The Alternative Camps Scene – published in Self & Society, 2000

“The Alternative Camps Scene” Self & Society, 2000

(Martin Wilks is a musician and counselling psychologist. He works in London as a counsellor in prisons, as a group facilitator with CCI, and lecturers in counselling in F.E. He has worked for the last 13 summers on the camps scene and is co-founder of the Passages Camps)

Some years ago, after a period of over six weeks living continuously in a summer camp environment I returned to my London home and realised that I was in an altered state of consciousness. Keen to preserve, somehow, this fragile experience – already beginning to dissipate under the constant barrage of inner-city stimulation (to which I must swiftly habituate) – I began to write some of my insights and reflections down on the nearest paper to hand; a brown paper bag.
Sadly, it is nowhere to be found as I again prepare to write, but I remember that ‘magic’ was a keyword.

Earth magic takes on fresh meaning when you are living in close contact with the land and nature. Pagan ritual and celebration of seasonal festivals are no longer wacky, new age fads; they become the obvious thing to be doing; a focal point for community involvement; partying taken out of it’s modern context of bar, club or sitting room and returned to a natural glory under a canopy of stars. The cycles of the moon take on a more immediate meaning; a meaning which can be validated against experience. On a wet or cold night the community gathers in the huge barn sized bender/marquee like structures in the shadowy yellow glow of paraffin and candlelight. Drummers drum, dancers dance, matriarchs, patriarchs, young bloods,
shaman/healers, mystics, cynics, – we all do our thing, participants participate. Somehow it all came together. It ended, somehow, at the right time!

Being on the crew of one of these camp operations for a whole summer is a bit like living abroad. Ironic – in many ways one is more in touch with one’s native land than ever before – yet, out of touch with all the daily ‘reality checks’ of the average town or city dweller: the News, the soaps, the adverts, cars, roads, the rush … A camp community, and particularly the camp crew, begin to develop their own reality checks. Signs and portents may include wild animals, trees or birds, or the cards picked before morning meditation from the ‘Angel’ or ‘American Indian Power Animals’ packs. Last night’s dreams may often be the conversation topic whilst the twigs are laid for the fire for that all important morning tea. Gradually a complex web of interpersonal drama develops with each individual at the centre of their own ‘personal growth epic’ – other individuals playing supporting acts or bit parts. As a self-selecting intentional community comprising people fascinated by such topics as ‘healing’, ‘spirituality’ ‘Goddess’, ‘magic’ and ‘shamanism’ as well as the broader categories of ‘personal growth’ and ‘human potential’, there’s no shortage of people on the camps with whom to share your reflections on your own process.
And like living abroad, when you come back home, some of those daily habits which used to be ‘the way to be’ before you went away, now become something to reflect upon in the light of the new ‘ways of being’ discovered in that new land.

Yet there is a resonance for me in that quasi-anarchic camp environment which suggests that coming home is a better metaphor, than going abroad, for the altered state of consciousness I was in. After all, the endemic alienation and ennui of this late 20’Th century is a very recent and, so far, short-lived phenomenon. Human society has spent countless millennia cooking around wood fires and singing under the stars – only a few decades at the gas hob listening to the stereo.

A few paragraphs of recent social history will help place the summer camps phenomenon in context:
In the early 1980’s a number of ‘camp like’ gatherings – known as the ‘Glastonbury camps’ – were organised by Glastonbury residents and others; they were primarily intended to practice and share circle dance, paganism and the medicine wheel teachings (of the North American Indian tradition). From out of these grew the ‘Welsh Dance Camp’ and the ‘Oak Dragon’ camps (both still running). The latter began to address more diverse themes: notably astrology, paganism and healing – the organisers shared an intention to make a living from this kind of facilitation and invested heavily in canvas and site equipment.
Meanwhile, a hitherto separate strand of development – the ‘Free Festival Scene’ – centred around the month long Stonehenge midsummer free festival, was approaching it’s nemesis. In 1985, in a quasi-military and at times dangerously violent confrontation with ‘The Peace Convoy’ (A nomadic community of vehicle dwellers; further description would warrant another article!), the 12’th annual Stonehenge festival was prevented from taking place by the combined resources of five different police forces including the riot squads used earlier against the miners at Orgreave colliery.
For over a decade, Stonehenge, this ‘monarch’ of the free festivals had been a focus for counter-cultural community building, trading and festivity; the summer rallying point for small travelling bands from all over the British Isles. It had become a victim of it’s own phenomenal growth (est.120.000) and, if small is beautiful, then it’s true to say that Stonehenge 1984 had become quite ragged at the edges. But at the centre there was now a core of people who had to begin to think pro actively about what, for them, could take it’s place.
A couple of years previously, in an extraordinary cultural amalgamation, a band of peace activists setting up a camp at Molesworth Common, Cambridgeshire,
(a proposed Cruise Missile base with a sister at Greenham Common), met with a band of convoy travellers looking for a winter park-up. The result was a remarkable peace camp called ‘Rainbow Village’ (It was an article in the Guardian, about their ‘Free Food Kitchen’ which attracted my attention to the extent that I eventually went to live there.) That camp, too, had later suffered a military-style eviction. But, I believe, it paved the way for further such amalgamations of idealism and practicality.
So, in the mid 80’s, with no Stonehenge to go to, an appreciable number of seasoned convoy travellers were contributing their practical skills, and their life-style, to the newly developing summer camp scene.

Metaphor can again be useful in describing the genesis and development of the camp scene. Tribe-like in nature, camp outfits have tended to spring up around charismatic individuals, or latterly, to have been skilfully accumulated by a ‘born organiser’. Camps are, furthermore, amoeba-like in growth. For example: Rainbow Circle was the name of the new camp organisation which precipitated out from Oak Dragon in 1985/86. This new outfit comprised disgruntled members of Oak Dragon’s site-crew who were disenfranchised from the policy and decision making in what was essentially a pyramidal structure of management. The choice of name represented an intention to bring some of the spirit of egalitarianism and vision generated at the aforementioned Rainbow Village peace camp. Some nine years on, Rainbow Circle itself split into ‘Rainbow Circle’ and ‘Rainbow 2000’ camps. The issue was essentially the same: in an ill-defined quasi-anarchical community it is those who take the responsibility for getting things done who begin to hold the strings. Abuses of power – projected or tangible – become a talked about reality; us and them are defined amidst accusations of controlling behaviour and counter accusations of passivity. Rainbow Circle are currently grappling heroically with the issues around creating a constitution to define a truly egalitarian/circular way of being with each other in a camp community. Rainbow 2000, meanwhile, has become more businesslike; glossier and, arguably, the better able to offer a meaningful structured learning experience for their customers.

The camp outfits mentioned so far are relatively large; there may be well over 200 at a morning meeting listening to workshop facilitators describe the group that they are offering. There may be up to six alternatives to choose from. (much like an AHP conference)
There are now many smaller camp alternatives available to those who would trade diversity for intensity; one of these is the ‘Passages’ camps. Back in 1990, at the last Rainbow Circle Music and Dance camp for which I acted as a focaliser, faced with fewer participants than anticipated, I and my co-focalisers decided to experiment with having everyone do the same workshop rather than offer choices. It was a break with the usual way of doing things and, as such, was not well received by Rainbow Circle site crew. We recognised, however, some of advantages of intensity over diversity and in the following year we held the first of our ‘Passages to Awareness’ camps.

Originally conceived of in partnership, the lion’s share of the setting up and administration work was performed by my colleague, Jacob Jones, who lived very close to our site in Somerset. For some three years our partnership was most evident in the close and intuitive co-facilitation style we developed which incorporated our shared enthusiasm for finding a format for integration of both the therapeutic and meditative modalities for growth. From the outset, we had no division between ‘site-crew’ and ‘campers’ – apart from the initial set-up work, all ongoing camp tasks: cooking, digging toilets, facilitating children’s activities, sawing wood, cleaning, looking after the hot tubs etc. were shared amongst the people present. We developed the concept of the ‘working support group.’ At the beginning of a camp the community was divided (according to a variety of creative random methods) into 7 or 8 smaller support groups, (comprising around 8 members) which would meet twice a day: once for emotional support and once to perform camp tasks on a rota basis. As our community of ‘regulars’ grew, we developed a ‘core group’ into which I subsumed as a ‘chamberlain’ to my colleague’s ‘benign monarchy’.
This mediaeval court metaphor for our management structure has been useful in a number of ways: making sense of some of our internal tensions, adjusting, when our ‘king’ married to the appearance of the new queen at court (i.e., on the core group). Again, the model has helped us to gain perspective on the perennial issues around authority and guidance within community: the projections upon authority and concomitant disempowerment, and the excesses of authority, rebellion and subservience.

Our camps have tended to be theme based – often associated with the season. Our Beltane camp at the beginning of May is about renewal, rebirth, aliveness and sexuality; the final camp of the season in September about taking stock, preparing for a quieter, more reflective time of year, ordering and evaluating the summer insights. The early August camp will include some ritual or ceremonial recognition of the Lammas time. We no longer have a specifically designated ‘healing camp’, nor a ‘music and dance camp’ – in a sense, all our gatherings contain these vital elements.
We are small enough to gather and cook around a single camp fire – chanting and sing- along sessions are a common ingredient, as are the community games after supper: intergenerational rough and tumble football matches – with only an approximate idea of the score – until twilight, followed by storytelling around the fire for the young at heart.
In the early days we would pack every day with opportunities for intense group process; we’ve since learned the value of programming in plenty of time off to simply be in our beautiful field. Overgrown blackthorn hedges and brambles, a huge, ancient badgers sett and a natural spring issuing from the steep hillock which looks along a valley towards Glastonbury Tor- this is an environment which provides space both to sit above it all, watch and dream, – or to be in the thick of it: hooked into the latest camp drama, or hooked into a beautiful sparkly costume ready for the evening’s festivities.

The ‘Dance Camp East’, based in Norfolk, is a considerably larger gathering based in Norfolk. Dancing and music making may be the prime activities, but from early on in it’s development, community building has been a predominant sub-textual theme. Led in the early years by a matriarch organiser, it swiftly accumulated a core group which subsequently developed a keen interest in the Scott Peck model of community building and met, monthly, throughout the year, over a period of years. From my own experience in Passages camps I have learned how the camp as a whole can often mirror splits and tensions in the core group. Perhaps the marked success of the Dance Camp East as a community to which people return year after year can be attributed to the determination of this core group to work on their own community building between the annual camps. Last year, in a moving and imaginative ceremony, the core group ‘stood down’ and a new group of volunteer organisers stepped tentatively forward as the new ‘working party’ who will carry forward the Dance Camp East tradition. The originator of the Dance Camp east offers the following perspective on the camps.

The current fast growing campscene came directly out of the Fairs and
festivals of the late 70s which in East Anglia flourished from around 1973
to 1982. Thousands of people were attracted to these large events where
music, dance, theatre, children’s activities, crafts and ceremony came
together in the open air over long weekends during the summer months. It
was possible to spend the entire summer under canvas travelling from fair
to fair, and a mobile community developed with close ties between
individuals and families who met largely at these gatherings. In an
atmosphere of celebration, relaxation, creativity and trust many people
experienced a release from their everyday difficulties and cares. Their
children could roam freely and safely; they could wear flamboyant clothes,
in some cases they could experiment with “substances”, they could dance
and sing and take part in a revival of Celtic traditional rituals with a
feeling of participation which made these gatherings different from rock
or folk festivals. There was also often a very local identity as many of
the visitors, stall holders and entertainers came from the locality and
mingled with the core of travelling traders and musicians.

With the growth of the “Peace Convoy” in the late 70’s, organisation of
the Fairs became much more difficult. Clearly many of the travellers came
to the Fairs in a spirit of co-operation and friendship, but a harder
element had become abusive and destructive to both the environment,
damaging property and trees etc, and also to what were, in effect,
managing committees struggling to create an enjoyable weekend for a very
large and mixed group of people. There had always been a difference
between the so-called Free Festivals and the Fairs, which generally had a
much broader appeal to people of varying ages, wealth, and
lifestyle. By the early 80’s the East Anglian Fairs were no more, and many people
still remember them with enormous affection, identifying them as a
powerfully liberating force for change, both socially and individually.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s a new phenomena was appearing – the Camps.
Last year over a hundred camps were held all over Great Britain: from
Cornwall and Wales in the West to Norfolk in the East, all along the South especially
Somerset, and a few in the North. New sites are being opened in this
country and also in France and Spain, so that once again a travelling
Community meets up each year in the Summer, moving from Camp to Camp with
a strengthening network of like-minded individuals and families.


Increasingly we perceive our lives in the 90’s as pressurised, alienated
from nature, isolating, competitive and in extreme cases devoid of
meaning. For many people there is a deep yearning for contact, support,
community, harmony with nature and the easy pleasure of companionship.
When all this and much more is found in the Camp environment a very
profound transformation can occur. It is not just that we relax and
“chill out”, it often feels as if a new -or perhaps an older- way of being
is experienced. Perhaps with only the thin material of a tent or a van
between one person and the next, and between ourselves and the earth, we
realise the values of simplicity and co-operation. Closeness between
people seems to develops very quickly. It is not easy to hide emotions or
be superficially pleasant in this environment, so many people say they
feel more real, more themselves, and more able to take risks. Needless to
say it can be very challenging as well as liberating.

Most of the Camps encourage camping in circles of about 20 people, so any
new people are absorbed into the culture with ease. Of course there are
tensions and problems between people, but it is apparent that in general
these evaporate more quickly the more experienced the group becomes in
living communally. Some Camps encourage regular sharings in the camping
circle, and usually there is some form of larger daily camp meeting where
any issues can be raised, listened to and hopefully resolved.
A typical Camp would incorporate some of the following activities – a
large Camp meeting every day, workshops in music, dance, singing, healing
skills, meditation, yoga, therapy techniques, art and craft, country
skills, campfires, children’s activities, discussion groups, an on-site
cafe, showers and loos (either a deep pit with wooden cubicles or
portaloos), a sauna, hot-tubs, a shop for basic food, plenty of open space
for relaxation and play. Many Camps have a central theme, for example
Astrology, Drumming, Permaculture, Midsummer Celebration, Dances of
Universal Peace. Others are multi-faceted and varied, incorporating
workshops with celebration and simply hanging out together over endlesscups of tea round the campfire.

Madeline Lees is a practising Occupational Therapist working in Norwich in the Mental health sector. She was in private practice for ten years; her counselling training incorporated gestalt and hypnotherapy; she is currently influenced by the brief solution focussed approach. She was active within the East Anglian Albion Fairs network in the 1970’s whilst living in a large community in Suffolk. She initiated the ‘Dance camp East’ in 1991. This is a ten day music and dance camp for over 500 people which is currently in it’s eighth year.

This article can only hint at the flavour of the alternative camps by briefly describing one or two and setting a historical context. There are a lot out there; they are happening this year too!

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