Poshstock generation: The entrepreneurial aristocrats who are creating a whole new summer season of festivals
As big-name festivals become increasingly corporate and bloated, 'boutique' events are springing up across Britain, offering everything from psychedelic trance to Venetian opera
Sunday 11 May 2008
Glastonbury, V, Reading... it wasn't so long ago that the music-lover's diary was filled with names synonymous with summer, hedonism and rock. But across the country's green spaces, change is afoot. In the past few years, dozens of festivals have sprung up to cater for fans no longer willing to put up with the downside of the mega-festivals: sewage-soaked Portaloos, head-to-tail camping, interminable traffic jams, and – often – bottomless mud.
These so-called boutique festivals sell tickets for a fraction of Glastonbury – where more than 170,000 people will rock up this year, 100 times the number who paid £1 a ticket in 1970, the festival's first year – but they are spreading across the countryside in ever greater numbers. By some counts, there are now more than 400 music festivals in the UK. "We don't keep figures, but there has definitely been an explosion of small to medium-sized festivals since we started," says Ross Purdie, the editor of Virtual-festivals.com.
It isn't clear whether the rise of smaller festivals is linked directly to Glastonbury's decline – ticket sales have been relatively sluggish this year and the line-up has been criticised – but many point not to an aversion to mud and traffic, but a cultural shift. Stuart Maconie, music journalist and Radio 2 DJ, says the big music festivals just aren't cool anymore. "The triumphalism of Glastonbury weekends seems to belong to a brasher, more old-fashioned age," he says. "Glastonbury used to be a counter-culture festival but isn't anymore – it has no ethos. People who want that are going elsewhere."
Increasingly for festival-goers, going elsewhere means heading to one of Britain's country estates. The nation's landed gentry, ever eager to diversify as maintenance fees soar and farming profits plummet, are turning over their gardens and fields to promoters looking to buy a slice of the booming market for alternative festivals.
Lord and Lady Rotherwick can claim to be among the most successful of the landowners-turned-festival hosts. In 2004, they opened the gates to their Oxfordshire pile, Cornbury House, where 3,000 people trudged across her manicured lawns to watch Blondie and Will Young in what has since been dubbed "Poshstock". "We get all of the pleasure and not much of the pain," Lady Rotherwick says. "And we get to walk out of the house and, bang, we're absolutely right there. It's just the best thing."
Boutique festivals don't cater to rock fans alone. Literary types and opera lovers have become just as tired of the corporate atmosphere and crowds at big-money festivals such as Hay-on-Wye and Glyndebourne. "I've spoken at Hay a couple of times and it has become quite impersonal," says Charles Spencer from his Northampton estate, which, for the past five years, has played host to the Althorp Literary Festival. "Last time I was there, authors were telling me they weren't particularly looking forward to coming back."
Whether you're into dad rock, psychedelic trance, the works of Tracy Chevalier or 17th-century Venetian opera, the summer calendar has never had so much to offer, and demand for boutique festivals shows no sign of slowing – whatever the weather.
The Cornbury Music Festival
Lady Rotherwick, estate owner
For most peers of the realm, the prospect of opening up their grounds to thousands of enthusiastic music fans would be enough to bring on an attack of the vapours. Not so Lord and Lady Rotherwick, whose country seat is Cornbury Park, which lies on the edge of Wychwood Forest in Oxfordshire. Since 2004, the magnificent sandstone house and its grounds, which include 6,500 acres of some of the most ancient woodland in the country, have played host to the Cornbury Music Festival.
"It's just fantastic," says Lady Rotherwick. "Everybody's in such a happy mood and the children have a ball. We all get terribly excited. The first year was like a big party with all our friends in the garden and it gets better every year."
Thanks to Hugh Phillimore, a music promoter who became acquainted with the Rotherwicks after renting a cottage at Cornbury, that "party with all our friends" included performances by Blondie and Will Young. This year, Paul Simon is headlining. "I'm a huge fan," beams Lady Rotherwick.
The Rotherwicks' guests, whose number has more than quadrupled since the first festival, are invited to "share pies and a glass of champagne with superstars, toffs, rockers, crooners, morris dancers, farmers, urbanites, fashionistas, gourmet chefs and the little old ladies who make exceptional cakes". Lady R doesn't mind the "Poshstock" tag levelled at Cornbury. "It's true it has a middle-class feel to it, partly because of where we are and partly because of the acts we have."
Any money raised is ploughed back into the estate. "We've been able to do things such as re-Tarmac the drive and having people here means we keep things looking good," Lady Rotherwick says. "Astonishingly, even the clear-up is good fun – two days later you wouldn't even know it had happened." '
5-6 July, near Charlbury, Oxon, www.cornburyfestival.com
Elizabeth Cartwright-Hignett, estate owner/organiser
The star of the show at Iford is not the wisteria-covered façade of the manor house, which sits perched on a wooded hillside, five miles from Bath, but the Grade I-listed gardens. Conceived by the esteemed architect and garden designer Harold Peto, who once counted Sir Edwin Lutyens as an assistant and lived at Iford for more than 30 years, the terraced garden is revered as one of the country's finest.
It is also the location for Iford Arts, a tiny opera festival whose 100 seats are selling out quicker than ever as lovers of classical music seek more intimate settings to indulge their passion. Every summer, the listed Italianate cloister that is the garden's centrepiece is transformed when local operatic companies perform around the central well.
"If it's a nice day you get lovely evening light in the garden and you think, heaven, this is just magic," says Elizabeth Cartwright-Hignett, who has lived at Iford with her husband, John Hignett, since 1965. "It's such a privilege to be here."
Not that the Hignetts get much of a chance to sit back and enjoy the opera. "When it rains we're all rushing about, desperately trying to find tents and umbrellas and wondering how we're going to give them coffee in the interval. Then we spend the rest of the year trying to keep it looking magical."
Unlike the black-tie and posh-picnic atmosphere that pervades Glyndebourne, Iford offers a more casual character. "You get the occasional person turning up in a suit but generally it's much more relaxed," says Cartwright-Hignett
Judy Eglington, who is the artistic director at Iford, which this year will stage Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and Cavalli's Giasone, agrees. "Many of our patrons don't like corporate places such as Glyndebourne. There's a really inclusive feel to what happens at Iford and we cherish it. '
June-July, Iford, Wiltshire, www.ifordarts.co.uk
The Secret Garden Party
Freddie Fellowes, organiser
There can be few music festivals that can boast a stage designed by the 'starchitect' Sir Norman Foster. 'I'm pretty sure we're the only one,' says Freddie Fellowes. When Fellowes was approached by Red Bull to scout sites to host what he calls a promotional 'semi-legal rave', he looked close to home. Abbots Ripton Hall, near Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, is the family seat of the 4th Baron de Ramsey, also known as Freddie's dad, John Ailwyn Fellowes.
With some persuasion, the family agreed that the grounds of the 6,000-acre estate, which includes the Foster (friend of the family) pagoda, would make the ideal venue not for a rave, but a pop festival. "It's the perfect location," says Freddie Fellowes, who now lives on a houseboat in south-west London, "an Albionesque Garden of Eden."
Now in its sixth year, the Secret Garden Party (its location doesn't even appear on the festival's website) has developed a loyal following for its quirky mix of performance art, fancy dress and big-name acts. Grace Jones has been announced as this year's headliner in her only festival appearance. It remains to be seen how the famously spiky singer will react to the festival's quirky style – festival-goers last year found themselves leaving the heaving dance tent and entering a throng attempting to waltz on a slope, while nearby pairs of people dressed up in horse costumes for a jousting competition.
This year's theme is "revolution". "There'll be a philosophy camp and the usual array of fancy dress," promises Fellowes.
24-27 July, near Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, www.secretgardenparty.com
Althorp Literary Festival
Charles Spencer, owner/organiser
What better place to host a literary festival than a country estate whose library, created by the Second Earl Spencer, once boasted the finest private collection of books in Europe? And Althorp, in Northamptonshire, now owned by the ninth Earl, Charles Spencer, has, over the past five summers, earned a reputation as the location for one of the book circuit's more convivial festivals.
"I wanted to create something more welcoming to the author, whose happiness spreads to the audience," says Spencer, who set up the festival with his second ex-wife, Caroline Freud. "The writers are invited to stay at the house – nearly all do – and they rally round to support each other if one doesn't have a strong attendance. It's all very casual."
Indeed, in the first year, Spencer struggled to fill all his rooms. "It was quite patchy to begin with. We had a couple of big hitters such as Sebastian Faulks, who sold out, but one female novelist, who I couldn't possibly name, only attracted about 10 people. We had to get all the staff to take off their uniforms and stand at the back, which boosted the audience to about 28, but in a room for 180 it was still a bit empty."
Ticket sales are much healthier these days and this summer Spencer expects to welcome about 3,000 people through the gates during his three-day festival, where talks take place under chandeliers in the imposing Marlborough room and state dining-room. "One author this year said he'd only come if we increased capacity to 300," Spencer says. "I said I couldn't do it because it would mean putting up marquees, which would destroy the whole atmosphere."
Those who do make the journey to Spencer's estate will see, among other writers – most of whom Spencer books himself – Penelope Lively, Tracy Chevalier, John Humphrys and Julian Clary. Refreshments will include a free wine tasting and a hog roast in the stable courtyard.
"It's so nice to see very different authors enjoying each other's company, and to see them rubbing shoulders with the audience," Spencer says. "It's a formal setting but a very easygoing celebration of the summer and literature."
13-15 June, Althorp, Northampton,www.althorp.com
Nick Ladd, founder
For 362 days of the year, Wasing Park, near Newbury in Berkshire, is an oasis of calm, where rivers bursting with pike and perch meander between unspoilt wooded lakes. Nestled in a verdant valley, the 3,000-acre park lies just an hour's drive from London yet, standing in its midst, the only evidence of human habitation is the 18th-century manor house.
For the other three days, the scene is very different. On the Friday before the third week of July, some 16,000 people will descend on Wasing for The Glade, which, since it first lit up this quiet corner of the Berkshire countryside in 2004, has earned a reputation as one of the world's leading electronic dance-music festivals.
Global techno and trance artists including Dubfire, Pendulum and Jeff Mills will perform on 13 stages, while circus acts and an inflatable church will help create what its founder and creative director Nick Ladd calls a "reality bubble where you forget the outside world, let your freak out and be larger than life for a weekend".
Ladd started The Glade as a stage at Glastonbury, where its runaway success inspired him to start hunting for a dedicated venue. A couple of phone calls led Ladd to festival aficionado Joshua Dugdale, whose family has owned Wasing for centuries. "I went to The Burning Man [the legendary community festival staged in the Nevada desert, California] in 2002 and it made me think we could do something at home," Dugdale says. So he and Ladd were the perfect match and, four years on, attendance at The Glade has risen from some 4,000 people to around 16,000, despite early concern among locals about noise and disturbance.
Dugdale sums up the appeal of smaller festivals such as Glade: "It's like going to a party held by your friends rather than a nightclub, where you don't always have the feeling that other people are part of your kin."
And what about that inflatable church? "We don't just offer banging dance bass," Ladd says. "You can get married at the church, where we'll supply the dress. Or, if you prefer, you can attend your own funeral."
18-20 July, Aldermaston, near Reading, Berkshire, www.gladefestival.com
In a field of their own: more small but perfectly formed festivals
For literary types...
Borders Book Festival
It's the fifth year for this small-scale but lively four-day bookfest in Melrose, the most beautiful town in the Scottish borders. 19-22 June, Melrose, Scotland, www.bordersbookfestival.org
Ledbury Poetry Festival
A festival dedicated to poetry in all its forms, Ledbury attracts a passionate crowd to its ancient streets. This year Jackie Kay is presiding, with Michael Rosen among the performers. 4-13 July, Ledbury, Herefordshire, www.poetry-festival.com
Yes, it's mainly a music festival, but its Literature Tent puts many dedicated books festivals to shame. 17-20 July, Southwold, Suffolk, www.latitudefestival.co.uk John Walsh
The Green Man Festival
The first Green Man was a one-day event with 250 guests. Six years on, 10,000 people will head to the Brecon Beacons for a jamboree of folk-flavoured music, including Laura Marling. 15-17 August, Glanusk Park, Brecon Beacons, www.thegreenmanfestival.co.uk
End of the Road Festival
Simon Taffe had never even organised a gig before he decided, at the 2005 Green Man, to start his own Americana and indie-led festival. The next year, EOTR won the Best New Festival award. 12-14 September, Larmer Tree Gardens, Wilts, www.endoftheroadfestival.com
Now in its 11th year, Truck was started by Robin Bennett, who wanted to create an independent riposte to corporate festivals such as Glastonbury and to celebrate "music and nature". 19-20 July, Hill Farm, Oxon, www.thisistruck.comLuiza Sauma
For the classically minded...
Salt marshes, seascapes, samphire, and the best fish and chips in Britain. Now in its 61st year, the Aldeburgh Festival has shed its genteel, grey-haired image under the artistic directorship of Thomas Adès. 13-29 June, Snape, Suffolk, www.aldeburgh.co.uk
Almeida Opera Festival
Musically adventurous Londoners flock to the Almeida each July for a month of contemporary opera and music theatre. This year's festival opens with Yannis Kyriakides's Ocean of Rain. 10 July-2 August, Almeida Theatre, London N1, www.almeida.co.uk
Wexford Festival Opera
Ireland's Glyndebourne, Wexford has launched the careers of a generation of young singers, directors and designers through its annual festival of operatic rarities.16 October-2 November, Wexford, Ireland, www.wexfordopera.com
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