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With the rest of the line-up sorely lacking in big draw acts it’s left to the chefs to set Wilderness apart from the crowd, and this year they’ve pulled out all the stops. Years ago at university a friend and I practically expired with laughter when we came up with the notion of chefs headlining festivals, crowds moshing to the likes of Gordon Ramsay and Raymond Blanc rendering down duck breasts then going absolutely wild when they drop classics like Caramelized Apple Tart . It left us almost incapable of breathing for at least ten minutes. It was hilarious because a) it was beyond daft, so ludicrously implausible that you would have to be stoned to come up with it and b) we were stoned. And yet, here I find myself sitting at a festival banqueting table, watching wave after Mexican wave surging towards me as three hundred odd revellers stamp their feet and whoop at the top of their voices in feverish anticipation. They’ve knocked back Martinez’s Pisco Sour intro, and now they’re waiting for the drop of the opening course, scallop ceviche with apple and cucumber. It’s truly surreal.
It’s also face-tinglingly good when it comes, the hand dived scallops washed in a mineral fresh green dressing that feels almost pétillant on the taste buds, like bracing seawater foam. The effect is remarkable, like diving headfirst into the crashing waves of the Pacific, more restorative and cleansing than the murky ponds of Cornbury could ever hope to be. Raw shellfish is perhaps not the most conventional hangover cure, but here it could give any over the counter pharmaceutical a run for its money. The sharing platters are absolutely enormous, enough for four of us to have three or four helpings each. I’m back in the game.
The next potatoes (yellow this time) appear alongside Andean roots to go with the beef pachamanca. Not to be confused with Pachamama (a mostly compassionate Peruvian indigenous goddess prone to the occasional greedy, sacrifice demanding outburst, usually manifesting itself as an earthquake), pachamanca is the art of cooking with the aid of stones, tradionally done by marinating meat, surrounding it with hot rocks and covering it with dirt. Or something like that. More modern versions have bastardised the concept by eschewing the dirt in favour of technological marvels like bricks, and whether this one goes further to incorporate thermometers and electricity who knows, but it retains the rusticity, arriving as a carving board laden with bricks of beef fillet and a bowl of rich, spicy sauce. We’re definitely up in the cooler climates of the Andes by now, where one suspects the hearty offering might be better appreciated after a hard morning’s cattle driving, rather than a hot tent in the sun. It’s also (on our table at least) a little overcooked, leaning towards the chewy end of medium-well. Anyone who’s ever been to a wedding will know that overcooked meat is a basic reality of catering for large groups of people, and here is no exception. Not that it matters; by this stage everyone’s fit to bust anyway, and anyway the man built an oven to make you lunch for chrissakes, what more can you want?
By the time the beef is cleared away the entire tent is swaying in unified inebriation. There’s bottomless wine, you see, and it’s good. In a place where everything costs extra it means so much to have everything included for once. It breaks the ice, gets you chatting to your neighbours, and before long you’ve polished off two bottles of wine with a stranger and he’s showing you the tabs of acid he keeps hidden inside his phone armour. There are no secrets here. One man on the next door table is so overcome with emotion that he can’t even keep it to the diners in his immediate vicinity and jumps on top of the table, sending cutlery and wine glasses crashing to the ground to roars of approval. For a moment he’s Billy Crudup’s Russell Hammond on top of the roof in Almost Famous, then there’s a flicker of fear on his face when it suddenly becomes apparent that he didn’t expect it to get this far, and hasn’t thought of anything to say. He could tell everyone that he’s a golden god and he’s on drugs, but he’s too modest, so instead we get an endearingly English outburst of politeness that could only happen at Wilderness:
“Erm…I’d just like to say…I’d just like to say that I’m having a really nice time.”
And then he sits back down.
AfternoonIt’s heartwarming to watch, much deserved, and perhaps the closest this writer gets to a festival moment, but it’s also one from which both we and Wilderness struggle to recover. Fuelled by good wine and high spirits we head out into the afternoon sun, eager to see what else is on offer, but it feels like we’re thwarted at every turn. We haven’t booked any activities or talks, so that rules out roughly half the program. Standing at the main arena isn’t an option due to the ankle injury, but ligament pain is nothing compared to the torture of watching hip hop karaoke on the second stage. Don’t get me wrong, I love karaoke. Really I do, but it only works when strict criteria are in place; you have to be utterly ratted, with people you love, in a soundproof vinyl booth deep underground, where no one can hear you murdering Bruce Springsteen over and over again. A never ending relay of young professionals doing awkward impersonations of hip hop anthems that deal with racial and social injustices they will never be unlucky enough to deal with is something no person should have to witness, let alone a crowd of strangers. Self-awareness is both overbearing and conspicuous by it’s absence; the dreadful performance has it in spades, one only wishes the performers had the good sense to employ it in choice of song. So we don’t stay there for long. The Valley is closed until dark and Juke’s Joint is currently playing host to some acoustic guitar noodling so faint as to be imperceptible. The only other option is to find something exciting to eat, but you’ll forgive me if I don’t feel like a zesty bowl of mac’n’cheese after a five course banquet. So what do we do?Well, we wander. We wander from stall to stall, from tent to tent, until we find ourselves back at the shop with the £25 sequin rail where my friend bought the ill-fated jacket, and despite the shop playing no part whatsoever in its disappearance she asks them to give her a ten percent discount on a new one. They agree. It’s a curious haggling technique that’s remarkably successful despite making literally no sense whatsoever.And then we start to flag.There are two ways of looking at this. On the one hand we might well be uncultured savages who wouldn’t know art if it signed itself Picasso and went on display in the National Gallery. We’re only good for getting pissed, hit it way too hard on Friday night and now we’re getting our just desserts, stick to V Festival next time thank you very much. On the other you might say that, for all the social media lip about life-changing experiences, there really isn’t a whole lot to do at Wilderness, unless you’ve got unlimited funds and don’t subscribe to (or aren’t aware of) the generally acknowledged standard that everything a festival has to offer (with the exception of food and booze) should be included in the ticket price. The answer is probably a little bit of both. As it is our campsite, with its quiet and shade and ample supply of refreshments, has far more to offer than the arena at this time, so we head back to recharge.Evening
The problem is, it doesn’t really improve. Three hours later we resurface, refreshed by the second shower of the day and exuberantly kitted out in gold, as per the dress code, ready to face the evening. We amble happily from one bar to the next but there’s no particular draw, nothing you can’t afford to miss. Crystal Fighters prove, as suspected, to be a terrible choice of headliner. They’re a band that test patience at the best of times – we had to turn them off on the drive down – their pseudo psychedelic drivel set to tribal percussion and half arsed raves coming off like a hipster Kasabian, but their live set has, in the past at least, proven to be their saving grace. Not tonight. We give them twenty minutes but that’s enough. Maybe the damage from the festival PR is affecting my appreciation, but the overriding impression is one of a surfeit of total balls, so we leave. We fail to get a Patty + Bun, again, settle for a shit crab sandwich, and then go to watch the now traditional Saturday spectacle.
Ah, the Saturday spectacle, the moment at which all our pillars and themes combine, when the entire festival congregates, to raise their hearts, and unify their minds. You can tell where I’m getting this from, if nothing else by the appalling misuse of the comma. It is a spectacle and it is impressive, skilled tightrope walkers perilously negotiating a flaming rope the length of a cricket pitch, but the build up feels far more more drawn out that it needs to be for something that only achieves a few moments of payoff, and as the rest of the night plays itself out much like the previous one one can’t escape the now familiar feeling that this is a festival that relies on short bursts of excitement to make up for long stretches of lacklustre diversions. After the spectacle ambles to a close we wander for hours, but there’s very little worth lingering on.
If you have to.