Secret Garden Party is for those who like adventure, serenity, and madness all in one place

The Secret Garden Party 2013 review

published: Mon 19th Aug 2013

around the festival site (paint fight)

Thursday 25th to Sunday 28th July 2013
Mill Hill Field, Abbots Ripton, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, PE28 2PH, England MAP
£195 adult weekend
daily capacity: 32000
last updated: Mon 15th Jul 2013

Secret Garden Party is a hard place to describe. Unlike most where the acts and the bands will invariably draw the crowds in, this is one of the few where the music is just one element involved in creating the atmosphere at the festival rather than being the main element. I mean don’t get me wrong, most festivals are a conglomeration of arts, culture and music, but none to the extent that I’ve seen at festivals organised by Secret Productions. 

As far as music festivals go The Secret Garden Party have done a wonderful job of putting thought into every minute detail to create what ends up being an almost tangible atmosphere. For instance, are you the type of person who enjoys spending their festivals dressed outrageously and raving from waking till sleep? Why not check out some of the many, many dance stages around the festival, or even better, go enjoy some healthy (and hilarious) competition at the Dance Off Arena. On the other hand if you’re feeling a wee bit tender after the previous evening’s indulgences, just head to the sanctuary and relax the afternoon away with the cathartic sounds of a variety of folk artists playing their tunes in the afternoon sun. Then on the complete opposite end of the spectrum if you’re a fan of theatre; comedy; or just a lecture about a weird and wonderful subject, then head to the Secret Forums, there’s sure to be something to keep you entertained in the intellectual boiling pot there, if not, just join in a singalong!

What I’m trying to get at is that Secret Garden Party is not your normal festival in the sense of what it offers, it is designed to literally cater to every individual as well as certain activities designed to involve everybody at once. 

Such as on Saturday afternoon where there was the magical appearance of a slip n’ slide in between the 20 ft tall Big Birds legs (Yes this is big bird from Sesame Street, when you’re there this will all seem very normal), or the annual paint fight that takes place every Sunday afternoon (watching thousands of people pelt each other with powdered paint truly is one of those things you never forget), most of all though, the annual Saturday night fireworks extravaganza.

Each year the display becomes more and more impressive, this year it started with two displays alongside each other, all timed to a mash-up of every type of music imaginable, with fire spinners lined up along side the lake, and then the annual burning of the lake stage (which this year was a ship being torn in half by a giant octopus) which is also full of fireworks continues to fill the sky with a third simultaneous fireworks display. It may only last half hour or so but it truly is a sight to behold, clearly worthy of a hefty chunk of the entry price alone.

Things like these are some of the many examples that make the festival special. Everywhere you look there is something to enjoy, be it big displays such as the giant wicker fox (Whose outfit changes every year) or smaller details such as the magic mushroom stools that you can never sit on straight in an alcove in the forest.

Unfortunately this does tend to reinforce the idea that your always missing something, but this is one festival where it is most definitely impossible to see everything. You’ll never be able to find all of its hidden art work, or even hidden stages, for example, of the two I found one was fairly easy to find but a good 5 minute walk through the edge of the forest, and the second was simply a shed with the number 13 on that could only fit about 3 people; but its this type of bizarreness that you learn to accept at Secret Garden Party, its an area designed to bring out the childlike excitement of people.

This year’s theme being ‘Superstition’ managed just that, it’s a special site to see hundreds of people dressed in ceremonial robes and carrying giant staffs adorned with feathers and crows and all sorts of oddities. Once again it’s these quirky ideas, attention to detail, and planning that bring all these elements together to create something which feels a lot more like a self-enclosed community than a festival itself.

Even the stages show this same sense of exuberance. Such as “Where The Wild Things Are” being constructed of thousands of logs, or “Artful Badgers Feral Fever Stage”, a multi-coloured den in the woods which at night held host to a multitude of DJ’s and during the day held host to such events as “Badgers Bingo” which really is exactly as it sounds. Bingo hosted by a man dressed as a badger with an extremely risqué sense of humour, which honestly was hilarious.  Even the village hall, laid out as a local pub, exhibited everything from live music, to meditation sessions, to a comedy act in which a drunk priest marries, and performs the funerals of people in the crowd. Stages to cover every type of music imaginable as well, from world music, to gypsy punk, to Rock and Roll, too the multitude of dance tents covering who knows how many subgenres. Over the space of the weekend you’ll find so much variety in what you listen too I think it would be almost impossible to come across something new you don’t find yourself liking.

Another point to be made is how interactive the festival is, this has been mentioned lots regarding music festivals and artwork, making them more interactive to create a more immersive experience. This is also something that Secret Garden Party has done extraordinarily well, everywhere you go there’s something you can take part in, be it something small such as the wishbone well, or a bit bigger such as an obstacle course containing space hoppers and slip and slides and all other adult sized toys to play with; or a giant game of guess who, or even bigger to joining an organised flash mob, it’s all designed so you feel like you’re a major element of the festival and its more than successful on this occasion. There’s also a multitude of workshops you can take part in, from the one’s you’d expect at a music festival such as painting and hat making and workshops for the kids, to the more obscure such as a fire walking workshop. You can even collect cups for money if you’ve ran out of cash the night before, and even though you wouldn’t believe it, the rates aren’t bad! Want a spare twenty quid? Do a couple of hours diligent cup collecting and you’re all set!

You’re also blessed to be in the Idyllic Huntingdon countryside for this festival, as it really is transformed into something else. The festival arena itself set around the edges of the giant lake and with walkways across, is a more than stunning backdrop during the day, but at night when adorned with green and blue floodlights, and the paths lit up with strings of multi-coloured bulbs, the locale really is stunning and definitely adds even more to the atmosphere.

Not without fault though not everything is perfect, as I said earlier with so much going on you do constantly feel like you’re missing out on something more exciting elsewhere, but having been before you soon realise its best just to explore and enjoy what you see, it would be impossible to experience everything Secret Garden Party has to offer in one sitting. In the evening time as well, when the main stage has ended, I did find that all the bigger venues around the arena were definitely more centred around dance music, and if you wanted anything live you had to search around the smaller venues for what you wanted. Now I’m not necessarily saying this is a bad thing, especially if you’re a big fan of dance music, but I do think a little bit more variety in the bigger stages at night would have been a nice touch.

The festival itself is also very family friendly, with areas all around the site which are suitable for parents and children alike to relax in, and the crowd as far as I could tell were one of the friendliest bunch I’ve ever seen, but just be aware as darkness falls, it is quite recognisable that most people are indulging in things that I’m not sure parents would want their kids to be around. Of course this is fairly standard amongst music festivals nowadays, it’s just simply worth a mention.

Now I know when reviewing a music festival the music is usually the most important thing to mention, but there’s just so much involved at Secret Garden Party that I thought it best to focus on everything rather than just the music. There were of course several acts that were more than worth a mention though.

Nina Nesbitt: The Secret Garden Party 2013

The first act who caught my ear was Nina Nesbitt on “Where The Wild Things Are” stage. Having heard of her for a little while, and quite enjoying a few of her tracks I definitely knew her to be a fairly popular up and coming talent. You can see why as there is definitely a sparkle to her writing, as her pop rhythms flowed easily and were definitely catchy to the ear, unfortunately though there just didn’t seem to be much depth to her music, and what was performed, although performed capably, never really seem to be performed with that much gusto or energy. Saying this though it was still an enjoyable performance, I would personally have just liked a bit more oomph behind it.

The Little Comets were also definitely worthy of a mention. Another up and coming Indy group they performed their catchy songs well, with a number of impressive fills and instrumentals, and although nothing in particular stood out to me, it was definitely one of the more enjoyable sets of the day.

On the Friday the ever popular Bastille were easily the best act of the day if not the whole festival. With their long growing list of ever popular hits such as Daniel Palmer and the hit single Pompeii the crowd instantly joined in singing along with every track and dancing in a frenzy. Performing every track as tightly as on the album, but each with their own individual live spin (including several drum solos involving four people) they were definitely honed in their art. My personal highlight being choosing their cover of “Rhythm Of The Night” from their long back catalogue of covered tracks, which within the first ten seconds had the crowd dancing and singing along even louder than they were before. Definitely a highlight of the festival for me.

John Newman was also one of Friday’s top acts, performing all of his biggest tracks including “Love Me Again” he gathered the biggest crowd I saw around the “Where The Wild Things Are” stage all weekend. Having seen him a couple of weeks ago at LoveBox I won’t go into too much detail, but he’s definitely been one of my favourite performances of 2013.

Unfortunately I felt a little let down by The Strypes, and Django Django after seeing Bastille. Don’t get me wrong, both put on very enjoyable sets, and Django’s stripped strobe lighting setup was amazing, and as always the crowd were revelling in the festivities, but there performances just didn’t seem to match that of Bastille who drew a bigger crowd and performed far more tightly.

2ManyDJs also put on a fantastic set as they always do, full of mashups of the popular and the obscure, but constantly catchy, and always easy to dance too which definitely set things up for evening’s festivities. Unfortunately though I wasn’t a massive fan of Faithless’s PA set, so much so I didn’t actually stay for too long as it just seemed to largely be a lot of their back catalogue.  Although given there were a lot of dance fans at the festival, the majority of the crowd seemed to be enjoying themselves thoroughly, so I think this is probably be a case of personal preference, and to be fair, the light show accompanying the music was dazzling to say the least.

Regina Spektor: The Secret Garden Party 2013

Regina Spektor also deserves to be mentioned playing a lovely send off to the crowd at Secret Garden Party. Playing on a set which looked to be adorned with giant sequins she soon charmed the crowd by stopping 30 seconds into a track to explain that she didn’t want to keep playing because she “Didn’t want to hurt the bug running around on her keys” which soon had the crowd laughing along with her. After this the rest of her set was plain sailing, running through the majority of her last album such as “Fidelity” and the beautiful “How” and a number of tracks from her previous back catalogue the crowd sang, swayed, and danced with merriment as her Regina’s piano and timid yet impacting voice took the festival to a suitable fitting close.

A final couple of bands worth mentioning would be Cherub, Public Service Broadcasting, and The Keepsakes, all of them are definitely worth looking up or seeing if you get the chance, all fantastic musicians, and fantastically entertaining. Especially Cherub, dancing frantically to a man playing Daft Punk on a keyboard trumpet and keytar, and actually sounding incredible definitely goes down as one of the highlights of my year.

So as I say, Secret Garden Party is a hard place to describe, and easily one of the most immersive events I’ve ever been too. This festival is perfect for those who are looking for a more traditional, grass roots approach to festivals rather than the corporate sponsored events we see cropping up all over the place. For those who like adventure, serenity, and madness all in one place, and most importantly, for people who appreciate the atmosphere as much as the music.

p.s. Before I forget, the food! The food is amazing!! I highly recommend the Ostrich Burger…

review by: Lawrence Wheeler

photos by: Lawrence Wheeler

Thursday 25th to Sunday 28th July 2013
Mill Hill Field, Abbots Ripton, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, PE28 2PH, England MAP
£195 adult weekend
daily capacity: 32000
last updated: Mon 15th Jul 2013

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