At the gate there is a wooden desk where security is provided by a girl in a wispy goddess gown who crosses names off a list with a highlighter.
First impressions? Glastonbury this is not. The festival pass is a wooden locket on a piece of string, featuring the engraved figure of a woman, with a big swirl indicating her womb. I tie this around my neck, as instructed.
What next? ‘Just go down there, walk through the giant vagina and you are there,’ she says.
The festival is run over four days in a safe space where men, drugs and alcohol are banned
Is she kidding? She is not kidding.
At the bottom of the hill there is, indeed, a V-shaped pink tent adorned with red fringing, complete with padded silk anatomical detail and open at both ends. I walk through the tent and — like Alice falling down the rabbit hole or Lucy walking through the wardrobe and into Narnia — enter a whole new universe.
Welcome to Woman Fest, the United Kingdom’s first major female-only festival.
Held in some corner of a Somerset field that is now forever green — in an ethical, feminist, fully composted way — it bills itself as a celebration of humanity, healing and hope.
Over a cloudy spell in August, the sisterhood is paying £225 each (including all classes plus vegan and vegetarian meals) to gather for four days in a safe space where men, drugs and alcohol are banned.
Instead, we will be getting high on the power of song and dance, or indulging ourselves in myriad alternative diversions including tarot, acupuncture, massage, drumming workshops, basket weaving, campfire debates, shamanism, womb wisdom, ancient Swedish folk music and gong baths (a form of sound therapy using the metal musical instrument).
We will also be connecting to our wild feminine power by focusing on our yonis — yoni being a Hinduism for what Hyacinth Bucket would call our private lady parts.
Everyone at Woman Fest is particularly excited about the yoni steaming, which has been recently popularised by Gwyneth Paltrow. This ancient practice involves crouching over a pot of bubbling water enriched with herbs for about 30 minutes, roughly about the time it takes to steam a small Christmas pudding.
It is supposed to be good for you, although many health professionals disapprove.
There will also be yoni printing (oh God, surely not) plus various sinister sounding classes including Mothering the Moon Maiden, Sex Magic Rituals and a Shamanic Bee Smoking Ceremony. What?
We’re going to be cracking out the Rizlas and smoking bees? That doesn’t sound very nice at all. Or even vegetarian.
A lady enjoys herself at Woman Fest, the United Kingdom’s first major female-only festival
One of the 200 or so souls at the festival is PR guru and Ab Fab inspiration Lynne Franks, who lives nearby.
‘Jan,’ she scolds. ‘I hope you are not going to take the mickey out of this incredible occasion? Tiana has done an amazing job. And make sure you visit the Tree Sisters.’
Tiana Jacout is the founder of Woman Fest and is pictured on their website wearing a giant headdress made of stag antlers and feathers about which, Lynne, I am saying nothing.
The 30-year-old creator insists that the radical participation festival is not an ‘anti-men symposium’ and, instead, sees it as an opportunity for women to congregate, support and learn from each other.
‘We want to celebrate women’s creativity and potential,’ she says.
Tiana trained as a five-element acupuncturist (based on Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood) and an Emotional Freedom Technique practitioner, skills she used when she set up a clinic in the Calais migrant Jungle after spending a few years on an ashram.
Her mother, Rikki, a veteran of the Eighties Greenham Common anti-nuclear protest, recently toured Italy with a clown workshop.
On the website, Tiana writes passionately of her inspiration. ‘We have gathered since the beginning of time! We are the granddaughters of the witches you failed to burn. We are the spinsters, the crones, the women who would not be sold as cattle,’ she thunders.
All this takes place on Critchill Manor Estate, just outside Frome, where we bee-smoking, undead crones pitch our tents by the lake and admire the energy and imagination that powered this festival into being.
On the left, past the tent vagina, is a chill-out area with hay bales and hammocks, next to a giant macramé tree of life symbol. To the right, by the lake, is a spa — featuring an ingenious wood-fire sauna in a cowboy wagon, plus two hot-tubs and showers.
Naked women of all shapes and sizes ply their way between the tubs or skinny dip in the lake.
‘Actually I’m not naked,’ one of them explains, even though she is patently wearing nothing. ‘I’m taking a wind bath.’
At the entrance to the spa is the Manifestation Tree, a weeping willow where Woman Festers have tied their secret wishes on leaf-shaped pieces of yellow card.
‘I wish to embrace my inner child and to support others,’ reads one message. ‘I wish to create strong sisterhood and empowerment,’ says another. ‘I wish to smash the patriarchy,’ writes another, in angry capital letters.
The camp stretches up an incline in a narrow field and features a marquee called the Expressions Tent where food is served at one end — boiled eggs or almond milk porridge with pumpkin seeds for brekkie.
In the opposite corner, a regular stream of women come in to kneel at a small altar, heads bowed in silent contemplation as they study what seem to be tiny missals.
Pray, what deity inspires such devotion among the sisters? Only when I get closer do I see that it is a phone recharging station.
Stretching up the hill are a collection of tipis and tents, including the Womyn Rising tent, the Woman’s Circle tent, the Woodland Tipi and the rather scary Red Tent.
Women who are ‘on their moon’ are invited to visit the Red Tent, where I imagine they spent hours shouting: ‘Who touched my camomile teabags?’ and ‘Stop looking at me like that.’
The Festers themselves come from all classes — those who cannot afford the ticket price are invited along as volunteers — and either seem to be millennials or baby boomers. Presumably those in-between are too busy raising families or smashing the glass ceiling to bother with sacred unity consciousness and the like.
A lot of Festers are wearing evening gowns and face glitter, drifting through the stubble in the field like morning goddesses, visiting the toilets where they are invited to ‘take one scoop per poop’ from the sawdust bins and ‘sprinkle the stardust’ after them.
One man-free bonus? All agree that these are the cleanest and most fragrant (relatively speaking) festival loos ever.
One morning I join the queue at the Woodland Tipi, where the yoni steaming takes place.
Aren’t you worried that many doctors say it does more harm than good, I ask a devotee?
‘Well think about it,’ she says. ‘Your mouth and your yoni are at opposite ends of your spine, so it makes sense.’ It does? ‘Yes. It gives you balance. And afterwards you say to yourself, I am steamed and I am cleaned.’
You do? Like an old banger leaving a car wash? I never do find out, as the yoni steaming is wildly over-subscribed and yoni mistress Lorraine can’t fit everyone into her schedule.
The deep feeling of relaxation and camaraderie that being in an all-female camp engenders is a joy — it’s like being back in the Brownies, except Festers are dreaming of a new yoni instead of a new pony. Yet I do wonder if all this focus on the yoni is entirely mindful and healthy? I mean, what would we call it if a bunch of men went off into the green wilderness to contemplate their penises for a few days?
‘We’d call it a golf weekend,’ says Coral from Wiltshire, who is sitting on a milking stool in the Sacred Garden.
Time for more enlightenment, so I join the Fool Expression class, held by Christie Holly Tree.
Twelve of us sit in a circle of cushions while she explains the concept. Something about the role of the jester in history and how it is a way to inner peace? This is hard to grasp and anyway, wasn’t the jester always a — whisper it — man?
All too soon, Christie puts on some plinky-plonky music and we all have to stand up and perform, letting our inner jester out. Oh God. I wobble about like a weeble, sometimes doing a flute-playing Jethro Tull on one leg. You can’t say I’m not trying.
Among my fellow Fools one woman is shaking her shoulders and making the kind of grunting noises you’d expect from a copulating mammoth. Kaftan-wearing Ollie, a plucky 71-year-old from Essex, is doing the twist.
Next to her, a woman in red velvet is on all fours, barking loudly. Another woman makes kitten ears with her hands and mews.
‘I was pretending to be my cat,’ she says later.
There is always one, isn’t there?
We have to explain what the exercise meant to us.
Red Velvet says it ‘stopped the mind chatter’ in her head. One woman says she managed to ‘dance away the pain’ in her neck. Ollie says she felt for the first time in her life that ‘it was OK to be me’.
I hear this simple but touching validation over and over at Woman Fest, where so many women seem to be searching for acceptance. However, after the class, I see Dances Away The Pain marching up and down outside the Expressions Tent, bellowing into her iPhone. ‘Tell him from me that I don’t give a s**t,’ she roars, proving that inner peace is elusive, even for jesters.
By the camp’s fire pit I talk to Barbra from Buckinghamshire, who is seeking spiritual nourishment and support as she goes through a torrid divorce. She has also just been to a jade egg workshop.
Oh, tell me about it, I say, as I have signed up for one later, believing it to be some kind of crafting technique. Like marbling or tie dyeing, right?
‘Wrong,’ says Barbra. Jade eggs are all about strengthening your pelvic floor, although some women also use them for sexual pleasure and others use them to connect to their grief. You don’t paint them?
‘No, you put them inside you.’
Inside you? ‘Yes. You choose from small, medium and large sizes, then you put them inside you and you dance around.’
Stock picture of a woman and teenager dancing in a field at dusk
Jade eggs, love eggs, yoni eggs — call them what you will, but they seem to be big business out there on the wilder shores of alternative healing.
Gwyneth Paltrow (her again) sells them on her Goop website, where health benefits such as improved sex lives and menstrual cycles are cited.
Gynaecologists and doctors, however, are blunt about the eggs — do not insert under any circumstances, is the general message —but as they are freely available in outlets such as Etsy and Amazon, it seems that few are listening.
Later, I drift in an out of an egg workshop in the Women’s Circle tent, where keen eggers produce their own sets of crystal or marble eggs in little pouches.
Sarah, the teacher, instructs women who have had children to go for the large size, newcomers to take a medium and experts to use the small because their muscles are ‘better developed’.
‘Tie a length of non-scented floss around the end loop for easy removal,’ says Sarah, as the dancing begins.
Not keen to lay an egg in reverse with a bunch of total strangers, I make my excuses and leave.
A festival goer at Woman Fest holds a bowl of wholesome food
Later, I see many of the women, eggs still intacto, happily dancing around the camp fire.
You know something? There is a lot of madness out there.
Speaking of which, one afternoon I have a massage, which involves lying face down in a wigwam while tuning forks are pressed against my acupuncture points.
‘I am using the Ohm fork on you, which resonates at the same frequency as the earth,’ says Dionne, whose practice is in Birmingham. Whatever. At least it’s an escape from talking about yonis.
She strikes the first fork and presses it into my foot. Suddenly I know how Tom in Tom & Jerry felt, after Jerry plugged his tail into an electric socket.
Combined with a powerful massage I end up feeling like a gong that has been soundly beaten with a rolling pin.
I shake all through lunch — no wonder, it is split pea mush and a salad with a solitary cherry tomato — then keep on trembling as we all join hands under a tree and sing a song called Mother, Hear Me Calling.
The festival takes place on Critchill Manor Estate, just outside Frome.
All too soon it is time to leave and to consider what I have learned at Woman Fest.
First, that Peruvian herbs, whatever they might be, are the latest in thing.
Second, that in this age of #MeToo and Time’s Up, gender-specific events such as this won’t drive men and women further apart, but give us all a welcome break from each other.
And finally, that even if the womb is our first brain and second heart, as someone keeps insisting, yoni-consciousness festivals such as these are really not my cup of chai. But, ladies, it was fun while it lasted.