The word ‘festival’ encompasses a deceptive variety of events...
From modest village fetes with a single stage to sprawling temporary societies, from remote 5-day celebrations of hedonism to glorified gigs in car parks, it could be argued that this word (from the Latin festum or ‘feast’, as it happens) has become somewhat diluted in recent years. Festivals are everywhere; multiple events jostle for attention and attendance every weekend over the summer months, with yet more announcing their arrival onto the calendar each year. Spoilt for choice, it can be a challenge to figure out which ones deserve your hard-earned cash.
Boomtown Fair, however, is a capital-F ‘Festival’ in the purest sense of the word.
Until recently, Boomtown’s slogan was ‘The UK’s Maddest City’, which is a fabulously succinct summary of what goes on there. Starting out as a small, entirely independent party in 2009 in the grounds of a hotel in west Gloucestershire, the event spent a year in Stowe Landscape Gardens before settling at its home for the past eight years and foreseeable future at Matterley Estate, just outside Winchester. Since then, Boomtown has slowly but surely developed into a 60,000-strong, fully coherent city, complete with entirely distinct districts, endless winding streets and a convoluted political backstory.
Your actual experience at Boomtown depends almost entirely on what you aim to get out of it. Certainly, just like at any other major festival, you could plan out your days walking stage to stage, catching all the headline acts – recent line-ups have included Gorillaz, The Specials, Cypress Hill, Die Antwoord and Madness – but to fixate on the big-name artists, at Boomtown, would be to sorely miss the point. Far better would be to follow the ludicrously intricate storyline, take part in the myriad immersive challenges and interact with the hundreds of actors and characters, all of which fluently come together to complete a stunningly complex, hysterically funny and relentlessly psychedelic alternative universe.
Failing that, you could just explore the site with a few drinks, get lost in mini-venues and enjoy some music which you might not have chosen to listen to in more normal circumstances. This year, I saw a 7-piece jazz band perform in a hidden drag casino, threw myself around to hardcore punk set, drank red wine at a sun-drenched disco stage, and endured a breakneck-paced, pitch-black, ear-splitting techno club – all in the space of a single afternoon. If you ‘know what you like and like what you know’, stay well away from Boomtown.
The crowd, as you might expect, is incredibly varied, from young and excited teenagers to old hippies, via outlandish family groups and dreadlocked rave veterans. There’s a unique enthusiasm that spreads to every kind of person in this short-term Hampshire town. Perhaps due to Boomtown’s independence from corporate sponsorship and large event companies, this includes the staff. Indeed, two years ago OX spoke to Boomtown’s production manager Robin Collings, who was unable to contain his amusement at how preposterous some of his work is. “I was just in a meeting about how to fit 4-metre waterfalls to the front of a stage”, he laughed. “Our meetings are ridiculous: ‘Can I find a crane to hang two aerialists from?’ or ‘How do we construct effective propaganda machines?’”.
I’m not aware of a similarly-sized event anywhere in the world that encapsulates so much, entertains so many and provides such joy, year on year. Happy birthday Boomtown – here’s to another decade.