Wilderness festival in Oxfordshire

Moro-hosted banquets, wood-fired hot tubs, a masked ball – and did we mention the bands? The inaugural Wilderness festival was a haven for a chilled-out crowd

"I hear you can drink champagne naked here while being serenaded by a string quartet." So said Fyfe Dangerfield, the Guillemots' charismatic frontman, during their Sunday afternoon set at the inaugural Wilderness festival in Oxfordshire. He wasn't misinformed – though he missed out the wood-fired hot tubs and sauna, and the lake. Together they made up the Wilderness spa: probably the best addition to a festival ever. Clean, chilled-out festival-goers couldn't believe their luck. One happy camper, floating on his back and watching deer play in the woods said: "I can't believe it exists – it's like a wonderland."

He could have been talking about the whole festival. Seven years in the making, Wilderness is the brainchild of the people behind Secret Garden Party and Lovebox. Set in the ancient parkland of the Cornbury Estate, it had something of the feel of a pint-sized Latitude, without the endless queues and hordes of teenagers. A benefit of the compact site was that no camping area was more than a short walk from the action, whether it was the regular field (under a spreading chestnut tree if you were lucky), the family section with nicer loos and hot showers, or the boutique glamping area with tipis and butler service.

Wilderness festival food
Posh grub at the Wilderness festival Photograph: PR

Top-quality food was a big focus, with daily sit-down banquets hosted by leading chefs, including Sam and Sam Clark from Moro and Skye Gyngell of Petersham Nurseries. The highlight at Thomas Hunt's banquet was the venison from the estate, cooked two ways: roasted for 16 hours, and seared and served carpaccio-style. Festival food has already come a long way from noodles and dodgy burgers, but this was something else.

The itinerary was strong on theatre, discussion and outdoor pursuits. Go Opera continued its mission to bring opera to the masses, performing engaging 15-minute chunks of La Traviata. Tax Deductible Theatre Co's Shit-Faced Shakespeare version of A Midsummer Night's Dream feature a hilarious, genuinely drunk Hermia. The rest of the cast carried gamely on while she repeatedly swore at Helena ("You ... bitch!"), explained the plot ("We love each other again now") and pulled down Lysander's pants to lick his bottom. The Forum and the Idler's Academy were hotspots of discussion and debate, from the esoteric – a class on didactic farming literature – to the audience-led: for the Philosophy Slam, Julian Baggini and Robert Rowland Smith philosophised on subjects – from riots to pornography – shouted out by the crowd.

Wilderness band practise
There was plenty to keep little ones entertained. Photograph: Richard Heald Photograph: Richard Heald

Wilderness bills itself as a family-friendly festival, and a lot of thought had gone into the dedicated children's area. The main emphasis was on craft, with workshops on everything from making hula hoops to screen-printing T-shirts, but there were also circus skills classes, pizza-making lessons and woodland walks to keep kids happy. For the child-free, this had the added benefit of keeping bored children away from the rest of the festival.

The late-night parties were the biggest attraction of the weekend for a significant chunk of the Wilderness crowd. Where The Wild Things Are was a packed-out party in a forest clearing on Friday night, and fancy-dress fans ran wild at the Midnight Masked Ball on Saturday. There was a bacchanalian feel to events by the early hours of Sunday morning, but when it all got too much there was always a hammock to rest in overlooking the lake.

With such a packed schedule of events, the music ran the risk of being an afterthought. This wasn't a festival for those only interested in the bands: there were just two stages, and the main stage didn't open until Saturday. The line-up, however, was good. Gogol Bordello were fantastic headliners on Saturday's loosely world music-themed day. On Sunday, the crowd took a while to warm up, with shamefully few people bothering to get to their feet for the Low Anthem and Daniel Johnston, and even the Guillemots suffering the indignity of handstands and leapfrogs in the crowd during their set (adults, not children). Laura Marling's legions of dedicated fans changed the tone for the evening, when Antony & the Johnsons had the headline spot. The tented folk stage, on the other hand, was always buzzing, with bands carrying on late into the night.

According to organisers, around 10,000 tickets were sold for the first Wilderness festival. The site is licensed for 20,000, so no doubt it will grow next year. Fine, as long as they retain its eccentric character, keep the queues down – and there's still plenty of room in those hot tubs.

• Early-bird tickets for Wilderness 2012 go on sale soon at wildernessfestival.com


Rachel Dixon

The GuardianTramp

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