Grace Jones, First Aid Kit and Benedict Cumberbatch delight at this well-to-do Oxfordshire shindig.
Andy Hill

14:26 8th August 2017

The portly geezer navigating his refreshment trolley along Friday’s packed 14:22 service out of Paddington summed it up best:

‘Wilderness is the Waitrose of festivals.’

Quite so. Our Cotswold-bound train was crammed with toothsome Fulham fillies necking G&Ts in First Class. Even as he inched along the standing-room-only-basic-bitch part where I was wedged, this rotund trolley-philosopher made a packet flogging pistachios and miniature bottles of rosé.

Like most stereotypes, this notion of Wilderness being essentially an outsized garden gala or posh cokehead regatta does have a toehold in reality. Within five minutes of our shuttlebus sashaying into the topiaried grounds of Cornbury Estate I spied five Teslas, two Ocado wheelbarrows and a discarded Harvey Nicks shopping bag. And that was just from the queue for the box office.

Strolling onsite for the first time I confess I smirked at the food offering. Slow-roasted this, single-origin that. Gluten-free the other. And that’s just the drunk food – Wilderness is renowned for it’s fancy dan long-table feasts, this year hosted by Yotam Ottolenghi, Thomasina Miers and Nuno Mendes (the latter, I swear to god, received a standing ovation for his trouble).

But you know what? It’s nice. That’s the thing about Waitrose. Poncey, sure, but delicious.

Wilderness is family-oriented. I’ve never seen so many sprogs at a mid-sized festival, tugged around in a fetching fleet of pimped-out miniature gypsy caravans. It’s cute, actually, and every single child I had the pleasure of interacting with was polite, well spoken and utterly delightful. For instance? On my way up the Helter Skelter (don’t judge me) a five year old and his dad kindly let me pass on the steps. "Daddy, why are there so many wooden beams in here?" the adorable mite enquired as I passed. "To make it strong and stable, son."

Was he being ironic? I don’t know. I didn’t hear the ‘oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ chant all weekend, certainly. David Cameron was in attendance, as you’ll have read. I mean, does it matter if it’s a Tory festival? Consider the cricket match (yes, there was a streaker and everything) whose plummily hilarious commentator made lots of tongue-in-cheek allusions to how white, well-off and middle class most spectators transparently were. And how we all laughed. I could only conclude that everyone found it funny, because everyone was in on the joke. Does that make it ok?

It’s a good-natured sort of event though, really. And actually a lot more diverse than you might think. Certainly more non-white faces than I’ve seen at big outdoor events in say Yorkshire, or Dorset. Yes, there’s a Deliciously Ella tent. And wood-fired hot-tubs by the lake, where lithe young heiresses take off their bras for Instagram. Lots of yoga (apparently), and shitloads of debates about Trump. Benedict Cumberbatch rocked up to read out a letter from his mum. Even the programme is a work of art, and rests, as I write, pride of place on my coffee table. Plus there was a Veuve Cliquot tent – which was actually lush – and according to the bouncer I only just missed Kit Harrington and Jonathan Ross necking a bottle of fizz.

Shall we stop obsessing about class and discuss music? Cool.

If you like Two Door Cinema Club then great, you’ll have loved Wilderness. Ditto Bonobo. Both are well-chosen headliners for this festival because it isn’t a rock crowd, and those who want to shake their no doubt exquisitely bleached anuses can do so later on at the EDM-laden Valley bit (which is over-18s only, so ta-ta mummies and daddies).

For me the best of the sounds came from Michael Kiwanuka, whose silky hypnotic strains held everyone present spellbound. First Aid Kit are as adorable as ever. Saturday daytime Toots and the Maytals delivered precisely what you’d expect (is having them play some kind of insurance requirement for festivals nowadays?) but were comprehensively outclassed by Ska Vengers, a newish ska/dub/rap outfit from (of all places) Delhi, whose set was punchy, horny, danceable and relevant. Keep an eye out.

The Correspondents delivered a smashing pogo-worthy half hour of electro swing. At many a festival they’d be showered in piss bottles and cringe for their sheer brazen pastiche, but here it got girls dancing, which is all you can ask really. I liked it, the sun was out – bite me.

For all the poshness, by the way, Wilderness isn’t especially bourgeois. Those who smoked generally seemed to favour roll-ups. A pint of cider cost roughly a fiver. None – not one – of the yummy mummies seemed fazed by the repeated spinning of 212 by Azealia Banks, with all the ‘cunts’ intact.

Grace Jones is a force of bloody nature, in case anybody needed reminding. With a costume change for every song and a crazy amount of raw sexuality for a girl born in 1948. ‘Pull up to my bumper’ was a surging, sweaty, mass-grinding triumph.

In keeping with the high calibre of basically everything (even the grass seemed springier than other festivals) the smaller acts were class. Shout out to Faith I Branko in the Folk Barn on Friday night who are incredible – a devastatingly virtuosic duelling double-header of fiddle and squeezebox.

And yes indeed, there was plenty of cheese. Hip-Hop Karaoke encouraged white thirty-somethings to have a bash at being Coolio, or Slim Shady in front of a bafflingly enormous crowd. At one point I pissedly stumbled upon an acoustic S Club 7 tribute. Somewhere (I’m told) a brass band did a fine job of Sean Paul feat. Blu Cantrell’s 2003 smash ‘Breathe’.

I’ll come back next year, I think. Compared to Reading, where there’s always a chance some random fucker will tip over, and/or set fire to, your portaloo, at Wilderness they’re more likely to hold the door open for you on the way in, before complimenting your costume. The food’s great, it’s clean, and everyone’s polite. Even if they don’t actually mean it. A bit like Waitrose, really.

Words: Andy Hill
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Photo: Andrew Whitton