There is something peculiarly British about our love of festivals. Whilst European and American equivalents continue to flourish, the British are almost protective of their festival culture. We are joyous about our weekends of merriment, in which we forge transient friendships and resurrect long forgotten communities.
Yet with so many new festivals on offer, catering to markets as diverse as science, folk and art lovers, escalating ticket prices, and a record number of festivals shutting down operations this year, the British love affair with festivals may finally be showing signs of abating. If you want to start up a festival in this climate, you have to be doing something quite new, or at least something significantly different, to survive.
Last weekend's Wilderness was the latest fledging to hedge its bets in a cluttered marketplace. Organised by Secret Productions, the team behind the Secret Garden Party and Lovebox, it's in a better position than many of its uninitiated contemporaries. The organizers, fully aware of the challenges of launching a new festival, made frequent reference to their better known annual extravaganzas on marketing bumpf, offering those sitting on the festival fence a gentle nudge in the direction of Oxfordshire's Cornbury Park.
There was plenty to be excited about. The Wilderness Spa, offering hot tubs, saunas, massage, yoga and a beautiful lake to swim was a veritable haven. As the sun peeked through gathering clouds on Sunday morning, swimmers gathered round the lake to frolic in the ice-cold, life-affirming waters. Elsewhere, the sit-down banquets, featuring Cornbury Park venison from the estate and organised by such fashionable eateries as Moro, Petersham Nurseries and Thomas Hunt, proved that festival fare has come a long way since soggy mash and flaccid sausages. Even the children were treated to pizza-making classes in their own designated section.
"People want an experience at festivals, not the same old tired headliners", Secret Productions' James Brennan told me. "They want more than just a band. At Wilderness, we offer a whole range of unique touches. Our boutique camping, designed for people who don't like the idea of putting up a tent and queuing for a portable toilet, is effectively a hotel on-site."
For young families, Wilderness was where it was at. Gone were the teenage dreamers, the hot-boxed tents, the lingering smell of dance-til-you-drop sweat, the legions of costumed revelers. In their place, boutique babysitting, hot showers and proper loos.
The children's area, with its workshops, circus enthusiasts, and daily woodland walks, was utterly charming. On the way to my tent one evening, I overheard an awe-struck young boy whispering with disbelief to his brother: "Do you think it will be as good as this next year?"
This was family fun at its best. I watched children laughing and playing with envy, for though the programme promised talks, parties, and happenings, entertainment outside of the kiddies' enclosure felt sparse. Like Secret Garden Party, this isn't a festival focused on headliners. But unlike its older cousin, Wilderness felt almost bereft of trifling amusements, live performers, and impromptu parties. With only two music venues- a main stage that didn't open until Saturday- and a small folk tent, adults were left with slim pickings, whilst children cavorted wantonly. The Midnight Masked Ball, hosted by the Last Tuesday Society, hit capacity by 11.30pm with overly zealous stewards refusing entry to hundreds of revelers forced to make do with a lower field boasting only a small tent and a DJ. The queues were testament not to the brilliance of the party, but rather to the lack of available options.
Organising two annual festivals in Hay, I know how competitive the festival market is. Whilst audiences like the option of lounging in deckchairs drinking cider in hazy sunshine, they also want to feel that there's a real buzz, that there's always something going on even if they choose to opt out of it. At this year's HowTheLightGetsIn we put on over 350 events. Next year, we're planning even more.
Wilderness promised much, but a festival of ten times this size and scale would struggle to be all things to all festivalgoers. It needs to focus on the family market, which it catered to so brilliantly, or risk being left out in the cold.