The Alternative CampsScene

This article first appeared in Self and Society, May 1999.

Martin Wilks is a musician and counselling psychologist.He works in London as a counsellor in prisons, as a group facilitator withCCI, and lecturers in counselling in F.E. He has worked for the last 13 summerson 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 homeand realised that I was in an altered state of consciousness. Keen to preserve,somehow, this fragile experience - already beginning to dissipate under theconstant barrage of inner-city stimulation (to which I must swiftly habituate)- I began to write some of my insights and reflections down on the nearestpaper 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 livingin close contact with the land and nature. Pagan ritual and celebration ofseasonal festivals are no longer wacky, new age fads; they become the obviousthing to be doing; a focal point for community involvement; partying takenout of it's modern context of bar, club or sitting room and returned to anatural glory under a canopy of stars. The cycles of the moon take on a moreimmediate meaning; a meaning which can be validated against experience. Ona 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. Drummersdrum, 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 touchwith all the daily 'reality checks' of the average town or city dweller: theNews, 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 whilstthe twigs are laid for the fire for that all important morning tea. Graduallya complex web of interpersonal drama develops with each individual at thecentre of their own 'personal growth epic' - other individuals playing supportingacts or bit parts. As a self-selecting intentional community comprising peoplefascinated 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 toshare 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 wentaway, now become something to reflect upon in the light of the new 'waysof 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, thangoing 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 recentand, so far, short-lived phenomenon. Human society has spent countless millenniacooking around wood fires and singing under the stars - only a few decadesat the gas hob listening to the stereo.

A few paragraphs of recent social history will helpplace 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: notablyastrology, paganism and healing - the organisers shared an intention to makea living from this kind of facilitation and invested heavily in canvas andsite equipment.

Meanwhile, a hitherto separate strand of development - the 'Free Festival Scene' - centred around the month long Stonehenge midsummerfree festival, was approaching it's nemesis. In 1985, in a quasi-military and at times dangerously violent confrontation with 'The Peace Convoy' (Anomadic community of vehicle dwellers; further description would warrant anotherarticle!), the 12'th annual Stonehenge festival was prevented from takingplace by the combined resources of five different police forces includingthe riot squads used earlier against the miners at Orgreave colliery.

For over a decade, Stonehenge, this 'monarch' ofthe 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 thatStonehenge 1984 had become quite ragged at the edges. But at the centre therewas 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 GreenhamCommon), 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 anarticle in the Guardian, about their ‘Free Food Kitchen’ which attractedmy 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 pavedthe 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 theirpractical skills, and their life-style, to the newly developing summer campscene.

Metaphor can again be useful in describing the genesisand development of the camp scene. Tribe-like in nature, camp outfits havetended to spring up around charismatic individuals, or latterly, to havebeen skilfully accumulated by a 'born organiser'. Camps are, furthermore, amoeba-like in growth. For example: Rainbow Circle was the name of the newcamp organisation which precipitated out from Oak Dragon in 1985/86. Thisnew outfit comprised disgruntled members of Oak Dragon's site-crew who weredisenfranchised from the policy and decision making in what was essentiallya pyramidal structure of management. The choice of name represented an intentionto bring some of the spirit of egalitarianism and vision generated at theaforementioned Rainbow Village peace camp. Some nine years on, Rainbow Circleitself split into 'Rainbow Circle' and 'Rainbow 2000' camps. The issue wasessentially the same: in an ill-defined quasi-anarchical community it isthose who take the responsibility for getting things done who begin to holdthe strings. Abuses of power - projected or tangible - become a talked aboutreality; us and them are defined amidst accusations of controllingbehaviour and counter accusations of passivity. Rainbow Circle are currentlygrappling heroically with the issues around creating a constitution to definea 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 fortheir 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 tosix 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 whichI acted as a focaliser, faced with fewer participants than anticipated, Iand my co-focalisers decided to experiment with having everyone do the sameworkshop rather than offer choices. It was a break with the usual way ofdoing things and, as such, was not well received by Rainbow Circle site crew.We recognised, however, some of advantages of intensity over diversity andin 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 aformat for integration of both the therapeutic and meditative modalities forgrowth. From the outset, we had no division between 'site-crew' and 'campers'- apart from the initial set-up work, all ongoing camp tasks: cooking, diggingtoilets, facilitating children's activities, sawing wood, cleaning, lookingafter the hot tubs etc. were shared amongst the people present. We developedthe concept of the ‘working support group.’ At the beginning of a camp thecommunity was divided (according to a variety of creative random methods)into 7 or 8 smaller support groups, (comprising around 8 members) which wouldmeet twice a day: once for emotional support and once to perform camp taskson a rota basis. As our community of ‘regulars’ grew, we developed a ‘coregroup’ into which I subsumed as a ‘chamberlain’ to my colleague’s ‘benignmonarchy’.

This mediaeval court metaphor for our management structure has been useful in a number of ways: making sense of some of ourinternal tensions, adjusting, when our 'king' married to the appearance ofthe new queen at court (i.e., on the core group). Again, the model has helpedus to gain perspective on the perennial issues around authority and guidancewithin 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 associatedwith the season. Our Beltane camp at the beginning of May is about renewal,rebirth, aliveness and sexuality; the final camp of the season in Septemberabout taking stock, preparing for a quieter, more reflective time of year,ordering and evaluating the summer insights. The early August camp will includesome ritual or ceremonial recognition of the Lammas time. We no longer havea 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 asingle 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 opportunitiesfor intense group process; we’ve since learned the value of programming inplenty of time off to simply be in our beautiful field. Overgrown blackthornhedges and brambles, a huge, ancient badgers sett and a natural spring issuingfrom the steep hillock which looks along a valley towards Glastonbury Tor-this is an environment which provides space both to sit above it all, watchand 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 considerablylarger gathering based in Norfolk. Dancing and music making may be the primeactivities, but from early on in it’s development, community building hasbeen a predominant sub-textual theme. Led in the early years by a matriarchorganiser, it swiftly accumulated a core group which subsequently developeda 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 Passagescamps I have learned how the camp as a whole can often mirror splits andtensions in the core group. Perhaps the marked success of the Dance CampEast as a community to which people return year after year can be attributedto the determination of this core group to work on their own community buildingbetween the annual camps. Last year, in a moving and imaginative ceremony,the core group ‘stood down’ and a new group of volunteer organisers steppedtentatively forward as the new ‘working party’ who will carry forward theDance Camp East tradition. The originator of the Dance Camp east offers thefollowing 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 fairto fair, and a mobile community developed with close ties between individualsand families who met largely at these gatherings. In an atmosphere of celebration,relaxation, creativity and trust many people experienced a release from theireveryday 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 Celtictraditional rituals with a feeling of participation which made these gatheringsdifferent from rock or folk festivals. There was also often a very localidentity as many of the visitors, stall holders and entertainers came fromthe 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 theFairs became much more difficult. Clearly many of the travellers came tothe Fairs in a spirit of co-operation and friendship, but a harder elementhad become abusive and destructive to both the environment, damaging propertyand trees etc, and also to what were, in effect, managing committees strugglingto 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 andthe Fairs, which generally had a much broader appeal to people of varyingages, wealth, and lifestyle. By the early 80's the East Anglian Fairs wereno more, and many people still remember them with enormous affection, identifyingthem 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 meetsup each year in the Summer, moving from Camp to Camp with a strengthening network of like-minded individuals and families.

Camp Culture

Increasingly we perceive our lives in the 90's as pressurised,alienated from nature, isolating, competitive and in extreme cases devoidof meaning. For many people there is a deep yearning for contact, support,community, harmony with nature and the easy pleasure of companionship. Whenall this and much more is found in the Camp environment a very profound transformationcan occur. It is not just that we relax and "chill out", it often feels asif a new -or perhaps an older- way of being is experienced. Perhaps withonly 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 simplicityand 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 totake 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 anynew people are absorbed into the culture with ease. Of course there are tensionsand problems between people, but it is apparent that in general these evaporatemore quickly the more experienced the group becomes in living communally.Some Camps encourage regular sharings in the camping circle, and usuallythere is some form of larger daily camp meeting where any issues can be raised,listened to and hopefully resolved. A typical Camp would incorporate someof the following activities - a large Camp meeting every day, workshops inmusic, dance, singing, healing skills, meditation, yoga, therapy techniques,art and craft, country skills, campfires, children's activities, discussiongroups, an on-site cafe, showers and loos (either a deep pit with woodencubicles or portaloos), a sauna, hot-tubs, a shop for basic food, plentyof open space for relaxation and play. Many Camps have a central theme, forexample Astrology, Drumming, Permaculture, Midsummer Celebration, Dancesof Universal Peace. Others are multi-faceted and varied, incorporating workshopswith celebration and simply hanging out together over endless cups of tearound the campfire."

Madeline Lees is a practising Occupational Therapistworking in Norwich in the Mental health sector. She was in private practicefor ten years; her counselling training incorporated gestalt and hypnotherapy;she is currently influenced by the brief solution focussed approach.She wasactive within the East Anglian Albion Fairs network in the 1970's whilstliving 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 whichis currently in it's eighth year.

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

The Camp Scene Directory is an annual publication in which most of the alternative camps list their gatherings for the forthcoming year. Some ofthe more popular camps become fully booked early in the year. The directory is available from:

Bethlehem Taylor
Three Rainbows
Devon EX169QQ

Please enclose a stamped, addressed envelope.

Updated 16 June 99
by Martin Wilks