WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE: Wilderness Festival 2012
In recent years, British festivals have sprung up like hydra-heads on a guillotine and the choice is now almost overwhelming. Traditionally, headlining bands have been the deciding factor but with alternative and more arty festivals like Wilderness, selling itself instead on fine dining and London zeitgeist hard hitters like Future (Secret) Cinema, it’s hard to choose. The description runs, “Wilderness – a celebration of the Arts and Outdoors in the wilds of England.” That’s not strictly true. Thank God. And I’ll explain why in a moment.
The other big claim it makes is that its setting is the most idyllic and here – particularly seen basking under three days of this year’s better-late-than-never summer sunshine – it’s spot on.
Set in the grounds of a stately home, and brought to you from the organisers of top festivals, Lovebox and Secret Garden Party, Wilderness comes from good stock. Its full name, in fact, is Wilderness Festivalton-Smythe and it couldn’t be more middle class if it tried but it’s a million miles away from Made In Chelsea and presumably the description above serves the noble purpose of filtering out some of the bad eggs.
On my arrival a well-dressed toddler demonstrated to me what I was up against: Just after I stepped off the bus, having marvelled at the Cotswoldy countryside and the left urban life far behind, I was greeted by the brilliant sunshine and the kid sped past while it’s owner called, “Digby, darling, slow down!”
Evidently Digby was under the impression that he should be putting a little wild into Wilderness as there’s nothing terribly wild about it. To quote the guy on the Folk Guild stage – on Sunday I think it was, – “If this is what the wilderness is like then I can see how you could spend forty days and nights there.”
And that’s the magic of it. Where wilderness works brilliantly is as part of a fairly new concept: festival as vacation.
What this means is that it’s actually possible to attend this countryside gathering and leave in a better state than you arrived, having enjoyed a bit of music and good food and showered under a waterfall (all highly recommended). Returning home the patrons seemed fairly chirpy, odourless and without any festering wounds I could see. And any maladies I didn’t missed could only be the result of tripping over a small child with a name like Digby.
The festival is not not-arty either. I was only molested once by a performance artist, in this case assuming the guise of an unattractive bird. Presumably the point of this was to make all the people who were taking drugs feel like they were but, to me, it only served as a happy reminder of that Wilderness was striking the prefect balance between art and fun, where perhaps its cousin Secret Garden Party can come out looking like it’s trying a bit too hard. The pretty Oxfordshire site maintains a nice homemade feeling that artists have been working hard behind the scenes to bring you something special and the well tended parkland affords none of the ‘P & G Chill Out Lounge’ or ‘Glaxo BBQ Zone’ type affairs that plague other festivals. This is not so much because they are inherently bad, but because they are competing with one another and there’s no cohesion. At Secret Garden and Wilderness you can walk from one end to the other and the memories will be of passing though landscaped garden and shaded woodland or by a glistening waterway and all to a background soundtrack of live music, rather than moving from one branded tent to another.
And the music really does just seem to function as a soundtrack. Everyone I spoke to gave exactly the same response, along the lines of “I really haven’t seen that many bands.” They’d dipped in an out of countless performances and enjoyed most of it greatly but no one had suffered the big festival stress of chasing bands from stage to stage or felt the frightful panic when two bands you want to see decide to play at the same time. There’s something very refreshing about not having to care, just relaxing and enjoying whatever you stumble across. And if you do want to see something, the chances are you don’t have to turn up and hour before and can make your way to a good spot, spitting distance from the performers, with the greatest of ease. The only band that really pulled a big crowd were gap-yah favourites Rodrigo y Gabriella who played with great energy and an unexpected foray into something approaching heavy metal.
The only other things to draw queues were the banquets at the cash machine. For the most part the toilets were quick and easy to reach and so clean you could eat your dinner off them. Given that the banquets sold out months before the festival this was the more likely option for me but I stuck to regular stalls with happy results, my favourite being Ginger’s Comfort Emporium, selling homemade ice cream so good it required a return trip. I’m told the banquets were pretty good and fairly priced and even quite sweetly let my vicarious reviewers head off to see a bit of Rod ‘n’ Gab before returning for pudding.
Other popular goings on included a wood full of Future Cinema’s Bugsy Malone complete with live music, speakeasy and plenty of splurging. The “late night” parties were fun and switched up the music from the gentle folk of the day to banging electronic but there was little difference and no real stamp of character separating the parties proudly hosted by (diverse you’d assume) Rumpus, The Old Vic Tunnels and Secret Garden Party.
Before you make it to these marvels, however, after steping off busses and onto children, you must pass through security – a necessary evil which requires review – and top marks are awarded here for a swift and queueless experience featuring a jovial security guard. The website stated that no food or drink would be allowed to cross the border between the campsite and the festival proper and I was reliably informed that this happened last year. It did not this time and I was grateful – not because I was carrying a bag-for-life full of crack but because nothing jerks you back to reality like being frisked four times a day (sixteen at the late Big Chill festival). I understand that they need to make money but I’d rather they checked every person on the gates and then, if satisfied with your sanctity and small supply, let you pretend you’re in the wilderness. I don’t know whether they just forgot this year but it was definitely for the best.
Speaking of security, the whole thing feels very safe and, in order to test this, one of my comrades performed a handstand in the ball pit resulting in a lost camera. The next day, the ball pit rulers, members of Team Rumpus I believe, had found it and more impressively found him and returned it, sans ransom. Above and beyond, another gold star awarded!
Indeed, the only real complaint anyone had or could have was that the festival was too nice and caring. They obviously want to nurture their neighbours (though it didn’t look like there were any within miles) or the make sure their attendees don’t overdo it, as the whole affair shuts down at two am. At this point the grounds reluctantly settled into a peaceful place with little groups happily huddled round crackling fires with just a hint of desperation as if inwardly pleading, “Please let us stay up a bit later – we’ve been ever so good.”
In summary then, a good time was had by all in a beautiful setting, complete with great food, music, swimming and opportunities to get involved in debates, charming beat box classes, arts, crafts and more. Wilderness can proudly sell itself a holiday destination and celebration of some of the great things in life. Attendees will not be return home disappointed or (and even if it’s what they want) ill and injured.