If you thought festivals were just for tipsy teenagers and hand-waving hippies, think again – these days they’ve gone seriously upmarket, with something for absolutely everyone.
Secret Garden Party, widely known as 'SGP', is for the festival-goer who likes to get stuck in – really stuck in. Here, the ethos is that the Gardeners [as the revellers are affectionately known] play a crucial part in absolutely everything, whether it’s adhering to the annual creative theme with elaborate fancy dress, taking part in mud-wrestling competitions or organising a paint fight. “It’s an immersive festival of the arts where everyone is the artist,” explains Jo Vidler, creative director of Secret Productions, the company behind the festival. “Our number one rule is that the party must facilitate your participation. With so much to do, see and explore, no individual will leave having had the same experience.”
What started out as a small, invite-only party in 2002 – “with fewer than 500 people in attendance, there was one hand-built stage, two small bars and us organisers all swimming in the lake,” recalls Jo – is now a major calendar event, with more than 15 stages and over 25,000 partygoers. They pull in the big name acts, too – Grace Jones, Lily Allen, Florence Welch and Jarvis Cocker have all performed since the official launch in 2004. Even they have no choice but to get fully immersed in the festival spirit: there are no separate camping areas for artists, as all Gardeners are seen as VIPs.
So what exactly is it that has made this quirky Cambridgeshire festival so phenomenally successful? It probably has more than a little to do with the festival’s nickname: ‘Disneyland for adults’. “We facilitate a four-day party where the constraints and social barriers of city life are released, and people can embrace their inner child,” says Jo. “A typical Gardener is someone looking for adventure, an escapist who aspires to get lost in an alternative reality.”
They’ll certainly find that here. One of the festival’s most famous elements is its annual theme, which encompasses everything from the bars and decorations – including the epic art installation in the middle of the lake, which goes up in flames on the final night every year – to the costumes [which are taken very, very seriously].
2013 is the year of Superstition, with the festival inviting its revellers to “explore their affinity to the supernatural, the inexplicable or the irrational”. Coming up with the theme is always one of the most entertaining processes for the team. “It gradually evolves and begins to surface out of a brainstorm, where we gather and explore our wildest dreams,” says Jo. “It’s certainly not your average board meeting!” And with cabaret, installation art, circus performances, fancy dress competitions and music all on offer, this is certainly not your average festival. So try out a spot of Gardening this summer, and remember Jo’s key piece of advice: “Get involved!”
View YouTube Secret Garden Party videos here
Secret Garden Party [25 July - 28 July 2013] at Abbots Ripton, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire; secretgardenparty.com