It starts with a vision. Add in a lot of money, willing friends and family, a location, some bands, years of hard work, and bang, you’ve got a festival. They range from the peace and love haze of Glastonbury to the commercially driven Reading and Leeds, but these big festivals have their drawbacks — after days lost in the crowd, sick (perhaps literally) of overpriced burgers and beer, it would be fair to yearn for something a bit different. Wilderness and Truck festivals, both in Oxfordshire, provide just that viable alternative —small yet ambitious, offering high quality bands alongside a dollop of quirky idiosyncrasy that marks them off from the crowd.
Wilderness Festival, which takes place at Cornbury Park and features Antony and the Johnsons, Laura Marling and Gogol Bordello, was born from a dream. Organiser Tim Harvey explains that the festival, which runs in August for the first time, has been in the pipeline for six years, and showcases a new concept in the festival experience. ‘It amalgamates lots of types of outdoor activities and entertainments, which have all independently happened before, but not all in one place. It’s a Renaissance festival, celebrating time-honoured traditions. There’ll be banquets, parades, it’s a celebration of pursuits that hark back to a Golden Age, recreating the sense of wild abandonment of books such as Swallows and Amazons. It’s not just a music festival, it’s a place you can get away. We’re trying to get away from the model where it’s all about beer and cars and stages. We’re creating a concept that offers more, a place of rejuvenation and relaxation.’
Truck Festival’s origins go further back. Organiser Robin Bennett says, ‘When I was 18, I thought it would be fun to do a festival. In 1998 there didn’t seem to be too many decent festivals in Great Britain, unlike now. It was originally going to be a birthday party, but I had to move it, I only started planning two weeks before and didn’t have a license. Now it’s all planned a year ahead.’ This year Truck features Gruff Rhys, Philip Selway (of Radiohead fame) and Johnny Flynn, but the focus remains on local talent. ‘Our original vision was that there would be bands we liked playing in our local village. Now to secure larger artists you need a lot of money and persuasion. But Oxford has a stream of very good bands, and people move to Oxford as it’s a good place to have a band.’
Tim’s attitude to band selection is similarly fresh: ‘We wanted to create a music line-up that was different, unique, not the same bands that were playing all the other festivals. We weren’t concerned to get the bands with the most recent album in the charts. We’ve been asking bands to collaborate with each other once they’re on site, so we’ve got Antony and the Johnsons performing for the first time with the 30-piece Heritage Orchestra, and the ground breaking Mercury Rev album Deserters, the NME Best Album of the Decade, will be performed in its entirety. There’ll be lots of special happenings.’
Both festivals embrace more than just music, with Wilderness featuring literary debates and fine dining opportunities alongside dramatic collaboration with the Old Vic Tunnels, while Truck have a theatre tent curated by the Oxford Playhouse. Tim says his festival is ‘about creating a journey, and music is a part of it. There’s something very seminal about a festival, and the legacy it can create.’ Robin is proud of the sustainability of his event: ‘It’s more than just a music festival. We have the Truck Store on Cowley Road which represents the wider mission of Truck, beyond the festival. We like treating people individually.’ All the profits used to go to charity, but Robin regrets that this is no longer viable: ‘It became impossible, but we still make large donations. Truck has a Glastonbury-like vibe — no-one knows how much Glastonbury actually donates to charity, but it creates an atmosphere, the feeling that it’s about more than just entertainment.’ Tim agrees: ‘There’s something very seminal about a festival, the legacy it can create. It has to be underpinned as a business case, but when you start you know it will be a journey that will affect your life in different ways. It’s a total joy.’
While Wilderness is run by a team with experience of organising festivals including Lovebox and the Secret Garden Party, Truck is a family affair, spearheaded by Robin and his brother, their wives and parents. Organising a festival is not an easy job, and both have suffered their setbacks. Tim describes the biggest challenge as ‘communicating the concept to the locals, that it’s something they should seek to support.’ For Robin, nothing could go quite as wrong as it did at the 2007 Truck Festival, which had to be moved due to flooding. ‘There’s always something different, from risk assessments to securing artists to getting a license to keeping the residents happy to finding space for tents and getting everything the way you want it.’ Yet Truck is now integrated into the local village. ‘There’s a very friendly community atmosphere. The farmer used to be less keen on the festival, now he’s working on the burger stall.’
While Truck takes place among stables and pastures, Wilderness is located in the middle of a forest. ‘There are landscape gardens, big ornamental lakes, great vistas and lookouts, no other festivals have anything like Cornbury’s majesty.’ Tim and his team have worked to design the space so that all the stages are in their own little amphitheatres: ‘There’s a nice design to the site, a sense of openness so you’re not too crammed in.’ Robin’s festival also has a new layout this year, accommodating new stages including one curated by a label, ‘a good way of varying the programme without making it too random.’
All this work, and the festival is over in a weekend. Will the organisers get to relax and enjoy the fruits of all their labour? In the spirit of community, Robin will be found greeting people and making sure everyone’s having a good time, as well as hopefully performing with his own band, Dreaming Spires. Tim, however, may not even make Wilderness — his wife is due to give birth to their first child during the festival. Either way, it will be a weekend to remember.
Cherwell has teamed up with Wilderness to offer one lucky reader a pair of tickets to the festival! To be in with a chance of winning, send a sentence explaining why you want to go to [email protected] by Friday June 24.
Wilderness runs from 12-14 August, www.wildernessfestival.com
Truck runs from 22-24 July, www.thisistruck.com