Just a few hours after the last of Wilderness’ revellers had packed up their bell tents and hunter wellies, a photo of David Cameron surrounded by a group of women on a hen party went viral on Twitter. The year before, the ex-PM was spotted at the same festival with a girl in an “I heart Corbyn” jacket. If there was ever an image to sum up the 10,000-strong boutique festival in the Cotswolds – this is it. Wilderness’ reputation as the poshest of all UK festivals precedes it. But that’s not the only title it holds. It’s also the cleanest festival I’ve ever been to. The friendliest. The festival with the best food (by a mile).
Back for its eighth edition, when I first went to the festival four years ago Prince Harry was spotted partying away his final single nights and Cara Delevingne was hosting a Mulberry bag workshop. This year, I knew the drill. Welcome additions included a bigger and covered Atrium stage and more activities (paddle board yoga anyone?). Perhaps more confusing was the removal of the bandstand stage in favour of a cricket pitch.
Days are spent lake swimming (lakes provide welcome respite at 35c) and napping under oak trees. Nights are spent in The Valley, a steep-sided wooded forest presided over by a floating DJ booth where Groove Armada, Peggy Gou and George Fitzgerald took to the decks after dark. Stuttering lasers filter through pine trees and the crowd ripples below low-hanging smoke.
You’d need a whole week here to try all of the food on offer. There are banqueting tents, where, for around £50 you can perch on benches at flower-strewn tables eating multiple courses by Michelin-starred chefs. For those feeling less flush, there are all of the regular food trucks including London restaurants Hotbox and Claw serving restaurant-quality food.
After a day of checking out the various tents (including a group spooning session in the wellness tent), Friday’s headliners kicked off with French electro duo Justice headlining to the main stage. Ten minutes before, the crowd was suspiciously sparse, kids were running wild and mummy and daddy were smashed on champagne from the Veuve Clicquot tent. Justice rattle through grinding electronic hits ‘Waters of Nazareth’, ‘Stress’, ‘Phantom’ and ‘We Are Your Friends’, posing like statues when the music pauses for an agonisingly long wait only to drop into a sea of churning synths. With a couple of decks and their signature floating white cross they prove they’re still at the top of their game and worthy headliners, ten years after their debut album was released.
On Saturday morning we set up a picnic blanket under the huge white sail of The Atrium where there was back-to-back performers that included Swing Patrol, who invited over 200 of the audience on stage for a 1920s inspired dance class. Later on, Hip Hop karaoke proved a surprise hit with audience members taking to stage to rap to Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and a lot of Eminem. When it was good, it was really good.
One of the main festival highlights was French multi-instrumentalist Roscius. Although taking to the Travelling Barn stage on Saturday evening for a sun-drenched performance, his set is more deserving of a dance-dedicated late night crowd. London-based William Serfass creates a bewitching blend of minimal dance music by live sampling, weaving and looping keys, vocals and handheld instruments over one another, steadily building momentum and cutting it back with practiced deftness. Cowbells, cymbals and drums blend into a seamless mix of dance music it’d take many producers all day to create on a laptop. Seeing house and techno live is so often, well, pretty boring, but you’ll be hypnotised by the creativeness of his improvisation. Just don’t forget to dance.
Saturday night, and Nile Rodgers and Chic deliver a note-perfect set with special mention to hair-raising vocals of Kimberly Davis. It’s very much still the Nile Rodgers Show though, and the audience isn’t made to forget it, with ‘500 million albums sold’ flashing up on screen. Having said that, they’re the perfect headliner for Wilderness consistently hitting the right notes and blasting without pause through hits ‘Le Freak’ and ‘Good Times’ also covering Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ and Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’.
Raucous punk outfit seven-piece Rum Buffalo close Saturday night at the Travelling Barn stage to a blisteringly wild crowd hollering for more. The energy is electric as they finish their rambunctious horn-strewn set before coming back on stage announcing “we have no more songs, so we’re going to play one we’ve already played” to huge cheers and fevered dancing.
Sunday starts off with a family friendly sing-along of Disney classics on the Atrium stage, and Letters Live draws a huge afternoon crowd, with Olivia Colman and Ruby Wax reading a mix of heartwarming and disturbing historical letters. Back at the main stage, Palace shed layers in baking heat as they perform slow-lilted guitar favourites from their 2016 album So Long Forever. IAMDBB is another highlight of the weekend, the bubbly Mancunian is one of the hotly tipped ‘next big things’. She slinks around the stage in an orange and purple maxi dress performing hit single ‘Shade’ while treating the crowd like her new best friend. Later on, saxophonist Kamasi Washington, in a long red embroidered tunic and beanie hat, pulls a huge crowd with his 12-strong band including his father on accompanying sax. Although a musically complex blend of jazz, electronic music and choral, songs from his latest album Heaven and Earth soar when performed live.
To those who say that the UK festival has had its day, I say, come to Wilderness. It’s a class A example of a festival that’s pushing boundaries, redefining what a festival should be. It’s not back-to-back music, it’s yoga classes, forest runs, wild foraging, communal dinners, basket-weaving classes, podcast recordings and business workshops. It’s a line-up that’s equally focused on what’s happening in a tiny tent at 10am as it is on the main stage 10pm. Sure it’s posh, and you won’t need Bear Grylls survival skills to survive here, but the wild never seemed more appealing.
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