Five minutes to midnight and I’m climbing out of an Uber in an industrial estate in the depths of South London. I haven’t got a clue where I’m meant to be going but I head off in the darkness in the direction of the pulsating beat of music, following three people ahead of me who are clutching bottles of vodka.
‘Are you looking for the party?’ one of them asks — and we compare smartphones, where secret location ‘pins’ sent via WhatsApp indicate the precise location of tonight’s event.
Moments later and I’m stepping into an abandoned warehouse somewhere in Woolwich, urged to get off the street by a bouncer standing in the doorway. He is concerned that if there’s too much noise someone will call the police and that the illegal event, organised in secret via apps such as Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook, will be busted.
I follow his instructions, hand over £15 to a man and woman taking card and cash payments inside the door. Once I’m past them, the hedonistic scene that greets me is other-worldly.
Pictured: Stock photo of a rave. Welcome to the illicit world of the UK’s burgeoning quarantine rave culture — one of the ugliest and most disturbing by-products of the nation’s 14-week coronavirus lockdown
Hundreds of revellers dancing cheek-by-jowl to thumping house and techno music, a vast array of DJ decks and a dazzling laser light show. A bar stuffed full of every possible spirit and mixer as well as beer and water. A man moving through the crowd is selling balloons filled with nitrous oxide — otherwise known as ‘Noz’ or ‘hippy crack’.
Welcome to the illicit world of the UK’s burgeoning quarantine rave culture — one of the ugliest and most disturbing by-products of the nation’s 14-week coronavirus lockdown.
To understand what goes on at such events and why those attending are making a mockery of the law at a time of national crisis, I went undercover. It goes without saying that here in this dark, dingy warehouse, social distancing is a meaningless concept.
Covid-19 is seen as something that only affects other people. Not a single person is wearing a mask or gloves. There is no hand sanitiser in sight.
‘This pandemic could go on for a long time,’ says a woman from North London as she bobs up and down on the make-shift dance floor next to me. ‘Life is for living.’
Bored and frustrated by lockdown rules, thousands of bored and fed-up young people across the country have been letting off steam in recent weeks in a frenzy of drink, drugs and music at events held in derelict buildings, country parks and woodland.
On several occasions these illegal mass gatherings have spiralled dangerously out of control. A fortnight ago, two men were shot dead at an illegal rave hosted in Moss Side, south Manchester.
And last month, at a £30-a-head rave attended by 2,000 people at Broad Oak woods on the outskirts of the village of Carrington near Trafford in Manchester, three men were stabbed — including an 18-year-old who was left with life-threatening injuries.
Another teenage girl was raped at the same event where footage circulating on the internet showed three men and a woman carrying machetes.
On the same night, just down the road in Daisy Nook Country Park in Oldham, a 20-year-old man died from a suspected drugs overdose.
Selfish: Hundreds attend an illegal rave in Oldham, and revellers run from riot police in West London early on Saturday (above)
Again that same night — Saturday, June 13 — 70 miles away in Whittington near Lichfield in Staffordshire, police broke up a 1,000-strong party.
And in Leeds, a section of the M1 was closed after West Yorkshire police shut down an illegal rave in an underpass at junction 45, dispersing 600 party-goers.
Anyone who witnessed the chaotic, violent scenes at these events — and at others held across the UK in recent weeks —could be forgiven for thinking the pandemic was over.
But police believe criminals are exploiting the mood of frustration felt by locked down teenagers and young adults and organising festival-sized gatherings to create a new market place where drugs can be sold.
At the Daisy Nook Country Park event, dealers were brazenly selling ketamine and ecstasy on the road to the park, as well as inside.
Since clubland was put on lockdown, the market for Class A drugs has dwindled, hitting the incomes of drug pushers hard.
Senior Manchester Police officials told me this week dealers had capitalised on the 39 or so raves which have taken place in the area in the last fortnight.
And a senior councillor added that some of the criminals were actually organising the events themselves, paying to hire DJs and sound equipment and to lure youngsters along to what is, in effect, a ready-made market place for their wares.
‘The gangs will then make large profits from a ready-made marketplace of thousands of potential customers in one place,’ says Manchester councillor and city centre spokesman Pat Karney. ‘These parties don’t come cheap. It’s organised crime.’
These illegal events are creating a nightmare for over-burdened police and local authorities who often know nothing about them until trouble breaks out.
For while some of the events of recent weeks appear to have been almost spontaneous, others are now clearly being planned with almost military precision.
The exact location of each rave is kept secret until the very last minute when organisers send out WhatsApp messages to those who have signed up to under-the-radar social media.
Which is how I managed to get inside one. Having left messages on dozens of Facebook pages, I eventually received a private message giving me links to join four secret WhatsApp chat groups where hundreds of strangers, all desperate for a party, share information.
‘I’m in Newcastle, anything going on?’, said one. ‘I’m down in Cornwall getting itchy for a rave,’ said another. Someone in Blackpool said a rave planned for the following Friday had been shut down after police got wind of it.
There is talk of an ‘anti-lockdown mask-a-rave’ in Hampshire for which attendees are encouraged to wear the kind of masks made fashionable back at illegal raves in the 1980s when partygoers were more concerned about being recognised than being infected with a killer virus.
I’m also sent a link to a London chat promoting a ‘Boat Brunch’ with ‘R&B, Hip Hop and Afrobeats’, starting at 2pm and finishing late.
The emergence of lockdown raves began in May as temperatures heated up.
With a spirit of rebellion spilling over from the Black Lives Matter protests, and the usual summer festivals such as Glastonbury cancelled, it didn’t take much to tempt bored young people out of quarantine. Footage from one rave is often used to advertise the next.
And they seem to have snowballed along the way: on May 16 West Mercia police closed a Shropshire rave attended by 70 people. On May 25 about 200 attended an illegal party in woods near Liverpool.
In West Lothian, the disused Bangour Village Hospital was set on fire during a 200-strong rave. In Harlesden in North West London, 500 people danced in the street.
No matter that the death toll from the pandemic is now over 45,000. Less than a thousand of those who have died have been people under the age of 50 and there have been very few deaths in healthy under-30s.
Having been spared the worst, Britain’s young people, it seems, are now thumbing their noses at the virus — as well as the Government’s policy for tackling it.
‘I can’t wait for this weekend!’ writes one man. ‘This is going to be the Third Summer of Love’.
He is not the first to draw comparisons between this year’s spate of youthful rebellious events and previous ‘Summers of Love’ — in 1967, when thousands of hippies descended on San Francisco and in 1988, when open air raves were at their peak.
Back then, pre-mobile phone clubbers would congregate at service stations on the M25 and wait for their party destination to be revealed at the 11th hour via secret telephone ‘party lines’.
Their ‘acid house’ antics culminated in the Castlemorton Common festival in Worcestershire — the UK’s largest ever illegal rave, a mass gathering of over 40,000 people spanning a week.
It led to John Major’s 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which criminalised gatherings of 20 or more people in which they played music with ‘sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’.
This and the emergence of legitimate nightclubs, meant dance music was pushed above ground and the illegal rave scene died out.
But it is the violent nature of 2020 raves that is so disturbing — not to mention the fact that those who attend are putting the lives of others at risk by increasing the chance of a second wave of infections.
Those I speak to at the all-night rave in Woolwich either aren’t worried or, selfishly, simply don’t care.
Even when police are summoned to such events, they say they are limited as to what they can do when faced with thousands of drunken party-goers.
A fortnight ago 22 officers were injured while breaking up a street party in South London, one of several so-called ‘block parties’ which have flared up in the capital in recent weeks.
Pictured: A block party that moved through boroughs in west London ending in White City estate in the early hours of July 4th
Two Fridays ago, a party in West Kilburn moved towards Maida Vale where riot police battled hundreds of revellers throwing missiles. Hundreds also turned out at illegal events on Clapham Common, Wimbledon Common and Tooting Bec Common.
Speaking after the ‘Quarantine Raves’ in Greater Manchester a fortnight ago, Chief Constable Ian Hopkins said police had restricted their involvement to ‘careful monitoring’ even though it was clear ‘some of the behaviour was appalling; some of this was no partying — this was people going out of their way to commit crime’.
‘Once these things start it is almost impossible to stop them given the number of people that were there and the number of officers available. It would have been a very serious situation and many people, including my officers, would have been badly injured I believe.’
Cllr Pat Karney adds: ‘These events are dangerous. We are doing everything to stop them. This includes targeting the DJs and the music shops selling them generators.’
Last week, senior police and local authority figures told me that the forces at work are widespread and complex. While some promoters are no doubt driven by criminal motives, others are clearly diehard music lovers who simply refuse to abide by lockdown rules any longer. Entertainment industry insiders say that with nightclubs now defunct it was inevitable that young people would gravitate to illegal open- air events.
‘If more and more go out of business, it’s no wonder people get pushed towards an illegal alternative,’ says Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality.
‘If the UK loses its nightclubs, raves are only going to become more commonplace. This highlights the need for a flourishing late-night sector where customers can enjoy themselves legally in a supervised environment.’
Assistant Chief Constable of Kent Police, Nikki Faulconbridge, said: ‘While it is understandable that people should miss being able to visit nightclubs, festivals and concerts at this difficult time, that is no excuse for anyone who might be thinking about organising an unlicensed music event.’ But where some events are masterminded by criminals and others are apparently spontaneous, the event I attended in Woolwich was organised by a little-known independent record label and extraordinarily well organised.
A contactless card payment machine was being used on the door. All those attending were asked to provide ID and given wrist bands before they were allowed to enter inside.
Event organisers had even hired security for the all-night event which, in the end, passed off without incident.
I found myself standing next to a man in his late 20s who said he’d travelled down from Leicester —where high infection rates led to a localised tightening of lockdown restrictions last week. ‘I’ve been partying since Thursday,’ he told me. ‘My friend didn’t want to come out and I didn’t want to miss this so I came alone.’
The girlfriend of a man selling nitrous oxide balloons told me that they were in Manchester the previous weekend, attending two other mass gatherings.
‘I think we’re in for a summer of this,’ she said.
Indeed, officers say they have received intelligence reports warning of a summer of ‘giant raves’.
When told about the illegal rave I attended within its local authority, a Royal Borough of Greenwich spokesman said the ‘police are being extra vigilant after a growing number of unlicensed music events, block parties and illegal gatherings are taking place … as we enter the summer season.’
Two weekends ago in Gravesend in Kent 200 people gathered in woodland around the village of Vigo to dance the night away. Forty miles away, two people were stabbed at a rave on Leys-down beach.
Two arrests were made ahead of an event that was planned for last weekend, but police admit they are fighting a losing battle.
They are still hunting for five DJs involved in organising an event at Boggart Hole Clough, an ancient woodland in north Manchester.
The rave was due to take place on Saturday and promised competitions for a chance to win a cash prize and the attendance of a special guest.
It was prevented from going ahead by a combination of police, security and councillors who patrolled the site all day and into the early morning.
But as Britain’s lost summer heats up it seems for every event the police shut down, another is being organised to replace it.