Cornbury Festival - 'Poshstock' parties on
The hosts of the Cornbury Festival once worried about its upper-class image. But then they realised it was an opportunity. Gillian Orr prepares to glamp
Friday 02 July 2010
Nice", "civilised", "wholesome": not words you would normally associate with a music festival. Yet organisers and headliners use these exact pleasantries to describe Cornbury festival, which is near Charlbury, Oxfordshire every July. What happened to "noisy" and "revolting"?
Now in its seventh year, Cornbury welcomes 15,000 people a day over the weekend to enjoy its peculiar mix of a traditional music festival partnered with village fête activities, which results in a rather curious English affair. Alongside the bands and camping, there are Morris dancers, tombolas, hot-air balloons and cake stalls.
Held on the 6,500-acre Cornbury estate owned by Lord and Lady Rotherwick, the festival has been dubbed "Poshstock", as a way of poking fun at the location as well as the clientele, which in the past has included David Cameron, the area's local MP. The likes of Jeremy Clarkson, Rowan Atkinson and Jemima Khan have also attended. However, in reality, despite the festival's high-end reputation, the clientele actually includes a cross section of people, including farmers, locals, as well as the beloved toffs.
As for the music, it's solid yet family-friendly fare. Former headliners include Paul Simon, Will Young, the Pretenders and Elvis Costello. Amy Winehouse played once but that was way back in 2005, before the drugs, of course. There's no place for such controversies here, thank you very much.
Cornbury is the creation of 50-year-old Hugh Phillimore, an affable, chirpy old Etonian and music aficionado. He has 30 years' experience of the music and entertainment industry, having worked as a talent scout, song plugger and entertainment booker for private parties including the weddings of Paul McCartney, Sting and Elton John, and Prince William's 21st and Prince Charles's 50th. In 2003, Phillimore went to Lord and Lady Rotherwick to propose the festival on their land. The fun-loving Rotherwicks said yes.
Phillimore was inspired by the old "fayre" he read about that took place in the neighbouring Wychwood forest from 1796. During its peak in the early 19th century, the festival would attract crowds of 50,000 but was finally cancelled in 1856 due to overcrowding and safety worries.
No such problems exist at Cornbury. That means a camping space that is ten times the size you're likely to get at Glastonbury, plenty of lifeguards for the lake that campers like to swim in every morning, and more toilets than they need. In fact, having enough loos is key to Phillimore's philosophy.
"I heard that the Isle of Wight festival ended up with 75,000 people but they only booked toilets for 50,000. Why screw the punters over?"
Acts playing during the weekend include The Feeling, Noisettes, Newton Faulkner, Seth Lakeman, and Candi Staton. Headlining the festival this year are two of the least offensive artists one could think of: Jackson Browne and David Gray, who previously headlined in 2005. So what is it about Cornbury that enticed Gray back?
"It's just such beautiful, rolling English countryside," he says, "it's got a very unspoilt feel to it, you can feel the quietude of the surrounding fields and woods and it is a lot less trampled. It's a bit more village-y and it's not just relentless noise and people. I like the idea of feeling like you are out of the city."
But it's the extras that really make Cornbury a unique experience. The food on offer, for example, is of a much higher standard than you'd find elsewhere. This year Cornbury sees Jamie Oliver's first foray into the UK festival market: Fabulous Feasts is Oliver's new specialist events-catering company.
Don't the organisers ever feel like they might be alienating potential guests with their preference for all things, well, posh?
Lady Rotherwick explains: "When it was first dubbed Poshstock we thought, 'oh this is so awful'. Then we thought that, if this is the identity the festival is going to have, then at least we might as well make the most of it.
While campers are invited to pitch up with their humble tents, Cornbury offers an exclusive "glamping" area where you can be met with a ready pitched and fully equipped tent. If you fancy something more eccentric, you can stay in a traditional gypsy caravan, or in a pod-pad, which is described as a little bit of quirky luxury but looks more like a Wendy house. There are also tipis, bellepads, yurts and squrts.
While Phillimore describes putting on the festival as a "labour of love", it was also supposed to be a business investment. "It was meant to be my pension," he sighs. "I've lost one and a half million quid, I mean literally everything I ever had is gone". Like most festivals in their early years, Cornbury hasn't exactly been making a huge profit. "The idea was to build something really beautiful and we knew it would take a while. I always understood that Glastonbury took seven years before it broke even. This is our seventh year, so we were like, "yes!". Then, I was at a live music conference back in March and Michael Eavis stood up and told everyone that the festival didn't make any money for the first 11 years. I'll be dead! My wife is now telling me to stop".
Fingers crossed Cornbury makes it to its eleventh year.
Cornbury Festival takes place tomorrow and Sunday near Charlbury, Oxfordshire, media partner The Independent. Weekend tickets £95, day tickets £55. Under-13s and over-70s go free. Tickets: 0871 472 0420; Cornburyfestival.com
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