It’s 7AM, Sunday morning, somewhere in the UK. I’m standing outside a former recycling plant the size of an aircraft hangar, watching people with bowling ball eyes and puckered cheeks spill out of a hole cut in the perimeter fence.
This is just one of the hundreds of unlicensed events that have been held across the UK – in warehouses, squats, canal boats, marshes, woodlands and valleys – since the pandemic hit.
Each and every party has, understandably, been blamed for potentially driving up COVID-19 cases, with one Oxford study noting that such events present “increased risk of transmission of respiratory infections”.
However, while breaking all the guidelines, some events have gone above and beyond to keep attendees safe. While the basic elements are similar at every party – dancefloor, DJs and drugs – they’re not all the same, despite being lumped in as such by the UK’s tabloids. Instead, the parties that have defined the lockdown summer fall into three distinct categories.
Established Unlicensed Parties
Inside the recycling plant, 1,000 people inhaled nitrous oxide to the thud of progressive techno. Organised by an experienced crew, you won’t have seen this kind of party in the press: the people behind them have been doing it for years, and know how to avoid being caught.
At the one I covered, care had visibly been put into keeping everyone safe: the location was only revealed to people the organisers knew, security was searching for weapons and looking out for sexual harassment, hand sanitiser was dispensed, the dancefloor was meticulously cleared of hazards and the space was about ten times bigger than what you’d usually find for this number of attendees, making social distancing at least feasible.
“Our last gathering went really smoothly,” an organiser wrote in a statement after the event. “Lots of people wore their masks, which was great to see. Everyone used the hand sanitiser as they entered, and after each visit to the bar. Every single attendee’s email was collected in case we needed to reach you post-event, which we didn’t.”
While no guests at this party contracted the virus, experts have warned that large events like it can be the perfect “breeding ground” for COVID-19.
Established Free Parties
On the August bank holiday, an established free party crew put on a huge event in Wales, at the edge of the Brecon Beacons national park. There were six rigs in total – three big, three slightly smaller – and about 3,000 attendees partying over three days.
There was no security, but the mantras of the free party scene – among them, “no fighting on rig-side” and “leave no trace” – allow the community to self-police. On the Monday, over 100 people spent multiple hours clearing the site of rubbish, a scene typical of similar parties held over the summer.
This event also spawned that viral story about the elderly Welsh couple who made cups of tea and filled water bottles for all the ravers parked up outside their house.
“The free party lot aren’t trying to make money. It’s a community,” said a 23-year-old woman who was at the event. “That’s what it’s about – not paying for the right to express yourself. Not having to spend money just to have connection.”
This sentiment was echoed by a 46-year-old free party veteran, who was at the party in Wales and has been involved in the scene for 32 years. He said free parties are about fostering a sense of being “free-spirited”, a respectful community and avoiding commercial encroachment.
“Sometimes donations and other methods are done, and that's up to them, but no one should charge,” he said. “People clean up after themselves and love the land – ‘leave no trace’ means leave no trace.”
It’s 3AM on another Sunday morning. Following the sound of thumping bass, I walk around the site to find a way in, ignoring a couple engaging in oral sex against a wall. Finding a door, I knock. The letterbox opens and some eyeballs peer through. Then the door opens.
These kind of parties – which are all about making money, the polar opposite of the free party spirit – have proliferated since clubs were forced to shut. I’m ushered inside and asked to hand over £10 to someone standing next to a sign reading: “Pills - £10”.
This party is taking place in an almost pitch-black abandoned building site. It’s not been cleared ahead of the event, so is littered with hazardous items – a forklift truck, a washing machine, 200kg bags of sand. Men wander around, aggressively trying to hook up with women.
There are around 700 people here, and while they can buy a beer from a makeshift bar, there is no option to buy water or fill up a bottle from a tap.
One person involved in the organisation of the party, an Italian estate agent, said over social media that he was responsible for the musical programming, but denied responsibility for anything else.
“I didn’t open the place – I arrived at the location at 12:30, and my profit for the night was £100,” he said, adding: “I can’t tell you why they didn’t take care of the water.”
As illegal parties continued to take place over the summer, the UK government responded by giving police the power to fine organisers £10,000.
Home Secretary Priti Patel has said, "These gatherings are dangerous, and those who organise them show a blatant disregard for the safety of others."