Live Report: Wilderness Festival 2014, Oxfordshire

Glorious food, with just a dash of music…

Armageddon was nearly upon us. Or at least that’s what the newsletter said. And Wilderness 2014, a wooden festival set around numerous swimmable lakes, certainly resembled the perfect site to restructure our society on fresher terms.

It’s a festival that features workshops and exploratory experiences aplenty. One particularly alarming session beckoned with the title, How To: Rebuild After the Apocalypse. Sadly that activity was all booked up. So Clash embezzled its attentions towards a weekend of forest escapism that juxtaposed dancing, laidback socially deconstructive lectures and epic opportunities to expand our sense of wellbeing, as well as our gastronomic waistbands.

Thus Wilderness is a destination for engaged palettes. Refinery abounds. If your idea of great festival is moshing to Kasabian with 80,000 others on a diet of own-brand lager, or getting livid with nitrous oxide in a k-hole, then look away now. Wilderness is part health retreat, part browsing of the weekend papers, and part relaxed cultural inquisition.

All three days nudged the typical age spectrum towards either polarity. Boisterously alive with kids, it’s not uncommon for the calmly spacious campsites to see three generations of the same family dwelling amongst rapturously received bacon rolls. Yep, the grandparents are here. They are swimming in the lake. They are sipping champagne in numerous tinkling piano bars. They might even enjoying a break from the babysitting by watching Shakespeare deep in the forest. They are often seen ferrying their grandkids about in particularly pimped up buggies and trailers. One we discovered was called The Daisy Mark II and actually had window boxes with fresh basil growing.

So while parents can be taking luncheon under the careful hum of kitchens run by Simon Rogan, Moro, Polpetto or St. Johns, their kids can be revelling in a litany of story workshops or a Roald Dahl showcase just as grandpa finally learns how to butcher a deer or forage for his own wild rocket salad. If all of that sounds like hell on earth, don’t be scared – you can pull the eject chord at anytime and quickly blaze about to acts like Chet Faker, Hozier and Mount Kimbie. Or if even that sounds too tame, then just hit the nocturnal woods for Bablyon-like beats delivered from DJs such as Psychemagik, Greg Wilson, Horsemeat Disco, Future Boogie and Tom Middleton.

Compared to dedicated music festivals, Wilderness feels a little light on tunes as the programmers sink more investment into all the sizzling experiences one cannot get elsewhere. However, there are two large outdoor stages, the requisite and noisy Bandstand, a folk barn, a big top ballroom that plays host to the risqué burlesque of New York’s The Box, as well as a Juke Joint.

The highlight, personally, was the Friends Of The Earth Busking Stage. This unlikely place saw eco-activism blend with some of the most talented bands from other stages, who popped down for stripped-back, impromptu sets glistening with proximity and party vibes. It was also run by a small colony of very large fluffy bees that worked simultaneously as roadies, MCs, child minders and dancers. Friday heard The John Langan Band deploy their Pictish / Balkan fusion to midnight revellers thrashing amongst the hay bales. Saturday saw Slow Club (pictured above) play their fast-paced emotional folky rock to huge levels of crowd participation.

Away from music our schedule boggled. Talks on Gaza from The Frontline Club vie for your attention with lectures by Antony Gormley, the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett or even speculative talks about the achievements of The KLF. After such highbrow escapades it was refreshing to plunge into one of three swimming lakes to decompress.

Over our weekend three distinct experiences stood out. The first up was The AROMAetum: a multi-sensory wander into themed boozing. The House of Gastrophonic runs a 45-minute session where aroma, taste, sound and colour combine to create a rave for your senses. Three lovingly concocted drinks and a slick DJ mix blended with aroma canons and a massive lighting rig help a crowd of 100 revellers become even more at one with their tipples. We traversed from juicy forest themes of elderflowers and trance, across smoky, dubbed-out whisky vibes towards a cleansing ocean finale where gin was found dancing with a drum and bass soundtrack somewhere near the metaphysical surf. A perfect party primer.

Our next experience saw us more grounded. It was time for lunch at Moro’s banquet table (the food being cooked, above). Their souk-obsessed chefs, chasing the spirit of southern Spain and the Mediterranean Muslims, were earnestly converting fans in a field near Oxford as quickly as they’ve been appropriating foodie fans at their restaurant on Exmouth Market in London. A starter of mixed pickles and cured meats gave way through a sweet sherry. Yes sherry. We were as surprised as it was to be greeted with our lips, but down it slipped.

We then rattled through a chilled cucumber and yogurt soup that was distracted by a smattering of nuts and sweet dried fruits. It was small. It was light. And perhaps most importantly polished our buds for their slow-cooked lamb and braised courgettes that ambushed us with its ambient thrill of cinnamon and coriander just a little later. As we prised ourselves off from the communal benches we even got inveigled in an impromptu ukulele orchestra outside on the sun-drenched bales of hay.

Our finale for this day of treats was to be found at the Lakeside Spa. In some sort of aquatic post-apocalyptic vision we were delivered into wood-burning pond-side hot tubs. Which were conveniently located next to the barrel sauna, easily found by looking for the champagne bar. When things got too hectic one just slipped into the lake to cool off.

Wilderness was refreshing in its assault on the senses. A treat for the taste buds, and a work out for the brain, it also has just enough bands and DJs to keep the musical hardcore entertained. If living in the woods is this much fun then Armageddon do your worst: we might just be ready to leave the city.

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Words: Matthew Bennett
Photos: Harpreet Khambay

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