Litro Ventures into the Wild

Litro‘s experience at the Wilderness Festival:

“Put your hand up if you’re ready to play Frisbee Tree Golf!” Mr. Moore of the Idler Academy is rubbing his hands nervously in anticipation of a great game. He’s clutching several colourful rings and holding a cardboard sign that says ‘FRISBEE TREE GOLF: NEXT SESSIONS STARTS…NOW!’

Inexplicably, I have my hand up, as do eight other dazed Wilderness festival goers, all probably sharing my sentiment of what on earth is going on. Ten seconds later, we’re all running down a hill towards a huge, leafy forest and being lectured on the merits of throwing a Frisbee the correct way. To the right of us is the Relaxation pen, where lithe youngsters are engaging in some sort of jumping/stretching/forwards rolling activity. To the left are peaked tents where anything at all could be going on: film screenings, nature talks, intelligence debates or Indian men practising interpretative dance.

That’s the Wilderness festival for you: unpredictable, wonderfully strange and a little bit confusing. Set in the unspoilt acres of Cornbury Park, just a few miles out of Oxford, the festival had one main outdoor stage, a section full of tents and a relaxation zone. Everything else was unmarked. The key to tackling the festival was to talk to as many people as possible, thus initiating a word of mouth chain that helped us get to essential events. Nary a festival volunteer was seen on the site itself, save for a few parking attendants. Most of our time there was spent wandering around, drifting from tent to tent, from this patch of grass to that patch of grass. There was always the vague worry that we were missing something important.

The highlights of the festival were the talks inside the tents. The Idler Academy – a coffeehouse/bookshops/impromptu lecture theatre in Westbourne Grove, London – had camped out in the Wilderness festival for the weekend. A particularly interesting talk by Gregory Sams drew in a large crowd. Sams talked about his latest non-fiction novel, Sun God, and explained some of his theories behind the great star that feeds our planet. You take air and water, what do you get? Fizzy water, he told us. Now add light to that equation, pure sunlight – the magic of photosynthesis happens. Sams had a knack for drawing attention to things we take for granted.

“Light!” he enthused in his bright L.A. drawl. “It’s fascinating! The sun is a living being! When the sun comes out, how do you feel? Enriched? Enlightened? That’s because the sun is feeding you energy, it’s connecting you with the air, with the earth, with the trees. You’re becoming one with nature, you can feel things all around you.”

Everyone clapped and cheered, if not in complete agreement with his rather sweeping statement at the end, then definitely in appreciation of his enthusiasm.

The opposite tent housed the Intelligence² forum, an arena where great minds came to debate, lecture and occasionally berate the audience. There was a heated debate on the topic ‘New technology is creating more serious problems than it is solving’. Much of the anger from the crowd was directed at journalist and editor of Spiked Online, Brendan O’Neill, who made the unfortunate mistake of stating that Africa doesn’t need solar power, that it simply needs good old fashioned old technology. Cue audience rage. Chair Jack Klaff attempted to diffuse the situation, but a sparked debate it was, with intellectual neurons firing from both the floor and the panel, which consisted of O’Neill, Harry Eyres (FT slow lane columnist), Roger Highfield (editor of New Scientist) and Rory Sutherland (Vice chairman of the Ogilvy group). It ran overtime. The funny thing was, the debate wasn’t even scheduled for that time, and was only slotted in at last minute due to Toots and the Maytals pulling out. It makes one wonder how many other things were going on at the festival that would remain relatively unknown if not for people accidentally stumbling upon them (this happened a few more times with several bands and singers, none of whom were introduced).

Toots, however, did manage to make it to the main stage later, playing a thrumming, lively set. It was clear how they managed to stay so successful for the past forty odd years: the audience bounced along to old hits such as ’54-46 was my number’ and ‘Pressure drop’. The sun went down just as the last notes struck, at which point night came, revealing a huge full moon. This only added to the atmosphere of the festival, which could be described as a cross between someone’s backyard party gone haywire mad, and a nymph forest, veritable Daphnes stumbling around drenched in glitter, feathers and fancy dress courtesy of the Wilderness dress up tent. Rumours were going around that there was a naked parade being organised at midnight somewhere in the forest. ‘See you at the Masked Ball later!’ a girl waved to us as she handed over two feathered masks.

Our next pit stop was at the aptly named Relaxation zone, fitted with outdoor hot tubs, a sauna and a chill tent. In the moonlight, men and women stripped down to their birthday suits and dived into the sub-zero temp waters of the lake. ‘WOW!’ one naked gentlemen screamed. ‘It REALLY wakes you up!’ I’ll bet. I took the safe option and stayed in the chill out tent whilst everyone else rejuvenated themselves in the icy water. It was warm. There were furs. It was comfortable enough, in fact, for several people to remain naked long after their emergence from the lake.

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble

Then onwards: to the Masked Ball! Brooklyn based jazz band ‘Hypnotic Brass Ensemble’ were playing, fresh from their Ireland tour. HBE consists of eight brothers, each bringing their own jazz roots and hip hop influences to the band. The tent itself though, was a little too small, cramped and oddly decked out with flashing coloured squares reminiscent of a 70s disco ballroom. I asked someone where the Last Tuesday Society was and when – I had heard that was to be the highlight of the festival, organised by the same people who brought us the Secret Garden Party. ‘This is it!’ was the answer. Oh?

We passed by one last weird thing on the way out:  an array of random sized domes lighting up at timed intervals. There was no sign for this exhibit, no representative on hand to explain what it was and what purpose it served. They just kept lighting up. A little ironic, considering the majority of the talks that day were centred on eco-friendly systems and conserving energy. All in all, it was most definitely an interesting experience. Would I go again? I’m not sure. But then again, I did miss out on the highlights – Friday’s Secret Garden Party, and of course, the exquisite daily banquets cooked up by Michelin star chefs.

This Wilderness promotional video below pretty much sums up the festival:



Ysabelle Cheung

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