09/09/2013 08:21 BST | Updated 08/11/2013 05:12 GMT

Middle-Class Wild; Wilderness Festival 2013

Upon arrival, initial impressions did nothing to dispel Wilderness's reputation - I parked next to an Audi, and the first people I met were GPs, a surgeon and an osteopath. Never before has St John's Ambulance been less needed at a festival.

When I posted the inevitable Facebook update about my attending Wilderness, comments focused on its reputation as "the most middle-class festival around." I was secretly delighted. It's 14 years since I willingly endured three days at Reading on a diet of Stagg chilli, White Lightning and passing out beneath tarpaulins; warm showers, organic cuisine and chai lattés were calling me.

Upon arrival, initial impressions did nothing to dispel Wilderness's reputation - I parked next to an Audi, and the first people I met were GPs, a surgeon and an osteopath. Never before has St John's Ambulance been less needed at a festival.

Ambling towards the main arena, something unusual scratched at the edge of my consciousness, and it took me a good hour to figure out what it was: demographic variation. Go to any other festival in England, and everyone is between 18 and 30. Wilderness's core group was 25-35, but from young families to open-minded Baby Boomers, the audience age was varied. In the space of 50 metres I saw: an enormous, tattooed, 25-year old man, delicately sewing bunting; a 10 year-old girl confidently using a lathe to make a lamp; a 65 year-old lady giggling whilst catching smoke-filled bubbles.


And that's because instead of just top-billing bands and bars to get boozed-up in, Wilderness is a fully immersive experience from beginning to end. There are woodwork and life-drawing classes; yoga practice and gong meditation; debates and seminars. There's an overview programme with certain events, such as bands on the Main Stage, or debates in the Forum, fixed; but with pop-up performances and secret gigs occurring at random, it's best to just meander aimlessly and enjoy what you come across.

At a beautiful wooden desk overlooking the lake, Ruth Cross was continuing her Past, Present, Future project: you write a letter to your future self and, five years later, Ruth posts it back to you. "People here are in a positive space," she says, "They're ready to realise and discover things. I visit a lot of festivals, and this one has a very special vibe to it."

Maren Hallenga of charity Coppafeel! - who visit festivals around the country, educating young women about breast cancer - echoed the sentiment. "People are receptive here," she said, "They have time to talk and take it on board. They want to learn and discover something new, not just get hammered and roll around in mud."

As the sun set behind the Cotswold hills, Les Pepones performed a mind-blowing trapeze act, whilst folk-rocker Rodriguez, of Searching For Sugarman, performed on the Main Stage. His positive sermons and mellow tunes were fulfilling enough for most; but as his set closed, drummers lead the more hedonistic participants to the Late Night Revelry: a steeply-sided, wooded vale that was host to the Bacchanalian Masked Ball.

Revellers wearing glittery leggings, feathers and foxtails, bounced to a DJ, whilst a troupe of bird-masked dancers moved through the crowd, performing what I can only describe as interpretive ejaculation. At the other end of the vale, The Box burlesque team gave a truly eye-opening performance of Alice In Wonderland. It all seemed perfectly appropriate in the surreal settings.

The 2am curfew seemed ridiculous, but the next morning I was grateful for such enforced civility. Rather than the usual apocalyptic scene of a festival's final day, rubbish was neatly bagged, and glitter-faced campers sat beneath gazebos with coffee. It was the festival's fourth day and people looked human. This was very much a case of hedonism within civil parameters.

With the sun shining we headed to the swimming lake; diving into the sun-dappled water was wonderful, blasting away any lingering grogginess. Groups of guitar-playing hipsters lounged around the shore, dipping their toes in the temperature-perfect water, shaded by magnificent oak trees.

Galvanised by aquatic awakenings, I returned to the main arena, with it's English-village-fete feel. A game of cricket was underway, with witty commentary provided by Bearded Kitten; a beautician from Leeds was caught-out by a fox from Cornwall. Outside the Village Hall, a brass band appeared, and within moments a spontaneous hoedown was in session. On the Wilderness Stage, a 38-piece orchestra performed Ride Of The Valkyries, before Tony Juniper, former Executive Director of Friends Of The Earth, explained how veterinary drugs caused billions of dollars of economic damage to India, in What Has Nature Done For Us?

As I headed for home, my head full of incredible images, I discovered The Wilderness 2013 Bell: every attendee was asked to bring a piece of metal, which were all melted down and used to cast the bell.


As its clear tone rang out across the magical landscape of Cornbury Park, I finally came to understand Wilderness: like the bell, the festival's success requires the full contribution and engagement of everyone who attends. I'll definitely be returning (and engaging) next year.