My reflections on the Cheltenham based family festival
When asked to cover Wychwood Festival I had very little idea what to expect. This wasn’t a festival I had heard of before, although the line-up certainly showed promise, drawing big names like The Strangers, Graham Gouldman and Newton Faulkner, as well as Boomtown Rats. I was accompanied by the ever wonderful Sally, our newly appointed Voice Socialisation Coordinator, to go and see what was going on. We were only able to attend the Friday, although Wychwood extended over the whole weekend.
After arriving in Cheltenham Spa, and overcoming the slight confusion with the buses, we arrived at Cheltenham Racecourses, the location of the 3 day event. After getting our press accreditation we ventured off into the mildly unknown in search of hidden gems, unexposed talent and to generally get a feel of what Wychwood is about.
The first thing that hit us upon getting to the arena was how quiet everything was. It had just gone 1pm on the Friday, and some stalls were still setting up, and even some of the stages didn’t seem completely ready for prime time. The whole affair felt quite laid back, like there was no real rush or urgency. It was refreshing. I later discovered that there was torrential rain the day before, preventing some people from finishing preparations. There was some lingering rain, sporadically making people gravitate towards the stages under cover, but on the whole we were lucky.
Having previously attended Latitude and Reading, the difference in number of attendees at Wychwood was noticeable. After spending some time there, I realised that I was mistaken in my comparison. I entered Wychwood expecting a festival to rival Latitude, but now I don’t believe that is their end goal. Latitude has seen extensive growth year on year for the 8 years it has been running, but it has now gotten to that size where the family focus is only one part of a festival increasingly attracting teenagers and twenty-somethings looking for a good time. Wychwood, on the other hand, has been nominated Best Family Festival in the UK Festival Awards every year.
Wychwood has been running for 10 years, and it has still retained that close-knit, family orientated festival feel. Parents are more than happy to leave their children in a drumming workshop while they go for a regression session in the tent next door, or enjoy drinks in the outdoor spa. You are still allowed to bring alcohol on site, suggesting that the crowd are well behaved, and under control.
As the day progressed, the crowds did pick up. Perhaps it was linked to the improving weather, or, more likely, people were getting off from work and heading over to enjoy the laid back festival atmosphere. The various stages and tents started to attract crowds of people, until you were finally faced with the struggle of every festival – moving from one side of the site to the other. It was nice, it was familiar, and in a strange way it was homely.
I entered Wychwood expecting a Latitude rival, but I left feeling that instead I had found Latitude from yesteryear, with its family roots still very much intact, and a crowd that is of comfortable size. The diverse range of entertainment is present in both, but Wychwood felt more grassroots. This is not to say Latitude has gone wrong in some way, but it’s clear that both have ideas on how to attract their target audience see this page. For Latitude you go for the big names, and painted sheep. Wychwood, I feel, you go for an enjoyable atmosphere, a few large names, but many local and unknown acts surprising you with their talent and tenacity. This is a festival to unwind at, float around and sample a little of everything, instead of frantically running from one stage to another to try and see that next big name.
I firmly believe that festivals iterate year on year, learning from previous runs and slowly maturing. I can’t speak observationally for Wychwood, being a first timer to their event, but I got the impression while talking to other attendees that Wychwood has gone through the same process, incrementally improving year on year, never rushing to rapidly expand, and subsequently retaining what is quintessential about it. It’s a small festival, with a large presence, and a lot to say for itself.