Wilderness Festival: Oxfordshire Dreamin’


Wilderness was my friend Vinnie’s idea. Less music, more rounded arts experience – it seemed a new kind of festival. And it was. In contrast to Glastonbury et al, the festivals we’ve come to know and love, Wilderness actually touched on a retroactive sensibility. For a single Oxfordshire weekend, it felt as if a little piece of the folkloric California after which our fathers hankered, of yurts and spliff and floral print, might still exist.

Wilderness Cornburylake (c) Benjamin Eagle

Vinnie’s background is a hybrid of the military and the very eccentric. She comes from privileged hippy stock for whom the free love of the sixties became a permanent fixture. To this day her two uncles live amongst California’s ageing bohemia – one crafting hanging glass beads, the other a cult-espousing musician.

Vinnie wears her roots in bright patterned dresses and lives them in her livelihood– since her departure from a crushing media career, she has been a practising massage therapist. She’s so peaceful, so at one with herself, and so unlike me in that respect, that I am always happy to join.

And so we set out to recapture the festivals of our parents’ youth, less an excuse to get wrecked than an opportunity to congregate with the likeminded. We’ve dedicated our careers to therapy and gluttony respectively, so – with the additions of a luminary line-up, a forum, and crafts area – it ticked all our boxes: myriad eating opportunities for me, a healing area for her.

From start to finish, the festival was unlike any other. This was partly fortuitous circumstance. Not only does V live nearby, but on arrival we were spoilt with “boutique camping”. I invert those commas because, really, it’s not camping if you’re sleeping in a chalet with a shower in the next room. Wilderness Night Group (c) Benjamin EagleOh, and surround sound, a TV and a fridge casually brimming with beverages. So while we didn’t exactly rough it, or spill out of a VW Westfalia in Woodstock fashion, we did really relax (and there’s a village called Woodstock down the road, which thoroughly delighted me). Our little cabin sat amongst a small cluster of white tipis, the perfect respite from the (albeit moderate) festival crowds.

That there was only one stage revolutionised the normal, frantic festival experience. There was no scrambling from one act to another here, or orchestrating of friends in the process. We laid a blanket by the single stage and lazed; the others came and went as they pleased. The line up was suitably eclectic for the crowd, a combination of the lulling acoustic, reggae, gypsy pop and the totally unique. Over an afternoon, Hayseed Dixie faded into Toots and the Maytalls, by which time the sea of Home Counties hips had loosened and we swayed to the sweet sound of ska.

We dedicated Sunday to healthier pursuits. Well, Vinnie did. After an hour each of yoga and shiatsu, she emerged glowing. I also had a shiatsu treatment, but only after a multi-course meal courtesy of Petersham Nurseries and some Chablis, courtesy of the lovely Irish family with whom I sat. Nevertheless, the “healing area” at Wilderness made a refreshing change from the more gimmicky masseuses at other festivals. Here was an authentic therapeutic zone, genuinely committed to the wellbeing of its visitors. Despite my post-repast condition, I took a lot away from the short shiatsu treatment. Much like other eastern holistic therapies, I left with the realisation that my health rests not on medicine or external factors. Wellness comes from within.

The food at Wilderness was testament to the escalating celebrity attached to food in Britain. It also put my Summer of Love weekend on hold with an injection of decadence! Moro’s Sam and Sam Clark and Skye Gyngell of Petersham were as high-billing as the festival’s bands. Skye’s Sunday banquet brought new edible textures and seasonal fare. In their beautiful simplicity, the salads stood out: heirloom tomatoes with goats curd, black olives and oregano, and buffalo mozzarella with courgette and dried chilli. But there was a marked shortage of food. Delicious yes, but at £35 a head for a modest platter between eight (and before wine) hardly a banquet, and many left feeling hungry / sober / poor.Wilderness Stage (c) Richard Heald

By dusk on Sunday we were sitting in hot tubs by Cornbury’s lake. Fine, we failed to live wholeheartedly the hippy dream complete with a naked lake swim, but a bikini-clad hot tub dip did the trick, followed by possibly the hottest sauna I’ve ever entered (and in a wigwam no less). From there we floated back up to the main stage with our rug and lay under the sky as Antony and the Johnson’s performed a spiritual symphony to the spellbound crowd.

There was a lovely all-inclusiveness about Wilderness. We had expected a field full of Oxon gentry spawn – precisely smudged eye makeup etc – and were pleasantly surprised by the cocktail of people there solely to have a good, mind-expanding time. The peace and total lack of threat with which us two girls could wander around the countryside in the early hours showed this was something special. Though we didn’t leave members of the Woodstock generation, we at least left oozing with good vibrations.

The Wilderness Festival takes place every summer. For more details about the next festival, please visit the website.


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