Festival Preview: Secret Garden Party

Take a trip to Huntingdon, in Cambridgeshire, to attend one of the jewels in the crown of the British festival season

Written by Ian Steadman

Out of all the festivals that fill the calendar over the British summer, none are quite like the Secret Garden Party. Every year friends come back, wide-eyed, stories tumbling from their mouths about the fantastical things that they have seen and experienced. Last year’s festival had a whole stage on a boat in the middle of the lake on site (above) – as the festival was brought to close on the final night the ship was fully exploded in a mad orgy of fiery violence. It sounds like it was brilliant. Every year they have things like this.

It’s a strange festival in that the attraction is not so much the lineup (good as it may be), or the site (beautiful though it is), but the other people who attend. The organisers explain it best:

“We provide the Garden and plant the seeds, but you nurture its life and allow it to blossom. It is your party – your creative participation allows the festival to rejuvenate & regenerate. Our number one rule is that the festival must facilitate your participation.”

Simple, eh? This means that there’s a very blurred line between performers and attendees, leading to a merry atmosphere that’s had people deliriously happy since 2004. It may not have the ‘big’ names that characterise the larger, more corporate festivals, but that’s not the point (and, as the four friends who run the festival say, “there’s something unsettling about relaxing in a field in the summer underneath a giant Pepsi logo”). This sharing, communal atmosphere is largely responsible for the festival’s grand reputation amongst the partying people of Britain.

There are still stages and tents and acts and headliners, of course. This year there will be performanes from artists as diverse as Mercury Rev, Fionn Regan, Eliza Doolittle, Mr Fogg, Marina & the Diamonds, and Crystal Fighters (but that’s just scratching the surface of the lineup). They’ll be appearing on the different stages and in the different tents across the site – wonderfully-named things, they are. There’s The Great Stage (aka the main stage), or the Wild Stage (bands play to the audience from a treehouse), or The Pagoda (a DJ arena, backed by a Peter Foster-designed pagoda), or The Feast of Fools (a medieval banquet experience underneath a huge, ancient oak), or… well, take your pick, there are 14 different locations to choose from, all of them suitably wacky and enticing.

This year’s theme (for there is always a theme) is ‘Fact or Fiction’. Again, in the festival’s own words:

“In 2010 The Secret Garden Party will be prizing open the chinks in man’s most carefully constructed edifice: Reality. The Garden will be exploring the illusions, visions, theories, fantasies, mysteries and legends that have created a rich world between Fact and Fiction.”

The idea is to come in a costume that’s stranger than fiction. Whether that is entirely logically possible is a moot point – it’s all about having as much of a party as possible by exploring the inventive ideas of the past, present, and future. Plus it’s a chance to dance in a field dressed like Bowie in Labyrinth. No?

Ah, Secret Garden Party. Between the hippie girls with flowers in their hair to the massive raves in the woods at night, there’s a lot of space to do your own thing. It’s a festival all about doing what you want to let yourself have a good time, and in the process get other people to enjoy themselves more through the power of community. It’s all very excellent.

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