I think it was 12 years ago, maybe more, that I first went to this small festival in Cambridgeshire. I worked at the PR company that represented it and it was the maybe the second time it had happened…it was all a long time ago and my ability to remember numbers is not brilliant!!
Anyway it was a small festival in Cambridgeshire, no one knew where it was until a few days before, when you were sent the postcode, that festival was The Secret Garden Party (SGP), yes at one stage it was really a secret!
I have to admit my memories of the first one are blotchy, mainly because I have been to 10 of them and they all sort of blurred together and well because I got very very drunk!
What I do remember was that it was really fun, this tiny little festival with a few big names and around five thousand people. Even back then it had some of the favourites that have grown over the past 15 years, there was the science camp, the amazing selection of kooky stalls, the random works of art, the funny signs, the interesting hidden things, the swimming, the stages with sofas, the lectures, the themes, the colours and the sculptures. One year I remember over by the lake there was a sort of an igloo hidden in the trees, it had fur lined walls, secret compartments and I’m sure there was some kind of monster hidden in the middle. You could walk into a tent and find someone talking about the mysteries of the universe or the colour of ducks. I remember the first year I went there was an alarm brass band that used to walk round the site waking everyone up, well some people, most people it drew attention to the fact it was now morning and time for a new day, or time to go to bed!
I don’t think I had ever experienced a festival like it and each year it has been the same. The first few years I saw some incredible bands, they even had alternative acts headlining, there was certainly a lot less dance music. I did at one stage struggle with the fact I hardly ever really saw any bands, for me music festivals were all about the music. At others, like Reading, Latitude and Isle of Wight, I would study the line up working out who I had to see and where and when to move from each stage – SGP was never like that. Most years I would scroll through the list of names of bands and mainly draw a blank, I would promise to do some research and find out who was worth seeing…but that kind if takes away from the magic. Besides I would have to work my shift each day and once when I did do a bit of research many of the bands were playing when I was working….typical!
Also, one of the great things about SGP was the discovery factor, you could stumble into a tent and listen to someone who sounded great, I love finding new acts or hearing someone I would never usually go to see. I have certainly found a couple of bands doing just that.
And looking back I have seen some great acts, its thanks the SGP that I have heard of Molotov Jukebox, South Central, Infadels, OK Go, The Noisettes, Beans on Toast, Animal Kingdom and more. I have to say this year was one of the years where I really remember seeing bands, I loved the headliners Crystal Fighters and Metronomy, they both put on epic shows. I danced to a set by Example, though to be honest you could not see him, but he played some brilliant tunes. I also saw Kate Nash, a serious blast from my past and watched The Correspondents, who I had heard of but never seen live before, but they were brilliantly insane, the lead singer danced round the stage like a crazed baboon, but as it was SGP, it just worked!
So if the festival is not about the music then it’s all about the experiences, and everything about SGP is designed to fuel fun. From the giant helterskelter to the random doorways, everything about SGP feels like it has been carefully designed or chosen.
One year I was able to learn circus skills, I have watched mud wrestling in the Collysillyuem, dance offs at The Drop, I spent time playing with hula hoops, I’ve written on blackboards, climbed on sculptures and gone on fairground tides, this year I went on the ride that looks a bit like a carousel with chairs, it was really fun.
I did not go last year (due to having a 4 month old baby) but this year there were a few additions that really grabbed my attention, The ‘Palace of boob’ – which was painted a pale pink, had large mirrored breasts and was a place to get you boobs decorated (yes that’s right, this year at SGP I saw a lot of boob), many girls were quite happy walking around topless with glitter covering their nipples. Nudity is not a new thing to SGP, but I felt it was more on display this year.
I also enjoyed the cocktail bar, one night we had some very nice cocktails and were even treated to some free popcorn. I also spent a civilised afternoon enjoying a cream tea in the vintage tea tent and sat and ate my breakfast on a grave in the 24-hour bar…all things that will be fond memories in years to come!
Another great memory is actually taking part in the paint fight, it has been happening on the Sunday for a number of years, but I had never got involved before, either because I did not wanted to get covered in powder paint, I had left already (I had to work on Monday!!) or a few years ago because to be honest the weather had been so depressing I could not wait to leave – weather is something I will mention later.)
So this year for the last festival I decided to stay and take part, and that was the best decision. Everyone is given small bags of coloured powder paint and after a build up from the stage commentators (one of which had lost his voice through all the shouting) you are free to launch them at everyone standing around you. The result is a riot of colour and everyone at the stage being covered in colours, I had a raincoat on that is still slightly multi-coloured! It was really fun and definitely something I would do again, plus the paint actually comes off you really easily.
I did leave after that, so I did not experience the last night, but I have heard good things, however the weather and a desire to see my daughter made me leave…oh the weather, SGP, like so many festivals has seen some atrocious weather, two years ago was the worse EVER, it rained for two days and the site turned in a quagmire, on the Sunday, the 3-4 inches of mud started to harden making it virtually impossible to walk and for most evenings it was cold, really cold. I am one of those people that really hates cold weather and as soon as I am cold I find it hard to enjoy myself and alcohol only makes it worse. This year although it was rainy there was a bit more sun and so it was not quite as bad, but when the heavens opened it did make me happy to have the comforts of the press tent to escape to. I could say more, but rain and festivals in the UK go hand in hand so I guess its something we all know about.
In terms of SGP the thing that must be mentioned is the Saturday night pyromaniacs display, something truly unique and dazzling. Each year they build a stage in the middle of the lake. It is always a brilliant creation that looks like it has taken weeks to build and each year it gets blown up and burnt down. This year I made a point of being at the main stage to watch it happening and what a show they put on. First there was a giant fireworks display and then what can only be described as a mock of the white house was blown sky high. Huge explosions ripped through the peaceful looking mansion, engulfing the whole thing in flames as the crowd cheered. I imagine a few in the crowd would like to see it happen to the real thing, especially if the current resident is home!!
It was a spectacular show that was followed by an spectacular performance by Metronomy, it’s a few hours that I will always remember; the festival organisers have really cornered the market of making memories. Something my friend will always remember is loading the confetti gun on the Friday night, being crew allowed us to get into various areas and on the Friday night we stood to at the front of the stage to watch Crystal Fighters, as the set came to an end a man appeared and started loading the confetti into a cannon and Madeleine’s face lit up, she then asked if she could load it and be the one to fire and when the man said yes I have never seen anyone look happier, so right at the end of the set my friend set off the confetti, it was one happy moment and a good end to her birthday.
What else can I mention, well the food is always good, as someone who was used to the (well crap) they sold at Reading festival, coming to SGP for the first time was amazing, the number of tasty food stands was something to marvel at and each year more and more appeared, from vegan coconut curry to ostrich burger, the array of food was astounding, as I mentioned I enjoyed a cream tea and ate one of the best pad thai’s I have in years. I certainly was off the diet for the weekend.
One thing that was also a first for SGP this year was the drug-testing tent run by The Loop, a place where people could go and get their drugs tested and find out more about the dangers of mixing various drugs, it was an interesting read. It was being trialled at a few festivals around the country and it was a huge success. People could check their MDMA and pills were safe and real and not rat poison or smints! (I know someone who was sold smints as pills before!) While I do not take drugs, SGP is well known for it and I thought this was a good way of trying to make the unavoidable and inevitable use a little safer. Apparently a number of people handed their drugs over (either because they were actually cement – yes people found their drugs were cement powder) or because they learned of the health consequences taking them could have. So while many people may not approve of the idea, I applaud the organisers and police, who did not arrest anyone for having the drugs, for being forward thinking and sensible.
Overall I applaud the organisers of SGP, Freddie Fellows, the Head Gardener, has taken a small boutique festival and made it hugely successful while not quite selling out. I am not sure why it’s the last ever one. I heard it’s because it has got so big and Freddie did not want it to become too corporate, whatever the reason it’s sad, its been part of my life for a long time and its odd to think I won’t be going again, there were a few tears shed between the usual team – some of which I now only saw each year at the festival. However, even though I’m gutted it’s finished I can truthfully say I feel honoured and proud to have been part of it and happy to have enjoyed so many wonderful days there so to all the organisers and bands and crew that made it possible, thank you and good luck in whatever comes next and I hope I can be part of that too.