It was the third day of wilderness when not a single creature moved anywhere on the festival grounds, not even a mouse. Storm Antoni brings a torrent of rain to Cornbury Park on Saturday morning, turning every surface to mud. Typically, Wilderness is up at 8am on each of the four days it takes place, and the revelers partake in morning yoga or a cheeky barre class. Others stumble, bleary-eyed, in search of a coffee after a night out in the hedonistic nightlife of The Valley. But not this morning. Instead, a downpour of almost biblical proportions threatens to keep the campers stuck in their tents.
But when growling stomachs finally force festival-goers into the cold rain, it becomes clear that even torrential conditions can’t dampen the spirit of this festival. While Wilderness is often derided as Britain’s most middle-class bougie festival – which, in fairness, it is – the sense of community that pervades all localities is palpable. People share umbrellas and offer each other spare rain ponchos. Music, comedy and activities keep people zipping from tent to tent while the bartenders and food vendors work hard to keep the libations flowing with every downpour.
Perhaps a rainy festival in the UK is “sacred,” as Arlo Parks says during her soulful performance on the Wilderness Stage. After all, trudging through mud and dancing in the rain is a quintessentially British experience. Some regular visitors say it’s unusual for Wilderness to be as wet as this year, but there are few complaints. Instead, “keep calm and move on” becomes a mantra throughout the day.
On Friday night before the skies open, The Chemical Brothers will get your feet pounding with their serious club beats and impressively trippy visuals. It’s quite an amusing scene to see toddlers happily hopping on the shoulders of their parents who are hopping along to the electronic feast. The next day, when the worst of the rain has passed, Parks leads the crowd into emotional sing-alongs to her songs “Eugene” and “Black Dog” before Christine and the Queens mesmerizes us with his theatrics. Shifting from side to side of the stage, he switches between black pants and a voluminous red skirt to a blazer with huge angel wings at the back, while remaining topless except for a nipple tape. The erotic energy of the French star inspires the fascinated audience.
Then the sky above us lights up with a dazzling drone show that touches on “themes of nature and cosmic unity,” or so I’m told. It is undoubtedly a spectacle: a huge stag looks down on us and lowers its head, while a frog leaps from a lily pad towards a star. Performed by Skymagic, the company that put on the incredible drone display at the late Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations last year, the show keeps people in suspense.
The sun is finally coming out next Sunday – as if rewarding us for enduring the rain. In a word, it’s gorgeous. Over in the atrium, the Wilderness Orchestra lead a tear-stained audience with a rousing rendition of Nothing Compares to You in memory of Sinead O’Connor, who passed away just days before. Meanwhile, on the pitches at the annual Wilderness Cricket Tournament, disguised players reenact the recent Ashes 2023 series. The English team features King Charles III, a Just Stop Oil protester and Penny Mordaunt’s unforgettable coronation performance. Meanwhile, the Australian cohort consists of a young boy in a kangaroo suit, a budget Kylie Minogue and a Foster beer can as they vie for victory. Oh, and who can forget the speedsters? Penises, breasts and bums galore circle the cricket ground at regular intervals, sending roars of laughter and cheers from the spectators.
The weather is abysmal and the festival expensive (a bottle of Veuve Clicquot is £110 and a palm reading is £60) so it’s a true testament to the joys of the wild that almost everyone I speak to is still planning next year to come back. rain or shine.