Every summer, I like to head to a festival I've never tried before. My choice this year is Nozstock: The Hidden Valley. For a few years, as I've travelled around with my sturdy tent, people have recommended this little gem in the backyard of Bromyard. I now see why.
"I think it's my favourite festival ever", says Photographer Sarah more than once over the weekend. She's not wrong for saying so. As we wander around the site and get our initial bearings, it's like a mash-up of many of our favourite festivals - it's got style, guile, magic and humanity. It's also got a unique feel that sets it apart.
We chat with many locals over the course of the weekend. One chap has been coming to Nozstock since the very first year. "Strictly speaking this is the 20th year that there's been a party at this farm", he explains. "But the first one wasn't actually called Nozstock - it only got that name in the second year". Officially, the 19th Nozstock, we can all agree that it's the best yet. Growing organically over the years, Farmer Noz and his family have pulled out all of the stops to make this something special.
Eleven stages, each with their own distinct personality, are dotted around the compact, hilly arena. In between the stages, there's art, installations and all manner of interesting things which catch your eyes and take your breath. Everybody's smiling and nobody seems in too much of a hurry to get from A to B. Even when it rains, and it does so quite heavily on the Friday, people just put on their waterproofs, drink a bit more ale or cider and get on with having a good time. The downpour of Friday rain might have put a lesser festival to shame - but Nozstock seem exceptionally well prepared for this eventuality. Lots of woodchip and straw is used in key pedestrian areas to ensure that, by and large, our access and enjoyment is maintained to the max.
Shall we take a walk around the hidden valley? There are two entrances into the arena from the campsite but we'll go in through the main entrance which leads you slap bang into the centre of the site and the Orchard stage. This is where you'll see the bigger acts of the weekend and, in truth, we do spend a fair bit of our time here, either propping up the bar which sits at the back of this natural amphitheatre, sat on the drying ground as glorious sunshine beams down or deliciously enjoying the downpour as Beans On Toast plays on regardless through the wettest of storms at Friday teatime.
Turn left from the Orchard stage and you'll be heading into a loop of stages dedicated mostly to dance music of one form or the other. We'll go there soon enough but for now we'll wander to the right of the stage into the 'Arts and Craft' area. Like Glastonbury's Green Fields or Whistlers Green at Boomtown, this is where you'll find the chance to try your hand at traditional crafts. Exquisite designs made out of wood mix in with metal-plated works. A wonderful metal rhino stands at the top of the hill. Stare at the centre of a motor-powered spinning wheel for thirty seconds and turn around to see the rhino come to life with its belly breathing in and out.
Head down the Arts and Craft hill, stopping to admire the trapeze artist who contorts from a tree as you do, and you'll get to the Bantam Of The Opera Theatre tent. By day, all manner of theatre shows mix in with a series of engaging debates. On Saturday and Sunday, as afternoon passes into evening, the Laughing Stock comedy time takes over. I like my comedy and the line-up pulled together for Nozstock punches high. Bethany Black does a fine job in compering on Saturday even though her material often veers towards vaginal smut. Simon Munnery is his wonderfully laidback self before the Brett Domino Trio get the tent dancing with their medley of ten Prince songs dryly played on key-tar and stylophone. On Sunday, it's fair to say that Pat Cahill is an acquired taste for some wanting belly-laughs and one liners. But, he's ultimately a class act and when the silly nonsense of his wartime songs eventually connect, it leaves many bent over double with giggles. Late into the night, in this theatre tent, the Velveteen Valley is a dip-your-toe into the best of the cabaret circuit. We're always partying elsewhere and conspire to miss these performances. We'll have to do better next year.
Keeping on our trail around the site, we head back up the hill from the Bantam Of The Opera Theatre tent. Sarah stops for an Indian Head Massage in the healing zone. Twenty minutes later, she emerges from her massage full of virtue and smiles. I really like how this healing tent works. All proceeds from the weekend are being given towards the Yelemi Support Centre, a complementary therapy service for people living with cancer. It's by no means the only concession that Nozstock makes towards charity either. The appetite to give something back to the community is evident in the use of Oxfam stewards and support for Trees for Cities and People In Motion.
To our right as we walk up the hill, we note the fledgling trees that have been planted in previous years by acts that have played Nozstock. A fresh tree sits in recently dug earth. Jay (Beans On Toast) has recently committed this to soil. It's a novel idea but also indicative of the environmental stance taken by this festival across the site. Rightly proud of their green credentials (and awards), they've got reusable cup schemes (an extra £1 at the bar) and Eco bond additions to the ticket price. Recycling is positively encouraged and much of the produce sold on site originates locally.
At the top of the hill, we arrive at the Cabinet Of Lost Secrets. Wander down through a little tunnel and you arrive in an underground cavern furnished with places to sit and a little bar where you can get earthy mojitos and shots of strong spirit. We rest a while here whilst I get my beard trimmed by a demon barber. Straight out of Sweeney Todd, the blood-stained rags fixed to the costume are no more than decoration and the job done is a good one. We're encouraged to explore around the little nooks and crannies of this area to find secret venues within. A tunnel decorated with skull-like objects and scary lighting leads into a larger tent. We stay here and watch a fine jazz band go for it. It's all a bit like the hidden tents that Shambala indulges in so well.
Just up from the Cabinet Of Lost Secrets and we're back level with our entry point into the arena - but further along to the right of the Orchard stage. This is the area where the Bandstand sits. It's a bigger bandstand stage than you might be familiar with at Glastonbury or Bestival. In fact, at one point on the Sunday afternoon, there's an act setting up which appears to contain a dozen members in their entourage. The rain threatens so we don't hang around. We catch little snippets of bands whenever we're walking past over the weekend and the quality never fails to impress. Just to the side of the Bandstand is the Kids area. I wish that my young nephew was here to experience all of the fun things that appear to be going on within.
We wander into the Wrong Directions Cinema tent a few times. With dim lights, sofas and other comfy seating options, it's a fine place to go for an afternoon snooze. That's not to say that the entertainment within isn't of top quality though. We dip into a Christmas film quiz but find it far too challenging for our simple minds. The following day, a documentary film about simple living and reducing environmental impact in Australia leaves a real imprint on my thinking.
Your tour of one loop of the site is largely over yet there's still the loop to the left of the Orchard stage. Let's rest a while before we head to that more dance-fuelled area and consider the musical highlights we see on this main stage. There was much anticipation for each of the headline acts; Seasick Steve, The Sugarhill Gang and Happy Mondays. Each, in their own way, deliver sets to remember. It never used to be thus but since cleaning their act up, the Monday's are one of the more reliable on the circuit. Bez, apparently now a beekeeper not far from here, still dances with wide-eyed enthusiasm and Shaun Ryder still has that nonchalant swagger. More than anything, they have tunes that stand the test of time. Youngsters mix with their parents, inspired to watch a band that their folks recall the first time around. The same might be also be said for Seasick Steve and The Sugarhill Gang.
For me, one of the picks of the weekend on the Orchard stage, are Death By Unga Bunga. They've just flown in from Norway and look a bit dishevelled after their travels. But, once they launch into their melodic power pop, there is no stopping them. They turn heads in the Saturday afternoon sun as lead singer, Sebastian Ulstad Olsen, jumps into the crowd and screams and stares intently at those half-watching. By the end of their whirlwind set they've got all onside so much that the whole band in unison can play their guitars behind their heads with ridiculous rock postures. It's surely what it's all about.
Hayseed Dixie play as sub-headliners on the Saturday. Their musical style might be different to Death By Unga Bunga but their frenzied performance ticks similar boxes. You know what you're getting here. Although they do have some original numbers, the bulk of the set is covers of rock classics done in their own 'bluegrass' style. The rhythmic bass playing of Jake "Bakesnake" Byers is so splendid that Hayseed Dixie get by without a drummer. We bellow along to "Highway To Hell" and don't half appreciate the frantic speed with which they deliver "Bohemian Rhapsody". Lead singer, John 'Barley Scotch' Wheeler tells us that they last played Nozstock in 2008. We hope that there won't be another nine year gap before they play again.
Other highlights on this main 'Orchard' stage include Professor Elemental, the fine protagonist of posh hip-hop (Chap-hop) who tells us how much he loves Nozstock. Unlike Hayseed Dixie he last played here just a year ago. Hardwicke Circus are from Cumbria and under the influence of The Rolling Stones but impress all with their tuneful pouting. Mica Millar is a new name to me but, when she gets going has enough of that 60's influenced soul shimmer to wake me from any slumber. It's diverse programming - festival circuit regulars mixing in with the up and coming. We could stay here all weekend if we didn't have another loop of Nozstock to explore.
So, we're heading off to the left of the Orchard stage now. What delights will be in store for us around here? We don't have to wait too long to discover. For sitting against the Orchard stage but at a ninety degree angle from it is the Garden Stage. It's noticeably programmed to be a bit more 'banging' than its near neighbour with prominent DJs and beatboxers often spinning their stuff when I have a look. We make a special point of catching the legends of Goldie Lookin' Chain set late on Sunday afternoon but don't last long as the sound quality (for the first time on any stage this weekend) leaves a bit to be desired.
Earlier in the day, I've accidentally stumbled across a new favourite band here though. Think of a folkier version of Caribou and you'd be in the right space for imagining Wovoka Gentle. A three piece, they all convene around an array of instruments in the centre of the stage. With electronic bleeps merging in with more traditional 'folk' instruments and their own sampled and looped voices, they produce a blissed-out psychedelia perfect for a Sunday afternoon. There are criminally few here to watch, perhaps because Wovoka Gentle are a name not widely known but I'd recommend checking them out with haste. I curse myself when wondering about what other delights I might have missed around Nozstock - though you can't be everywhere.
Move away from the Garden Stage and head into the centre of the farm and you'll find the Cubicles area. This undercover milking parlour bangs to the drum and bass beat on Friday and Saturday. It seems very popular with those a bit younger than I and friendly enough when I poke my head into the shed. In another space nearby, everything is painted orange, tango'ed for a celebration of gingers on the Sunday. It's odd quirks like this that make Nozstock the vibrant experience that it is.
Head down the hill on this left side of the site and walk around the perfectly-decorated lake (there is so much to see). Walk along a track that's muddy and squelchy on Friday (but has been tended to and sorted out for the rest of the weekend) and eventually you get to a new area for this year, the Elephant's graveyard. Legend has it that a travelling circus used to roam this valley and that the bones of an elephant were once found in these parts. I don't know how true this might be but it's a fine reason to set this stage here. An impressive circular arena bounded by tall planks of wood ensure that the ravey and reggae-ish sounds from the DJ booth bounce and reverberate around this space. We sit for a while and take it all in. Yes, it's worth noting that wherever you head on site there's no shortage of places to rest potentially weary legs. It's just another effortless thing which Nozstock achieves.
On leaving the Elephant's Graveyard, we choose to not immediately walk back up the hill towards the main stages but stay in the valley and head across to a small patch of trees. With outrageous fortune, we dodge the youngsters (and adults) shooting their arrows at a makeshift archery range and head into the Coppice. Like a mini Glade or Noisily, this section of the site plays host to a Tribe Of Frog programmed Psytrance area. Even when we're there in daylight, the lights and tunes stomping out from the DJ booth are impressive. Again, we sit in a strategically placed sofa and relax for a while.
Completing our tour of this spectacular site, we walk back up the hill to the 'Psychonauts' tent. We're welcomed in by a chemist in a white gown and encouraged to part with some money in exchange for a shot of liquid from a syringe. We open our mouths as a tequila tasting thing is injected by the mad scientist. Some wheelchairs are pushed out of a room behind and we're asked to sit down in them. We're then pushed (something that proves particularly challenging for the poor person pushing my chair) into a room and given a surgical mask to wear. For the next few minutes, we look directly through a window into a world of psychedelic images. It's impressive, trippy and ultimately relaxing. We're then pushed back out into reality. I have no idea what this piece of interactive theatre is trying to say but I like the effect it has. We can't help but smile as we head back into the festival to party the night away.
There's more that I've not mentioned; local ales and ciders that are very competitively priced; a great choice of food; toilets that are well maintained and well stocked with paper each time I have the need (which is quite often but that's perhaps TMI). This festival even has one of the best press offices that I've come across this season where you're made to feel special and part of the family. Indeed, on Saturday afternoon, we head off to a lovely wooded area of the site where there's an Alice In Wonderland press party in full flow. We spend a fantastic hour watching people in fab costumes play instruments and magically dance. The food that's laid on for us here is exquisite and arranged so beautifully that it almost feels too good to tuck into - apparently, it's largely put together by the impressive on-site chef who caters for the crew. Another wow amongst a weekend of wowser.
Sunday evening and we all gather to get a vantage point over the valley and out to the Nozstock sign - individual letters standing boldly in white on the far side of the hill. We whoop and holler as fireworks are let off into the evening sky. A fire burns in the distance. This really is a party that has it all; a festival at the very top of the game. It packs a mighty punch and does so with a decent dose of humanity. Long may it continue to be like this. Many thanks to the Nosworthy family and their wider entourage who have lovingly and successfully created one of the best creative statements of this summer.
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