Inside The UK’s First Socially Distanced Music Festival

·7-min read

You’re reading our series Summer’s Not Cancelled, where we celebrate summer in this new normal. From rediscovering nature and cherishing time with friends and family, to virtual festivals and unforgettable staycations – summer’s still here, it’s just different.

The idea of a music festival in 2020 was an absurd thought only a month ago, when the general consensus was that festivals and live, large scale events wouldn’t return until 2021 at the earliest.

Earlier this year, one by one, favourites of the UK festival circuit uploaded inevitable cancellation notices onto their social media accounts as the virus took hold. Glastonbury, Latitude, Wilderness and We Out Here were a handful that lamented the loss of the 2020 festival summer with heartfelt notes.

Festivals, experts said, would be the last to reopen because of their scale, which meant social distancing was surely almost impossible: what would a socially distant mosh pit look like? Or a socially distant rave tent? It seemed a foregone conclusion.

Gisburne Park Pop Up: festivalgoers must remain within their hexagonal pods at all times to socially distance  (Photo: HuffPost UK)
Gisburne Park Pop Up: festivalgoers must remain within their hexagonal pods at all times to socially distance (Photo: HuffPost UK)

Fast forward to July, and restrictions were easing quicker than some predicted (quicker than some may have liked). Newly relaxed social distancing rules meant that although festivals still seemed unlikely, and perhaps made for an uncomfortable thought, they were now technically possible - if the right person fancied taking on the Herculean challenge of negotiating with their local council to forge a ‘covid secure’ venue.

Enter events organiser and entrepreneur Robyn Isherwood. As restrictions lifted, Robyn, who grew up in Gisburne, created a blueprint for the UK’s first socially distanced festival on the Gisburne Estate in Lancashire in just a few days.

No one had done anything like this before, but Robyn’s credentials meant she had a fighting chance: her day job as an organiser of lavish events for high-net-worth clients means she is used to finding solutions for seemingly impossible tasks.

Usually reserved for weddings, the lush country estate became the Gisburne Park Pop Up festival only two days after outdoor events were given the go ahead. Only weeks ago, this would have all seemed impossible.

“When the first headline hit, calling us ‘the UK’s first socially distanced festival,’ I thought, oh gosh, what am I doing? I’ve never done a festival before,” Robyn told HuffPost UK from the Gisburne Park Pop Up midway through the second weekend of events (the festival runs until the end of August across weekends and on selected midweek nights).

We were slumped in soggy deckchairs on a Saturday afternoon, minutes after one of the family-friendly shows scheduled as a part of the festival’s line-up had finished.

“I’ve never had such a large health and safety document, we worked together with the council to get it right,” says Robyn, her tone brightly confident. “They came down on the opening night!”

Etched onto the grass that forms the bank of a river in the valley on the estate are tens of newly-drawn hexagonal shaped pods, each designed to house six festivalgoers who stay inside their pods, socially distanced from other guests during their visit to the festival.

In each pod are chairs, tables and umbrellas (it rains a lot up north...) facing a stage, which is located on the other side of the water. It’s a proper festival stage with pyrotechnics.

The idea is for guests to book into socially distant yurts, located on the estate a few minutes’ walk away, and ferry themselves back and forth to the festival site on foot over the weekend. You book to see DJs and live bands play individual shows spread out throughout July and August, rather than buying a traditional all-in-one festival ticket.

The vibe differs depending on the event you book, but throughout the three events HuffPost UK attended, ticket-holders stayed socially distant and the vibe was relaxed.

On Saturday afternoon, a family musical show suffered from downpours but the children gazing across the river to the stage seemed to connect with the performances despite the weather.

Parents kept warm with bottled cocktails. Musical numbers were from shows like Mary Poppins and Frozen and looked particularly pretty performed against the rugged limestone backdrop behind the stage and the water trickling along in front.

Gisburne Park Pop Up's main stage, with the water separating punters from the entertainment  (Photo: HuffPost UK)
Gisburne Park Pop Up's main stage, with the water separating punters from the entertainment (Photo: HuffPost UK)

For theatre shows like this, there’s a slight lack of intimacy, given the obvious challenges with the layout, but that feeling dissipates with the main live DJ shows at night, when there’s less of a need to watch performers and more of a broad audio-visual experience with pyrotechnics, like lasers and glitter cannons.

The site was pushing towards full capacity for Hot Since 82, the main DJ act on the Saturday night, and the atmosphere felt energetic.

In the evening you feel more restrained in your hexagonal pod, because people are dancing around you, so at first it’s strange not to join them - but that’s forgotten by nightfall: without the light reminding you of the white lines surrounding you in your pod, you forget the odd circumstances and just dance.

Robyn designed evening events to start at 5pm and finish at 11pm, and in what she describes as the ‘witching hour’, from around 9.30 inebriated folk occasionally attempt to bumble into their friend’s socially distant pods. They’re quickly removed and warned by lurking security.

Food and drink is available on digital menus, accessible by scanning a barcode left on tables, and everything’s comically delivered in brightly coloured wheelbarrows. Staff gently slide plates onto tables, their faces obscured by visors and masks. Colour-coded areas mean staff reduce their contact, and service is very good.

Gisburne Park Pop Up's socially distant yurt camping facilities  (Photo: HuffPost UK)
Gisburne Park Pop Up's socially distant yurt camping facilities (Photo: HuffPost UK)

You can only escape the pod to go for a quick wee, and on the Sunday, during an afternoon show from a local band playing greatest hits, I may have snuck off for one extra toilet visit than I truly needed, just to move my body and break things up.

But the idea is a little bit of dancing, a little bit of sitting down, and with dinner in-between, you have enough variety to stomach the idea of being kept in a pod. And the general vibe is strong enough to make you not mind anyway: with no one else escaping their pods, it’s straightforward enough to adapt to this newly engineered form of socialising.

In fact, Robyn’s idea for pods may transcend the lockdown and become a newly established way to do festivals.

“The biggest amount of comments we’ve had back is guests asking why more festivals can’t be like this,” says Robyn. “It’s nice having your area, and your flag to order your drinks instead of queuing for an hour, you don’t want to dance the whole time…”

It may allow for comfort, but Gisburne Park Pop Up doesn’t allow for getting blissfully lost with new friends, or going deep into a crowd to get nearer a band. And ticketed events don’t go on longer than five-and-a-half hours, so it’s all about getting immersed in the entertainment quickly.

This is certainly no ordinary festival experience, but there’s no doubt that Robyn Isherwood has achieved something genuinely iconic with her hexagonal social distancing pods, which allow staff and punters to co-exist safely - more than that, they provide the only way for festival fans to rave at all this summer. And she has a point about it being a luxury to have a comfy seat in front of a stage.

On more of a mass scale, all sorts of logistical challenges may crop up with expanding this model to a bigger site - but on a small, luxury scale such as Robyn’s, Gisburne Park Pop Up offers perhaps the most hedonistic experience this side of 2021.

Stumbling back through the fields to my yurt along the rows of twinkling lights and hearing the crackle of punters’ late night fires, I felt the first proper dose of freedom from the constraints of lockdown - and that’s worth the ticket price alone.

Gisburneparkpopup.com, tickets start from £20

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.

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