• Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

Wilderness Festival boss shares secret of fabulous music event

Byoxfordnewspaper

Aug 6, 2022

ALLURING, engaging and eccentric, Wilderness is unlike any other festival.

Fun, elegant, free-spirited and always surprising, this eclectic celebration of creativity and nature is the perfect blend of energy and escapism, stimulation and serenity.

While most events are content to move onto a field, stick up a few stages and a similar number of bars and get on with it, Wilderness takes a more holistic approach.

The freewheeling festival – which runs until Sunday – inhabits its stunning landscape of meadow, woods and lakes so naturally, it feels they were made for each other.

Oxford Mail: Job name: Wilderness Festival.PictureSales Ref: OX69136..L-R: Lucy Radford (07890639134) diving in the river..People enjoying Wilderness Festival - with crazy people, swimming in lakes, lake side spa, craft workshops, off happenings and action on stage

Gracing Cornbury Park in the heart of the Oxfordshire Cotswolds, this gathering of open-minded folk is about so much more than music.

While the line-up is fabulous – headlined by Years & Years, Jungle and Underworld – you could have the time of your life without going anywhere near its main stage, instead soothing your soul in a lakeside spa, swimming or boating, joining exquisite banquets by world-class chefs, enjoying drama, dance, top-flight comedy, talks, and performances by world-famous names, and dancing the night away to big-name DJs in a gorgeous secret valley in the woods.

Oxford Mail:

And you can come away having mastered a new skill – from salsa to pottery, jewellery to hat making – or brush up on your backwoods, survival and country skills.

After a year of meticulous planning, festival chief Rory Bett can barely contain his excitement. The CEO of festival supremos MAMA has seen festivals come and go, but has special affection for this bucolic gem.

“We don’t programme stages, we programme people,” he smiles.

“We create experiences on a big scale and intimate. We push every sense and sensibility so you can feel you’ve had a Wilderness just for you. Even if you come with 10 people, you can have an individual, unique experience.
“We try and get people to change their outlook as soon as they come through the door.”

Blessed with a beautiful site – some of the last swathes of the historic Wychwood Forest – Rory and his team make the most of it.

“The biggest hero here is the landscape,” he says. “We spend most of our time trying to be site-specific and the one thing we really want people to feel, is that it’s always been here and always been like this.

Oxford Mail: L-R: Holly Roxanne and Porscha Jean of the band Mamas getting in the mood for one of the UK's most extravagant music festivals in Cornbury Estate. Photo: Andrew Walmsley.

"That is a tribute to the beautiful estate with its stunning landscapes and Site of Special Scientific Interest. The last thing we wanted to be was an eyesore on top of that.”

The backdrop to the festival is the stately pile of Cornbury House – not tucked away as other festivals, but centre stage.

“Lots of other festivals do not feel as welcoming as ours,” says Rory. “At Wilderness, the house is ‘there’ – we are literally in the front garden, and that makes people feel very welcome and at home.”

The music is a major draw, of course. It includes not just ‘It’s a Sin’ and ‘The Riot Club’ star Olly Alexander’s chart-topping act Years & Years, Mercury-nominated dance duo Jungle, and Born Slippy and King of Snake dance icons Underworld – who will be making their only UK festival appearance – but an enviable, and diverse, bill of new and established talent.

It includes former Moloko star Roisin Murphy, kitchen disco queen Sophie Ellis Bextor, Grammy-award winning record producer and DJ David Morales, Laura Mvula, South Korean DJ and dance music producer Peggy Gou, and actor, comedian and soul and funk aficionado Craig Charles.
There’s also former Maccabees star Orlando Weeks, multi-instrumentalist Jordan Rakei, sax and drums duo Binker and Moses, indie-pop act Azure Ryder, Áine Deane, acoustic singer-songwriter Billie Marten, electronic Afro-funk band Ibibio Sound Machine, Elles Bailey, and the House Gospel Choir. And, to the delight of local music-lovers, Carterton singer-songwriter Willie J Healey.

Oxford Mail: Wilderness Festival scene.

The festival’s Folk Barn also features a line-up of country, Americana and roots artists programmed by South Oxfordshire broadcasting legend ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris’s Under The Apple Tree live platform.

“We think local,” says Rory. “The festival is in a very beautiful landscape in a very beautiful county and we try to engage with our locality and the people here as much as we can.”

And with a diverse clientele, it is no mean feat curating a bill that ticks all the boxes.

“Putting together the line-up is always quite tricky,” he says. “We have such a demographic breadth and it has to be for everyone. It is easier for a festival like Reading – where most people are 18-24 years-old. We have people from zero to 90, and want something for everyone – though if you are coming to Wilderness in your 80s you are going to be young at heart, which helps!”

Always keen to keep the experience fresh and tirelessly looking for improvements, Rory has changed a few things around – including the main stage.

Oxford Mail: Wilderness Festival 2021 06/08/2021 Picture by Ed Nix

“We wanted to bring a bit more ‘epicness’,” he says. “The main stage was in a corner before, so we have moved it face the entrance. It’s in a much better position with much better sound.”

Other welcome developments are a Stargazer indie-rock stage and broader, longer, more easily accessible Secret Valley – meaning no more queues to get into the spectacular late night dance area.

Remaining, though, is the open invitation to dress-up, which gives Wilderness its sparkle.

“It’s not formulaic,” says Rory. “It’s just us saying ‘dress’ to impress… come and add some colour, flavour and flamboyance to the show. After all, you can build 100 festival shows, but the one people can participate in is the one you want to be at.”
And it is that individuality and creativity that is at the heart of Wilderness’s spirit.

“We don’t regard ourselves as being in competition with anyone else by putting on a better show,” he says. “By not trying to be like other festivals we can achieve not being like other festivals. You’ll find 99.9 per cent of people who come to Wilderness leave feeling fulfilled, full of life, humanity and great experiences in a wonderful landscape – which to people here is right on their doorstep.”

Wilderness runs until Sunday at Cornbury Park. Tickets from wildernessfestival.com