Shekha’s Wilderness adventure was the stuff summers are made for…
Wild Swimmers, Face Painters, Glitter Wearers, Rainbow Dancers etc
Festival veterans looking for something a little different will love the experience-led approach
Those looking to learn a new handicraft, find new music, theatre or comedy
David Cameron – apparently – (so by default probably all “posh” people)
In a Word
Wilderness is a gently sprawling creature, designed predominately with experiences at its heart. Revellers enjoyed the high temperatures of the late English summer which imbued the four-day extravaganza with a sense of stillness, time measured only by the shifting of light and shadow across the glitter-strewn fields.
Set in the idyllic 5000-acre Cornbury Park estate, in Oxfordshire, Wilderness, was a wonderful setting for the kinds of activities which punctuate the long, slow summer days. Lake swimming, cricket and a wide programme of talks, debates, comedy, theatre and cabaret kept festival goers entertained throughout the weekend. Workshops such as blacksmithing and woodwork were available alongside goings-on that took advantage of the great outdoors like horse riding and archery – making this a perfect family festival.
The relaxed atmosphere did, however, turn to chaos when it came to accessibility. Our personal experience of not camping, having secured alternative accommodation in Oxford, was frustrating. A lack of communication and cohesion among the traffic wardens and security had us walking or driving in circles on more than one day. Arbitrary changes to the one-way system, a lack of information about which exits were being used, the shuttle bus routes and times and the infrequency of the train to Charlbury, the nearest station from the site (which apparently takes a two-hour break around midday on weekends) meant we wasted around seven hours over the three days we were there, merely trying to get into the festival grounds.
Nevertheless, alongside its varied programme, Wilderness hosted some memorable music which went a way to alleviate these issues. Despite a lack of big-ticket names on the roster, the nights especially were like a completely different festival. French dance duo Justice was incredible, setting Friday evening on fire with a thumping programme of hits. While on Saturday night Nile Rogers and Chic brought all the good feelings with some brilliant classics. Memorable performances from Lianne La Havas, IAMDDB, John Hopkins and a host of other sets had people dancing until the early hours.
Set away from the main stages, The Valley, Wilderness’s after-hours woodland dancefloor, was a resounding success. Immersed in this stygian forest cradle, where darkness, lasers and flashing lights ruled supreme, it was easy to be transported from the relaxing vibe of daytime to an almost otherworldly night on the wings of the pulsing soundscape.
Festivals have become just as important for their food offering and Wilderness, with its myriad private dining options, chef collaborations, banquets and feasts, is arguably the best of the lot. While the need to book a lot of these in advance and the corresponding heftier price tags of some experiences is likely to put off those seeking a more organic – less militantly scheduled, festival experience – the food trucks and stalls showcase a huge range of interesting concepts.
We barely scratched the surface of everything on offer but gave it our best efforts! A generously seasoned portion of fries, rich with cheeses and herbs from La Piadina Project was a delicious way to start off our food odyssey. As was a huge fried chicken burger from Other Side Fried – crispy and tender at the same time – which came with Cajun fries – seemingly the snack of the summer.
An Asian inspired slow-cooked pork belly from Smokin’ Lotus melted-in-the-mouth while accompanying chilli relish and a pair of salads packed a huge punch. A smattering of red chillies added a gentle heat which rounded off the dish perfectly.
Melt Room gave us great grilled cheese on toast, smothering fat slices of bacon, garnished with a lip-smacking relish, giving the classic another dimension. More cheesy goodness came from Le Rac Shack which offered a traditional raclette with new potatoes, cornichons and chunks of meaty Toulouse sausage – all topped with oozing melted cheese – a wonderfully indulgent midnight snack!
An utterly divine cherry crumble from Crumble Shack with vanilla ice cream was a lovely meeting of opposites; sweet, sour, hot and cold all dancing together in a medley of lively flavour. I’d have preferred a moister crumble but this is the tiniest of complaints.
Wholefood Heaven’s smoked tofu Buddha Bowl looked and tasted stunning, packed full of healthy vegetables and sesame seeds. A vegan burger from The Big V was also good, the house burger was juicy and amply topped with the plant-based restaurant’s famous relish and pickles.
Steak pie from Barnaby Syke’s was a solid rendition, with tender filling and a decent shortcrust pastry. Chips and gravy to accompany also hit the spot after a busy day of wandering about in the sun. Patty and Bun’s low and slow steak was tender and easy to eat with a wonderful green relish that added zest to the pull-apart meat.
Pizzas from Homeslice and Arancina were a big contrast. Homeslice’s pie was crispy, with a decently fluffy crust and nice char on the bottom, its tomato sauce well-seasoned and garnished with basil. Arancina’s, I have to say, was a tad disappointing, overly floury with a bland sauce and just a smidgeon of chorizo. While it looked impressive, it was more style than substance.
Highlights included Guerrilla Kitchen’s ‘Bunlove’ baos, stuffed with pork belly and hoisin, cucumber and mint. These little buns were perfectly flavoured with all the components working seamlessly together to create a combination so delicious that we were tempted to go back for more. And we loved Krapow’s Thai fried chicken, a huge portion of crispy meat lying on rice topped with slivers of red chilli, chilli flakes, coriander and sriracha mayo.
Wilderness is a great festival (when you can finally get there) and with such a vast programme, it is easy to let oneself be led by unstructured, random experiences.
Indeed, part of the joy of a festival is organically stumbling across something new or interesting. But with a festival going for a more experience-led approach, rather than the bragging rights of a killer musical line-up, we felt the spontaneity was somewhat removed from the sheer number of advance book activities (many of them sold out) there were.
Even though the festival promises plenty is included with the price of the ticket, we couldn’t shake the feeling that advance planning and booking would allow attendees to get more out of the whole experience. The issue here, despite worth noting there are no VIP tickets at Wilderness, is that if the idea of“extra” experiences (and corresponding extra cost) of these activities and dining events becomes ubiquitous, organisers risk taking some inclusivity out of the festival-going experience, which was arguably evidenced in the lack of diversity with the crowd.
Nevertheless, Wilderness’s feel-good factor is undeniable; the focus on wellbeing delightfully refreshing. In a time where life seems to move so fast, weekends where family and friends of all ages can spend quality time in an environment with culture for all to enjoy, have never been more needed. Wilderness provides that environment with buckets to spare, offering a positive, relaxed experience – rather than headline-chasing panic and rowdy crowds – making it the perfect place to create the kinds of memories that summer was made for.