Can you keep a secret?: Opting for boutique festivals over the majors is a no-brainer, but the smart money is on lazy hammocks, boating and, this year, Eden & Babylon

Can you keep a secret?: Opting for boutique festivals over the majors is a no-brainer, but the smart money is on lazy hammocks, boating and, this year, Eden & Babylon

For the past few years, boutique festivals have stayed on the peripheries of the summer months, but now, it seems, their time has come. And with all of us tiring of the huge number of new, corporate-led festivals, doing their best to make ‘gigs in a field’ barely that, there is no better rebellion than turning to these smaller, intimate affairs that offer much more than getting a cold while trying to catch a glimpse of N-Dubz.

Bestival (the daddy), Green Man (the hippy) and End of the Road (the indie folkster) all embrace the idea that small is beautiful with the main goal of the weekend simply being to have a good time. But no one shames the vapid V Fests like Secret Garden Party, as The Head Gardner explains. “The scenes that me and friends had come from, the actual music festivals or raves, they weren’t really our sort of thing. We felt they were good in some ways but lacking in others. [Secret Garden Party] is all about designing and throwing the best party for ourselves that we’d enjoy the most”. And it’s clearly working with the amount of ‘gardeners’ – the affectionate term handed out to ticket holders – having swelled by 6,000 over the four years it’s been running.

Standing out and providing something different has always been the main aim of the Head Gardener and his team, even going so far as to ditch the label ‘festival’. “We felt that everything was a festival and that the word had lost all meaning. And so rather than try and re-appropriate it, we just thought we’d call it a garden party,” he recalls. And it’s definitely a party that you’ll find at the need-to-know Cambridgeshire location, complete with human pyramids, cream teas, Shakespearian performances, a turn-up-and-play stage and the odd spot of renegade pyrotechnics. The emphasis is on shaking off the weekly grind, having fun and trying everything. “Someone should ideally walk away having had the best time, met wonderful, new people but also having been inspired and sort of bounced back into life, you know, with a new vigour rather than feeling grey and run through the tumble dryer”.

Like all good parties, there is a theme that changes each year and is open for interpretation. 2008’s ‘Come the Revolutions’, encouraged one gardener to don a grass skirt and march around the site with a propaganda style sign summoning people to party. He was joined by a replica Anakin Skywalker, complete with skinny red jeans, various people wearing nothing but mud, and a Jeremy Clarkson wet dream in a man who’d turned into a car. “We don’t want to be, ‘This year people should be dressing up like this‚”,'” explains the Head Gardener “we just think it’s fun to give someone an idea to play around with and if they want to play with it, great, and if they want to turn up as a banana, then by all means‚””

This year the Garden will be magically transformed into Babylon and Eden, with a snake’s head for a main stage. But, as always, there’s much more on offer than a chance to wonder at people covered in fig leaves, as more emphasis is placed on the large lake, which provides a centrepiece for the festival. Here you can go for a dip – or a skinny-dip if that’s more your thing – and have a ride on a variety of boats designed and made by the gardeners themselves – “We’ve got these art boats, which are basically from people that have come along with their own design of a jazzed-up, sculpted boat. We’ve got double decker buses, dragons and stuff like that.”

But with all these sights, activities and impromptu one minute raves (they happen every hour), is there still room for the music? After her 2008 turn, Micachu felt that there wasn’t enough emphasis on the bands, a point the Head Gardener is more than happy to set right. “I’d say, compared to other festivals, we stand up on much more than it being just a line up,” he says “but I think our music programme is taken very seriously and our past record of booking bands who one, two or three years later are massive is quite impressive for a festival our size.” He’s referring to artists such as Lily Allen, Regina Spektor and Hard-Fi as well as Does It Offend You Yeah? and Florence & the Machines who’ve appeared more recently.

Like everything else associated with SGP, if a band makes you feel good, they’re in. “There are really great bands who are tipped to be huge by all the punksters, but at the end of the day a band has still got to be something that touches you. There are bands I love, but they’re not what you want to see when out getting drunk in a field with your mates. You want a bit more fun and games.””

Ticket sales have always been rumoured to be capped at 7,000, in a bid for SGP to be classed as a private party and therefore cut down the amount of police presence. The Head Gardener well and truly laughs this hearsay off – “”God, I wish life was that simple but unfortunately that’s not true”” – but is Secret Garden Party set to go the way of Latitude and Bestival, and grow bigger and bigger each year? “”Last year, we sold out at 7,000,” discloses the event’s founder “but we had a lot of people who were in for free, almost the same again. It’s going to be closer to 10,000 tickets this year but, in actual fact, if you went there last year you won’t even notice the difference in size because there isn’t really a difference at all. We’ve just reassessed the balance of liggers to actual ticket holders.” He adds, “One thing we were also looking at doing, which one day would be fun, is to launch a rocket out of the middle of the lake, but unfortunately, what with health and safety and the civil aviation authority… erm, it’s possible but you’d have to be about four fields away from the launch site.””

Plans to join the space race, conceptual themes and questions over musical emphasis aside, what stays with you when your painted tiger’s face finally gets the axe for the Monday commute is just how uplifting and invigorating this particular summer weekend is. Free from the no-running-with-scissors-rules of the Carling Weekend, it somehow manages to make Glastonbury look like a turn in the US marines as you’re free to spend afternoons lazing in gratis hammocks, dancing on top of hay bales or learning how to hula hoop. It’s all there for the taking. The party doesn’t stop from the minute you trip up your first unearthed piano (there’s a lot of those scattered about for creative types to bash away at) to the moment you wave goodbye to the mud-wrestling arena. Just make sure you’re down by the great lake on the Saturday night. We’re not going to tell you why, some secrets shouldn’t be spoilt.


Originally published in issue 6 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. May 2009

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