk assessment and design of our site to create space for people to socially distance easily – from our limited number workshops, to our open plan woodland area. We have created an event where everyone can have their own space and there are no crowds, without feeling the limitations at every turn.


More than camping but definitely not a festival, you really balanced this well with a perfect blend of workshops, activities and music. How did you set about curating such an event?

The curation of our event is a real balance – we are all the elements of a traditional festival but without the crowds or need for 24 hour energy. The important distinction for us is that middle ground between camping and a high energy weekend at a large scale festival. Both are brilliant experiences but there are times you want something more relaxed. The daytime can easily be treated as your very own wellbeing retreat with lakeside yoga and spa treatments, or a walk out onto the Ashdown Forest. There’s the chance to learn new things with our art workshops or aerial classes, and in the evening’s relax and enjoy the music. We are a balance of nurturing your wellbeing and also letting go and celebrating.


We felt there was a big emphasis on connectivity and creativity, was this intentional?  

We have a big focus on inclusivity; our weekends are free of judgement and bring all ages and abilities together. You can create your own perfect weekend with a selection of workshops and activities and you will meet different people along the way. Connecting with yourself, other people, or with the natural environment is a great way to recharge and go back to our day to day life feeling good. 


Shelley and Luke: what was your favourite moment of WANAF 2020?

Without doubt the highlight for us was the impact the weekends had on our guests, suppliers, workshop facilitators and musicians. I had some emotional conversations with people for who the weekend was the mental health boost they needed to get them through the next few months. We all needed that for our wellbeing and it felt very powerful. We had guests who had been working in the NHS and were emotionally and physically drained, they told us it had been so important to them to have this time outdoors, with people they love, to recharge. The social aspect to being human is something we have not been able to prioritise and so this haven of space really was so impactful.


Looking to the future, what direction do you see WANAF taking and what plans do you have for WANAF 2021?

We are just two weeks away from our 2021 event! This year we are growing our wellness offerings with a deeper dive into holistic therapies, and introducing our Curious Worlds tent where you can get creative and into the flow. We are keeping the event exactly the same size – so under 500 people – to ensure people get the benefits of the huge site without the crowds. In terms of ensuring a covid secure event, we are operating in a very similar way to last summer with tried and tested processes. After this summer, we’ll be looking forward to what 2022 will hold! Although we will keep the same relaxed environment to our event, we can’t wait to get creative and build on all the elements our guests love – Wellbeing, Nature, Arts and Music. There’s much more to come!


So let us be clear, We Are Not A Festival really isn’t a “festival”, it’s more “camping with extras”.  Set in the grounds of Pippingford Manor in Ashdown Forest, campers were allocated ample pitch space to set-up camp whilst still maintaining social distancing. This was due to the organisers running the site at just 10% capacity, a thoughtful move that not only gave confidence in this time-of-covid, but also a sense of space and freedom we’d all been craving. Our lovely Portobello Tents were in the Boutique Camping field, which was a short walk from the main festival and surrounded by woodland. The field faced onto the lake and wellbeing area, which offered a host of therapies and workshops for mind, body and soul.

Each day saw a programme of workshops and “things-to-do” campers could get involved with, all with a focus on creativity and getting outdoors. There were guided nature walks and a cute butterfly trail, and craft sessions including making paper lanterns, basket weaving and landscape painting (mainly for the kids but adults were getting involved too!). Workshops included making your own jewellery with Rooks and Roses – which Laura tried (and excelled at!), a Woodland Wisdom Walk with permaculture designer and model Poppy Okotcha, learning a Maori Haka (Nikki’s personal highlight!) with TOA Haka and Make Your Own Living Monkey Sculpture with the fabulously flamboyant Yan and Henck of The Big Flower Fight fame.

Music entertainment was reserved for evenings only, with the small and intimate stage hosting a variety of talks and storytelling during the day. Gentle acoustic sets kicked off the evenings that ended with something a bit more up-beat. Music ended by midnight and sound levels were kept at a respectable volume throughout, adding to the unique atmosphere of a large scale camping experience rather than a rowdy, all-nighter festival. The modern day folk singer Beans on Toast proved a firm favourite with everyone, and enjoyed himself so much he performed several sets on both weekends.

There really was something for everyone, whatever age or ability, and if you didn’t want to get involved in any of the workshops then you could choose to simply enjoy the woodland and surrounding area as there were no restrictions regards moving on and off the site (because it’s camping and not a festival, see?)

Most of all we were mightily impressed by the organisers management over concerns about covid.  Aside from the amount of space, there was an ingenious colour coding system for toilets and showers, of which there were far more than you’d usually find at an event this size. Campers were allocated a colour that corresponded to a particular toilet or shower block, and were asked to stick to using that colour only throughout the festival. There were colourful signs around the site politely reminding people to wash hands, when to wear masks and to adhere to social distancing and not see it as confrontational if someone asked you to move away. The overall tone was one of respect for each other and to our amazement this is exactly what happened. There were no squabbles or complaints over wearing masks or people getting too close, everyone genuinely respected each other and got on with having a great time outdoors with other human beings.

Looking back now we’d never thought we’d have experienced this kind of connectivity last year and were happy to discover how much people can still connect whilst staying apart. So we did the Haka, made our own bracelet, swayed to Beans on Toast, had a massage, smiled, laughed and enjoyed simply being in a field with other people, and for a brief moment forgot about covid and everything felt (almost) normal again.

So with the success and warmth of last years WANAF still fresh in our minds and hearts we are super-excited to be back there again in a few weeks. This years WANAF takes place on the eve of Summer Solstice and we can’t wait to see what celebrations for this mystical event Shelley and Luke have in store for us, we hope to see you there!