Wilderness festival is coming back to Cornbury Park, bigger, better and with a Paradise Lost theme. Tim Hughes speaks to festival manager Eloise Markwell-Butler about what’s in store

Strange things are happening among the ancient oaks of Wychwood Forest.

A broad swathe of Cornbury Park, usually the haunt of deer and sheep, is being transformed into the country’s hippest, and certainly most eclectic, music festival.

Since being established in the shadow of Lord and Lady Rotherwick’s 17th-century house, just outside Charlbury, four years ago, Wilderness Festival has grown into a freewheeling festival of performing art, literature, food and country pursuits — all with a distinctly hedonistic flavour.

And with this year’s spectacular event getting underway in just three weeks’ time, work is well underway preparing the rolling site for the arrival of hundreds of artists and performers, and thousands more revellers.

“It’s looking wonderful,” says the festival’s general manager Eloise Markwell-Butler, who has been at the helm since the festival moved on to the site in 2011. “We’ve got lots of new and very exciting activities going on this year, and they fit perfectly into this glorious site — which is one of the jewels in England’s crown.”

The park had previously been home to the very different Cornbury Music Festival; a gathering which even its director Hugh Phillimore concedes is “fantastically uncool”. Cornbury is now held nine miles away at Great Tew.

“Wilderness is a dreamy weekend in the countryside,” says Eloise. “It’s a wonderful landscape with great people — and everyone gets on together beautifully, whether they are watching a band, boating or swimming in the lake or sharing a hot tub or banquet table.” While organisers insist Wilderness is more than just a music festival, its line-up remains impressive, boasting cult breakthrough act London Grammar, electro-pop band Metronomy, easy listening legend Burt Bacharach and soul-pop artist Jessie Ware.

More talent comes in the shape of singer-songwriter Joan as Policewoman, folk-pop duo Slow Club, electro-jazz artist Chet Faker, acoustic artist Jack Savoretti, Josh Record, Hozier and art-rock trio Teleman.

Away from the main stages, there are torch-lit processions, late-night masked balls, acrobatic displays and tented banquets hosted by such renowned chefs as Norman Russell, of Soho restaurant Polpo; Simon Rogan, owner of the Michelin-starred L’Enclume in Cartmel, Cumbria; and Angela Hartnett, who trained under Gordon Ramsay and is chef patron of the fine dining Italian restaurant Murano, in Mayfair, and the York & Albany pub, in Camden, North London.

Foodies can also indulge their gastronomic passions at Sam & Sam Clark’s Moro Souk Tent, the St John Dining Room & Bakery and the Wilderness Cookery School.

The Oxford Times:

Previous Wilderness-goers will find a larger and reconfigured site, with capacity up 2,000 on last year’s total of 20,000 (much of that to accommodate more children and crew). This will also allow a greater range of workshops, children’s activities, talks and debates, with more opportunities for guests to learn new skills, such as tai chi, morning meditation and capoeira, or dabble in such country pursuits as horse riding, wild swimming, forest running, fly fishing and Bushcraft.

Eloise says: “There will be a Paradise Lost theme as people wander into the valley, which will be transformed into a cool ‘underworld’ with dancing and processions. There will also be lots of aerial performances — with people flying around over our heads while DJs such as Tom Middleton play.”

New additions include the Styx stage, playing blues and rock; a juke joint run by the Petersham Playhouse, with its own Mardi Gras parade; and an elegant Victorian-style champagne bar called the Orangerie run by chef and restaurateur Mark Hix.

A highpoint will be a series of spectacular processions and fire shows, hosted by Galway’s Macnas (Irish for ‘Joyful Abandonment’) theatrical procession company, and inspired by the infamous Wychwood Forest Fayres originally held on the site.

The Oxford Times:

The fayres, which began life as Methodist church picnics in the late 1700s, grew steadily more lawless and bawdy until they were banned in the 1830s.

Organisers hope to evoke their freewheeling spirit through late-night revelry from Greg Wilson, Futureboogie, Horse Meat Disco, and Zero 7; and parties hosted by Rumpus, Artful Badger, Shangri La Superstar and Continental Drifts.

More cerebral attractions come courtesy of the Astronomers’ Ball and Aircraft Circus; tented theatre and art by the Victoria and Albert Museum, Shakespeare’s Globe, Oxford Shakespeare Company, Bohemian Artists’ Studio and Son and Sons Productions.

In addition, there will be talks and debates curated by the British Humanist Association, Royal Observatory Greenwich, Guerrilla Archaeology, and the Ugly Animal Preservation Society; a lakeside spa with sunset yoga classes, pilates and massages; and a hunter-gather cook-in.

Revellers will also be invited to join in wild swimming, woodland foraging walks, boating, greencrafts, forest runs, philosophy walks, tai chi, morning meditation, capoeira and join a programme of family activities and games.

“We bring the weird and wonderful to the countryside,” says Eloise. “It’s completely different from other festivals; it’s about participating and experiencing — not just watching. It’s our audience which makes Wilderness such a wonderful place to be.

“We are also really proud to be at Cornbury Park, with its rolling lawns, woods and lakes. I don’t think it would work anywhere else.”

Wilderness
Cornbury Park, near Charlbury
August 7–10
Weekend tickets are £143.50 plus booking.
Visit wildernessfestival.com

The Oxford Times: