Does a music festival really belong in the peaceful Cumbrian countryside?

Kendal Calling
Kendal Calling is held in Cumbria's Lowther Deer Park Credit: Jody Hartley/Jody Hartley

The Lake District has long been adored by literary greats, strong-calved ramblers and gutsy outdoorsy types alike. 

But festival goers, with their late-night parties, unsuitable footwear and Snapchat filters - surely not. Or so I thought before the July long weekend I spent at Kendal Calling, in the heart of one of England’s most picturesque National Parks.

As a Lancashire girl born and bred I’ve grown up on weekend trips to the Lake District - family caravan holidays were later followed by sailing lessons - and with age a sense of adventure to conquer some of England’s most challenging summits. Cumbria has always been a place of escape for me, somewhere where tranquility and relaxation come at every turn of the dry-stone-wall-lined country roads.

Life is simpler in the Lake District, in a good way. You can go days without phone signal, are very much at the mercy of Mother Nature, and if you’re William Wordsworth a bunch of daffodils, swaying in the breeze on a lake shore, is simply mind-blowing.

Call me naive but to me a music festival, an event that conjures images of giant man-made stages, over-priced burger vans and standing in sweaty crowds, surely doesn’t fit with the tranquil image of Cumbria I’ve grown up adoring? But intrigued by Kendal Calling’s image as a family-friendly, creative-rather-than-commercial festival I put all skepticism aside, crossed my fingers for fair weather and headed to the fields.

The festival has adapted its set up to fit within the historic park Credit: Jody Hartley

Despite its name Kendal Calling, which celebrates its 15th anniversary in 2020, is held in Lowther Deer Park, fives miles outside of Penrith – over 20 miles north of the town it lends its name from. 

On arrival in Lowther, after a pleasant traffic-free drive into the festival site, it wasn’t long before the stereotypical festivalisms began to present themselves. My favourite, and by far the most entertaining for any spectator, is trolley roulette: a simple game of whose overloaded trolley, sledge or poorly-equipped wheelie suitcase will tumble into the mud first. Once one goes so do several; pillows, crates of beer and even a pair of hair straighteners (don’t ask me where they planned to plug them in) scattered across the field.

With the chaos of the queue behind us, as we walked through the gates, bags checked and festival bands securely fastened to our wrists, things all of a sudden looked up. Surrounding the festival site are uninterrupted views of the northern Lake District - home to Alfred Wainwright’s favourite fell, Haystacks, and the peaceful shores of Buttermere, which offer a much more rugged and wild landscape than the southern part of the county, home to bustling Ambleside and the popular lake steamers of Windermere.

In 2018 the Lake District National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, and from that vantage point, at the festival entrance, high above a rainbow of tents in the field below, I was reminded why.

The walk up to the main arena took 10 minutes at a leisurely pace from our camping spot in the Great Holme field (there are 10 different sites available - varying from family-friendly to motorhome equipped and glamping pods). As we passed through the main archway I was amazed to see yet more green space, trees and woodland in the distance.

Since its humble beginnings in Abbot Hall Park in Kendal in 2006, where 900 music fans filled a tent to see Pendulum and Kendal-born band British Sea Power, visitors numbers have soared. In 2009 the event moved to Lowther Park and the new venue gave the organisers a chance to highlight its unique connection to the countryside.

“It started in Kendal, out of a load of people who were part of the scene and the fabric of Kendal. By the time we moved to Lowther, Kendal Calling was a thing in its own right,” explains Ben Robinson, who founded the festival alongside Andy Smith.

The team still make all their own artwork, dotted around the festival

Unlike other mainstream festivals, which often appear to bulldoze into their venues, Lowther Park, which was previously an outdoor adventure park on ancient farmland, has not compromised its wild landscape to make room for the festival. Instead Kendal Calling has had to adapt to the space – if that means having trees in the main arena (ideal for shelting from the rain) or queueing behind a herd of cattle at the car park exit, then so be it. 

In the words of Pigeon Detectives frontman Matt Bowman, moments before he made an impromptu stage dive into the crowd, Kendal Calling is “much prettier” than other festivals. He hit the proverbial nail on the head.

The main arena - home to 10 stages of different shapes and sizes and a plethora of food outlets, shopping stalls, hair braiding tents and bars - is small by comparison to other major outdoor events, taking roughly 20 minutes to stroll round. 

The intimacy is something I’ve never experienced at a festival before, where you often feel like another indifferent face in a crowd. I found KC, as it’s called by the locals who return year after year, to be like a traditional Cumbrian pub - small, perfectly formed and serving up a wealth of old-fashioned hospitality, and welcoming adventurers of all walks of life to its hearth stone.

The Strongbow archer is one of a number of sculptures at the event

The Cumbrian heritage that oozes throughout the festival, from local bands playing on the Woodlands stage to the real ale tent stocked by the Lake District’s best breweries, doesn’t mean the event lacks modern novelty - there’s a Greenail’s gin bar, an Argentienian wine merchant, enough wood-fired pizza to feed a small Italian island for a month and a pop-up cinema.

Away from the obvious draws of the main stage, where we stood at the front of a 30,000-strong crowd to watch music legend Nile Rodgers and Chic turn the Cumbrian sky into one giant disco ball, our favourite part of the arena was the Strongbow Yard - a fenced off bar area, serving copious amounts of cider (naturally), hosting numerous acts playing floor filler after floor fille­r.

Each day we returned to dance in the rain with the you-request-it-we’ll-play-it pianists Alan Taemur and Sean O’Keating. There’s something about forming a welly-wearing conga line with a group of strangers, to a remix of Gala’s Freed From Desire, Robin S’s Show Me Love and 3 Of A Kind’s Babycakes, that is truly magicial.

This care-free, but not careless, sense of community optimised the friendly atmosphere of Kendal Calling. From the ever-helpful assistant at the ‘posh privies’ (the upgraded portaloos), to the security guards standing in front of the stage, whose dance moves went viral, or  the charming Italian duo serving at the pizza counter - everyone had a smile on their face, no matter how much mud or how little sleep.

“It's not as specific as ‘oh we’re just a rock festival so it will be a rock crowd’ or ‘we’re very much a student event so it will be the student population.’ It’s something that brings everyone together,” said Ben.

It’s a multi-generational event, run by a family for families. “There are a lot of festivals out there and this one still carries the character of where it started,” explains Ben. “Andy's brother Jamie works on it, my mum does the paintings dotted around the site and still at the core of it are the same people who were sat round the pub when we thought ‘ah wouldn't it be great if we had a bit of a do’."

Kendal Calling is popular with families Credit: alex laurel

On day two, we woke up to a grey sky and drizzle – and in true Lake District style this light shower soon turned into an endless torrential downpour. But with the suck-it-up-and-put-on-a-waterproof attitude that has seen me through numerous other grey days in the fells, we weren’t to sulk in our tent, and instead headed to the Garden of Eden, the festival’s sanctuary of calm and relaxation, where we hired a hot tub for an hour. 

Hidden beneath the trees in Lowther’s woodland the steam of the hot tubs and fizz of the prosecco proved welcome relief from the harsh realities that often come with camping. We could have easily forgotten we were at a music festival and happily bubbled away for most of the day. There were yoga classes, tarot readings and massages in teepees too – a little slice of the Lake District Zen I know and love.

As the rain continued to pour we explored the alternative side of KC, the comedy tent, the Tim Peaks diner (home to various unscheduled pop-up performances) and ate some of the best takeaway food I’ve had in years – rotisserie duck wraps, burritos larger than my head and paella (not all at once, naturally). All the while surrounded by towering trees with the fells on the horizon – not once did I feel out of place.

That was until the dinosaurs appeared and my ‘Stop, that doesn’t belong here!’ senses start tingling.

Dinosaurs in the Lake District, really? Credit: alex laurel

Since 2010 Kendal Calling has adopted a different theme each year, ranging from safari animals to superheroes. 2019 was the Jurassic year and the organisers had pulled out all the stops to bring Steven Spielberg’s movie series to life, including a herd of scarily-realistic dinosaurs. The Lake District is home to an amazing amount of wildlife, but I couldn’t tell you the last time I saw a T-Rex strolling down the shores of Lake Windermere.

Scepticism aside, I joined the annual fancy dress parade where festival goers are invited to don their best costumes, in keeping with the annual theme, and gather together for one giant march across the fields. The event still holds the World Record for having the most people dressed a Superman at one time, back in 2003.

Having forgotten to pack my Flintstones frock I wore a flower crown instead – but my minimal effort put me in the minority, as an army of velociraptors and their keepers set off towards the woodland.

“This is Cumbria, people don’t do things by halves,” I reminded myself. In Cumbria you don’t set out to walk a mountain and turn round half way, you don’t worry if your Mum’s old neon waterproof hangs below your knees as long as you’re dry – you simply get on with it and jump head first into your next adventure.

Alfred Wainwright, fellwalker extraordinare and guidebook author, once said of the Lake District: “More and more people are turning to the hills; they find something in these wild places that can be found nowhere else.”

“It may have something to do with man’s subconscious search for beauty, growing keener as so much in the world grows uglier. It may be a need to re-adjust his sights, to get out of his narrow groove and climb above it to see wider horizons and truer perspectives.” 

New grooves, fresh perspectives and wider horizons: that’s what the Lake District is all about, and it turns out at Kendal Calling, with its stunning setting, carefree fans and insanely wonderful creative flair, shares the exact same ethos. 

Cumbria is the festival’s worthy home and it turns out we are all just the modern day equivalent of Wordsworth’s daffodils, dancing in the breeze, albeit plastered in body glitter, wearing flower crowns and our boots inches thick with mud.

Need to know

Tickets for , the festival’s 15th anniversary from July 30 to August 2, are on sale now, with tickets starting at £15 deposit for a full weekend including camping, which can be paid off in monthly instalments.