Posted by: pascoesabido | August 8, 2008

A Very Secret Garden Party

Secret Garden Party @ Secret Garden, Cambridgeshire, 24-27 July 2008
[Data Transmission]

Considering how many people know of the Secret Garden Party – tucked away on an estate in Cambridgeshire – does it still justify the illustrious name? One weekend in the Garden and the ‘secret’ part is obvious: even those that were there aren’t sure what really happened, and any attempt to explain what went on is met with quizzical frowns and nods that say “don’t worry deary, a good night’s sleep and a cup of camomile will make you right as rain”. Can those that didn’t experience it really be blamed for not believing burning pirate ships, gangs of human ostriches, and psychedelic gypsy knights who have a soft spot for folk music? The mix of the weird, wacky, warped, and wonderful – all within an intimate and imaginative site – surely make for the year’s most fun-filled festival. Let’s just hope it remains a secret.

Magic surrounds the Secret Garden Party, from being greeted at the entrance by human colouring pencils or aristocratic grannies serving cream on a stick to the troupe of misbehaving glow-worms and their despairing master. Dressing up also adds to it: mankini-wearing taxi-drivers shuttle people around the grounds in their inflatable vehicles whilst ensuring they avoid the herds of zebra-people; but the magic goes well beyond dressing up – every aspect of the site is given its own wacky twist, and anyone with an idea is encouraged to bring it to the party and share it with fellow gardeners. Laundrettas – “a 1970s disco dating parlour with a twist” – sits along side Sparkly Nutz – “the most unusual Teddy Bear’s picnic on the globe” – to lure in the lost and curious. To see everything would need more than the allotted four days, but just being in and around the eccentricity fills the site with a unique brand of fairy dust. And then there’s the music: Adam Freeland and Zero 7 playing to a packed pirate ship; J*Star, Man Like Me, and Gentleman’s Dub Club causing the Valley of the Antics to erupt; Grace Jones, Morcheeba, and the Head Gardener illuminating the Great Stage, to name but a few.

The Lake

The site, despite being modest in size, is perfectly divided by nature (and a bit of landscape gardening) so that each part contains its own secrets. The central lake is so effectively shielded by trees – themselves decorated in various artistic expressions – that the floating pirate ship stage within purveys its own little world of high-sea shenanigans. The Pagoda is the other stage fortunate enough to have lake access, splaying out across the water from the east shore to put a spring in the step of any who dare walk its boards. Benny Bridgewater livens up the Friday with eclectic booty-wigglers, while Freddy Drabble provides a similar service on the sunny Sunday lunch-time for those still dancing. The intimate size of both stages limits how many get to see Adam Freeland and Zero 7, but those that manage it can feel privy to a collective secret. If a visit to the pirate ship isn’t achieved by Saturday, the opportunity literally goes up in smoke that evening as the planned blaze leaves only the masts still standing. The spectacle provides another group focus, the burning ship accompanied by fireworks and a flotilla of lanterns that float off into the night –yet further cause for group ‘aaaah’s.

The North Shore

North of the lake finds stalls, tents, and other obscure attractions that have turned up on site. One open-air workshop has children selling objects fashioned out of waste so successfully they have Derrick Trotter salivating: one plastic-box-hamster-house, “Come on guys, £2.00 for this unique item, one of a kind – what a BARGAIN!!” Final selling price 97p. Further along, the Circle of Peace provides exactly that, while a special Hula Hoop zone offers all takers the chance to acquire new skills – or those watching an opportunity for a sneaky giggle. The Waste Radio team have also established camp, broadcasting news, reviews, interviews, and general tunes from their red caravan, as well as stoking the after-party. The wealth of activities on offer means that most tents only get a look in, but The Gateway, The Living Room, and La Fée Absinthe – as well as a jazz band called Scarlett – all deserve a mention. For those with their wits about them, a wide selection of mental stimulation happily mingles with the madness: the Conspiracy Corner hosts an ex-MI5 agent while Rosie Robinson in the Science Camp explains ‘The Beauty of Fluid Dynamics’. Confusion can only follow.

Main Stage and the South Shore

Traversing the lake (unfortunately on a walkway as my Jesus-skills are as yet undeveloped), the Great Stage belts out an eclectic selection all weekend, beginning every day with Head Gardener Freddy and following with some rather special acts. Grace Jones amazes all onlookers on the Saturday night as she shakes her Amazonian booty, oozing the sass and sexiness that has developed over her 56 years. Morcheeba bring some entertainment on the Sunday, but mainly confusion as friends exchange puzzled looks, swearing that the current song they’re playing is exactly the same as the last? Past the Granny’s Tea Party and along the embankment, the Feast of Fools awaits: here, Bloodstone Arts “bring to life the spirit of Merry England” through an array of music, dance, jest and play. Jonathan Kay, director of the Nomadic Academy of Fools, perfectly demonstrates how to break down barriers and release inhibition as he slowly cajoles an unwitting group of watchers into bona fide ostriches who shout ‘FUCK OFF!!’ on command – he who controls the mob controls the world.

The Valley of Antics

Over the embankment and down the hill leads us to the Valley of Antics, hosted by Wormfood, Man Make Music, and Deviate. Aside from the wild interiors and extrovert garden, the stage’s musical line-up supplies enigmatic diversity, interest, and of course entertainment, sending any before them into babbling benevolence. Crystal Fighters take to Friday’s stage in unkempt fashion, thrashing their take on dubbed-up funk through a jumping audience; their rawness screaming down the microphone and bursting out the speakers. Man Like Me, on a few hours later, summon even bigger noises: the unconventional trio cheekily combine with a trombone to emphasise their quirky calypsoed electronica. Saturday witnesses Natty and then the Gentleman’s Dub Club sending rumbles through the crowd; the 10-piece live band use every instrument at their disposal as well as a microphone mastered into submission by Jila, their emcee and raconteur. Sunday? You wouldn’t expect any less as Peggy Sue and the Pirates folk-it-up before making way for Linos and the Great Apes, a Zimbabwean reggae band – and the DJs haven’t even been mentioned: let’s just say they provided more than mere interludes, Man Make Music bringing all manner of tech-house to the tent. Too much entertainment for one small space.

Beyond the Antics

And there was more. The Dance Rocks tent hosted the Whips and the Infadels on Saturday, as well as a rather disappointing Kissy Sell Out – instead of pleasing the crowds with his much-loved remixes and floor-stomping selection, he got all celebrity and used the stage to promote his tediously boring band. No dancing, no fun, no good music, just cheesy American teenybopper vocals. But it’s not as if there’s nothing else to listen to: the Fish Seeks Bicycle tent – run by the SGP veterans – provides everything from ska to swing, house to horns, and to top it off, conveniently has a Moorish North African canteen next-door to banish hunger with style, legendary amongst anyone who has lived in Hyde Park, Leeds.

The last main stage, and certainly not the least, is Where The Wild Things Are: curated by Freddy the Head Gardener (and organiser of the entire festival), it sits among a tree house and a host of hammocks playing anything from ‘raggamuffin riffs’ (Hi 5 Alive) to ‘long haired French electro glam jam’ (Ratatat). Sunday evening stands out though; Lykke Li, a Swedish bombshell who specialises in electro pop brings the house down with a rather unexpected cover: the instantly-recognisable rift of Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side is played out by the band, Li takes to the mike – and pow – out of her mouth comes Q-Tip’s words of wisdom, rapping with force to the Tribe Called Quest’s Can I Kick It? Florence and the Machine follow, cranking it up with their grindcore, but to close the Party, someone special is needed: up step Noah And The Whale. Sporting a seven-piece band – including a trombone and a violin – the boys bring the seated crowd to their feet, driving energy through their drifting folk music that threatens to thrash. Their recently released Five Years Time was rapturously received, the crowd whistling away with smiles on their faces – some even shedding a tear after a roller-coaster weekend. That it most certainly was.

A serene setting with copious amounts of entertainment and inspiration in every sight one beholds, the Secret Garden Party has it all. And there was even a rumour circulating that there was a Secret Secret Garden somewhere beyond the map, but alas too many distractions to find anything intentionally. It will be interesting to see whether the magic can be retained and the right crowds kept – if such positive things continue to circulate the way they have been for the last few years, SGP tickets will be as hard to get hold of as fairy dust.



  1. I am from Cambridge, I will go there at a certain point! So far I went to see Noah and the WHale in London, so you may like their set on liveon35mm


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