“If your festival experiences involve warm pints of foamy Carling in a corporate mud bath, this is as far away as you can get...” This is what their website promises, and this is exactly the ethic of organisers the Laurel Collective. Now in its 9th year, In The Woods for me had all the ingredients to make this intimate 1000-capacity festival that extra bit special.
This year’s location was a tranquil woodland setting in Hawkhurst, Kent. Although held in the same county every year, the exact address as well as the line-up is kept secret right up until the last minute and only revealed to ticket holders. A similar approach to the likes of other underground festivals such as Shambala, this is a great manoeuvre meaning the event attracts like-minded people mostly through word-of-mouth. As such we found the crowd and staff were lovely, chilled, and very friendly which added to the relaxed vibe of the day.
The woods were awash with flowers, bunting, kooky mobiles, and a whole host of quirky art installations. At night the trees twinkled with fairy lights, the whole site looked absolutely enchanting. Around every corner was a visual surprise; from curious little creatures bobbing from a branch to messages on postcards written by festival revellers, left at the al fresco post office. The air was fresh and clean, the trees kept us dry from what little rain we had, and the site felt spacious and never over-crowded. Even when the Quarry (main stage) drew in the biggest crowds there seemed to be ample room. The dipped clearing in front of the stage provided space for dancing, while the stage was surrounded by gentle slopes dotted with trees and stumps for people to sit and enjoy a prime view of the party.
Next to the woods was a large open field hosting several stalls for food, a crafts tent, and a large bonfire.I’m a big fan of green festivals so was pleased to see the toilets were eco-loos and free to use unlike at other festivals. Bar prices were very reasonable; £3.50 for a Red Stripe, £3.70 for a spirit and mixer or cider, £3.80 for a glass of wine. All served in biodegradable plastic cups.The food on offer was pretty decent too and included homemade (and very tasty) burgers, halloumi wraps, meat and veggie dhal, and hog roast. Prices were around £6 a dish and in addition to this you were allowed to bring your own food and alcohol onto the site. It’s the little policies like this that make the difference and make it clear that the organisers just want to ensure you have a great time (and don’t fall into the same money-grabbing bracket of some of the larger festivals, enforcing food and alcohol bans despite charging over the odds for prices onsite).
With two stages, The Quarry and the Laurel Lounge, the site was easy to navigate and the small crowds meant you could get up close to all of the artists. This for me makes a huge difference, to be able to catch all of the action on stage as well as the little things like facial expression, energy, band chemistry… all the good stuff that you miss when swallowed up in a big audience. There was also a spoken word and poetry stage and The Den; a small clearing in the trees which entertained with all manner of dance and disco from 8pm on the Saturday.
The festival began on Friday evening with some cinema and a surprise guest performance by Laura Marling. Saturday the first act we caught was one-man Japanese band and “instrument inventor” Ichi; his music was interesting, sometimes chaotic, and unlike anything I’d heard before. Speaking in broken English he had his audience in hysterics throughout. I overheard some of the organisers behind me trying to figure out set swaps and timings, commenting how they couldn’t concentrate on anything with that sound in the background! His use of everyday objects as instruments kept people on their toes, at one point pulling out a small plastic pig to accompany the sounds he was creating. Introducing onepiece as “a song about a mosquito”, Ichi proceeded to use a kazoo to imitate the buzzing of said insect. After a few minutes, a sudden hand-clap signified the end the song as well as the unfortunate mosquito. A single party popper brought the set to an end, an appropriate finale to a completely bonkers yet highly entertaining performance.
Years And Years delivered an edgy electro-pop set, infused with soul and synths and housey beats that hooked me from the start. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a front man giggle so much in between songs and I couldn’t work out whether Olly Alexander was nervous or just grateful and happy to be singing at the festival. If it was nerves it didn’t come across performance-wise; Olly demonstrated a Justin Timberlake-esque range with a charming confidence that would have any teenage girl pining for more. Tracks were laced with moody basslines and catchy melodies and the band seemed to have nailed the formula for what makes a great urban act cool to watch and unique sounding in their own right. The band's cover of Blu Cantrell’s “Breathe” was a particular hit with the crowd and Olly was great to watch, dancing as much as he sang clearly enjoying himself as much as everyone in front of him. Taking to the piano for “Eyes Shut”, Olly once again swept his audience away in a tide of expressive emotion. Another great band to add to the “ones to watch” list.
Glass Animals were my other highlight, totally surpassing any high expectations I had of this band. David Bayley proved to be another ridiculously strong front man and everything that you could possibly wish for as a performer, getting lost and submersing himself in track after track of velvety wooziness. His voice is beautiful and unlike anyone I’ve heard; flirtatious, soulful, and very very sexy. The intelligence behind the lyrics and compositions of songs such as “Pools” and “Gooey” left me not too surprised to discover David’s background as a qualified doctor. I’ve never heard such interesting soundscapes. Commanding mood shifts with subtle changes in texture and dynamics, Glass Animals journeyed through a myriad of vibes from tropical haziness to the throbbing beats of Kanye’s “Love Lockdown”. Pure bliss.
Secretsundaze founders Giles Smith, and James Priestly polished off proceedings for us with a silent disco at The Den. We had a couple of hours of deep house and funky grooves, my only gripe was the necessity of wearing headphones due to the 1am woodland animal curfew. Still, I couldn’t think of a better end to this magical little festival and I’m looking forward to doing it all over again next year.
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