Review: Unique Northants festival Shambala brings out the best in all of us

Mark and Lily at Shambala
Mark and Lily at Shambala

Returning to Shambala festival is rather like slipping on a pair of battered old slippers. You immediately feel cosy, safe and right at home.

For the uninitiated, Shambala is a four day festival held at Kelmarsh Hall over the August bank holiday weekend. But unlike most UK festivals its success does not depend upon the booking of big name acts, instead its focus is on pushing boundaries and encouraging festival goers to experience something they have never heard or seen before.

It is a hippy carnival, LGBTQ+ celebration, family festival and ecological extravaganza all in one.

As one happy camper explained around the fire on the final night: "Shambala is a great place to take kids because they get to see adults at their best."

That "best" includes a playful sense of freedom, whether that be covering yourself head to toe in nothing but glitter, partaking in a roller disco dressed as a shark or performing in a rave choir.

This was our third consecutive year at Shambala and the first time without young children meaning we got to explore more of the day time talks and late night music.

Throwing ourselves into the party atmosphere my husband and I dressed in identical pink netball dresses on the Friday night, joining the thousands of gender-blending revellers. I was quite annoyed however when an older man (wearing a dress, of course) congratulated us on our matching outfits only to tell my husband he had the best legs. So far, so Shambala.

We spend the evening milling around from tent to tent, dancing away to soul, jungle, and disco music bedazzled by sequined Shambalans wherever we turned.

The next baking hot day we took refuge in the Sankofa tent to hear a mesmerising tale of a travelling cuckoo performed by father and son Joshua and Malcolm Green. The duo blended science, myth, music and storytelling in a compelling production, which captivated the adult audience but may well have flown over the heads of our own flock, had we been there with them.

Being childfree we took advantage of the Shambala Springs, an outdoor spa with hot tubs, saunas and plunge pools plus hot and cold showers.

There was plenty of flesh on display in this private area which had stunning views across the swan enchanted lake and a magnificent outlook towards the 18th-century hall.

This was followed by the carnival parade, which this year had the theme Extinction. The interpretation of the theme was wildly varying from dinosaurs, bees and sea creatures to the NHS, Blockbuster Video and galaxies long gone.

Due to the compact size of the festival and the freedom of movement we were able to pop back to our campervan to cook a meal whenever we got hungry. Campers are also allowed to bring their own food, drink and alcohol into any part of the festival which really helps to keep the costs down. This meant we spent a total of £20 over the four days, which was the spa fee.

There are loads of reasonably priced food outlets for those on a looser budget but in keeping with the ecological ethos of the festival everything is meat and fish free. And for the first time this year plant-based alternatives replaced dairy milk in all hot drinks sold on site.

Fortunately the amazing weather meant we were happy to cook and eat al fresco in the campsite before returning to the festival to experience a thought provoking improvised band overlaid with poetical musings.

The final day was spent sheltering from the sweltering heat inside the Imaginarium tent where we took part in a recording of BBC Radio 4 programme Four Thought and listened to English teacher turned podcaster Mark Grist talk about his hilarious but surprisingly poignant road to rapping.

We also dipped into the cinema tent to catch part of Akira Kurosawa's Dreams before clambering up a wooden tower to watch the euphoric closing ceremony featuring trapeze artists, a 3D laser show, a burning sculpture on the lake and spectacular fireworks all set to Queen's Don't Stop Me Now.

Once the crowds dispersed we set off on a mission to find the hidden Jazz Lounge (we found it!) before hitting the House Party, aptly held in a house. By 2am we were starting to tire and left the dancing to the teenagers who appeared to have arrived from nowhere.

As expected, throughout the weekend we experienced a series of bizarre moments, such as rescuing a palm tree straw named Dylan for a hyperactive young woman and talking to our neighbours about cooking pasta whilst they stood around dressed as beekeepers in 30 degree heat.

But as always we came away with the feeling that the world might not be so bad a place after all, especially if we try to keep hold of our Shambala "best" selves.