Earlier this summer, I started daydreaming about an upcoming trip, and something strange happened: my pulse raced, my palms perspired, a nervous lump formed at the back of my throat. I'm trying this new thing where I try not to suppress negative feelings with whisky, Netflix or frenetic chatter, and so instead I threw myself onto the bed, allowing the waves of redolently adolescent feelings to wash over my frontal lobe, and wondered what the hell was going on.
I'm an adventure-travel writer. And the challenge defeating me wasn't some three-month Antarctic feat of endurance. Instead I was destined for Port Eliot Festival in Cornwall, to deliver lovely little adventure-travel writing workshops, pegged to my new travel memoir, Departures: A Guide to Letting Go, One Adventure at a Time. The following weekend, I'd be speaking in the Books Tent at Wilderness Festival and, later in the year, in The Imaginarium at Shambala. Why did this series of treats and privileges loom like horrific ordeals on the horizon? Well, thanks to a recent break-up and friends that flaked-out for various reasons, I'd be going to all three festivals alone.
Somehow, showing up solo to a festival felt scary. I'm one of the UK's mouthiest advocates of solo adventure travel at the moment, and the irony of being emotionally floored at the thought of getting myself to a handful of music festivals in order to promote my book about solo adventure travel was not lost on me. Travelling alone around Laos made me feel bold. Paddling a kayak across Sweden solo felt serene. Turning up at a festival alone, well, that made me feel like a loser.
Festivals, I suppose, have been comprehensively fetishised over the past decade, wrangled by our imaginations, Instagram feeds and Vodafone adverts into something so much greater than a glorified gig. Attending a festival is proof of social worth, an exercise in personal brand building, with cultural capital to be gleaned from attending the right £250 gathering in a field. As well as being about fun (which they still are), festivals are about status and therefore shot through with status anxiety, where we feel critiqued on our families and friendship circle. They are billed as sexy and romantic affairs, where couples bond frenetically over shared delight or ambivalence in bands, half-pills and vegan tacos. A place where bohemian families gather merrily around child-barrows and cavort with goblets of homemade mojitos. Or where entire tribes of aggressively be-sequinned university chums Instagram the shit out of each other while smearing glitter from body to body, much like the clap. Festivals are not marketed as trips where lone 30-year-old females pitch up alone.
Then there were the sheer logistics of it all - and nothing makes me feel lonelier than logistics. The challenge of getting myself, my tent, all my camping gear, along with my laptop and presentable clothing to Cornwall via buses and trains and Doc Marten boots suddenly seemed insurmountable. For the first time, really, since my break-up, I felt glaringly single and unsupported and alone. Finally I dragged my camping gear out of the basement, bought a Terra Nova one-man tent that rolls up to the size of a wine bottle, and realised that I could just about cram everything I needed into my Millican rucksack. Admittedly, weather-wise, I'd be winging it: travelling with little more than four vintage dresses, a pair of cowboy boots, some oatcakes and a hip flask of mezcal. But one of my top travel tips has always been this: wing it. Because "winging it" means doing something you might not have done otherwise.
This summer became my summer of winging solo festival-going. And I LOVED it. I was a nimble, highly effective festival-goer, able to leap out of bed at 9.45 to catch Lucy Mangan at 10am in Port Eliot's Bowling Green, or manoeuvre between stages and bars in minutes rather than hours. In a festival posse of more than three, it seems you're always waiting for someone to come back from the portaloos or the bar. I was a selfish festival goer, and I extracted maximum juice from this particular fruit. I drank and ate better, because I didn't get caught up in rounds of ciders and could follow my own tastebuds rather than settling for the most crowd-pleasing food truck.
The moment I arrived at Port Eliot and pitched up my tiny tent, I was greeted by three lovely female crew workers, who encircled me like protective witches, checked in on me at night - "Are you safely back, Irish?" - and even stuffed my rucksack back into my tent when it began re-raining as I attempted to dry off my soggy sleeping bag.
The unseasonable lashing of rain at Port Eliot only tightened the nuts and bolts on our hastily assembled pop-up civilisation. Every successful festival is a pop-up community, a firefly city, a fleeting society, and a successful festival brokers bonds fast. I relied on them at Port Eliot, Wilderness and Shambala. I sank into them gratefully, and I felt their support. The thing about support is that you don't notice it until you need it.
There was the Australian stag do, a party of twenty men and women, who adopted me as I lay in the grass at Wilderness and kept me on as a dancing companion all night. There were the delightful families of naturists I met as I swam in the lake here too, and joined for a naked pop quiz at the Club House, grabbing bare waists as I did my own (fully clothed) conga around the room to ABBA songs.
There were countless supportive smiles, faces I saw over and over again in myriad mosh pits and around moonlit firepits, and even the food-truck chefs and traders I saw at all three festivals, who all played their part in making my lone festival experience entirely unlonely. As a solo traveller, you are only ever as alone as you want to be - and festivals are feasts of faces, so perhaps, it makes sense to show up hungry.
Anna Hart's travel memoir, Departures: A Guide to Letting Go, One Adventure at a Time was published by Little, Brown & Co in February 2018.