It seems you can't have any conversation about Wilderness Festival without the dreaded P word cropping up sooner or later. Over nine editions, the Oxfordshire Festival has rightly or wrongly garnered a reputation as a cornucopia of the middle class; all champagne, yurts and a bit, well… posh (there it is).
Truth is, Wilderness is exactly what you want it to be. Yoga retreat with a side of queer cabaret? Check. Foodie fiesta with some top notch music? You betcha. Hedonistic late night revelling with a spot of cricket? Sure. It’s a festival that feels just as right with Erol Alkan playing at 2am as it does with whittling a spoon in the sunshine.
It's the kind of festival that when you speak to other Wilderness goers during the weekend (and you will, they're an incredibly friendly bunch) you'll find they’ve had a completely different weekend to yours. Either by design or through a baffling lack of signage, you're encouraged to scope out a spot somewhere, pull up a pew and experience what's laid out in front of you. It’s not often what you expect, but it pretty much always guarantees a delight.
Case in point, a Saturday highlight for us is on a late-night arrival in The Forum, usually a place for hot topic discussion set in the round. There we find Madame Galina, a high-class ballerina from Russia/bloke from Milton Keynes providing a masterclass in audience interaction, guiding a slightly tipsy Alex through a madcap concerto that ends in them collapsing to the floor in amongst a standing ovation. It's all about these micro moments that’ll provide stories that won’t sound so believable when you leave the sanctity of the forest.
By day, you're not expected to just jump from music stage to music stage. Instead, you might wake up to a clowning workshop by Edinburgh Fringe stalwarts Pleasance Theatre. Or take a dip in the lake next to the paddle board yoga to shake off the cobwebs. Or get on stage yourself to a sea of hundreds to perform some Eminem like the fearless young Louis did during Hip Hop Karaoke in The Atrium.
The line up poster is an almost an embarrassment of riches, stretching out longer than Willy Wonka’s contract. It’s also probably the only festival with a knowing sense of humour. The aforementioned cricket match, now a Wilderness tradition, features volunteers in fancy dress (think Marilyn Monroe batting against a unicorn) to a thronging crowd while a commentator with a mild disdain for the game pomps it up in the Queen’s English. On the scoreboard lays a total for the just-as-traditional streakers, as men on mobility scooters and hen dos doing cartwheels invade on a regular basis. The record is smashed when someone rushes on to insistently do the macarena centre pitch, only for dozens from the crowd - and the cricket players - to begin joining him as nature intended. It’s this thread of fun, whimsy, and a little bit of British nudge-nudge-wink-wink that courses through the festival and gives it a unique feel from acre to acre.
It might sound like the tunes play second fiddle, but the organisers pull off a whole host of coups with its main stage headliners. Friday closes in resurgent fashion with the recently reformed Bombay Bicycle Club playing one of their first gigs in years, certainly their biggest since going on hiatus in 2015. It’s all joyous singalongs and confetti cannons for the still-fresh, thousands-strong crowd who show up to see something not thought possible a few years ago.
On the opposite end of the touring schedule, Robyn returns to these shores after her huge world tour with a UK festival exclusive that shows perfectly why she’s the alt-queen of pop. Condensing her spectacular stage show somewhat, it’s still a masterclass in bringing theatrics into live music. Introducing a lone dancer on stage, the pair play off each other with both dramatic and playful aplomb - and of course all of this is soundtracked by a back catalogue that’s hard to beat.
Closing out Sunday, Groove Armada swatted away some pretty hefty technical issues to producer a career-spanning set, flanked by a booming live band and a whole host of guest vocalists. The duo have been churning out classics for over twenty years, so it can be easy to forget how hit-packed a set they can produce. Deafening roars for songs like ‘I See You Baby’ are matched only by the volume of the band. Not intent to merely play out their tracks asis, layers upon layers are added as they twist and turn their tracks, eking out just that little bit more to get the audiences whipped up.
Once the night takes hold, the festival transforms into a late-night party. Stages rise up to provide every genre of music going. Drum ‘n’ bass blares out of the new Jumpyard stage - curated and designed by the creators of Glastonbury’s Shangri-La. All the while just a few steps away italo disco booms from The High Ground as drag queens dance atop the decks. The aim here is to provide a multi-sensory experience into the night that you flutter through, and based on the sore heads down by the lake on Sunday mornings, it works.
The nightfall highlight however has to be The Valley, an immense space nestled deep into the woods dedicated to big beats and brighter lights. With a soundsystem so big it could fell a tree at the whiff of a hi-hat, this is where the ravers play until all hours without a single thought of anything outside the deep lining of trees.
Just like during the weekend itself, we’re barely even scratching the surface here. There’s the country’s best chefs and renowned restaurants offering unique sit-down restaurant experiences, a world away from the chip buttys of other festivals. There’s level of costumes on show from everyone, bolstered by daily themes from the organisers, making walking from place to place a delight. There’s the house band - the 47-piece Wilderness Orchestra - playing songs chosen by the festival public paired with their heartwarming stories of their passage to the festival that will make you cry. And let’s not forget everyone raising their shoes to Sexy Jesus at Oh My God It’s The Church.
So call it posh all you want, what it really is is a festival experience like no other. If you find yourself bored of another weekend of bland fields and seeing indie bands you’ll have forgotten a week later, Wilderness might be the cure for you.
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