Pop: Turn on, tune in, drop names

When Lt General Pitt-Rivers created the beautiful Larmer Tree Gardens in 1880, he probably didn't have pop festivals in mind. But then, The Big Chill is no ordinary festival
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The Independent Culture
Imagine a pop-festival site where instead of a muddy field there's a manicured lawn and a magic garden, with strutting peacocks taking the place of marauding dogs. Where foodie treats replace dodgy burgers and you can even get a nice cup of Earl Grey at an old-fashioned pavilion, served by a proper waitress rather than a pierced man in a sarong or a thong. Where campers get showers laid on free and broadsheet papers are delivered each morning along with the coffee and croissants. Best of all, there aren't even any pop groups to contend with, just softie DJs and ambient music, which one always suspected more or less plays itself. Of course, The Big Chill, which runs from this Friday to Sunday, isn't really a pop festival at all, and in any case it's already sold out, but if you don't tell anyone about it you might just manage to get tickets for next year.

Set in the astonishingly beautiful Larmer Tree Gardens on the border of Wiltshire and Dorset near Shaftesbury, this year's Big Chill - the Enchanted Garden '99 - promises a cornucopia of delights for the chilled of heart. There are appearances by classical crossover act Piano Circus; the Godfather of ambient music, Harold Budd; Roger Eno (the similarly ambiently inclined brother of Brian) with Lol Hammond; dance acts Roots Manuva and Peshay; and in the "Liquid Motion Tent", a cast of DJs including Gilles Peterson, Ashley Beedle, Matt Black, and many, many more. Meanwhile, the MediaMix Tent offers the serious goatee-stroker panels and plenary discussions on subjects such as "Techno Theory", and "Toys for the Boys", which is described as "a gossip about clubland and popular culture from a female perspective," along with a peroration by Kodwo Eshun.

As well as all the music and chat, there's a visual arts programme of installations curated by Alice Sharp (which last year included projections of paintings by Gary Hume); a "Body and Soul" area with various health practitioners, an onsite radio station, "Big Chill FM"; son et lumiere- type environments, film and video projections and a promised appearance by Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, who are evidently in England to find Camelot before the millennium runs out. The real star of the show, however, has to be the setting itself.

Set up in the 1880s, when Lt General Augustus Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers decided to create his own public park on the estate that he had recently inherited, Larmer Tree Gardens (named after a great elm which marked a boundary on King John's Cranborne Chase deer park) is one of the world's first ever theme-parks. Designed to offer diversions for the local populace, Pitt- Rivers' High Victorian version of Disneyworld featured an annual fair at which Thomas Hardy once danced. Hardy is also said to have fallen in love with the General's daughter, and in the poem Concerning Agnes, he recalls a bygone Big Chill, "when the wide-faced moon looked through/ The boughs at the faery lamps of the Larmer Avenue".

This weekend, the faery lamps will be replaced by lasers lighting up the laurel-tree walk, but otherwise almost everything is as it was then, bar the DJs. The main festival stage is a beautiful wooden pavilion with a trompe-l'oeil background of sylvan glades, and the Indian and African houses that the General shipped in from far-flung outposts of empire - and which give the site much of its decidedly surreal appeal - will be put to various uses, and there are art installations in the Roman Temple.

General Pitt-Rivers was undoubtably a most unusual man. A pioneer of both archaeology and anthropology, and responsible for the wonderfully dotty Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford, he even had his own personal brass band on whom he would call to play in the gardens at whim.

Satisfyingly, The Big Chill seems to incarnate some of this English eccentric spirit. Like the Larmer Tree Gardens itself, what is most surprising is that something so unlikely manages to exist at all. "The Festival is just over five years old," says Katrina Lawrence, who founded The Big Chill with her husband Peter. "It came about through Peter and I getting bored going out to clubs and not being able to talk. Everything was too one-dimensional, and we didn't want loudness, we wanted quality, something with like-minded people that wasn't just about one night."

They started with an event at Union Chapel in Islington in 1994. "It was a Sunday afternoon chill-out with big screens and music, stills and art installations. We did it for two years but outgrew the space. In 1995 we had the first outdoor festival at Llantony Abbey in the Black Mountains, then moved to Norfolk for the second year, but the locals didn't want us and it was a disaster. After a year off, we came to the Larmer Tree for the first time last year, and it was so good we hope we'll still be here in 10 years time."

Although the keepers of the estate (now owned by the General's grandson, Michael Pitt-Rivers), had a few doubts about what exactly the festival entailed, last year's event made it clear that any moral panics over "raves" were totally unwarranted.

"It's a lot quieter for a start, so laid-back and restful," Katrina says. "There's a completely different clientele, with everyone sitting out on the lawn on Sunday morning drinking coffee in a very French kind of way. Last year's artists all wanted to come back for no money, and we had 200 thank-you letters and pages of e-mails. There are only 2,000 people in any case, and the whole thing is funded from ticket sales so no one makes much money. People can see it's not like other festivals and they really respect the place. We don't even shut the gates at the end of the night."

Following the success of the Larmer Tree festivals, The Big Chill is now poised, like WOMAD before it, to go global. The British Council has invited them to programme a festival in Cairo in October, and they've also created events for the London Literature Festival at Sadler's Wells, and for Rhythm Sticks at the South Bank.

The Big Chill is already sold out, but Larmer Tree Gardens, Tollard Royal, Wiltshire, is open every day except Saturdays until October, and is also available for private hire. Tel: 01725 516 228