This was a new feeling for me. I've attended loads of festivals but I was scared as I approached the back of the line snaking its way through the car park in the brilliant Hampshire sunshine. I didn't know what to expect. I'd been building this weekend up in my head for months and now I was here I felt like I had at my first Reading festival 20 years; terrified, excited, over-whelmed, wired. Would I fit in with this crowd? Would I enjoy the music? Could I possibly enjoy the festival as much as I'd been planning to?
The wait to get in was actually fairly painless. We'd arrived at about 4.30pm and, although I was told we would be more than two hours from where we started by a steward, 45 minutes later I was being shouted at by security for waiting to be searched! The searches that were going on appeared to be pretty thorough, although it seemed that glass bottles were their primary focus. I was told later that there had been 3 police dogs searching people as they arrived earlier in the day but that they had finished for the day by the time I got there.
We staggered through the gates and into the first field. We asked a steward where Trenchtown was, as we had decided to head for this district and make it our home for the next four days and nights. Wonderfully, we were told we were in it so we simply walked to the small hill in front of us, threw the tent out and settled in, with a beautiful view of Chai Wallah's and no real idea where anything else was. With the tent up and beers open, the festival had begun.
We quickly discovered that we were, in fact, quite a way from where anything much was happening (not a huge shock as we were camped opposite the entrance gates!) but in some ways this helped us to fall in love with Boomtown, our first experience being our journey through the woods, over paths littered with pebbles and tree roots, before appearing at the top of hill with the beautiful, sprawling Hampshire countryside glistening for miles in the fading sunlight. I think that the first thing that would overwhelm a new visitor to is quite how beautiful it is. The Matterley Bowl provides a stunning canvas for the Boomtown artists and architects to work with and they are remarkably sympathetic to nature in how they lay everything out.
There were lots of venues closed and not doing anything on Thursday night but this meant that we felt we had all the time in the world to wander around the whole site and enjoy our surroundings.
We began our tour of the site in the Town Centre which included a town square, complete with an imposing looking town hall, various other buildings and a pub called The Bad Apple stood directly opposite the Town Centre stage. The Bad Apple is a great example of what makes Boomtown special; from its name you assume it's a cider bar but in reality it was stocking half-a-dozen different ales (that ran out too quickly), a dozen ciders, lager on tap, wine, spirits and mixers and soft drinks. An amazingly good choice and typified the festivals efforts to make sure there was something for everyone.
Beers in hand we wandered into Old Town where, having wandered through the ramshackle buildings, bars and yet-to-open nightclubs, we soon found ourselves watching amateur gymnastics on the bandstands (I am overwhelmingly impressed by those chaps that can hold onto poles and pretend to be a flag; I sat on the floor and pretended to be a garden gnome) before finding the arts and crafts bit of the area.
The Human Flag
Here we watched an endless stream of overly-confident young men falling off a bike with a pivot in the middle of the frame. Successfully riding it was all about core strength, according to the bike's owner, who eventually rode off with an ease that must have irritated the hell out of the grass-stained masses who'd fallen off it over the previous hour. Half an hour of chat with the Cuttlefish Silversmiths (who apparently had been amusing themselves by making silver "private parts") and we decided it was time to go further into the festival.
We came to the bar at the end of Old Town and realised that the only way was down. What we didn't know was how far down! We walked past something called the "Tribe of Frog", decided that we would have to come back to here when it was open and carried on down the hill. And then we carried on some more. And some more. And then we found some steps. And we kept going down. Once round the last corner, the rest of Boomtown revealed itself to us. A blaze of lights, an excited buzz of beats and the occasional crackle of flames while Arcadia was tested, it seemed that excitement and fun was waiting to be found around every corner and in every nook and cranny.
We allowed ourselves to wander through Barrio Loco, Down Town, China Town, Arcadia (although the Arc Bar and Arcadia itself were closed off until the following day) and, once we thought we'd walked around most of it and had a reasonable idea of where things were, we decided to head back to our base. However, by now we had drunk a fair bit and a level of disorientation was setting in. We knew we had to go up, we knew we didn't want to go up the way we came down (I don't think I would have made it) and we knew there was another way. Eventually we found what we thought must be the way home and walked into the woods.
But this wasn't the way home. Instead we'd walked into the Hidden Woods stage, a place that was quickly to become my favourite area of the festival. Woods are magical at any time, conjuring thoughts of fairies and sprites, of nature, of the wild and unknown. But stick a beautiful wooden stage in the middle of them, surround it with a beach and fairy lights and play reggae music and it becomes even more enchanting. Our return to camp was to be delayed by an hour or more of dancing and drinking before we eventually left.
Musical Youth at Hidden Woods on the Sunday
We now encountered some real confusion. We had been told we were camped in Trenchtown. We knew that Hidden Woods was in Trenchtown. We also knew that The Lion's Den was in Trenchtown and yet we were told that it was a long way off. We thought we must be able to walk round to where we were camped through the woods but we couldn't. It turns out that Trenchtown wasn't really a geographical district but more an association of the reggae-based areas. Yes, all of Trenchtown was on the same side of the festival, but it didn't feel like it linked together, whereas most of the other districts at least had all of their venues altogether.
Having finally asked a steward, we found we needed to go up the hill, through Mayfair and then we could find the wooded path home. The hill looked imposing (reminiscent of the "Hill of Death", or whatever you refer to the hill out of Glastonbury on the east side as) but, thankfully, we had invested in Magic Carpet tickets. We exchanged our tickets for our beautiful pink wristbands and were soon travelling up the hill on the 300m moving walkway. I can't recommend the Magic Carpet enough. Yes, it was quicker to walk. Yes, you had to queue to get on it. But it afforded you the luxury of standing still, resting your legs, catching your breath and the view of Boomtown from the walkway was awe-inspiring.
The Magic Carpet and the uninviting hill.
Having negotiated the tricky dismount at the end of the Magic Carpet (apparently people failing at this was the reason why it sporadically came to a grinding halt) we found ourselves at the foot of Mayfair. We wouldn't discover until Saturday that the path to the left was a short-cut back to where we camped. We walked through "the posh bit", past the roller disco, the ballroom, the hotel, stopped for a quick cocktail, and then out the top of the district to find ourselves back where we had first appeared from our walk through the woods several hours earlier. We stumbled back to our tents chatting excitedly about what we'd seen, what we hadn't and what we were going to do over the next few days. By 5am we had made it to bed.
I'm not going to bore you with what I thought of the various acts I saw over the weekend; those are my thoughts and you probably wouldn't agree with them, music being the subjective beast that it is. Also, we didn't get a programme until the Saturday and then we left it in the tent so I actually don't know what I saw a lot of the time. What I can tell you is that almost everything we saw we really enjoyed. We stuck to a rule of "Are you feeling this?" and if we weren't, we went.
I do, however, want to give a quick mention to The Iration Steppas, who were the first act we saw on the Friday, warming up the massive Lion's Den crowd, alongside Channel One, that had gathered to wait for Julian Marley (who was brilliant, Boom Draw being the highlight [blame efestivals for that!]). They were brilliantly energetic, funny ("How many Weetabix have you lot had? I've not had any breakfast. This music is my breakfast!") and we found them in the Town Centre a few hours later and they were just really great guys.
The Lion's Den, by the way, is one the truly great festival stages around at the moment. I think it was the biggest stage at BoomTown, although I was told the Town Centre stage was the "main" stage, and the only one with screens. It looked like a ruined temple, complete with vines, fire and glowing red eyes on the huge lion at the back. What I really liked about this venue, however, was that the area was only as wide as the stage. This meant that the sound was all focused forwards, with little sideways bleed, and allowed you to get a really good atmosphere and volume all the way to the back of the area with its beach and bar.
The Lion's Den
It was also on Friday that we discovered the debauchery at The Bank in Mayfair. An innocuous-looking opening in the corner of the district, The Bank was an area with a stage at the far end and steps/seats going up both sides. As we entered we were issued with bowler hats and were greeted by Mr and Mrs Fitz-Sloane encouraging willing punters to put on massive boxing gloves and fight each other in an inflatable paddling pool (no water, but some jelly was present). The stupid games and sense of lawlessness present in here made this one of our favourite places of the weekend. Whenever we went back (during the day, it wasn't open at night) we were treated to people making fools of themselves and legends being born. No-one who was there will forget BumCrack's astonishing victory in a four-way jelly-boxing match in which he barely stood up but won comfortably, with all bouts decided by cheers from the crowd. There was something marvellous about hundreds of people screaming "BUMCRACK" at the tops of their voices!
Naked man falling over in jelly in The Bank
Friday and the festival-proper also allowed me to sort out a bit of unfinished business. When Arcadia first landed at Glastonbury it was something so new and exciting that it blew my mind but as it has moved around the site it has become less and less interesting culminating in its spectacular failure in the Other Stage field this year. At Boomtown, it felt like a triumphant comeback for me. With the steps for chilling out on surrounding the main area and the volume appearing to be much louder, this felt like where the massive fire-breathing alien noise contraption belonged; there was space to dance and move, there was no crushing to get to it and yet thousands of people were still grinning and gurning while they moved as one. Beautiful.
One of the things I can't stress enough is the attention to detail the organisers have put into their stage and set designs. The DownTown area was a perfect example. It had multiple venues, each with their own personality and the punters seemed to understand what the subtle differences meant. In the Asbo Disco, there was a sense of wilful childishness ; the Oldschool Garage was crafted to look like Phil and Grant Mitchell's workshop, complete with bits of cars and bodywork; the Spaceport was futuristic and full of aliens, ravers and flashes of neon colours. My favourite bit of DownTown was the Boombox stage. An enormous ghetto-blaster with DJs spinning their tunes from where the tape-deck should have been, it was wondrous and provided filthy bass and comedy dance-offs in a boxing ring all weekend.
The Boombox stage
The atmosphere across the site crackled all weekend. It felt like the whole festival was clinging onto the edge of chaos and this mixture of excitement, anticipation and danger kept the whole place alive for the duration. Another thing that I really loved at Boomtown was the campsite culture. This is something that seems to have diminished at other, bigger festivals in recent years as people go to tick bands off lists rather than to immerse themselves in the vibe of the event they are attending but at Boomtown it lives on. We were able to wander about making friends with people and sharing drinks, etc. every night and every night we would end up with people randomly joining us. I'd missed this banter and togetherness at other festivals I've been to recently and was delighted to find it here.
I could go on and on but I don't want to. I want to leave lots of things for you to find when you decide to visit "The UK's Maddest City" for yourself but I will just mention a few other things quickly that I thought were important.
The lockers were brilliant. They were only big enough for phones and wallets but afforded a peace of mind that let me really go for it when dancing (if that's what you can call it!) but you gained entry using your finger-print on a digital scanner. Every time I went in (more often than I needed to) I felt like Jason Bourne breaking into a Swiss bank!
Dressing up is fun! I've never been much of a dresser-upper but we'd taken suits and hats and shirts and ties and it added to our experience. Next year, we're going to try and have a different dressing up theme for each day! The stewards were some of the most helpful, friendly and yet unobtrusive I've ever encountered at a festival. There was almost a complete lack of commercialisation; it never felt like a product was being rammed down your throat.
There is a Kids Field (we didn't visit it although I know someone said the food in there was really good) but it didn't feel like a kids-friendly festival; almost everyone there was indulging in something that probably isn't ideal for children to be around.
The toilets aren't great and more urinals would considerably ease the pressure on them.
If I had one recommendation for the organisers it would be to make the districts more distinct. There was nothing linking the Trenchtown venues apart from the fact that they were more reggae-based in their programming; it was hard to tell where DownTown, ChinaTown and BarrioLoco changed from one to the other - you could tell by the venue names, etc. but there could have been more to make them feel like separate areas. I was also disappointed that only the Fitz-Sloanes in The Bank and Charlie Brown all over the site (charging into other people's venues at gun-point) appealed for my vote in the elections for Town Mayor (actually, as I write this I realise I don't know who won) and it would have been nice to make more of the personalities I'd been reading about before the festival. Of course, I may have just missed the others campaigning as I flitted about the site.
So, in summary, Boomtown was everything I hoped for and more. I saw reggae legends, cutting-edge dance music, a junkie's version of Noel's House Party, went on the dodgems, got lost in the woods, made friends with people I wouldn't otherwise meet, enjoyed fine beers and ciders at perfectly reasonable prices, discovered PsyTrance (Tribe of Frog was a woodland stage with a fake beach, much like Hidden Woods, and it was all about PsyTrance which, in fairness, I would describe as "dance music" having never been very good with genres but I loved it in there and the beat-driven music was certainly trippy enough to invoke an amphibian army) and generally had a ball. The four days whizzed past in a blur. As I left the site I had that awful sadness for something ending but a triumphant joy about finding something new; I could've stayed forever but I was ready to go home - just the way you should feel when you've had as much fun as we did.
P.S. I forgot to mention Heymoonshaker - a Beatbox-Blues act we saw on the bandstand in Mayfair at some point - they were amazing and deserve to sell a few records!!
The marvellous Heymoonshaker on the Mayfair Bandstand
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BoomTown Fair 2017 Review