“This final year is all about dreams. Yours, mine ours and theirs” As the last stage closed the doors and the jets signalled the end with a heart in the sky, we stood under the dawn and waved one last goodbye to the magic that was Secret Garden Party.
Thursday was a blur of packing the car, double checking we had everything and driving (in the rain) the short hour and a half trip from Norwich to Abbots Ripton in Cambridge. Nice and easy to find, we pulled up at the gates of Secret Garden Party under the cover of dark, threatening clouds and an already churned up field. Great stuff I thought as we joined the small queue to get to the car park, but in true UK festival style, within half an hour we were stood under blazing sunshine and ready to pitch our tent. Fast forward another hour and we had already made friends with the guys in the tent next to us and were sipping on cold beers and discussing what we were looking forward to seeing that evening. With no program to hand, our new friends provided some set times and a plan was made.
Rinse FM would be hosting the famous Colosillyum stage from 7pm and with rising star and all round top guy Jacky playing from 8pm, I was all over that and ready to get dancing to some serious house music. With the main gates to the arena not opening till a later time of 5pm, we cracked open a cold one or two and got settled into making our outfits for the first night. Secret Garden Party is as much about the costumes as it is the music or the fun times and we could already see people glittering away in the sunshine, mounting stilts and slipping on fancy dress.
Walking into the arena from the campsite was nice and easy and as soon as you stepped through, that familiar smell of a hundred different foods floated up and hit your nose and we thought it would be a good idea to fuel up ready for a long night. Instantly impressed by the choices available; as someone that doesn’t drink dairy, it was great to see that I could choose from a range of different milk alternatives at pretty much every stall so I grabbed a coffee and some slow cooked beef ribs and set off to go exploring. Everywhere you looked, there was art installations, with my personal favourite being the ‘Come Down with Kanye’ sofa, which I marked in my head as somewhere to return to later. One girl said that the way to truly experience SGP was simple; if it looked like it might open or make a noise or you just have the urge to look inside something, then do it! Nothing is off limits and everything is there for a reason.
After doing a couple of laps of the layout and grabbing a program, we headed back to the Colosilliyum and climbed the steps to get a spot at the top. As the name suggests, we were in a circle set up, with the main stage at one end and a series of circular steps rising up for people to stand on and dance. The neon painted décor and open air set up was perfect for Jacky’s style and we danced away through his set and since most of the other main attractions didn’t open till the following day, that is where we stayed for the rest of the evening before grabbing an early (ish) night back at the tent, ready for the next day.
Waking up on Friday, I was happy to report that we had another sunny day ahead of us, so we donned our feathers and glitter and headed into the quieter areas of the festival for a chilled day. One of the best things about Secret Garden Party was that they catered for everything you could possible think of and as we climbed over the Wonky Hill and past the naked yoga session that was in full swing in the sand pit, we saw a wide choice of chill out zones to pick. Wooden hot tubs with champagne service surrounded a small pond, whilst people swam in the larger lake next door and others lay out in the sun on white Ibiza style four poster sunbeds. To the right there were massage tents, and even a fully operational hair salon where you could pay to get your hair washed and styled ready for the evening’s festivities. We wandered through, taking it all in and were drawn into the The Lost Woods by the sound of a didgeridoo. Pushing through the trees, we find a large stage inside the woods, with people dotted around on the floor crossed legged or dancing away to the band that were playing upbeat acoustic vibes and one man who was simultaneously playing a violin like a guitar, the didgeridoo we had heard and a harmonica. We grabbed some food from one of the vendors, this time a delicious paella and headed back to the campsite to get ready for the evening at the main stage where we had heard that Peaches was a must see. One of the best things about our campsite was the people we met there. There was no trouble, not even from the ket fuelled London wideboys that ended up lending me dry shampoo and we made instant friends with all around us, including our new festival soulmates Stefan, Scott and Steven who we discovered lived just up the road from us back home and who honestly enriched our experience 10-fold. It was with the usual camp question of ‘So who do you recommend we see’ that a resounding ‘PEACHES’ was shouted out and the decision was made that our new little gang would head to the great stage together.
I had never heard of Peaches before but was assured I would never forget her and boy were they right! From her S&M style show, we were treated to a soft porn mix of dark and twisty electronica and dancing vaginas, an onstage simulation of female oral sex and a blow-up plastic penis that Peaches herself climbed into and walked over the crowd as she sang ‘Dick in the Air’. I kid you not, Peaches was an assault on the senses that had you laughing, gasping and begging for more and it was the most memorable hour of the whole festival. Likened to a female Marilyn Manson, there are very few people that would get away with the lyrics or the performance at a festival that was open to families and featured a camera close up of one of the dancers simulating masturbation and Peaches herself popping her breasts out and mooning the crowd as she left the stage. I for one, loved her and felt that she fitted the freedom of Secret Garden Party perfectly, as on our way to the main stage, we had already spotted naked trampoliners and a penis dancing to Queen…
How do you follow all that I hear you ask? Well, for us it was to change the pace completely and we walked over to The Drop where house dj’s Denney, Waifs and Strays and Eats Everything were headlining. Not as intense as Peaches, but the cool vibes and industrial style stage set up had us dancing till the sun came up. I would say I was expecting more from Eats than what he gave us and I have definitely seen him play a better set before, but it was enjoyable all the same.
Friday ended with smooth grooves back in the Lost Woods with our new friends however we were rained off about 5am and headed back to the tents soggy, smiling and so very happy.
Saturday was a day of discovery for me, which is my favourite thing about a festival. You go thinking you will see a certain line up but the flow of the day takes you to new and exciting artists that grab your heart and stay with you forever. I fell in love at SGP with Charlotte OC, a left field pop artist whose sound was like being caressed by a dark blue velvet; such a powerful yet restrained voice from such a small person and I was instantly hooked as she belted out a cover of Rui de Silva ‘Touch Me’ which is a moment sat on the hill under our tree in the sunshine that will never leave me.
Sadly though as her set came to an end, so did the sunshine and we donned our ponchos and waited for Kate Nash to come on. Her look was heavily influenced by 70’s glam rock (probably helped along by her stint in ‘Glow’) and she jumped out into the crowd as she sang along to her all female band. Ending her set with the legendary ‘Foundations’, the crowd sang louder than she did and we danced in the mud and applauded her as she left the stage.
By far the best of the smaller tents was the Rum Bar, which specialised in Rum based beverages and the funkiest of dj sets and we hid from the rain and were covered in neon paint by revellers inside. A quick toilet stop before heading back to the Lost Woods where we had heard that Maribou State were absolutely killing it and they were not wrong as their set was one of the best sets of the weekend for me. Floaty yet funky, they had the crowd jumping and it was musical weapon after musical weapon under the cover of the trees and out of the rain that bombarded us for the rest of Saturday night and all the way to Metronomy back at the Great Stage. Moving between venues on this site was always quick and easy, with nothing too far away nor too close and even with what felt like the entire SGP turnout crushed into the main area, we still found our spot under our tree and had room to dance and sing along. Standing on the hill, we could not only see the main stage but also across the lake and over the entire site; all lit up with a thousand sparkling lights made into giant flowers and if there was ever a moment where I saw and felt the magic of SGP, then this was it. Your heart was both lifted and heavy as I knew this would be the last time that this special event would take place and I drank in every moment.
In the middle of the Lake, there was a little wooden house that we had seen people dancing on all weekend and we had struggled to find out how to get there. It seemed like a great place to be and our new friend Natalie filled us in when she said ‘You wait till later tonight, they blow it up!’. It seems that an SGP tradition is on the last Saturday, they deliver a spectacular firework display that ends with the house on the lake being blown up and replaced by a burning heart. Done to the ‘Fame’ theme tune which kept to the ethos of this year’s SGP, we stood and watched as it went up in a fire ball to a round of cheers and applause and it was amazing to see! A very fitting end to an absolutely smashing day.
Bushwacka and B Traits were playing back at the Drop stage and we headed there with a quick stop off at the Dance Off stage to check out what was going on but the hard D&B set was not for us and we carried on swiftly. By this time, the mud was getting thicker and there was a mix of wanting to go into the crowd and wanting to stay out of the mud and on higher ground and we mixed between the two through the entire evening. Wondering whether B Traits would go Drumcode on us or stick to a more Radio One vibe, we were not disappointed when she came to the decks and her sound was as dark as the sky above us. Flames shot from either side of the stage, twisty visuals grabbed hold of your eyes and she definite took our little troop on a journey!
Saturday ended with another stint in the Rum Bar and an excellent set from a dj that I am still kicking myself about not getting the name of (maybe Johannas) which we stayed in till they closed before heading to the circus tent next door where we ended up dancing away and waving toilet paper in the air at till 5am…not too sure why but it felt right. The sun coming up in earnest sent us back to our tent, where we sat up till 9am watching the last of the revellers wander past us on a ‘Pickled Peoples Parade’. Trust me, if you ever want to see the best characters from a festival then this is the game to play.
Sunday was our last day and it was with a heavy heart that it began with rain again as I trudged down to the food stalls to get breakfast for everyone. After we had refuelled, we headed to the Great Stage to get involved with the famous paint party which was like a Holi festival style occasion. As we crossed the bridge over the lake though we heard the bangs of the paint bombs go off and realised we had just missed it by seconds, although when we turned the corner to the main field, we were met with people covered in paint powder, grinning and dancing and then the bass kicked in from the speakers and we heard the unmistakable SGP legend David Rodigan start to MC over some D&B classics. The crowd went wild and I took up my spot on the top of the hill to watch the madness commence.
Up and coming R&B act Ray BLK was next and she smoothed the scene out with her soulful ‘Chill Out’ and with a shout out to her queens in the audience and a sly dig at her ex she had us all in the palm of her hands with her South London swag and her real lyrics.
After some food we headed back to the Rum Bar for a quick one and we spotted the glittering jets take to the sky and stood with our new buddies watching it dart across the now clearing clouds and write a heart across the colours of dusk; another little moment of magic for me and as I looked around the crowd, it looked like it was for them too.
We ended our SGP experience with Toots and the Maytals playing us out on the great stage and with that it was done. We wandered back to the car with heavy hearts, packed with a million memories and drove back to Norwich knowing that we would probably never experience anything quite like Secret Garden Party again but glad that we had been there to say goodbye.