So, 15 years after its inception, the once actually secret Secret Garden Party has come to an end. Tucked away among the grassy hillocks, tangled thickets and cool lakes of a sprawling Cambridgeshire estate, this colourful theme park for dedicated hedonists, trust fund bohemians and other cosmic wanderers closed its gates for the final time.
I say this with great affection, but SGP has never really been about the music. They know it; we know it; everybody knows it and that’s precisely its point. Though in recent years the line-up has drawn increasingly recognisable names across the genres – main stage highlights this year included energetic, heartfelt performances from Metronomy, Peaches, Wild Beasts and Jagwar Ma, while the various dance music dens saw the likes of Eats Everything, Craig Richards, Mathew Jonson and Krankbrother take to the decks – the real draw has always been the experience of the mad place as a whole.
In early iterations, lineups were never announced in advance. And this dedication to the party not the people on the bill remained–even now, there were no set times for any of the dance stages, creating a thrillingly mystifying musical lucky dip as you drift in joyful ignorance from one area to the next. Those who are particularly wily (and have access to data) will note that some DJs announce their own set times on social media, but this isn’t true of everyone who plays–and, in a curious way, feels rather antithetical to the spirit of the thing.
Traditions such as the Sunday afternoon paint fight and Saturday night’s elaborate firework-jet-plane-effigy-burning extravaganza remain the principal anchor points around which time acquires any sort of meaning. This year they went all out for the Saturday spectacle, filling the sky with a blinding galaxy of light and sparks, and culminating in a full-on replica mansion being burnt down in the centre of the lake to reveal a giant flaming heart.
Without a rigidly structured schedule, the real joys come from exploring. To wander around the festival site is to be transported to a surreal themed adventure playground-come-DIY art installation (albeit one with a side helping of Ibiza private beach spa). This year, over the course of the weekend, the weird fruits of our wanderings included a dash through the famous sort-of-hidden sunflower field; anarchic 4am dodgems where absolutely no one was fit to operate their own phones let alone drive; and abortive attempts to glide down an aggressively useless chipwood slide that you entered through a disco booth with velvet curtains.
And then there’s the other revellers–or ‘gardeners’ in SGP lingo. Known for its dress-up themes, SGP is a feast of sartorial experimentation and also total nudity. I had a soft spot for the guy who’d been waddling around in a cumbersome padded T-Rex suit, and who suddenly found his moment of glory running towards the main stage as the Jurassic Park theme tune played early on Saturday evening, the whole crowd losing their collective shit in a burst of delirious nostalgia. On Sunday, another dinosaur guy, this time in a sludge-ridden onesie, energetically tackled the mud with a toy vacuum cleaner to the ceaseless delight of passers by as warm, gloopy dub drifted out from a nearby tent. And then there were the true mud people: those brave lunatics who literally and figuratively threw themselves 100% into the festival.
Music-wise, through the fog of uncertainty that surrounded whoever the hell was playing at any given time, we managed to catch snippets of sets by Craig Richards, Maxxi Soundsystem, Eats Everything, Jonas Rathsman and Steve Davis–as well as god knows how many others who will forever remain unknown.
Taking over The Drop stage on Friday, a sort of makeshift wooden amphitheatre with a backdrop of pulsating geometric light patterns, Dan Pearson and pals worked the crowd into a frenzy with typically irresistible vibey bass and stomping vocal-driven house.
Later meanderings over the weekend took us largely between the Lost Disco – an eclectic stage set deep in the forest complete with fringed lampshades and psytrance canopy– and the Labyrinth, a disco-balled dance den nestled among the trees that was open the latest by far, becoming at a certain point an informal team meetup for SGP’s most dedicated wreckheads.
There, as the music spanned everything from sparse percussive tracks to soaring warm house pads, disco synths and ethereal cinematic techno, we found ourselves enthralled, dancing through the night until the fine morning rain glittered in the strobe. In the midst of this haze, I managed to pick out the mellow, dreamy tones of Project Pablo and Chaim, as well as rare cuts from The Exaltics (Without Tide) and Art Alfie (ASMDRUMS). After a while though, the specifics didn’t really seem to matter.
And that’s the thing: at its heart, Secret Garden Party is a place for play. And play people did–in spite of the rain and general dampness that permeated everything, the energy of both crowd and performers was infectious and intoxicating. (Talking of which, SGP really does deserve credit for being the first UK festival to work with The Loop to provide anonymous on-site drugs testing¬–an admirably progressive attitude, and one that seems fitting given that there’s a stage called ‘Wonky’.) As a whole, the environment is suffused with a strong sense of community and care, articulated in the festival’s ethos and nurtured by all the random sofas and interstitial seating areas that encourage chance encounters, but also provide solace and comfort to those who’ve gone astray.
It will be missed. Its general weirdness, secret places, shameless hedonism and oddball conceptual mashups; there’s nowhere quite like it. In the words of Freddie Fellowes, Head Gardener, “This isn’t a festival it’s a party.” He’s right. And what a fucking great party it was.
Words: Sonia Williams
Featured Images: Danny North, Jenna Foxton, Giles Smith, Max Miechowski