MAMA Group’s Wilderness Festival won a ‘Best New Festival’ award in 2011, and it’s easy to see why. Held at the beginning of August, it’s a cleverly boutique mix of music, gastronomy, arts and crafts, theatre and debate, all set around the trees, groves and lakes of Cornbury Park in Oxfordshire.
Like all good festivals, there are DJs and dancing till the early hours; but the involvement of the Secret Cinema and Secret Garden Party crews meant there was a ‘Bugsy Malone’ take over of part of the site on the Friday night (including a mass outdoor screening of the film) and a masked ball on the Saturday.
Chic, yes; eclectic, yes; and with only 14,000 revellers in attendance, it’s a lot more manageable than some festivals I could mention. Oh, and then there’s the early evening attempt to break the record for mass skinny-dipping, of course.
"It’s a brilliant spot to have a festival – we are blessed with a fantastic park,” Wilderness event director and head of production Dave McAlmont tells PSNEurope in a mid-afternoon hiatus during the second day. “The creatives do an amazing job - it’s the most content rich thing I have ever worked on,” he adds.
What is surprising at Wilderness is the size of the main stage and the arena space around it: you’d be struggling to pack more than a few thousand people into that area.
“It suits what the audience are looking for,” opines McAlmont. “A lot of people are in family groups, a lot of people who won't be ‘held’ by a main stage act. So I think the space is balanced for what the expectation audience for that stage is. At most festivals, you feel if you haven't seen the headline, you've missed the point of being there, but that's not the case with Wilderness. Everyone will come away with their own 'list of ingredients’ as to what makes the experience for them.”
For the record, the main stage is using a “beefy” (McAlmont’s word) L-Acoustics V-DOSC rig with groundstacked subs (and an Avid VENUE mixing system as the default FOH console). SSE Hire supplied the main PA, as they do to other festivals run by the MAMA Group including Lovebox and Global Gathering at Long Marston. BCS Audio of Portsmouth was the supplier of ‘everything else’ to the smaller stages and DJ set-ups dotted around the site: these included the Folk Guild tent, the bandstand, and the after-hours dance spaces tucked away at the back of the festival. Kit was abundant and of an assortment of brands (FBT, D.A.S. Audio, d&b and Soundcraft were some of the brands spotted) across the site.
Wilderness was really two events in one: the headline festival and ‘Vintage’, another MAMA Group jamboree originally planned for another time and another place, until the organiser pulled the plug – just two weeks before it was due to go ahead. Wilderness reached out to Vintage’s ticketholders and merchants, and invited them to get involved. And Wilderness has grown to be all the better for it.
McAlmont worked on an early incarnation of Vintage, but says: "It didn't tempt people to spend their money. And there are many reasons why that was. I know this though: when a show sells well, there's only ever one reason, and that's because the organiser has ‘got it right’!”
”It’s been a strange year for festivals all round,” he continues. We’re agreed that a lack of enough talent in some quarters, combined with high ticket prices and the godawful summer weather, has forced to people to look more closely where they spend their money. “Why Wilderness works is because there is so much content here,” he emphasises.
Notable acts at Wilderness included Spiritualised, Rodrigo Y Gabriela. Lianne Le Havas (pictured), The Temper Trap, Field Music, and DJs Norman Jay and Craig Charles. But there were also opportunities to go boating and swimming, eat a gourmet banquet courtesy of chef Yotam Ottolenghi, attend theatrical productions, coffee-tasting classes and environmental debates, even go camel riding.
What were Dave McAlmont’s issues with the running of Wilderness?
"Everyone's had the issue of the great British summer – and we had to wait for equipment and people to come from other festival sites that are mudbaths – I think it's taken a lot out of people who work on festivals this year.
“And as for the content, we have noise restrictions, after 11pm the restriction is 'inaudible' offsite – or 44dB 1m from the nearest facade over 15 minutes. That would be a challenge if we were a main stage show. But for whatever reason, maybe luck and weather, we've been able to keep within those limits.”
As an amusing last anecdote, he adds: “Because of all the nooks and crannies on the site, I lost a band a couple of times...”
Apart from the lightest of showers in the night, Wilderness was blessed with fair weather all weekend, which made it one of the most enjoyable festivals I’ve been to – up there with Womad I would say.
Never did find out if Dave went skinny-dipping later that afternoon.
Photo credit: Benjamin Eagle www.wildernessfestival.com