A playground for all ages, ed The Secret Garden Party boasts a reputation as a festival where you can temporarily seek refuge from the hassles of real life and indulge in a few days of crazy creativity in a temporary community where a surprise lurks around every corner.
In my estimation, medical The Secret Garden Party is the closest you can ever get to Wonderland without reading Alice Through the Looking-Glass (It even has croquet). Held in the Cambridgeshire countryside just outside Huntingdon, this festival occurs on the grounds of Abbots Ripton Hall, home of Lord de Ramsey. These days the festival is a pretty badly kept secret and as many as 26,000 people attended this year, compared to the more petite 1000 or so that partied there back when it was begotten in 2004.
The grounds, as well as the festival goers, function as an impromptu art exhibit with fancy dress encouraged and contributing to the surreal ambience. Although marketed as both an arts and music festival, the lack of well-known bands means that more often than not the attendees are lured to the festival on the premise of the experience itself.
Illustrations by Lilly Allen
Festivals rest in the perilous hands of the weather and although our entrance to the festival was marked by the rain, an ominous start to the weekend, it was hot enough by Friday that we could mosey to the lake and go swimming with hoards of other eager beavers, desperate to wash off the glitter and UV paint from last night’s exploits. The lake is a vital part of the festival atmosphere, not only because you can swim and row across it, but because there is also a temporary stage in the centre that you can only get to by boat. This stage, in the shape of a dragonfly, was burnt on the Saturday night.
Blondie, illustrated by Sam Parr
This is a festival where you go with the flow, whether you choose to follow the trail of glow sticks being left by a person in the distance in the hope that it leads you somewhere, or you want to sit in front of the sand stage and relax burning marshmallows on the bonfire. Each festival experience is unique and as well as being handed some snacks by someone in a Kindness Initiative tabard we were approached by someone who presented us with a piece of paper reading “switch off your alarm clock”; SGP is a hands-on festival if ever there was one.
There are an impossible number of things to do. They say that curiosity killed the cat, but this is a place to satiate your interest, taking advantage of what’s on offer, whether that is life drawing or an introduction to fetishes: in a tent filled with pillows where you are required to take your shoes off at the entrance and a small make shift cinema (complete with popcorn). Forming just a sample of the odd attractions on offer, you’re guaranteed never to be bored. Other more mainstream activities to pep you up during the day include miniature golf and yoga. If you want to watch someone in a wasp spray costume chase a bee around, or throw paint at people you don’t know in the annual paint fight, then this is the place to do it. With so much on offer its impossible to sample everything in one visit and this festival will undoubtedly leave you wanting more.
We got more than we bargained by watching mud wrestling, the climax of the show being impromptu nudity as well as a Mission Impossible style drop for items located in the mud pit. We also checked out Shitfaced Shakespeare, a performance of Romeo and Juliet for which the actors are completely and utterly trollied. Both of which made for unique experiences.
We were totally sheltered from the real world here: with no plug sockets, the news of Amy Winehouse and the Norway massacre filter through the crowds with shock, reminding us that we have to go back to our lives on Monday.
Married to the Sea, illustrated by Nicola Ellen
The majority of bands playing at SGP are relatively unknown and reading down the list makes me feel suddenly lacking in hipster knowledge. There are big names, too: Leftfield, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Mystery Jets and of course Blondie. We watched rising stars like Cosmo Jarvis and relative unknowns like Married to the Sea, wandering through the various stages in search of the best tunes. But mostly, we weaved in and out of the tents soaking up the atmosphere, picking up the phone of the random call box that lets you talk to strangers somewhere else on the festival and being glad that we were lucky enough to get tickets.
Cosmo Jarvis, illustrated by Rosemary Kirton
There is more to SGP than the music. This is the festival to end all festivals and has a certain je ne sais quoi that other festivals fail to achieve. If you want to dress up as a different animal every day then this is the place for you. It’s an art gallery with its visitors welcome to become part of the exhibit. The Secret Garden Party is one of the few experiences in life when the reality of the festival will no doubt outstrip your expectations.
All photography by Jessica Cook
- Secret Garden Party: The Festival Preview Series
- Festival Preview: Secret Garden Party
- The Secret Emporium at The Secret Garden Party Festival 2012
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- Creauremag Festival Edition