As the sunshine becomes an evermore regular fixture in our days, the true meaning of Summer awakens memory and perks excitement in the British public. Yes, festival season approaches fast on the horizon. One might wonder how we got here, from the relative novelty and obscurity of British music festivals a decade ago, to the now seeming ubiquity of the scene. Over five hundred music festivals will grace the fields of Albion this summer, from the mainstream and corporate to the obscure and fiercely independent. A ready-for-use formula of bars, campsites and arenas has rendered the majority of these gatherings fairly homogeneous. That so many of these festivals, as with our clubs and concert halls, are now owned by large entertainments corporations (Mean Fiddler and Live Nation come to mind) only affirms the fear that what was once a unique opportunity for a gathering of communities and artistry, now resembles little more than a weekender experience, flat-packed for the SMS generation. A rotating cast of super-bands embarking on annual global festival tours does little to assuage this creeping feeling; and it's fair to say that many festival goers have been experiencing a kind of existential crisis.
But a growing number of festivals here in our very own United Kingdom are seeking (to coin a recent election phrase) "to do things differently". Of this small but increasing number, The Secret Garden Party is by far the most exciting, rewarding and plain 'out-there'. Imagine a festival where punters were treated not as cattle to be herded in and out of the arenas, but as individual members of a temporary society. A festival where the bands on show are just as excited to be there as you. A festival where the non-music activities didn't feel so 'corporate experience'. A festival where your bars are staffed by bartenders, your beer's a freshly poured one, the food is organic and restaurant standard. I'm barely scratching the surface of this unique, beautiful, often staggering festival.
Since it's inaugural year in 2004, where some 1000 people attended that first and now mythologised weekend- The Secret Garden Party has attracted a cult following. Devotees from previous years return with wide-eyed wonder and eager anticipation. You will know someone who can tell you a Secret Garden Party yarn, usually with glee, recounting the absurd and amazing things they have seen and done in previous years. A previous festival indulged itself by constructing an enormous ship on the lake which makes up the ground's centrepiece. After bands had finished performing on it, at the end of the weekend- it was blown apart in an explosion celebrating the carnivalesque, acknowledging creation and destruction. This ethos of participation in, towards and becoming 'grander events' is central to the Secret Garden Party ethos. Like America's infamous Burning Man festival- an event from which SGP's organisers draw huge inspiration, emphasis is on utter freedom and community-binding acts that bring out the best in people as well as inspiring awe.
And so Secret Garden Party is something of an enigma in the British Festival circuit; for whilst other festivals may entice through the location itself or the quality of the line-up, SGP places the emphasis firmly on those who attend. In their own words "We provide the Garden and plant the seeds, but you nurture its life and allow it to blossom. It is your party – your creative participation allows the festival to rejuvenate & regenerate." Would you ever hear those words eminating from a festival-behemoth like Mean Fiddler? Is it even possible to consider Reading festival 'a garden'? This commendable focus on you the festival goer, you the individual, collectively entails that a sense of pleasant freedom and community is native. An impossibly long list of activities (don't think Butlins), including Giant African Land Snail racing, life drawing, a scientific experiments area and academic lecture theatre- ensure that you are never bored, never drifting off, never thinking about 'heading back to the tents for a lie down'. In fact, if you're that kind of person- Secret Garden Party probably isn't for you. The Rejuvination Field is on hand to cure what ails ye: with a multitude of global massage techniques on hand, reflexology, yoga, even a giant-sized version of the classic board game 'Operation', for when you're feeling yourself again. A conspiracy camp explores debate and conjecture between peers. This year's festival falls on a full moon, so gardeners (as festival goers are lovingly referred) are invited to spend a while howling at the moon, rediscovering our inner wolves. Restuarants with such delicacies as free range guinea fowl and sweet potato dauphinoise. Oh, and lest I forget- if one requires quick but essentially bourgeois transportation across the site- there is of course, the fully working steam train with carriages. And one of the carriages is a club. But when you have eventually tired of the all-night roller discos and you do retire to your tent, a samba band will parade the festival every morning at 10am sharp, ensuring all gardeners are awake and atttentive, excited about the coming day.
With some much going on to become involved and lose yourself in, it's almost forgotten that a large number of very good bands happen to be playing the many stages at Secret Garden Party. Previous line ups have included Phoenix and Jarvis Cocker, and this year's can stand tall: From well-known names such as Mercury Rev and Eliza Doolittle, to upcoming indie star Darwin Deez and the delightful Belleruche. Across 14 stages, all colourfully named (from the Great Stage, the Remix Bubble, to the Where the Wild Things Are stage- where performers play from a wooden tree house)- Secret Garden Party's line up is designed to both please and surprise. "Favourite new band" discoveries are common here; the organisers hand-picked artists who will both fit into and appreciate the festival's aesthetic.
Every year, the Secret Garden Party is themed- and this year is no exception. Previous themes have included the myths of 'Babylon and Eden', 'Past Present and Future' and 'Revolutions'- mandates open to interpretation in one's decor, but promising a host of thematic and unexpected events throughout the weekend. In 2010, the festival will seek "prize open the chinks in man’s most carefully constructed edifice: Reality. The Garden will be exploring the illusions, visions, theories, fantasies, mysteries and legends that have created a rich world between Fact and Fiction." A hugely enticing brief, no doubt- calling to mind postmodernism, solipsism, nihilism, the art of Escher and Dali, Homeric thinking, construction of fictions, retelling of Histories. This year's Secret Garden Party promises a festival dedicated to wonderment, imagination and the impossible. It might be a secret now, but probably not for much longer. It's festivals like this that reaffirm your belief in the central premise: fields, music, people. That simple formula so often spoilt by unthinking corporate swipes, misunderstood by the global festival machine- enacted, for one weekend in Cambridgeshire, to within a whisker of utter perfection.
Secret Garden Party runs from 22nd to 25th July 2010.
Tickets are priced at 142.00 and are available from seetickets.co.uk and secretgardenparty.com
Boutique camping (of which yurts, tipis, centrally heated wooden huts, your own butler, door-men and other luxuries are available) starts at 350.00