Entering—and leaving—a different world \\ Say Goodbye to Secret Garden Party
“Yes, but tomorrow I will be Batman.” That’s the response I got when I asked one of the festival-goers why his attire was so ordinary-looking.
Dressing up and becoming someone or something is a major attraction for the “Gardeners”, as regular attendees of the Secret Garden party are known. Certainly, stepping through the gates is like crossing the threshold into a different world where anybody can be anybody.
Behind you lie the endless hills of Cambridgeshire, scattered with handfuls of farmhouses and the odd tractor. The landscape in front of your eyes is decidedly different. A ten foot tall statue of a fox in sunglasses stares out on a lake surrounded by white four-poster beds, with two larger-than-life taps creating a waterfall-cum-bathtub effect.
Over the hill, a clump of trees form an archway into the ‘Lost Woods’, where winding paths lead to clearings with pop-up bars and tree-houses. The dresscode is ‘anything goes’, as festival-goers wander by bedecked in glitter and little else. Time functions differently too, with raves beginning at 10am in the morning and breakfast food being served throughout the night.
The festival is a world apart from reality, with its own Secret FM radio station, cultural mish-mash of food stalls and road signs which advise festival-goers to ‘Follow the Green Fairy’. And the creator and leader of this free world is Head Gardener himself Freddie Fellowes, who can be caught performing his own country infused DJ set in various venues throughout the festival.
As a self-declared ‘alternative’ festival, the weekend is as much about participating in one-of-a-kind activities and events as well as experiencing live music. Mornings can begin with Space Yoga, led by an anonymous man dressed as astronaut. If this doesn’t tickle your fancy, you can head to the Guerilla Science tent for a lecture on Lucid Dreaming hosted by PhD students. The Palais de Boob advertises itself in the programme as a place where you can ‘celebrate your lovely jubblies in all their glorious forms.’ There are no holds barred for self-expression here; everyone is encouraged to take part and experiment with different parts of their identity.
The festival is in its final year, and within the general mood of hedonism and fun there is a pervasive sense of nostalgia and finality. Throughout the weekend, performers occasionally mention that this festival is the final act in the story. On the Great Stage a photo montage leads the audience through the festival’s greatest moments over the years.
At a Head Gardener’s Question Time with journalist Miranda Sawyer, Freddie Fellowes explains that whilst the festival has always promoted a ‘user-generated’ mentality which prefers audience ‘participation’ over ‘immersion’, it has become harder and harder to do this over the years. Although unable to explain why this is, he acknowledges that as the idea of a festival has become more concrete; ‘festival culture’ has permeated into High Street clothing and commercial food outlets. People now arrive to Secret Garden with certain expectations and are therefore more passive in the process. Nevertheless, Fellowes hints at exciting things to come, while admitting that he’d be unqualified for any other job.
Despite there being a focus on aesthetic and interactive art performances, the eclectic range of music on offer is nevertheless something to behold. The Chai Wallas Stage located in the Lost Woods jumps between traditional folk, hip hop, and contemporary jazz, hosting bands that include the likes of Sheelanagig, Mammal Hands, and Abstract Orchestra. There is a liberating sense of open-minded receptiveness amongst the crowd, as festival goers looking for a good time are keen to enjoy whatever interesting music comes their way.
The Great Stage, which in past years has been performed on by a variety of artists ranging from Caravan Palace to Regina Spektor, was graced by electro-folk band Crystal Fighters on the Friday, the very danceable Metronomy on Saturday, and the legendary Toots and the Maytals on Sunday. A venue with a strange likeness to a Roman-styled gladiator’s arena entitled the Collisillyum kept revellers going until 5am with Nero and Sub Focus. Not to waste an opportunity, the Collisillyum hosted mud-fights during the day. Meanwhile, the trippy woodland-themed Where The Wild Things Are stage featured performances by Akala, Pumarosa, and Let’s Eat Grandma.
Freddie Fellowes mentioned in his Q&A the difficulty of trying to outdo himself year after year. And yet, an eye-popping firework display was the perfect way to commemorate fifteen years of Secret Garden. Just as everyone thought the show was over, a temporarily-constructed house on the middle of an island in the lake was detonated, revealing the effigy of a heart.
JS | Gail Tasker