The Wilderness Festival in Cornbury Park, near Charlbury in Oxfordshire, attracted no less than 14 000 visitors over a weekend in mid-August this year. Set in the 1700 acre grounds of the family home of Lord and Lady Rotherwick, it showcases a number of theatrical, artistic, dramatic, musical, literary and foodie events which bring together both established brand names and smaller, independent and fringe acts.
Wilderness seems to achieve the bringing together of grunge, glamour, grit and gastronomy all in one space, a unique, chiming focal point for musicians, cooks, poets, philosophers and eco-warriors to meet and share their disparate disciplines under a big Oxfordshire sky. The estate’s deer must watch the sundry goings on from their hiding place in the woodlands with much confusion, the harvest of events that keep this stately home in dry roof a bewildering roller coaster of sights and sounds.
The Festival is organised and run by the MAMA group, which is owned by HMV, and Papa Projects, whose managing directors are Rory Bett and Tim Harvey. Cornbury is also home to a much more roaring musical festival earlier on in the year.
When you arrive at Wilderness Festival the first impression is one of a mass encampment: small tents, campervans and tepees flank the central walkway into the main festival arena, steel shield fence lines delineating a barrier between the festival and the rest of the estate. In the distance you will see the 17th Century mansion, this year clad with scaffolding, remote yet within ear shot.
Spreading out into a circle you will see huge marquees with cafes, food shops, clothes and crafts sellers, bars, cinemas and workshops. From playing the ukulele to making willow baskets to learning to pick a crab apart or how to make your own home smoker, there is something for everyone to learn or watch.
There are banqueting tables laid out in series that host St.John, Moro, Valentine Warner and Ottolenghi feasts and cafes that serve bottomless tea and coffee with pastries, cakes and freshly baked bread. The standard of the food at Wilderness is very good – higher than many specialist food festivals that I have been to.
This is partly due to the fact that the organisers tightly control which businesses are able to pitch their stalls here, and the prohibitive costs of establishing your own business corner here preclude any less-than-seasoned professional from taking part. There are plenty of smaller operators – but they sell their wares out of small vans rather than big marquees.
Sam and Sam Clark of Moro set up a beautiful Moorish – Bedouin tent, with hay bales covered in brightly coloured rugs. Jaffe and Neale created a coffee shop with café, hosting book signings with cookbook authors.
The Thyme At Southrop tent looked like a country house kitchen, with polka dot table linen, fresh flowers and kitchen garden produce turned into delicious salads and flans. There were cookery demonstrations on hand to show the preparation of hearty dishes and a burning kadai outside for barbequed prawns and lamb. Inside, Lahloo Tea, Forage Fine Foods, Easy Jose Coffee and Marc Frederic charcutier showed their tea-making, foraged food, coffee roasting and sausage making skills, and Chefs Daryll and Marj and the team fed hundreds of visitors with Mediterannean and modern British dishes.
Whatever your culinary tastes you are sure to find something to suit your palate: Trealey Farm charcuterie hung from trees; Fin and Flounder sold fresh seafood; Thali Café served hot Indian treats; Ginger’s Comfort Emporium showcased its ice-cream desserts and The Soup library ladled gluten-free soups in a tent kitted out just like a communal library.
At night there is folk music under the stars, masked balls, vintage festivals as well as talks and debates.
If you decide to go next year, you will be pleased to know that you can purchase tickets from September 2012 onwards, as they do sell out very quickly.
A few words of recommendation: plan ahead and be very organised. In the camping part of the site there is very little space, so make sure you pack the bare essentials. Parking is quite a long walk away. Make sure you have plenty of waterproof clothes because it is bound to rain, and even if it remains warm and sunny throughout the terrain is earthy and places to shelter few. Bring cash because many of the stall holders have no pin machines and there is little or no mobile phone reception. The queues for the loos and showers are long and the facilities rudimentary.
Other than that, do take advantage of the learning opportunities, because the skills and expertise on offer are like no other.
Wilderness Festival: www.wildernessfestival.com
Follow the team on Twitter: @WildernessHQ