A spectacularly picturesque return for summer festival season
Ryan Bell
16:34 9th August 2021

It’s easy to go into a festival like Wilderness with some preconceived notions about it. A simple Google search will bring up countless articles about how 'posh', 'fancy' and 'exclusive the Oxfordshire festival is, and from some of the paid packages available (not to mention the habit of celebs attending) it’s hard to find a case to disagree. However, whether that’s a full and fair representation of the festival is another story, and I can say for everything that you would want a festival to be after these tumultuous 18 months, it certainly delivered. 

The idyllic Cornbury Park promised a spectacularly picturesque return for summer festival season, so naturally torrential rain is predicted. Despite this, spirits didn’t seem to be dampened and the opening arrival day of Thursday was closed by skiffle trio Thrill Collins (there’s a lot of this twee pun business at Wilderness unfortunately) at the Jumpyard stage. Now the thought of UK garage and hip-hop covers on a double bass and acoustic guitar did initially make my blood run cold, but I was won over pretty quick by their creative medleys and a charming performance which got the crowd moving, for what may have been the first time in a long time. 

The 18 month wait provided many similar moments of euphoric release over the festival, the most notable being at Rudimental’s closing main stage set on Sunday evening. Backed by a large ensemble band, their combination of DnB and jungle mixed with soulful pop sounded strong and definitive as a headline act, drawing a wide-ranging, eager crowd. 'These Days' and closer 'Waiting All Night' were belted out against a sky of fireworks: two moments that felt somewhat emotional. 

Days earlier, that same Wilderness stage had been opened up on the Friday by Joseph Reuben, whose falsetto vocal is particularly striking against his soulful mix of art-pop and RnB, though less convincing were the dramatic videos of Reuben, as though taken from some kind of lost opening montage from a Bond film that played on rotation behind him throughout.

Irish singer songwriter CMAT (Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson) kept it simple on the other hand with catchy hooks and a sense of humour that warmed up the growing crowd, who were then treated to Gigwise cover star Self Esteem. A late addition to cover Holly Humberston’s absence, Rebecca Lucy Taylor’s commanded the main stage in a manner that suggested should have had a spot somewhere all along. Likewise, London six-piece Sports Team were drafted in to replace the gap left by Franc Moody and were a worthy and energetic replacement, though the nature of last-minute stand-ins is one of a few uncomfortable reminders that what we have been dealing with, isn’t quite over just yet. 

Friday concluded with the laid-back RnB grooves of Mahlia, which transitioned nicely into headline act alternative rapper Loyle Carner who, after emerging to a roaring crowd lit up by backing lights displaying his initials, performed an impressive set complete with some special guests including fellow rapper Kofi Stone. Despite ending on crowd pleaser 'NO CD', Carner’s hazy style seemed to leave some wanting a little more energy and so from there many ventured off into the trees to get down in the evening’s entertainment, whether it was Noble Jacks foot stomping fiddle led trad-rock at the folk tent or cutting quiet shapes in the silent disco under the atrium led by DJ Fat Tony and Jodie Harsh. 

Of course, Wilderness is much more than the main stage, as the festival prides itself on not only its music line up but its experiences and alternative entertainment. Axe-throwing, wild swimming, mindfulness tents, a morning’s cricket (where the number of streakers almost tops the number of runs made) and a tonne of arts and crafts stalls made sure there was something for everyone throughout the day. A handful of  favourites included a lively post-DJ set chat from legendary cultural icon Don Letts, comedian/filmmaker Simon Amstell who performed an excerpt from his upcoming stand-up tour and Letters Live, a festival favourite where unannounced guest speakers (this year’s names included Toby Jones, Tony Robinson and Jo Whiley among others) take to the stage to read letters from throughout history: some personal, some political, some humorous and some devastatingly heartfelt. It was deemed unmissable by many I spoke to, and rightfully so. 

Wilderness’s accessibility for all ages meant many more families than your usual festival was here and wandering around the grounds it provided an atmosphere which was almost universally positive. It was a wholesome experience seeing kids and parents alike enjoying being together caught in the moment of live music again, though the sight of some of the buggies with children still inside or held aloft a little confused, deep in the thickening mud in the centre of progressively packed main stage area for Bicep, I was less convinced by. 

The Northern Irish dance duo drew one of the largest crowds, with swarms of ravers funnelling out of beer tents and into huddled masses in sights unimaginable six months ago. As the sun (which eventually showed up) began to set, big room bangers such as 'Glue' and 'Apricots' saw people perched on shoulders with arms raised to the sky just as a rainbow formed, mirroring the bunting atop of the stage in a celebrated natural spectacle. 

Inevitably with festivals, you’re going to get unfortunate clashes between timeslots and one of the cruellest of the weekend was main stage act Jamie XX, whose set partially coincided with Craig Charles spinning funk and soul over at The Valley, an incredible stage in a canyon unfortunately placed at the exact opposite side of the festival site. So, whilst Jamie XX kept up the standard set by Bicep with some pulsating post-dubstep and stunning light sequencing, I too was one of many who headed off towards the back end of the set to try and beat the queue (which was eye watering when I arrived) to the valley.

But the valley was teeming for good reason: Charles plays an incredible mix of tunes and generates a thrilling atmosphere, and it was here the marvel of the valley became apparent. Come the late evening/early hours as The Blessed Madonna and Luke Unabomber took to the decks, just as Eats Everything had done the previous evening and as Jayda G would do the following night, the trees were alight with the relentless lasers as disco queens and space cowboys passed through the flowing dry ice, avoiding the thick sludge developing on the embankment to cut shapes with hundreds of other revellers. 

Come Sunday and the rain returned, plus the crowd seemed to have thinned out throughout the festival leaving the day was somewhat more languid, with The Wilderness Orchestra being one of the few eagerly anticipated performances of the day and was leisurely but nonetheless impressive.

“We are free again, as Bob Marley said, we’re on the street again” came the call from the main stage as penultimate headliner reggae—legend David Rodigan—blasted out a perfect Sunday evening chill-out set weaving through orchestrated origins of Jamaican music.

It certainly felt like we were “free” at times during Wilderness, the scenic location making it easy to forget the rolling news updates and the containment of our houses we’ve experienced over the last 18 months. Praise must be given to the organisers and staff for pulling the festival off at all, as one of only a handful still going ahead this year, helped no doubt by the clear and strong effort regarding Covid-safety (attendees needed to provide evidence of double vaccination or negative lateral flow tests). 

So, coming away from Wilderness, were those pre-conceived notions confirmed?

Yes, the festival is almost definitely, 'posh', 'middle class', 'fancy'...there aren’t many festivals I can think of that sell out numerous food and wine paring experiences, had a champagne tent or offer boutique yurt and tipi accommodation. 

But as for exclusive? Well, putting the paid packages and such aside, Wilderness 2021 was more inclusive I found than anything. The desire to get back to these great joys of life—dancing to great live music, having face to face conversation, meeting new friends, drinking a beer in the sun/rain for breakfast is largely universal (okay maybe not the last one)—and Wilderness provided the opportunity for all these in abundance. And that’s what matters.

Photo: Alex Elms