A NOT SO SECRET GARDEN PARTY

Fifteen years ago a few hundred people gathered together near the village of Abbots Ripton in Cambridgeshire, for a private party thrown by the landowner for his friends. From these humble beginnings sprung a party which would redefine the Great British festival experience beyond recognition, shaping the lives of those involved in it’s production, and providing a sensory overload to all those who walked through it’s gates. It was, after all, a serious party.

This year at the end of July Secret Garden Party closed it’s gates for the last time, as over 30,000 people descended on the soaked fenlands for one last hurrah before committing it to the history books.

It was my first time in the fray, given that our very own festival Noisily takes place just two weeks before, and the idea of spending another weekend in a field when still in the process of removing the mud of Leicestershire from my cuticles, was never appealing. However because my event equipment hire company provided tents, audio and lighting there, I was well acquainted with the site.

We arrived on Friday morning with our caravan in tow, the sun reflecting off our bonnet as we navigated slowly round the festival site to the farthest reaches of the campervan field. Unhitched, we set down the stabalisers on our Abi Ambassador and made straight for The Woods where I was scheduled to play at 1pm, having been invited by curator, great friend and veritable cosmonaut, Ben Zaven Crane.

The Woods was special. I instantly felt the vibe, probably something to do with the thousands of feet which had leveled it’s woodland floor over the years, dancing to the deep melodic grooves of seminal electronica delivered by countless artists from the rustic DJ booth.

Fabio Garces, a Colombian musician who aside from his down tempo Techno specialises in Sound Healing and Sonic Enchantment, was playing before me and warming up the floor with precision. We had met Fabio earlier in the year to interview him about his practices, ahead of his involvement in our Mind Body Soul area at Noisily. He seemed both younger and older than his years, with an almost childlike intrigue in everything he was presented with, yet at the same time a wise and worldly head that offered sage rationale on life, the universe, and everything.

My set went really well, and when my 90 minutes came to a close the dancefloor was full and the crowd smiling almost as much as I was. The chap who followed had opted to play something entirely different from his usual fare as per Soundcloud, and as a result he dulled the vibe somewhat and we ejected to explore the rest of the festival.

Hot tubs, fairground rides, secret venues, not so secret stages, epic scratching and razor sharp shapes on The Dance Off. Crystal Fighters, waterborne pedalos and Pagodas, life drawing of nubile models and Bearded Kittens stuffing multiple Berocca’s into willing participants mouths. Gay bars and art cars, and people people everywhere! There really was a hell of a lot going on, an onslaught to the senses, and the final theme of “Celebrity” was an ironically wry nod to what the festival had become. It was definitely not a Secret Garden Party anymore.

As night fell a very strange energy enveloped the festival site. Thousands of unsavoury people who embodied the antithesis of the easy going, laid back atmosphere SGP was famed for, descended on the site with bags of drugs and bad attitudes. Honestly, I have never seen so many completely wasted munters in one place, and I’ve been to Reading. It was only once, and I don’t want to talk about it…

We sloshed forth through the rain, Flo, myself and our friend Chloe, holding onto each other for dear life as we dodged hoards of drunk yobs. One incident in particular remains vivid in my mind, as three shirtless guys pissed out of their heads trashed a sign and table in front of a food traders shop, chucked their empty beer cans on the floor and ran off into the night. A couple of well meaning people set about picking up the pieces, the laughter of the perpetrators echoing amongst the sound clash as they disappeared without an iota of remorse.

We marched on, deciding to take refuge from the crowds and rain in Chloe’s tent. If ever there was a definitive moment to cite pathetic fallacy, this was it, and as we took off our wet clothes the usually comforting sound of rain on canvas, became uncharacteristically soporific. That said, we were happy, just a little taken aback by what we had seen, taking note of what can happen when something extraordinary grows beyond its own sustainability.

Saturday was another day, and the sun rose up in the sky. The crazy and excited energy of Friday night had been replaced by a more relaxed, in-the-swing-of-things vibe, and we walked around site bumping into old friends and new. The Love Bus was inspired, a truly psychedelic experience laced with nudity and flowers, and the mantra “Drop Acid not Bombs” emblazoned on the windscreen. A crowd of SGP originals meditating outside, as love and laughter visibly seeped out of the windows and through the door.

That evening we went back of house, spending our time in the loins of The Italian Kitchen, Burger Theory and Jackfruit Clothing, all old friends and traders at Noisily too. It was amazing to hear stories from their own Secret Gardens, of moments at the festival that had provided affirmation and realisation in swathes, and cemented friendships which would endure far beyond the confines of The Garden. It dawned on me then, surrounded by all this fond retrospect, that it was in these relationships that the legacy of The Secret Garden Party would live on long after the festival itself becomes a distant memory.

I myself owe it an unpayable debt of gratitude, as eight years ago my fellow Noisily founder Lachie, who cut his teeth there under the tutelage of James Brennan, worked alongside Flo. When we decided to curate a Mind Body Soul area at the festival he put her name forward as the person for the job. Cut to two years later and we’re engaged to be married. So as you can see, the not-so Secret Garden has a lot to answer for!

All good things must come to an end, because if they don’t, they generally aren’t good anymore. But for all the trashiness of the final flourish, there was still magic to be found, and it lives on in the core crew whose intentions remain unwavering. To create a Serious Party wherever they may be.

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