The Legendary 'Cave Raves' of the Acid House Era
We spoke to "Steely D", the man who organised the free parties in the Lake District quarry, and Matt Stokes, the artist who studied them.
Photo: Dave "Steely D" Steel
Matt Stokes, a 44-year-old artist based in Newcastle, has spent a long time studying subcultures.
He's investigated northern soul, punk, acid house, black metal and even bell-ringing societies – that most countercultural of subcultures – but perhaps the most intriguing of his many projects is Real Arcadia, a sociological inquiry into a series of clandestine "cave raves". Put on in the late-1980s and early-90s inside a remote slate quarry in the Lake District by a group of friends called Outhouse Promotions, the free parties brought the emerging rave culture to the most unlikely of settings.
The result of this project, which has been ongoing since 2003, is an assortment of artefacts that depict the youthful exuberance that comes with the energy, thrill and unwavering optimism of a new subculture. The collection includes a series of photography from the time, a bunch of homemade cassette tapes, quotes, working replicas of the DIY rigs used at the raves, video footage of an ITV news report, newspaper clippings and homemade T-shirts.
Recently, I met Matt in a London coffee shop. Dressed in a khaki jacket and a black army cap, he explained how he found out about this obscure subculture, which briefly existed within the wider subculture of the acid house movement.
"I was working on a research residency with Grizedale Arts in Cumbria," he explained. "I was given three weeks to spend around the area; you're talking the really rural heartland of the Lake District. By chance, I was in a pub in [nearby] Windermere and I got talking to someone about these events in a cave. It all grew from there. I started trying to find people who went to the raves. Then, through a meandering trail of people, I found some of the organisers too."
Dave "Steely D" Steel, 50, was one of the main organisers of the cave raves, and a resident DJ. "People have tried to copy us, but failed miserably," he said in a text message before we spoke.
"I've lived in the Lake District all my life, and I knew about the cave because we used to ride our motorbikes around there," he told me over the phone. "In 1988, we were thinking about a location to have a party for a handful of our friends. By 1990, it had got bigger – I'd been slowly but surely expanding my collection of speakers."
With word going around nightclubs about these parties in a cave in the Lakes, Outhouse's reputation grew. "It started with a dozen of us, then out of nowhere it went absolutely mental," Steely D recalls. "It was just a handful of us, then around 200 the next week, then thousands after that. I felt awestruck. The atmosphere was electric; people hadn't heard the music before, and we were travelling all over England to find the best records we could possibly get our hands on. We got the latest imports – from Detroit, Chicago, Belgium – to play. Nobody in our neck of the woods were going to those lengths.
"A house at the bottom of the road realised how many people were going through and set up a café in their garden serving breakfast. People were skinny dipping in a lake. Someone was doing little tours around the local village in his car, picking people up and taking them round at 5mph, pointing out local attractions – all high on ecstasy."
In the cave, Steely D and his friends Powie and Grog (who has since passed away) would play "house, acid house, Belgian techno, all of the Detroit stuff and all of the new tunes from Chicago". They would blast it "all night, all morning and on and on". But hitting play was the easy part. "It was bloody hard work, lugging all that gear about," says Steely D. "Very tiring. You're talking about three hours work to set up and slightly less to de-rig after."
In 1991, bags of cement were mixed and a DIY DJ booth was installed in the cave. By some accounts, "a 50-metre smiley face was cut into the bracken above the village … almost a branding of the village as rave friendly" (Steely D doesn't recall seeing this). All this – perhaps unsurprisingly, given the quaint surroundings – was met with horror by some of the local residents. The population of the nearby village, Coniston, was less than 1,000, meaning the ravers converging on the cave every weekend outnumbered the locals.
"The police didn't like it, obviously, mainly because there was so much traffic going through the little backroad," says Steely D. "The traffic would tail back for miles on either side of the cave. It was crazy. The police would set up roadblocks, so people would just get out and climb over the walls. Just dumping their cars to get to the party."
"The residents I spoke to reported that they felt threatened by it," said Stokes. "Because it happened so quickly, and the scale. When I started this project, I got a phone call from a resident. She was absolutely irate that I was interested in the cave raves. We got to the point that she was shouting at me. You could hear the anger and the fear in her voice. She said: 'We don't want this to happen again.'"
Steely D, who had defended rave culture in the local papers, was invited to a meeting at the police station in nearby Windermere. "They said, 'Don't do this, otherwise we'll do this, that and the other,'" he says. "They threatened to lock me up." Efforts by the police to confiscate equipment then materialised. "They stole a generator at one party. I didn't have another one, but I hooked a system up to my van. Everybody pulled together and made a human wall to make it really difficult for them."
According to news reports at the time, the owner of the quarry – Lord Egremont – threatened to destroy the cave. "The plans were in place," Stokes told me. "But Granada television and the papers had picked up on the story. As far as I know, the local planning board then informed him that he can't just change the landscape without planning permission."
"He wanted to dynamite [the cave], but he got stopped, I think," explains Steely D. "But when I was doing the parties I actually got in touch with him, and at that time he was quite happy for us to do it. I don't know what changed his mind – probably intimidation from the police."
In the end, mounting pressure from the police, locals nor Lord Egremont managed to shut the cave raves down. The members of Outhouse – who, by then, had become better known as the "Cave Crew" – started to burn out because of the constant partying. This, alongside the increasing commercialisation of acid house, led to the cave raves fizzling out around 1992 and becoming the stuff of legend.
"It changed my life, in some good ways and some bad," Steely D reflects. "I got into drugs... I think maybe if I hadn't have done [the raves] I might not have gone down that route, I don’t know. But I wouldn't change any of it for the world."
To see more of Matt Stokes' work, click here.