At last a festival in the sun! Whilst not hugely warm in the wind, away from it all in sun traps on site like the The Green, Healing Gardens, campsite, or the open space behind the Big Top it was idyllic. There were places where you could laze ankle deep in green grass, hear steam trains pass, and listen to the acts in seclusion. The weekend festival located at Cheltenham Racecourse proved to be a good one, make that fantastic if you're a kid or kid at heart.
For those of you readers who are more seasoned in outdoor festival life Wychwood has to be the perfect entry level festival for all your family (of all ages from grandkids to grandparents) or friends to have a chance to find out what all the fuss is about. They can come along and experience a festival without any of the downsides or hassles inherent in many of Wychwood's fellow events. It's also a good preparatory festival for the summer ahead, without any long treks between stages, or the mud, the line-ups of unknown acts, or those that have nothing for the kids to do. Wychwood for those spending a summer at festivals is a good chance to test out your festival gear for the season ahead.
Wychwood is also easy to find, you can easily come for the day by public transport, or stay for the weekend giving you a chance to realise you need a new sleeping bag, or that your phone charger no longer is up to the job, or a chance to purchase and bring along all those new festival items you've had your eye on and put them to use. It also offers a chance to see new trends - hot tubs in front of the main stage, a DocTent, and paintball arenas being three examples.
Fortunately it was also only an opportunity to try your cosy nighttime gear, rather than the wet weather variety, as no rain fell over the weekend. Although torrential rain had only stopped falling from the skies a few hours before the festival started, causing headaches for the campsite organisers, and slowing everyone down getting on site. Wychwood offers a 'drive your car onto the campsite and drop your gear off' facility. However, the drenching had made the racecourse sodden under the pristine turf and access to it had to be carefully monitored, meaning once in and wristbanded, festival goers arriving by car or campervan had to queue up and wait to access the site.
However considering the site had had such a soaking wellies were unnecessary, whilst a bit sticky it was sensible shoes that were the order of the day, after the fine weather it was soon flip flops. This is one of the festival's big pluses it's a festival that won't be bogged down in mud, so much of it is held on high grade racecourse turf, or tarmac. Making it easy for wheelchair users and pushchairs alike to maneuver around.
The festival site feels very secure and safe, is well monitored, and I caught not a whiff of crime or untoward behaviour all weekend. It felt a happy, peaceful place where everyone got along peaceably. A place where you can feel good about your fellow human, sample a selection of music and enjoy summer (at last), which is what festivals are all about.
The camping areas are free of weeds, and easy to pitch on, located as they are in the middle of the racecourse. There was plenty of space to camp with friends, or keep yourself to yourself. It was colourful with flags and kites marking people's territories and even a shop in the campsite to get your own flag and pole, and nearby a general store for anything you forgot to pack.
There's a lot of family friendly festivals out there, but what sets this one apart is the sheer amount of different elements on offer in the kid's field. There's loads of workshops, crafts, fun and games, skills, entertainment, reading, shopping, storytelling, and more on offer. Having been to quite a few festivals over the years I'm genuinely impressed at just how much variety for kids is offered over the three days. Although I have to say Wychwood does the procession thing on the Sunday, and it always seems to be more full of adults than kids, giving totally the wrong impression of just how much is on offer. If I were them I'd consider some other way of doing whatever it's supposed to achieve, or investing time making it as appealing to kids as some of the other ones at other festivals, this year it was a bit of a damp squib. I think a lot of kids aren't keen to participate.
Another thing I feel Wychwood could improve on slightly is it's choice of food stalls. It used to have excellent variety and offer interesting food stalls I'd rarely tried before. I guess it's such a family event that kids want food that's more familiar to them, and so do their families, but I'd like to see a few more global foods, I like spice, although I hadn't eaten zebra burgers before which were offered at the exotic food stall. Food costs were great value around £4 for a snack, cheaper if you visited the delicious cakes and puddings stall, and around £7 for a meal, often bolstered with additional menu items added to your plate for an extra pound or so. It's nice to see food prices not rising year on year here, and neither were the drink prices still under £4 a pint.
Talking of which (or should that be Wych) Wychwood Brewery provided the main choice of drink this year. Sticking to their slogan 'What's the matter lager boy, frightened you might taste something?' so much so that some bars didn't offer the insipid yellow fizz at all. The festival also offered Pig Orchard cider, a choice of 'guest' ales at a very successful (for that read they ran out) mini real ale beer festival, and this year both a wine bar and spirits and mixers bar. Also on display was the works of Ed Org, the artist who created Wychwood Breweries iconic beer labels over the years, including some which never saw production. There was a lot of artisans about the site - clay makers, sculpturers, jewellery makers, wood and metal workers and the like offering handmade delights, alongside the bright festival wares on sale from the various stalls around the arena which offered a chance to get more festival goodies for the coming season.
Wychwood also boasts great toilet facilities in decent numbers, from flushing loos as part of the racecourse infrastructure, to showers, and well stocked clean loo cubes, with separate urinals for gents to cut down on the queues for them. Though at peak times, between acts, queues at the bars, loos and food stalls were inevitable. However with nine years under their belt organisers clearly know what they're doing in terms of layout and provision.
A festival isn't a festival without music, and Wychwood offers us two and a half days of acts across four stages. Friday's half day mixes crowd pleasing favourites on the main stage like The Beat, and Toploader, with newer acts like Sam Lee & Friends. For me it's the Big Top line-up acts Shields, Mausi, and especially The Other Tribe that I see for the first time that really impress me. Over on the Hobgoblin Stage theres new decent talent to enjoy whilst sampling the real ale festival with styles as varied as The Delray Rockets' rockabilly and Becky Rose's voice and theatrical keyboard skills.
Saturday's main stage line-up gets a re-jig and we're treated to Thrill Collins' singalong covers has sparkling with humour in the sun. As Kate Nash has pulled out, her CDs are discounted in the merch store, the rest of the line-up Skinny Lister, and a 2/3 strength Moulettes shuffle up the bill, with the entertaining Lo'Jo no longer clashing with the highly enjoyable Public Service Broadcasting whose live mixes show signs of great musical ability. Before them theres the brilliantly funny and self deprecating John Otway, and NewQuay Times who impress the audience so much they have to do a Blondie cover as an unexpected encore. My First Tooth, and Vienna Ditto also impress on the Hobgoblin Stage.
Back on the main stage The Wedding Present prove a personal delight, even if they do think they're playing Chelmsford! Caravan Palace following them get the best response out of the crowd with some hands in the air boogling from all ages. I have to say the headliners The Human League, and Soul II Soul the night before were not my cup of tea, I went along watched them, and recognised a few tunes, but thought they were hardly at the top of their game, and at times both performances were decidedly wobbly, but I concede that they're acts I'm unlikely to see elsewhere this summer and the organisers elected to book someone different and much of the crowd knew many of the songs showcased.
Sunday's headliners were inspired! Bill Bailey, delivered a set that left me breathless with laughter at the end, and despite his big screen being almost impossible to see thanks to the sun it detracted nothing from the show. Comedy moves in different circles and his interlude proved a bit of a surprise, but who else could hold a crowd by leaving for 15 minutes mid-set?
Dreadzone, the final act on, showcase new tracks from their forthcoming album which sit well amongst well known favourites in their energetic set. The Dualers clashed with Craig Charles both providing a great soundtrack the crowd liked to dance to. The Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain are crowd pleasers (worth £10,000 to book apparently), but my acts of the day were Jersey's Lloyd Yates, and Warwickshire's Lucy Rose who both really impressed me, and were clearly delighted to have attracted an audience. Two folk acts sure to become big things in the future, and able to create a wonderful atmosphere in the Big Top.
Throughout the festival the music on offer kept me interested in the main, and if it didn't I always found a decent alternative elsewhere. The bands during the day must have felt they were up against it with a sea of chairs before them. These got on my nerves, fair enough it's the kind of festival where the audience are likely to sit down on a chair or picnic blanket, but if you're not using them surely you fold them up and take them with you? Not at Wychwood, this year there was a sea of chairs, masses of them, they were often empty, and in some cases pegged in, so if you clip your ankle on one trying to get past it hurt!
The vibe was never likely to be wild, or particularly vibrant, but the crowd were appreciative and attentive, and happy to dance around in the sunshine when the music hit them. Lucy Rose was particularly impressed that one of her slow numbers had no one talking over it. The mood was bubbly in the sun, and even in the cold nights the crowds stayed to hear the acts, enjoy the comedy, and sing along in Wychwood's almost legendary silent disco going on into the small hours.
All in all I would highly recommend Wychwood for those wanting to prepare for summer, for those with kids looking for a great way to end the half term holidays together, or to those who hankering to experience a festival for the first time - but remember that whilst it's a great festival experience, other bigger events may not necessarily be as well serviced, organised or offer quite so much for all the family to get involved in. See you there for their 10th birthday celebrations.
review by: Scott Williams
photos by: Karen Williams
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