Refined Fun in the Sun: Wilderness Festival
"Laughing children and proud parents mingled with young couples and tipsy teenagers, instantly presenting an environment of unity, friendliness and good cheer"
Last weekend, Cornbury Park played host to Wilderness Festival, a classy and escapist celebration of music, food and culture. As part of our tireless service to our readers, we sent our in-house festival fiend Jack Rayner to see what all the fuss is about.
If I’m completely honest, the first thing that struck me as I pulled up in the car park at Wilderness wasn’t the beauty of the surroundings or the friendly attitude of the stewards, but how impossibly pretty everyone was.
As a festival catered towards the more discerning Costwolds set, every member of the public looked like they’d walked straight in from the books of a modelling agency. This unlikely observation, combined with the fact that your loyal writer is more used to swigging from plastic bottles of smuggled-in spirits in sweaty techno warehouses than sipping Laurent Perrier in fenced-off VIP areas, meant that I was mildly apprehensive that the atmosphere at Wilderness would be one of triumphant upper middle-class indulgence rather than community, love and inclusivity. So, after losing my phone in a festival toilet-related incident before I’d even reached the main entrance, I was unable to locate any of my friends and went on a solo expedition to try and test my baseless premonitions and possibly even enjoy myself.
As soon as I reached the boating lakes at the bottom of a steep valley just outside of the campsite, it was obvious that my sneering predictions were completely unfounded, as laughing children and proud parents mingled with young couples and tipsy teenagers, instantly presenting an environment of unity, friendliness and good cheer. As I stomped my way round the sizeable festival site, an impressive array of stalls, stages and entertainment all fought for my attention. I’d heard that the food stalls at Wilderness were unmatched at any UK festival, and after devouring a cabbage, jalapeno and Monterey Jack salt beef bagel in about 15 seconds I was already inclined to agree. An hour or so later I was reunited with my squadron of seasoned festival goons who all had very similar stories of completely unparalleled street food. Particular highlights, according to my trusted confidants, included buttermilk-marinated fried chicken tacos and organic lamb burgers with harissa and tzatziki. If you’re a little more adventurous, you can book five-course long-table banquets by chefs such as Raymond Blanc, Angela Hartnett and Niklas Ekstedt.
Let’s talk about music. As with all good festivals, the actual lineup should be second in importance to atmosphere and attention to detail, but Wilderness impressed on both fronts. Bjork impressed with an ambitious set of slow, winding arrangements culminating in an industrial-tinged climax set to a backdrop of colourful, grandiose visuals, and later on in the Hidden Valley, Francesca Lombardo played a flawless set of her trademark smooth, hypnotic dance music. The real highlights, though, came on the Saturday, as George Clinton (now aged 74) played with as much humour and enthusiasm as you could possibly imagine, Caravan Palace entertained the crowd with their electro-swing silliness, and DJ Harvey played an impeccable selection of leftfield disco.
Despite the dazzling performances and impeccable curation, the festival did at times feel like a well-orchestrated rip off. Most of the exhibitions advertised as part of the proceedings before the event were upwards of £15 per head (on top of the already considerable entry fee). Security seemed unconcerned with any aspect of the festival’s running apart from whether attendees were bringing alcohol into the main arena, making sure that the bars selling warm cans of Beck’s for £5 were overcrowded from start to finish. This, combined with the dreadful sound (you could easily talk at normal volume whilst stood next to the speakers in the Hidden Valley, which takes away considerably from the atmosphere at what should have been a truly immersive stage) meant that at several points I felt short-changed, which is a real shame.
Having said that, where Wilderness really comes into its own is in the myriad tents and exhibitions that go against the grain of traditional festival entertainment. I caught, amongst countless others, the Wilderness Orchestra play a set of Radiohead and Aphex Twin tracks, a frankly disturbing taxidermy workshop, a talk on “cloud spotting” and a morning meditation session which left me feeling more clear and focused then I ever thought was possible at a summer festival. Despite all this, the absolute highlight of the weekend was the Saturday Night Spectacular by La Fura Dels Baus, in which a 150ft wicker man strode over the crowd whilst a lattice of circus performers arranged themselves into disorientating shapes whilst dangled high in the air by a crane.
As I packed away my belongings at the end of Wilderness I felt like I’d enjoyed more of an artistic and cultural experience than at any festival I’ve attended in the past, and the sheer variety of things to do mean that the days flew by and I felt constantly surprised. The organiser’s attitude to the bank accounts of their guests is irritating at best and extortionate at worst, but if your pockets are deep enough then Wilderness is thoroughly recommended. An excellent weekend.