In 2017 I passed my driving test. Six weeks later, I went hurtling down the M5 and M4 to Reading Festival. Muse were headlining. I had been a fan since I was a teenager but never seen them live, and I absolutely had to be there. Having no-one to go with at short notice, I decided to volunteer.
The festival website only mentions one volunteer organisation for the campsite and arena: Hotbox. So I signed up, paid my deposit and selected the shift patterns I liked most, making sure to keep that all-important Sunday night free.
I had a great time volunteering with Hotbox, but my shift partner kept glancing over at the opposite campsite – the Oxfam cohort seemed more diverse, and they were the ones working on all the accessibility platforms in the arena. We both said we’d return next year, but we’d give Oxfam a go instead. And I’ve not looked back since. (Sorry, Hotbox. You guys are awesome, too!)
As I parked up and went through accreditation at Download Festival the next year, the guy in the portacabin asked me, “Do you need directions to the campsite?” It was my first time at Download, so yes, yes I did. He paused, gave me a sympathetic look and rattled off lengthy directions: “Go up that hill, past the piles of tyres, turn left. Go through the gap in the fence. Then follow that path around, head diagonally across towards and through the tunnel, which will take you to the infield. Staff camping is along there, look for the big pink Oxfam banner.”
I was never going to remember all that.
I donned my hi-vis – very important when the festival is still in build-and-break mode – and went back to my car. I unloaded half my stuff onto a trolley and went in search of someone to ask for clearer directions.
I was ushered towards other Oxfam stewards. And to my utter surprise, all four of them were from my hometown (and we’ve been friends and festival buddies ever since!). Two of them had a camper van, so they bundled my stuff into their vehicle. I then went back to my car for the rest of my gear and walked with my other two newfound friends.
But boy did we get lost! We spent a good hour-and-a-half walking around looking for that gap in the fence. I can look back and laugh now, but it was stressful at the time. On the upside, returning to the festival site in 2019 and 2022, I now feel like I know the place like the back of my hand.
Since volunteering at Download in 2018, I have done a total of 12 festivals working for Oxfam. So it’s safe to say I love it. I would go as far as to say I’m addicted. So much so that it is now difficult to persuade me to do festivals as a punter rather than a volunteer.
- It’s a cheap way to do festivals
Let’s talk money. You pay a deposit when you sign up for your festival(s). This deposit equates to the ticket price of the most expensive festival you want to work at. So if it’s Glastonbury, you’re looking at roughly £300. If it’s somewhere like 2000 Trees, it’s probably closer to £150 (figures relating to the 2022 season – this may change over time). Complete all your shifts and hand your hi-vis tabard and radio equipment back, and your deposit will be refunded a few weeks after your last festival.
So, in theory, you could spend the entire summer travelling up and down the country, from festival to festival. All you have to pay for is transportation plus food, snacks and drink. There are even carpooling websites and Facebook groups if you want to car share, cutting costs further. You may also want to bring a bit of spending money if merch and programmes are your thing.
- Free food (and hot drinks)
As a volunteer, you are given one free meal per shift. Sometimes this can be used at any of the traders in the arena, sometimes it’s a voucher for a specific stall, sometimes it’s crew catering. Sometimes you have to use the voucher on a specific day, sometimes you can use it whenever you want. But don’t bank on actually using this token during your shift, as queues at food stalls can be long, and you may be stationed miles from the vendors. I take a rucksack with snacks, a Thermos flask with hot water and a pot noodle on shift to stave off hunger.
Oh, and make sure you bring a mug! The Oxfam buggy driver will do their best to pop around with tea and coffee supplies during your shift, as long as it’s not busy. All they ask is you bring something to drink out of.
- Secure campsite with electricity and hot water supplies
Oxfam’s campsite is in staff camping. At the very least, there should be someone checking wristbands as you enter that zone of the festival to make sure you are staff. At best, you will also have stewards at the entrance to the Oxfam campsite, checking you are an Oxfam volunteer. This offers more security than you would have in general camping, although you should still keep your valuables on you at all times.
The campsite has a marquee with urns supplying hot water for tea, coffee, porridge and pot noodles plus charging points for your phones or power banks. (No hair straighteners. And no toasters – unless you’re at Download 😉.)
The only downside is the campsite is sometimes on the outskirts, or outside of, the festival. So make sure you bring sturdy walking boots. But on the plus side, being camped on the periphery often means you are close to the staff car park, which means you have a shorter distance to haul your camping equipment. So it’s not all bad!
- The people (or should I say, the Oxfamily 💚)
At the beginning of this post, I mentioned making friends with the four stewards I met within minutes of arriving at my first Oxfam festival. Some of the best people I know have been people I first met in the field, volunteering for Oxfam.
There are the people who live locally to you with similar interests, the people with similar music tastes who you meet up with several times a year for gigs, the welcoming faces you see again and again when you arrive at your favourite festival, the ones you recognise because they are active in the Facebook group…
Everyone is super welcoming, helpful and friendly. There is usually a WhatsApp group for people to join. Set up ahead of the festival, these groups contain people who can field all sorts of questions for newbies. It makes going to festivals solo an absolute dream because you know there are always people willing to hang out.
So there you have it. Are you an Oxfam volunteer and have more good reasons? Have you thought about volunteering but not bit the bullet yet? Are you a Hotbox volunteer and prefer to volunteer with them? Tell me in the comments! 😊
And if you want to know more, please visit the Oxfam Festivals website.
In my next blog I answer need-to-know questions. Check it out here!