a soggy Secret Garden Party offers a great weekend of interaction and audience participation

The Secret Garden Party 2015 review

published: Thu 30th Jul 2015

around the festival site

Thursday 23rd to Sunday 26th July 2015
Mill Hill Field, Abbots Ripton, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, PE28 2PH, England MAP
£185 adult weekend (+booking fee) - SOLD OUT
daily capacity: 32000
last updated: Tue 14th Jul 2015

I get the feeling The Secret Garden Party would have been amazing in better weather – home to a crowd who in the majority are polite and friendly. There’s much less sign of complete mashedness compared to other similar events that attract the youth in such numbers. I think the fact everyone was so up for it kept us all going, in such terrible weather. Everyone was really good at keeping complete strangers' chins up when they saw it was getting to them. I've never seen such spirit keeping grins on faces in such a driving relentless wind and rain. And don’t believe the photos you see of SGP the audience is far more diverse than the pretty pictures of young model types wanting to be photographed would have you believe.

It was my first visit to The Garden, and I chose the year that the festival was themed as ‘Childish Things’. As my school years are best left forgotten, I was at a different school nearly every year and a kid that didn’t make friends easily, nor was I particularly sporty or picked for teams often. Plus, I expected most of the cultural references would be lost on me, my early years were spent on the other side of the world.

However the theme was mostly ignored by the festival goers who instead appeared to dress in the ongoing SGP theme of glitzy festival freaks, and those that did take part (mainly on the Sunday) referred to cultural references I was more familiar with as my daughter is of a similar age to the younger festival goers – there were a lot of bears, unicorns, ponies, cartoon characters, crayons, nursery rhymes and the like. You didn’t feel out of place if you weren’t dressed up and it didn't feel forced upon us.

Whilst the theme was less adopted by the crowd it was the major theme of the site art which was incredible at times. The Secret Garden Party uses an army of artists to be creative and deliver one of the best looking sites I’ve ever been to, which is even more pleasing on the eye as there’s not a whiff of advertising - the event is wholly independent, and clearly enforces that there are no logos on site, apart from those on the clothes of the audience.

Okay, so the main 'highlight' of any review of the last weekend will be that the weather was dreadful - the worst I've been in since Glastonbury 1998, but this festival is sited on a man-made landscaped site which held up extremely well. Much of the main arena area was banked and drained really efficiently, only weight of numbers caused it to become slippery underfoot, and care had to be taken in places. Site crews worked through the night to scrape away the surface mud taking it back to bare rock in places, and deployed straw liberally. Even so, the long sloped sides of the area on the other side of the lake were very muddy, and it made walking from venue to venue difficult.

We spent much of the last few days around the main two stages, rather than the further reaches of the festival. This meant we also missed out on much of the Party-cipitation Camps, Bearded Kitten’s Collo-Silly-Um (which is crazy bat shit mental), Wonky’s wonderful games, and the crazy antics of many of the Garden Party goers in the final phase of the festival.

However we were near the brilliantly entertaining Dance Off, and also got to enjoy the paint fight on Sunday. Interestingly these activities served to really bond the crowd together, many of whom were often large groups of friends, in matching themed costumes. These crews danced off against one another, roamed the site together, camped together, and were even acknowledged by the walk by Radio Station and added to the flavour of the event.

Interestingly it was noticeable these were clearly veterans of the festival, there were also a large number of newcomers who were less banded together, and some I spoke to felt a bit out of the loop. The disconnect was further enhanced by an incredible hard to get your head around schedule were it was almost impossible to plan your day, instead you had to surrender to the will to explore or wait in one venue hoping an act hadn’t played (in the case of those without times).

A timetable where venues are listed together would have really helped those of us who like to map out our day's entertainment. It also would have helped negate the feeling that there was probably something fantastic going on somewhere else - though it's quite likely there was. There was also a lot of Noz and a rash of thefts from tents, that dreadful alleged rape, as well as knitting groups, yoga, a small zoo, a fair number of kids (and lots for them to do), and dogs, not too many numbers are limited but it’s nice to see the occasional pooch on site.

Toilets were kept clean and flushed, but rarely contained loo paper. There was only one block in the campervan field, alongside usual the urinal pods and a waste water dump. I thought it was too few, but the number of mammoth vehicles with their own loos meant that there was sufficient. Water points were also about, marked on the map at the back of the free programme, but not very cleanly signposted. There was also a disabled viewing platform but this was practically deserted all weekend.

The purpose built site, one of only a handful of festivals I can think of that has such a feature, means that stages are in sculptured amphitheatres, there’s undulating raised banks, the two water features and a load of lovely planting. The second stage is in a roughly built wooden area surrounded by trees with eyes in them, giant plasters can be spotted holding it together, lillypads light up, the trees are underlit, the woods hold rough hewn disco venues, there’s hot tubs, and topless swimmers. It not only looks lovely it also smells terrific too of festival smells rather than rubbish. Plus it tastes good too, food is reasonably priced around the £7-£9 mark (I’m told it’s benchmarked to be the same as the price of a pizza at home), with two for one offers and snacks a plenty. There’s also a village shop, and a camping shop for essentials you’ve forgotten. Some prices do seem to fluctuate over the weekend which is a bit of a shock. Perhaps the retailers needed to make their money back after the washout of Friday? Coffee is an eye watering £3 for a real machine one, beers and ciders (various Aspalls) are £4.50, though you get 10p back on the plastic glasses. Talking of which the waste teams are brilliant they put in Herculean effort to keep the site clean in all weathers, and do a grand job.

The social interaction, parades, and games all helped to bond the attendees together particularly good at achieving this was the paint fight where by the end of it everyone looked the same, regardless of costume and plumage. It was a bonus that it didn’t rain whilst the powder flew, and it drew a decent crowd revealing just how many people were still partying on the final day.

The night before the big screen outdoor cinema screen burn, and fireworks show (slightly outdone by the release of thousand of twinkling ‘sycamore seed’ lights across the night sky) was the first time we experienced just how many people were on site. It was only after this I realised just how colourful and well lit the site was at night.

As for the music, well I mainly stayed listening to the bands rather than the DJs, and the big winners in this respect were anything with a reggae, dub, or ska beat, and the main stage speakers were able to be fantastically loud (no neighbours close by on the 6,000 acre site). The early acts on each day on the main stage – Will And The People, Natty, and Gentleman's Dub Club draw large up for it dancing crowds. As do Lianne La Havas, Kate Tempest, Public Service Broadcasting, Brassroots, The Correspondents (now a proper full band), Roots Manuva, and headliners Jungle, and The Cat Empire, I missed Caravan Palace. Reggae Sunday includes reggae legend Pluto Shervington, and DJ legend David Rodigan. It was a bit surprising the bands didn’t try to join in more with the theme, and bring a bit more stage craft to their shows.

Other acts worthy of note include the brilliant acoustic mash-ups of Gypsies of Bohemia, plus the moody Angus & Julia Stone, FURS, Haelos, The Acid, Imperial Leisure, Beans on Toast, Ward Thomas, Captain Hotknives, Ella and the Blisters, The Fontanas, Temple Funk Collective, Orchestra Cumbia Mela, The Brass Funkeys, and Voodoo Love Orchestra. But, this is a festival that proves you don't need big names, just good acts, to sell out each year.

The last few acts were all discovered in the Kitsch Inn programmed by Continental Drifts and Global Local and on the other side of the lake to the main stage, part of The Spiritual Playground, this area along with Small World, Guerilla Science (speakers), and the Kids Area was practically devoid of mud and at night a fair few degrees warmer than those further up the sloping site.

We ended up seeking sanctuary here when the mud and rain got too much with comfort food like duck wraps, fish fingers, stew, Caribbean chicken, the delightful curry feast that is The Peckish Peacock, and the Cider Cottage all nearby it was a welcome escape. There’s also interesting talks in Guerilla Science on sleep, the mind, and hearing voices, plus a mini zoo, and a fire organ. Across the way a big fire pit resided outside the wellies off, brandy chocolate, carpeted warmth of Small World.

The weather was really wearing to go through, we stuck with it, and trudged about with giant mud boots on, despite falling on our bums a few times. Heavy wet weather gear is not designed for sweaty dancing, so there were a lot of changes of clothes. I could sleep for 2 weeks and I'd still be tired, and I’m still cleaning mud off stuff . There were some great acts though, a loud booming PA, and some clever ideas - I'd go back next year if only it wasn't so far away from our home, it's a 7 hour journey for me.

Gosh, they know how to throw a party though, and design a festival site, fill it with good stalls and caterers and hire decent staff to hold it all together. This last weekend puts it firmly up there with the best, it’s incredibly innovative, has a wide range of small venues to cater for all tastes of music – dance being the favourite, but there’s also offerings of world, rock, indie, reggae, acoustic, swing, psychedelic, country, punk, and lots of brass. There’s a good chance to find new acts you’ve not heard before in such an eclectic mix where there's not really many big names.

It achieves interaction with the audience and participation as much if not more than any other festival I’ve been to. The fancy dress isn’t a case of trying to outdo each other but one of joining in and it’s that joining in that it really achieves well, at least as well as Shambala, or Bestival. It’s the same age having started in 2004, and they all share the same approach to festivals that was perhaps borne out of a reaction to the fence going up a few years before at Glastonbury.

A range of arts, interesting speakers, unusual activities, gave you a wealth of interesting options to do stuff away from the music. It’s definitely aimed at a younger audience but not so much that the older ones feel excluded. We were camped next to a young Dutch family, and some old school ravers and both parties loved it.

Despite the weather the festival still outshone the bands, on a sunny weekend it must be incredible to wander effortlessly between the 40 or so areas offering participation, merriment, and music, even with the horizontal rain it ranks in my top five festivals.

The dates for next year are confirmed as Thursday 21st to Sunday 24th July 2016 and it's no wonder tickets sell out every year, the super early birds have already flown.

buy tickets now >

review by: Scott Williams

photos by: Karen Williams

Thursday 23rd to Sunday 26th July 2015
Mill Hill Field, Abbots Ripton, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, PE28 2PH, England MAP
£185 adult weekend (+booking fee) - SOLD OUT
daily capacity: 32000
last updated: Tue 14th Jul 2015

latest on this festival

The Secret Garden Party 2017
festival details
last updated: Wed 28th Jun 2017
The Secret Garden Party 2017
line-ups & rumours
last updated: Wed 28th Jun 2017
The Secret Garden Party
festival home page
last updated: Tue 21st Mar 2017