Wilderness Festival 2023 - The Review

Wilderness shines, despite the rain

By David Vass | Published: Mon 14th Aug 2023

Around The Site

Thursday 3rd to Sunday 6th August 2023
Cornbury Park, Charlbury, Oxfordshire, OX7 3EH, England MAP
currently £195
Daily capacity: 30,000
Last updated: Thu 6th Apr 2023

It's an age-old conundrum whether to regret what you've missed or value what is to come, something I find myself dwelling over after a weekend on the Cornbury Estate, enjoying my first Wilderness festival. It was such a wondrous experience that I can't help but regret all the previous opportunities missed, but I really should focus on cementing the event into next year's festival calendar. My previous reluctance to attend, as I imagine is the case for so many people, is its reputation as a playground for the wealthy and entitled. The Cornbury Estate is nestled within the Cotswolds so is bound to attract folk with money, and I dare say the abundance of boutique camping options help to seduce them through the gates. The festival site has more than its fair share of concessions offering expensive lifestyle products, which are no doubt aimed at those people. However, turn a blind eye to the yurts, the airstreams and the wagons, and walk past the Veuve Clicquot, The IHG Hotel and the Castillo de Ibiza, and at its heart you'll find a warm and embracing community of like-minded people who want to have a good time and be nice to each other. People like Ivan, who offered me a foul-smelling elixir with the best of intentions, Carl who worked for the Welsh National Opera, Pirate Pete who was keen to Just Stop Oil, Sasha who told me off for not going to Live Letters, and Kelly, who showed me pictures of her beloved VW campervan. Strip away the window dressing, and Wilderness is fundamentally just another festival - it also happens to be a very good one.


That said, it's a stretch to call it a four day festival. There are things happening on the Thursday, and those happy campers unburdened by the stentorian march from the car park to Quiet Camping were no doubt in better shape than I to seek them out. The opening ceremony on the stunning Atrium stage seemed jolly enough, The Barn like Smudge (stage) hosted a range of up-and-coming artists and there were DJs aplenty scattered throughout the site in various themed bars. The emphasis, however, was on dining, as innumerable eateries served up set menus to deep pocketed patrons splashing out on tuck. Dining is just one of the many paid-for extras, euphemistically described as experiences, on offer at Wilderness. The appeal of sitting cheek by jowl with fellow diners for upward of a hundred quid a head escapes me, not least when there is a labyrinthine festival site to explore, but each to their own.

My festival properly started the next morning, with the simplest of pleasures, as Maiya Leeke and Caroline Lofthouse performed a brief, yet profoundly moving dance piece choreographed by Jamal Burkmar, in an impressive performance space called the Shala, somewhere I found myself repeatedly drawn to throughout the weekend. Otherwise Friday was all about the Forum, hosting thought-provoking and intelligent talks I could have happily listened to all day. Cleverly curated, we first listened to Sam Lee speaking with urgency about the natural world, after which Alice Wroe hosted a debate on the very unnatural Metaverse.

Sam Lee - Wilderness Festival 2023

In the book tent, Patrick Barkman talked about Roger Deakin, surely an icon for those seen in the lakes earlier that morning. The venue didn't always go swimmingly, however. Michael Bond, burdened by a poorly prepared interviewer, had less success discussing the psychology of fans while Mirellie Harper got too caught up in discussing the travails of being published to properly explore how to get that far. 

Back in the Forum, John Paul Flintoff shared his memories of Live8, one of several touching stories tied to a key song in One Track Minds, but the outstanding event of the day was an all-star fiery debate over the legitimacy of the Royals. Camilla Tominey battled gamely with moderate Olly Dugmore, earnest Graham Smith, and the occasionally unhinged Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. I noticed Camilla and Yasmin kiss and make up afterwards, so I doubt minds were changed in a gladiatorial spectacle where more heat than light was generated, but it was great fun to watch. 

Karim Kamar had a battle of his own on the Atrium stage, with an off-key grand piano that compromised his Einaudi influenced compositions, eventually retreating to the safer ground of florid Barry Manilow and Robbie Williams covers. Nuha Ruby Ra had better success on the Smudge stage, belting out her dual-miked performance with a ferocity and natural charisma that deserved a bigger audience. She would have no doubt got one had the festival not set her up against Confidence Man, a poptastic act I only managed to catch the tail end of. A classic case of an apparent overnight sensation, I first saw them years ago on a tiny stage elsewhere and thought them destined for greatness. They're still doing the same, immaculately choreographed, routine but they do it so well it would be curmudgeonly to take umbrage.


I've lost count of the times I've tried to get enthused by the knob-twiddling Chemical Brothers, but try as I might I cannot buy into the idea I'm watching more than nifty visuals and two blokes pressing buttons. Thank goodness, then, for the masterly musicians that backed Vanessa Haynes in Ronnie Scott's tribute to Aretha Franklin. It could easily have topped off an extraordinary first day, but there were more riches to come. The Forum was hosting Brave Poets, a superb collective of talented musicians, improvising into the small hours, while over on yet another superbly sited stage, The Jumpyard, the instrumental Los Bitchos successfully forestalled my trip down the precipitous slope of the notorious all night Valley stage. I was tempted to stay awhile but it was getting late and, after all, I intended to make an early start on Saturday. If only I knew.

Los Bitchos - Wilderness Festival 2023

Has it ever rained for longer, or been colder, in August before? Abandoning ambitions to Creatively Write, or analyse my hugging technique, or (ironically) explore the detrimental consequences of Climate Change, the day started in the early afternoon at The Jumpyard, where Azamiah's combination of haunting vocals and mesmeric rhythms enjoyed a brief moment in the sun, before Eydis Evensen's set at the Atrium was all but ruined by disrespectful chatter from a crowd hiding from the returning rain. What a pleasure, then, to listen to The London Ambient Orchestra perform the compositions of Ell Kendall at the Shala. An undoubted highlight of the weekend, Michael Nyman and John Adams immediately sprang to mind, but surprisingly, so did Benjamin Britten and, during a stunning choral work, Thomas Tallis. As much about the spaces in-between as the notes played, his music had a haunting, lyrical quality beautifully showcased by the excellence of the musicians of the orchestra. 

With Tim Wheatley and his Cosmic Chorus next up it was oh so tempting to simply hang around, but with the eclectic booking of the Zombies on offer at the main stage I couldn’t do that. A modest, but respectable crowd braved the rain and the cold, and were rewarded with a fine performance from Colin and Rod, whose new material stood up remarkably well to the classic songs. After nipping back for a bit of Cosmic Meditation with the aforementioned Tim (which I do realise is not how you're supposed to do it) break-beat trio GoGo Penguin were next up on the main stage, and very good they were too. But it with a sense of duty rather than pleasure I battled the weather to see them. It was time to consolidate resources and save myself for the big ticket performance of the day. In hindsight, I'm so glad I did, as Christine and the Queens was astonishing from the outset. This was a theatrical experience as much as a musical one, for once justifying the industry's current obsession with smoke effects, as Heliose Letisser’s extraordinary vocals howled into the abyss like some latter-day King Lear on a blasted heath. There were moments of tender reflection too, as well as costume change, spoken word, and uncompromising stage craft. Some turned away, I noted, but many more were enraptured by a genre (and gender) defying artist that to my mind offered up everything the sterility of The Chemical Brothers lacked. A rather lovely light show followed, after which Pigeon proved that the Smudge was the place to witness exciting new talent. Once again, despite serving up a full to bursting program, Wilderness offered just that little bit more. Had I not been terrified of slip sliding in Valley, I may even have given it another go. 

Christine And The Queens - Wilderness Festival 2023

Sunday, and my head was already bursting with ideas and music. The Wilderness Cricket match provided the perfect antidote to all that noise and ideas. With Britain taking on Australia we had, amongst others,  Kylie Minogue and Crocodile Dundee v Robin Hood And Penny Mordant. Streakers were actively encouraged, beer was drunk, and the whole thing was nicely topped off with witty commentary from a Bearded Kitten. Worn out just watching the action - unexpectedly it was a real cricket match - Iding was in order, with sardonic John Lloyd crossing swords with puppyish Tom Hodgkinson. Disposable fun though this was, it couldn't hope to match the Wilderness Orchestra.  Aside from a roster of surprisingly challenging pieces, conductor Ewan Campbell offered a heart-rending depiction of biodiversity loss, as an orchestrated version of Bohemian Rhapsody disintegrated - notes disappearing at the same rate life has in the last fifty years. A jolly sing song followed, but an air of melancholy hung in the air.

The making of The Shamina Begum Story proved to be my last visit to the Forum, and was illustrative of the venue’s strengths - serious of purpose and a wide variety of topics - and its weakness, with Josh Baker and Hassan Akkad given too little time to develop meaningful discussion. Thereafter, the African Gospel Choir did a fine job of interpreting Paul Simon, while CVC brought a back to basics attitude to the Jumpyard stage. Perhaps I'd just seen too much by the time the Sugababes took to the main stage, but the performance lacked something all but devoted fans could see. I was a fan of Simon Jeffes' Penguin Cafe Orchestra back in the day, and his son Arthur has done a fine job of balancing his father's memory while making the foreshortened incarnation his own. A welcome alternative to Fat Boy Slim playing records on the main stage, they were note perfect, albeit in a truncated set. Further delay bedeviled the Untold Orchestra, who seemed to finish almost before they started. Undoubtedly talented musicians and singer, it was nevertheless disappointing that another tribute act - this time to Beyonce - was the only substantial alternative to admittedly popular Norman Cook. More disappointing was that afterwards the festival simply stopped, with a suddenness of a plug being pulled. As admirers of the headliner poured from the main arena back to their tents it came as a heavy blow that the party was over.


Was this the best festival I've ever been to? I've been to more than I care to admit to so it would be quite a claim. The shock of the new is bound to be a factor, and the biblical weather literally muddied the waters. But if we set aside a cultish devotion to Glastonbury, against which no other festival can sensibly be compared, I think it may well be. I certainly can't recall a festival where I left with so much as yet unexplored. I barely ventured into the plethora of bars offering entertainment, hardly scratched the surface of Greencrafts, the Mindful Space or the Togetherness venue, while huge queues made The House of Sublime simply impractical. And I never did get to properly experience Letters Live or The Valley. 

Before coming to the festival I had misgivings over how many experiences required extra payment, which seemed to me to create a two-tier event. To be frank, I still have misgivings, but I'm also surprised folk have the time or inclination for extras anyway, when the place is bursting with so much that is freely available. I've been scratching my head, in the interests of balance, trying to work out where things fell short. The wood chip was slow to go down and entirely missing in key areas. The toilets in general camping were grim at the outset and horrible by Monday. The sloping camp site made sleep a challenge, as did Quiet camping’s proximity to the Valley. But that's really all I've got, all of which pale into insignificance compared to the beautiful setting, the faultless curation, the endless choice and the overwhelming friendliness. 

So can we please stop calling it Poshstock now? To do so is lazy, ignorant and inaccurate.

Swimming - Wilderness Festival 2023

review by: David Vass

photos by: Ian Roberts

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