My Kendal Mountain Festival 2021 started on a Friday in November. I’d been in the Lake District for the rest of that week – broadly walking from Braithwaite to Ambleside. So, after a luxurious night at YHA Ambleside (in an actual bed), I got an early bus to Windermere and the train into Kendal.
This was my first time at Kendal Mountain Festival, although I’ve been aware of it for several years now. Intrepid Magazine took some of its first steps talking to brands at Kendal, thanks to two local subscribers. And a few years later, our then Blog Editor Rosie Watson kicked off our new blog with interviews from Kendal. But I’d never been myself. After all, it’s a flipping long way from Devon. Adding it onto a work trip to the Lake District kind of justified it, even if I did miss the first day of the festival.
I love Windermere Station. It’s a single platform with a track that ends abruptly at the stone wall of a supermarket. It’s usually full of people with walking boots and big rucksacks. And, as stations go, I feel rather at home here – whether I’m passing through caked in a week’s mud, or hunched in a corner eating my last lump of Christmas cake. Although today I couldn’t guess if anyone else was going to Kendal too. The people with wheelie suitcases certainly weren’t. Everyone else was too practically dressed to tell.
A quick train journey (15 min) and I was in Kendal.
1. Thursdays and Fridays are for industry contacts
Unable to check into my accommodation until mid-afternoon, my 60L rucksack and I wandered into town. I’d been to Kendal – the place – a few times before, but only on fleeting visits to friends. I knew what the middle of town looked like but had no sense of geography. Still, after a small misdirection along the river and through a council car park, I managed to find the high street – and the first blue flags. The density of boots and belay jackets increased: I knew I was going in the right direction. (Special shout out to The Fleece Inn’s enormous sheep sign too.)
My first quest was to get to the press room and pick up some tickets. Once I’d found the Brewery Arts Centre there was a nice big sign. I went up a small staircase, above a huge number of parked bicycles, and into a beautifully decorated little room with sofas, tables and coffee. I felt rather out of place in damp boots with a huge rucksack, but the lovely festival staff made me feel at home.
Most of the daytime was quite quiet on Friday. I had been a bit concerned, when planning, about how I’d find all the festival locations. Unlike any of the other adventure festivals I’d been to, we weren’t in a field. Events are spread out across several venues in town – three or four main ones and some further out. Luckily, the blue festival flags were aplenty, to assure me I was going in the right direction. And the back of the printed programme (available to pick up everywhere) had a really helpful picture map.
The usual central hub is Brewery Arts Centre, this year with the Shackleton Stage out front. Basecamp was just 5 minutes away: a big marquee with lots of booths and two free-to-watch stages. Then out the back were a couple more brands, a covered seating area, some very classy takeaway food and drink stands – and the portaloos. Even by the time I got there, the loos were covered in mud. It was hilarious. Everything inside was completely spotless, except for a thick coat of mud on floor and foot pedal. I passed a Primary School girl standing at an open doorway with a look of horror on her face, making a universally instinctive assumption about brown colours in toilets.
“It’s only mud,” insisted her teacher.
I spent Friday daytime just taking the festival in, going round to free talks, meeting people and just getting in the mood. It was so nice – and yet so strange – to be at anything like a festival again. Yet it still felt a bit quieter than I was expecting. Then it occurred to me: it’s Friday, Emily. Most of the normal world is working. If you’re here today you’re most likely involved in the industry as an employee, freelancer or business owner. Or perhaps a committed volunteer. Or you’re involved with the running of the festival somehow.
This is especially so in Basecamp. All those people representing the brands in the booths aren’t just anyone. They’re the marketing team having a job perk – like you might expect at any other industry trade fair. And on a day like Friday, that’s a bit quieter, they might be a little bit bored of just standing there and keen for a chat.
What am I getting at? Lots of people wonder how on earth to connect with brands, aiming for sponsorship or to work together somewhere down the line. Here’s a way that’s much more efficient than trying to win the email lottery. Just go and talk to them! A friendly face is much more memorable than an email. The same goes for the people sitting next to you at the talks – you never know who you’re going to meet.
2. The adventure world is small
On Friday night, I went to see House of the Gods inside the big theatre. By this point I’d ditched my tent and sleeping bag at my hotel and had had a joyously warm shower. Much better. As it got dark, the festival vibe really amped up too. There were loads of people in brightly coloured down jackets and the marquees were full. Someone asked me later what my favourite event was, and I think this one was it. I’d been getting the PR releases for their expedition as it was happening in 2019 and was very keen to see what happened. It looked epic at the time – in both the awesome and the sufferfest sense – and the film did not disappoint. Leo Houlding, Anna Taylor and Matt Pycroft from Coldhouse (plus two others) took the Q&A afterwards. Even though they were talking about new routing on the prow of Mount Roraima in the Amazon rainforest, everyone was so down to earth.
The next day, I went to several sessions, including Belinda Kirk and Anna Blackwell’s conversation. They were talking about their respective adventures and particularly Belinda’s new book and project to get adventure into schools (something close to my heart too).
What really struck me in all these sessions was that, actually, the adventure world is really small. I mean this in two ways. Firstly, when I see things on the other side of a screen – as in, through the internet – they seem really enormous. There’s this social media hype that everyone’s there and it makes it seem like everyone on the planet is going – certainly everyone you know. And everyone who’s anyone has a speaking gig or some part in the festival. This is just for any festival, not just Kendal.
Then alongside this, when I started getting into this industry – I suppose, five or so years ago when I first started this blog – the people giving talks and showing films seemed a million miles away. They were at the top of some enormous mountain, with a cloud inversion, and I was somewhere at the bottom. This perception, plus the social media bubble made being the person on stage seem unachievable, or requiring unattainably high level of adventure kudos. And I say all this because I imagine it still does. But actually, the number of people in the UK doing adventures regularly and, I guess, professionally, somehow tied to their living, can’t be more than a hundred.
Of course creating something like Kendal Mountain Festival is a huge undertaking and I am absolutely not trying to detract from that. I say these things not to belittle, but to encourage: this could be you. If you want to be the one giving talks or showing your film or being a brand ambassador at Basecamp, that mountain’s not as big as you think it is. Especially if you’re reading this, on the fence about diving into the professional adventure world. The trouble is that cloud between you and the top, obscuring the summit. But if you decide you want to get up there, start and keep climbing, it won’t take you nearly as long as you might imagine.
3. I wish we could all meet up more
On Saturday morning, I had a lovely long chat with Jo Moseley over coffee (well, hot chocolate for me). I bumped into Georgina Jackson on Friday, still completely in a travel daze – sorry Gee! – and said hi to other familiar faces at Basecamp. On Sunday morning, I went to the Adventure Queens breakfast in The New Inn to meet up with Sophie Nolan and several other lovely people who’s names I’ve already forgotten (I’m so sorry, say hi if you’re reading this!). After the festival Vedangi and I realised we had walked past each other in House of the Gods. There was a lot of that. Meeting new people, recognising faces or seeing them walk past on the other side of the street. The high street in Kendal turned into the profile pictures of my Twitter feed.
Speaking as someone who lives in the back end of nowhere, albeit by choice, it was really really lovely to have the chance to meet up with some people who I’m friends with online. It is great that we are even able to connect, thanks to the powers of the internet, but so much is lost over text and through the pixels. As a starting point, its fantastic, but I left Kendal Mountain Festival with such a feeling of community. And not just community, but that we are all so friendly and keen to help each other however we can. If we were able to meet up more it would be so much fun and uplifting in more ways than one. Note to self: must go to more adventure festivals.
And, as I left for the train, I walked past Nims with a belay-jacketed posse heading into town. Like I said before, the adventure community is really small.
4. To get the most out of Kendal, you need to prepare
Although tacking Kendal Mountain Festival onto the end of a work trip was convenient, I really could have prepared better. The first example being that I ran out of phone battery on Sunday and couldn’t recharge it. I had been smart and only packed the USB cable, not the plug converted, because I’d been camping the week before – this is my version of ultralight, alright people? So I couldn’t charge in the hotel and didn’t have a power pack – again, weight saving.
Normally I’d be fine without having the phone. But all of the tickets were sent by email and I hadn’t printed them. All of my notes from talks were on the phone. I couldn’t take pictures without the phone… Let’s not talk about railcards either (luckily I still get proper paper train tickets). And since there’s no central hub at Kendal, or field boundaries, you really need the technology to meet up with people too.
So I don’t have as many pictures as I would have liked. I probably missed a few people I would have loved to meet up with. I didn’t cause too much trouble with not having tickets – these are checked at the door of every event – but I couldn’t book onto any more. Each session is booked individually (there are no day or weekend passes, sadly) and a lot of people book just before the session, if they’ve got a spare hour or so that needs filling. The website isn’t quite designed to do this, but the timetable in the back of the programme helps.
But yes, I had a fairly relaxed Kendal Mountain Festival experience. Sure, I could have definitely ‘made the most of it’ even more but I’m learning how to appreciate having downtime! If you want to be busy all the time, or have a purpose for the weekend, then I’d highly recommend volunteering. In fact, if I was new to adventure, didn’t know anyone and wanted to go to Kendal Mountain Festival that’s exactly what I’d do. Wearing a volunteer shirt gives you access to events and a great excuse to talk to lots of people.
So there we have it, a great weekend all round! If you want a blast from the past, compare this to my Women’s Adventure Expo review post from years ago. Yes, I’ve copied the format, but I didn’t reread it before I wrote this, promise.
Fed up of my sporadic use of social media? Then you need to be in the Adventure Squad! More like a chat with a cuppa and as far from doomscrolling as possible. Or while you’re here, have a read of some of the other adventure events I’ve been to or walking and mountaineering. If you’re new to the blog (hello!) you might want to start here first. I’m a female adventurer based in the UK.