The day that Sunrise was blotted out by a freak rainstorm

The couple behind the organic festival Sunrise Celebration tell Elisa Bray how they coped with a disaster
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The Independent Culture

It was a bad year for festivals in 2008. The credit crunch wiped out a handful, and others suffered the year after. For Sunrise Celebration, though, the problem was altogether unforeseeable. Call it an act of God. Just as the organisers Dan Hurring and Sophie Docker had doubled their capacity to 10,000 and enjoyed their first ticket sell-out in their third year, a storm flooded their site.

"It was our big break," Dan recalls. "We'd gone through two painful financial years and we'd finally turned it round into this huge success and everything was going right – we'd had two weeks of sun, and everyone was saying this is going to be an amazing festival, and then it all fell down on our heads. We were flooded out in what was the most rainfall in the shortest amount of time for 30 years in Somerset. It happened to hit on our weekend and we happened to be in the epicentre of it."

In a crisis meeting with police and the council following initial heavy rainfall, the couple had been given clearance to open on the Thursday, only to be hit, after opening the gates, by a huge storm. "We had three miles of traffic backed up on the A303 by this point and the police said, 'What are you going to do?' We said, 'We're going to go for it!' We were pulling people off the road as fast as we could, but the ground was so poor that we ended up trying to tractor people on. About 10 minutes later there was a huge thunder crack and the heavens just opened and the river burst its banks. We ended up waist deep in mud."

Sophie adds: "We just knew at that point that we had to call it off, and the ironic thing was that it was sunshine for the rest of the weekend."

By the end of what was meant to be the opening night, almost 7,000 festival-goers were trapped on-site, unable to leave in such conditions. Dan recalls: "We suddenly had to cope with what was pretty much a refugee camp situation. We had to get water and blankets and to feed everybody in this huge rescue effort. At one point the council even talked about bringing the army on to get people off. It was very dramatic."

The couple were left with the prospect of being half a million pounds down, and to rub salt in the wound, every television and radio station wanted to interview them. "It's so despairing to wake up on what's meant to be the first day of your event and it's been cancelled and you've got to clear the whole site without having those four days of actual festival in the middle," says Dan. "It broke my heart, but we didn't really have a choice because it was either give up then with a £500,000 loss and not be able to refund ticket holders and let everyone down or else plough on – double or quits."

So they decided to plough on. By chance, one of the Big Chill festival organisers had found himself stuck in the tailback on the A303, wondering where all the traffic was headed. After hearing about Sunrise on the news, he offered them space at Big Chill. Dan and Sophie were delighted when 50 per cent of their ticket-holders opted for a transfer ticket to the Big Chill, while another 25 per cent wanted to return to Sunrise in 2009.

"That was a massive show of support," says Sophie. "They were taking a big gamble on us, that we were going to last a year and put on another event."

With no funds left, only two months later they managed to put on a festival within a festival, with plenty of festival spirit. "So many people gave their services for free and created this beautiful little Sunrise utopia on the site of the Big Chill. It was quite a turnaround," says Sophie.

The next challenge would be putting on Sunrise the following year. Anticipating that the flood would have put some people off, to ensure a sell-out they halved their licence to 5,000. Still, throughout the build-up they couldn't shake the fear that there was another disaster waiting for them.

"We were terrified," admits Dan. "Because we'd had such a good year leading up to it [Sunrise 2008], we felt we could achieve our dreams and use the profit for the social good. To suddenly have it shattered by the flood was very hard work to come back from mentally and so, even as the gates opened it was just this sense of surely it's going to go wrong at any minute, and it did not, thankfully."

Far from it. Despite the burden of carrying 700 of the 5,000 guests, including crew, for free, the event was a resounding success, with the support of the crew who made the running of the festival as cheap as possible. "A huge sweep of relief went round the festival when everyone heard in the afternoon that we'd broken even," Sophie recalls. "We broke even through the tickets bought on the Sunday, so we just crawled to the finish line, which was brilliant."

If there was a problem, it was that the weather was so warm – "the hottest weekend of the year so far" – that they didn't have enough water. So ITV West undertook their weather report from the festival with a certain irony.

That Sunrise was prevented by a flood is another source of irony. It is the most sustainable and environmentally friendly festival in Britain: 100 per cent renewably powered, with compost toilets site-wide, and organic food and drink for sale across the site. The couple are focused on providing solutions to green issues, so it was ironic that the unexpected flood may well have been the result of climate change. In fact, when they started up, the environment agency had shown them maps proving the unlikelihood of a flood happening during the festival. There are the floods that take place in the area each winter, and in extreme cases, the floods every 100 and 1,000 years. Unfortunately, they were on the receiving end of the 1,000-year flood.

They can now move on stronger than ever, with the new measures they have implemented since learning their lesson. Sunrise now takes place on an organic farm, a site that's both on higher ground and organic land that drains well because it hasn't been over-farmed.

Sophie says: "The lesson for us is we're a particularly environmentally friendly festival and now we have to do things in the context of dramatic weather conditions. On this new site we've spent a lot of money putting down hardcore stone trackway to make sure that we don't end up churning the ground up, but also that we don't have to transport loads of metal trackway, because that is unsustainable as well."

"It's miraculous we did it," say the couple, who conceived their first baby, Oscar, in the elating days following the success. Sunrise 2010 looks set to be even more successful, with the capacity back up to 10,000. "And we have a new carnival field to celebrate being back."