I have to admit, shamefacedly, that in the past I have not fully embraced the festival scene in the U.K.
Stories of friends who have dived head-first down porta loos on quests to retrieve their iPhones, or have woken up to find their tent washed away by the inevitable, biblical rainfall fill me with dread.
Which was why, as I found myself arriving at a festival in the dark, in the rain, with my grumpy baby son, and a series of cryptic tent instructions, I questioned my sanity.
But the festival scene in the U.K. has transformed since the arrival of Wilderness in Oxfordshire three years ago. Set in England’s most ancient woodland, Lord and Lady Rotherwick’s Cornbury estate, this is the go-to place for those who want to live it up like the last days of Rome, but have a healthy fear of turning septic from a weekend without showers.
Wilderness offers more than the standard fare of pies and pop stars. From sundown, the skies were lit up with fire displays and celestial aerial acts (Transe Express was one of the highlights of the weekend: bell-ringers, string quartets and acrobats flipping and spinning 50ft in the air).
Meanwhile the Earth trembled, as rhythms from Uncle Vanya’s House Party, and the London Afrobeat Collective were stamped into the soil. The (unofficial) dress code was glorious: gold leaf, feathered eyelashes, and rainbow spandex meant that the Prime Minister and Governor of the Bank of England, both rumored to be present, could disco away the early hours incognito.
Wilderness applies the same creative approach to the morning after, as it does to the night before. Whilst at other festivals you might be left alone with little more than a handful of aspirin, and a consolatory hamburger to see you through the daylight hours, the organizers of Wilderness have been more helpful.
There is early morning meditation, organic muesli, reiki massages, wild runs through the woods followed by a lake dip amongst the lily pads, and, for those who can pull their brains together, lectures in philosophy.
Those who favor a less wholesome approach to managing their hangover are fully covered, too. The bacon sandwiches, courtesy of cult-butchers, St. John, are salvation. So is the lakeside spa: wood-fired Swedish hot tubs, giving off the intoxicating scent of woodsmoke and eucalyptus, where you can sip G&Ts in blissful silence.
Kids brought up in London, where, like dogs, they are expected to be well-trained, and kept to heel, delighted in turning feral for the weekend. They were helped on their way by the Flying Seagulls, who staged ferocious pirate fights, and by the Eden Project, which lent a professional eye to den-making.
Budding unicorn spotters were equipped with a pair of paper spectacles, a fistful of unicorn food, and sent off to follow trails of glittery white poo.
The great and the good of the culinary world were there to fatten everyone up. Moro were responsible for the feasting, holding epic, four course extravaganzas in a Bedouin tent, and J Sheekey, the 117 year old fish restaurant in London’s theater district, where Charlie Chaplin used to be a regular, were serving up their fruits de mer and chips.
I wasn’t the only one who shed a sneaky tear as Sixto Rodriguez (subject of the Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man sang “I Wonder,” or who sniggered at the naked knitters’ society, or who wished that home time wouldn’t come quite so fast.
Early-bird tickets for 2014 are already on sale: I’m buying now.
National Geographic Young Explorer and photographer extraordinaire Emily Ainsworth was born and raised in Oxford, England.