Preview: Wilderness Festival, Oxfordshire

Of all the festivals set to grace fields across Britain this year, Wilderness (3rd-6th August) is arguably the most eclectic. Back for its sixth year, this four-day cultural extravaganza set in a protected woodland in the heart of the Cotswolds could be your Oxford “staycation” if you’re stuck in the Bod or lab over summer (and even if you’re not). Thoughtfully programmed, playful, and surprising at every turn, this is not your average weekend in the countryside, and certainly not your average music festival.

Even if the promise of bonfires, fields and wild swimming lakes don’t tempt you into the wild, the music just might. Although it doesn’t claim to be one of the major players in the music stakes, Wilderness nevertheless attracts top-quality and particularly interesting line-ups. In 2015 it was the only festival the elusive Björk played, and 2017’s diverse bill is headlined by Grace Jones, Two Door Cinema Club, and Bonobo. Other likely BBC main-stage highlights are Michael Kiwanuka, First Aid Kit, and Aurora. Nighmares on Wax are DJing on the Valley stage, and The Atrium stage will keep jazz fans in high spirits, with Ronnie Scott’s presenting Lucky Peterson and a tribute to the wonderful late Nina Simone performed by Laura Mvula and special guests. Head to the Folk barn for intimate gigs, international flavours and a good old-fashioned knees-up – acts to watch are Josienne Clark and Ben Walker, Alice Phoebe Lou, and Yolanda Eyama’s Afro World Groove. Late night revelry is to be found in the secret underworld of the Love Hotel which presents fresh musical talent into the early hours, and the seething dancefloor of The Hustle shows that the festival (nearly) never sleeps. Participation is uniquely encouraged, with jam sessions, a festival choir, and karaoke abundant. Whatever your tastes, Wilderness is sure to throw something familiar, something new and something utterly bonkers at you. One stage is even a flashing rotating carousel, horses and all, which naturally, can’t be missed.

As many an Oxford tutor has quipped, “you vacate your rooms, not your brains” – and you’re sure to keep those intellectual fires burning over this weekend. Wilderness is famed for its “cerebral programming” of talks and debates – this is one festival you’ll be leaving with impressive dinner-party facts, and a mind full of new ideas. Events are curated by Tate Britain, The Economist, Vice, and The School of Life to illuminate and entertain, along with speakers like Vince Cable, Bruce Parry, and Will Young. Identity is a key theme this year, talks grappling with race, Brexit, gender, sexuality and religion, as well as the Wilderness Utopia series which examines topics like democracy, money and myths. The Books tent will be brimming with eminent wordsmiths, afficionados of current affairs will enjoy the public dissection of the Sunday papers, and podcast-nerds will no doubt be excited by live recordings including “No Such Thing as a Fish” and “Little Atoms”.

Festival-goers will be treated to first-class theatre and dance every night – productions from the likes of Sadler’s Wells, National Theatre Live, Breakin’ Convention and Camden People’s Theatre are set to dazzle. Wayne McGregor and Rambert Dance Company offer performances and participatory workshops in contemporary dance, hip hop and ballet. You can also learn to swing dance and join the colourful Ceilidh Liberation Front for a skip and a twirl. Cutting edge documentaries and films are shown at the Lyceum secret film club. Catch a late-night burlesque fire-eating cabaret from Missy Fatale, and, if the mood takes you, you can get married at the mass wedding – to all of your friends at once – with party rings.

Wilderness is one of those festivals that can genuinely claim gastronomy to be up there with the arts. You’re sure to work up quite an appetite from dancing, wild swimming and general field frolicking, and when you’re not cooking up a storm on the campfire, there’s certainly no shortage of mouthwatering options. On-site restaurants and a long-table banquet run by the revered Yotam Ottolenghi, while impressive, may not be particularly student-loan-friendly and more likely to be admired/sniffed from afar, but top-notch street-food vans are a-plenty. Fantastic reputations precede Paellaria, Spicebox, the Duck Truck, Good and Proper Tea, Deliciously Ella and The Breakfast Club. Treat yourself to a tipple from the Sipsmith Gin shop, Orchard Pig cider barn, Pimm’s Croquet club and the Peacock bar.

Another fabulous thing about Wilderness is its explicit endorsement of whimsical fun and games. Put your Oxford-honed skills to use at Alice-in-Wonderland-themed croquet, join a round of cricket, bring your best game at the Club House’s sports-day-with-a-twist, “dedicated to the ancient art of WINNING”, which may or may not include naked wheelbarrow races… and for the less competitive, try your hand at the curious Aztec-disco-golf.

As if the programme wasn’t exhausting enough, the beautiful setting plays host to a wide range of activities: swimming and boating at the lake, archery, wild foraging, horse-riding, and an “undercover spy mission” (intriguing…) to name but a few. The festival has a strong ethos of connecting the outdoors with wellbeing, with workshops and classes ranging from your more typical yoga and mindfulness to a wonderfully diverse bill of crafty fun – you can learn to be a blacksmith, “pimp” your own pineapple, make a head-dress to flounce around in for the weekend, and, perhaps best of all, learn that truly invaluable life skill: anthropomorphic mouse taxidermy.

Wilderness 2017 is set to be a wonderland of activity, relaxation and learning, with a spot of hedonism for good measure.  To get there from Oxford, take the train or the S3 bus to Charlbury and meet the festival shuttles/trek the mile-and-a-bit to the site. Alternatively, split a cab (around £30).

Tickets are still available for Wilderness Festival 2017 at Cornbury Park, Oxfordshire  – visit to pay upfront or via the deposit scheme.