That Secret Garden Party 2011 sold out rapidly is again indicative of just how exceptional a festival it is. Not only an across-the-board critic favourite, this dazzlingly immersive celebration of creative freedom and British eccentricity inspires fervour in just about every person who has ever been. It has inevitably and immensely swelled in popularity since its 2004 inception – from a 12,500 to a 26,000 capacity for all four days. And though a midget compared to the higgeldy-piggledy enormousness of Glastonbury, SGP certainly rivals the Pilton daddy in its sheer decadent brilliance.
Day and night, the Cambridgeshire manor-house grounds – splayed in a picture-postcard setting complete with swimming lake – throb in a rainbow-hewn melange of vivid mirages (by night, huge trees are lit up with pink, blue and yellow neon, looming like large dripping piles of luminous ice cream), bizarre side-shows and spontaneous acts of love and kindness.
Among the haystacks of the Collo-silly-um, girls are getting down and dirty for mud wrestling. Across the lake on the Feast of Fools, a re-enactment of Victorian bare-knuckle fist-fight is in full flow. All weekend, the honky-tonk Dance Off stage pumps out cheese and ridiculous mash-ups. It’s an unabashed fancy-dress re-imagining of MTV’s 90s dance spectacle, ‘The Grind’. Operas, funeral burials, beat-box battles and naked dances all unfurl with ludicrously gay abandon too. It’s a saucy, baffling, intriguing and intoxicating brew.
Despite the festival’s penchant for inane frolics, there is a serious, thought-provoking side on offer too. On Saturday afternoon, The Forum tent is packed for Ben Goldacre’s (The Guardian’s ‘Bad Science’ columnist) rousing and irreverent talk on the shadiness and smokescreens that brings drug industry into disrepute. Elsewhere, a Buddhist monk meditates on how we can awaken our Buddha minds through lucid dreaming.
Generally, music plays as a background soundtrack to the swirling, carnival-esque madness. The organisers encourage punters to not get hung up on ‘must-sees.’ Nevertheless, there is a pleasing range of styles on offer. And talent abounds, especially on the smaller stages: Bristol-based Disraeli and the Small Gods (7/10) and London busker, Brooke Sharkey (8/10) – the former get Chai Wallahs bouncing on Friday afternoon with a conscientious set of jazz-tinged folk-hop; the latter invokes the gritty streets of both London and Paris in her starry-eyed folk melancholia on the Small World stage.
On the banks of the lake lies the ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ stage, a stunningly sculptured knot of tree branches. On Saturday, there’s a packed crowd for Beans on Toast (6/10), a goggle-eyed Essex scamp, who bumbles his way through druggy country jams entitled ‘M.D.M.Amazing’ and ‘Hippie Crack’. Back on the Small World stage, Zen Elephant (7/10) gets the tent a-skankin’ to their infectiously vibrant, up-tempo folk.
Over the weekend, the main stage has a lot to get excited about too, despite its poorly engineered PA set up. On Saturday evening, the main-stage bowl is heaving for new wave legends Blondie (6/10), who play a tight, straight-ahead, no-frills set of glass-hearted punk-pop classics including ‘Atomic’, ‘One Way Or Another’, and the Roy Orbison-esque chug of ‘Maria’.
As night falls, and the Dragon Fly stage is ceremoniously razed to the ground in true Apocalypse Now fashion, dub-techno pioneers Leftfield (8/10) rinse out a dark, spooky and pummelling set of progressive house. Set closer ‘Phat Planet’ rumbles the crowd into what looks like mass hysteria. The festival is crowned with an inspiring piece of programming in the imposing shape of Motown legend, Martha Reeves (9/10). Joined by her two sisters, Lois and Delphine, and a nine-piece band, she belts out a set of copper-bottomed soul classics, still as fresh and as invigorating as the mid-60s. Reeves’s voice cuts with intense passion on ‘Jimmy Mack’, a swinging ode to a lover who never returned from Vietnam.
Despite its rapid growth, the Secret Garden Party still remains an intimate hedonistic playground, a dream-like idyll where your deepest and strangest desires can be fulfilled at every dazzling turn.