A love letter to this year’s Secret Garden Party

Published by Commission Magazine http://www.thecommissionmagazine.com/secret-garden-party

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For a long time Secret Garden Party has stood out as one of the most crucial weekends of the year for any fun-loving light-hearted type, with a will to spend a weekend in a field in Cambridgeshire. Since it’s inception in 2004, it’s gone from strength to strength – pushing the creativity of what festivals can do. Not only does it not follow the fold like many others tend to – it seems completely inspired nothing other than the spirit of the people who come to the Garden each year, and it’s for that reason that this year, this will be my fourth Garden Party.

Now in its 11th year – the festival, which has always stood on the very left of the British festival market, welcomes over 32,000 people to it’s fields. But at its heart, it’s the revolutionary in a dispute that’s plagued many of the latest start up festivals to join the market over the last few years. With many UK festivals turning a decade old over the last few years, it’s time we assessed their growth – and just why Secret Garden Party is the success story of them all.

At the heart of the dispute is the question, whether festivals should focus on programming or experience. On the side of programming, there’s the likes of Love Saves The Day, Isle of Wight, Field Day, Lovebox who all very justifiably do a good job at bringing together colossal line-ups that excite every great music fan. But on the other, it’s the likes of Garden Party, Brainchild and the late night corners of Glastonbury, that understand that experience is just as important.

In the blaze of booking big bands many forget that the real focus should be on fun, and it’s exactly that which Secret Garden Party nail. It’s a festival that puts fun and imagination at the forefront.

When it comes to experience, what we aren’t talking here are decent toilets, food queues or anything else, but the real essence of fun that should be at the root of many festivals. It’s through this, that despite an 18-hour downpour of rain, festival-goers at Secret Garden Party still find sanctimony in the smallest of experiences, whether that’s a conversation over a cup of chai in the Small World Tent, an afternoon spent playing with lizards at Guerrilla Science or an evening watching stunt planes trickle through the sky as the sun sets.

In four years of coming to Garden Party, this place has never failed to inspire my senses, filling me with inspiration and new ideas. Not only is it thoughtful, evocative and committed to supporting creative ideas, but also it’s also a space that really specialises in memorable experiences – through the big burns, the lakes and the exciting environments you can explore within the site. From swimming under summer skies in the lake, to crowding round little coal fires in tea tents, or taking to strange pathways and labyrinths only to find beautifully put together stages, Secret Garden has always offered me some of the most golden experiences I’ve ever had at a festival. Rum chai’s, diving competitions, and adult party games in the Colly-Silly-Um all sooth a restless festival soul.

Even this year, plagued by rain throughout, festival-goers can be seen pouring through the site with huge grins on their faces.

Take Thursday night for example, the night most arrive at the festival. Whilst licensing permits music to cut off past 1am, after setting up our tents and joining the fun we take a wander down to The Sanctuary, where not only do we find 100+ people sitting around on sofas watching Hook, but over the hill we come across groups of people crowding around pianos jamming with each other, singing songs together and falling into conversations with strangers.

On Friday, the energy is much the same. Warmed by meeting new people the night before, much of the day is spent sheltering from the rain in small tents. But it’s in these that the festival really shows how it is so magical. Falling into a venue called the Kitsch-Inn, we find ourselves watching The Spiritual Playground, a group of 12-madcap semi-theatrical, semi-comical performers who welcome audiences to be part of the entertainment. Their takeover – which seems to last for four hours upwards – I’m far too lost in how brilliant it is, to know just how long – is it’s own form of part-cabaret, part-philosophical satirical entertainment that brings together different deities, spiritual beliefs, and ideas for games like ‘Ask The Deity’ and ‘Creating New Religions’. It very quickly becomes a favourite over the weekend, a place where you can spend hours in fits of giggles, as audiences join the entertainment through participatory games. On the Sunday, one festivalgoer asks whether he can perform alongside the Deity’s, and is welcomed wholeheartedly into the fold. Pulling out a selection of different flutes, he joins the Deity’s in picking Sunday’s ‘new religion’ from a crop of three, mud-encrusted festivalgoers who each find themselves dancing under the allure of this man’s flute.

What’s perfect is Garden Party’s reliance on a mix of audience creativity. Really, it’s these people who really bring the festival together. Where would Lost Horizons be without the droll of festival-goers wanting to strip down to nothing and share stories together, or the forum without questions from the audience, or the parades without endless costumed festivalgoers bringing their own additions to whatever the year’s theme might be. Garden Party is about a blurring of the lines between punter and performer – where everyone comes to feel involved. What’s lovely is seeing everyday individuals do things they’d never, ever even dream of doing at home.

Later on Friday, the same kind of warmth shines across the site. As things wind towards evening, I join a load others sheltering from the rain under the main stage bar to watch Public Service Broadcasting and Jungle – who both pull off spectacular sets, despite the torrential rainfall.

Finally, by Saturday the sun decides to rear it’s face – and if by magic the whole mood of the festival seems to lift. Whilst site is already sodden by this point, filled with Glastonbury-style sludge; meaning moving around the site becomes one great game of trying not to slip over. Our day begins with lunch in Soul Fire, a fully-com restaurant built on site that offers delicious breakfasts to festivalgoers almost at the same price as the traders outside. Musical sustenance is found by way of Zero 7 in The Lost Woods, who performs inside a beautiful theatrically built stage that sits at the end of trail through a few trees. Whilst further nourishment comes from a selection of folk and acoustic acts scattered throughout the day at the Bandstand and The Living Room.

Later in the evening – it’s Cat Empire who brings everyone together, as the ground beneath the main stage is an image of couples dancing together to the part Latin, part South American style rock and roll.

Moving onto Sunday – and despite waking up to another washout, it’s the lathering’s of free tea and biscuits being offered out by CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) that warms the cockles of your heart once more. Crammed full of soggy festivalgoers, each nurturing their own little mug of English Breakfast, it’s easy to see why the atmosphere at Garden Party is always so relaxed. With nourishment for the next few hours (or at least until the rain stops) provided once again by The Spiritual Playground – Sunday rolls by in much the same manner as Friday, calm but contented.

Come the afternoon and Roots Manuva, Gentleman’s Dub Club and The Correspondents give audiences much to smile about, whilst the annual paint fight is probably the best yet, as a thinner crowd due to more rain, means there’s way more paint to go round.

Leaving absolutely covered from head to two in pink, blue and purple powdered paint, the rest of the afternoon is spent in the quiet and thoughtful hands of the speakers at The Symposium, a thinking-persons forum where Miranda Sawyer leads a series of talks thinking through today’s arts and music cultures. Joining her are the likes of music-mogul James Endeacott and artist come politician Bob & Roberta Smith, who ponder through issues of art and activism, music and music management, and 21st century rock and roll stars.

By the time that’s through, it’s time for the burn at the main stage – where this year’s creation, a gigantic toy boat, becomes tinder for a huge fire that rages throughout Caravan Palace’s set. Shortly after, it’s time to hop back in the car, but not without a moment for reflection.

See – Secret Garden Party is always a stand out highlight in my summer calendar. Whether because it’s a chance to escape the routine of other festivals, or because I know I’m about to have a weekend of fun like no other, I’m not sure. But what it has always been is central to why festivals are important in this country. Not only does it provide you with a sense of nourishment you wish you could get from your everyday life, but it also opens you up to atmosphere of freedom where anything you do, as long as it has positivity in mind, will be wholesomely supported. Whether that’s dressing up or dressing down, standing up for your rights, or taking a quiet moment to yourself, Secret Garden Party has always been about unlocking the Gardener within you – whatever that gardener might be.

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