The Gathering, the UK's largest live-action role-play (LARP) festival, or Fest as they are more commonly known, took place over the August Bank Holiday weekend in Derbyshire's privately owned Locko Park. I was there to learn more about this hobby, which blends imagination and escapism with immersive story-telling to deliver an experience unlike any other.
I have to admit it: my preconception was that The Gathering would consist of a field full of twenty-something guys (with the occasional bored girlfriend), looking like rejects from the Lords of the Rings. To say that my assumption was dead wrong is a gross understatement. I soon learned that the hobby of live-action role-playing appeals to people of all ages, male and female alike.
If there was one thing that I was not expecting was the sheer diversity of players that I encountered throughout the day. From marketing directors to single mothers; from four year-old boys to seventy-year-old pensioners. LARPing, I found, was a welcoming hobby, open to people of all backgrounds.
One of the reasons that LARPing is so popular, is that the hobby offers the genuine thrill of battle or dueling, but with minimal risk (although the occasional bruise can be expected). A long-time LARPer admits: "From the outside, LARPing looks pretty bloody silly. Re-enactment is probably taken a bit more seriously, but you do get hurt - I tried that once, and had a helmet crushed by an axe. After that, I thought: you know what, I'm going to try the safer option."
What surprised me most of all was how The Gathering caters for families. I expected, given the contact element of the hobby (albeit with foam and rubber weapons), there would be an age restriction on the door-policy. Instead, The Gathering not only tolerates, but actively welcomes families, with the formation of a series of kid's adventures throughout the weekend. The referees and marshals also remain constantly vigilant of any children: should a (mock) brawl erupt, they quickly usher children out of harm's way.
As one LARPer explains: "The big thing for me is that this is such a family friendly event - I've got my little five year old girl with me. She's back at camp with her friends, where they lay on stuff for children to do from the age of five to fourteen. There's someone responsible looking after her. Daddy is never more than half a mile away, and it is something we can do together. She's been coming since she was one, although this is the first event that she can actively get involved in, albeit the children's stuff. We borrowed a caravan at first, as a one-year-old in a tent is probably not the best idea, but since then we've been in tents. Now she's got her own costume and a little latex hammer that she runs around with."
When you consider that many of the original LARPers have now grown-up, settled down, and started families, it is perhaps not too surprising how the hobby has opened itself up to families.
One such young LARPer I spoke was Bridget Belcher (aged 8¾), whose parents own Dark Blade UK. Bridget has been attending The Gathering since she was five. As her warrior/healer character, called "Death", she and her friend Diane (otherwise known as the healer/magic-user called Styles), along with several other children were embarked upon an adventure:
"The adventures have been about us trying to kill Gilbur as he has been stealing children. Now he is going to kill them all because of what we did to him."
Whilst some parents may feel uncomfortable with the thought of their child playing murder adventures, Bridget clearly understood that this was pure make-believe. Besides which, it sounded like Gilbur deserved it! I personally quite liked the idea that LARPing teaches children that you can fight the monsters, which runs counter to the shallow qualities that many toys and games (ie Barbie) extol.
The Lorien Trust takes their family-friendly policy at The Gathering very seriously. They have made the Kid's Plot an integral part of the overall world plot. As a result of this, family interaction is almost a necessity. Children find they can relate to the adult world plot, just as adults can relate to children's plot.
I was impressed to learn at The Gathering that that the Kid's Plots are run by social workers and teachers, and all team members are either CRB checked or are directly supervised by those who are. In addition, they have a Child Protection Policy in force, which extends to all staff who come into contact with children. This Child Protection Policy is registered and approved by Derby County Council.
Steph Finney (AKA Scarlett) and her husband brought along their 14-month old daughter Kaylee Finney (AKA "Little Miss") and her older brother Alex Finney (AKA "Small Tail"). Whilst Kaylee was too young to understand what was happening, Alex thoroughly enjoyed The Gathering.
Little Miss and Small Tail were too young to partake in the organised kids' adventures. Nonetheless, Steff and her family enjoy playing their own adventures within the camp along with other families.
As Bridget's mother, co-owner of Dark Blade UK, concludes: "What child doesn't enjoy dressing up? If you look around, you will see there are a lot of children here, and I think they really enjoy it here. They get to stay up longer than they do at home, run around and hit things with a rubber sword or cast spells at people, and generally have a really good time."
So, if you and your family are at a loss of what to do one weekend, why not consider LARPing, for a day filled with adventure and derring-do? As for myself, I returned home from The Gathering and informed my wife that, this time next year, we will be taking the children on an epic quest to fight monsters.
All photos are by the author, and are used with permission.