Cheltenham is famous for lots of things: horse racing, beautiful regency architecture, great restaurants and festivals. Each year, the town nestled in the heart of the Cotswolds, plays host to a whole range of festivals from jazz to science and from food to poetry. Having lived in Cheltenham for the last four years, I can say with confidence that one my favourite festivals held here is Wychwood.
Wychwood takes place every year and is set within the grounds of Cheltenham Racecourse. By this, I don’t mean that you camp out on the track or pitch your tent next to final fence. The festival takes place in the grounds surrounding the track. In many ways the racecourse is the perfect location for a festival as it comes fully equipped with all the facilities such as electricity, water, toilets etc. Phew!
Wychwood advertises itself as being family friendly boutique festival, which I would say is a pretty accurate description. There are activities for all the family (parents and kids) throughout the whole weekend and Wychwood brings together an eclectic selection of music, comedy, art, poetry and craft for a fun packed weekend. There were also lots of workshops to enjoy: making mosaic mirrors, making clay sculptures, Zumba, tribal drumming and even belly dancing. Even as a 20 something, without any children I had an absolute blast, showing its universal appeal.
From the moment I arrived on site, I picked up on the festival’s unique vibes: a little peaceful bubble that is perfectly safe. There were lots of younger children roaming around quite happily without their parents having to fret over them. It also meant you didn’t have to worry about someone stealing your camera, iPhone or beer money. The festival is also all really close together, which is great as you don’t have to plan in extra time to get from one stage to another. The Wychwood site also has a real bohemian feel to it, with lots of flags and bunting, kitsch food outlets, and no festival would be complete without some tipis! Also in the arena there were hot tubs, where (for a small charge) you could enjoy acts on the main stage while relaxing in waist deep in bubbles. This is a great idea; I just wish I’d have packed my bikini.
Over the weekend I experienced a whole range of things, including music from lots of different genres, great comedy, poetry, craft and I even enjoyed some of the kid’s entertainment. So here are some of my highlights of the weekend, as we would be here all day if I wrote about everything I saw. There was just so much going on!
Toploader have returned to the music world after having a few years on a break. Having heard them being interviewed for onsite radio Wychwood FM (run by students at the University of Gloucestershire) it is clear that the Toploader boys have not reformed just for the money or fame. They reformed as they love making music and performign, and this was apparent in their show at Wychwood. Toploader’s sound was really crisp and tight, their performance was faultless. The crowd went crazy for hit single ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’ and I enjoyed a little boogie in the setting sun. I hadn’t realised that this anthem of a song is in fact a cover of an earlier King Harvest version. Toploader also showcased some of their newer material including a single called ‘Only Human’ which has lots of classic Toploader-style piano but takes more of a ballad form.
After the music finishes each day, Wychwood in association with e-Festivals puts on a whole range of comedians. Most of these comedians are not suitable for children, but all the comics I saw made sure they warned parents that their material may be unsuitable for young-uns. One of my favourite comedians I saw on the Friday night was Carly Smallman. Carly’s style of comedy is really honest and she made lots of jokes about her life, social status and her outfit (wearing pyjama like trousers pictured above). Carly also sings catchy comedy songs including a touching song called ‘Auntie’ written for her niece. I also really enjoyed James Alderson’s set about his driving antics and his regime for a ‘monkey bath.’ A monkey bath is basically the range of strange noises including various ape like ohh’s and ahh’s, you make when getting into a bath where the water is too hot. I love comedy at festivals, as it’s a great way to chill out after a busy day watching music and the comedy at Wychwood went down very well with the crowd each night.
SamSam Bubbleman is billed as most famous bubbleologist in the World. SamSam did certainly not disappoint, the children absolutely loved it and were all dying to get up on stage and join in. There were also lots of adults (including myself) who thoroughly enjoyed SamSam’s routine. SamSam put people inside giant bubbles, made shaped bubbles and even created a bubble storm. It was mesmerizing to watch the bubbles being created and his performance put a big smile on the audience’s faces. I think there is just something about bubbles that brings out the inner child in everyone.
Sweet William is a group of young musicians from the Oxford area, who took to the BBC Introducing stage. William Healey, who has the most amazing hair I’ve ever seen, fronts Sweet William. He has a beautifully soft voice, which is complimented by the slight folky/dreamy guitar sound the band have. Halfway through the set the band got off the stage and came and performed amongst the crowd, it was a very memorable experience being up close and personal to them. Their track ‘Alaska’ has a great singalong feel and I had it stuck in my head for some time after. If you like male singer/song writers like Benjamin Francis Leftwich then Sweet William will right up your street. These boys are going to be big so watch out.
Public Service Broadcasting
I had heard lots about PSB on BBC 6Music and I know that Tom Robinson is a big fan, so I was super excited to get the chance to see PSB live at Wychwood. In case you are not familiar with PSB they take old film samples from public information films and set them to new music. Their live setup was amazing with a giant retro TV taking pride of place on the stage. Front man J. Willgoose Esq. and Wrigglesworth (drummer) both looked very dapper wearing Dr. Who inspired outfits. Their set started with ‘London Can Take It’, a track that is defined by samples taken from video footage of Britain in wartime. Underpinning these iconic sounds of 40s London is a great synthesized tune with added banjo. The track ‘Signal 30’ also went down really well with the audience as it has a foot-stomping, more upbeat rocky sound to it. The accompanying visuals for ‘Signal 30’ show a car race and various crashes. My favourite track of their incredible set was ‘Everest’ which has a softer almost indie feel to it. The footage that fits with the song shows the brave explorers that conquered Everest all those years ago. Also PSB do not speak to the audience in a conventional manner, all of the interaction with the audience takes place through a vocoder. PSB are the sort of band that you find hard to put into words and I would through recommend seeing them: words simply cannot describe their unusual style.
The Human League
Anyone that knows me knows how obsessed I am with the Human League, so I could barely contain my excitement about finally getting to see them at Wychwood. The arena was packed out for the Human League’s headline slot on the Saturday night. The Human League opened with ‘Mirror Man’ which was met which great applause from the excitable crowd. Phil Oakey had a Matrix vibe to his opening outfit wearing dark rounded glasses and a long leather coat. As ever Joanne and Susan (the backing singers and integral part of the band) looked glamorous as ever in sassy black dresses. The Human League played a range of their hits including some of my favourite songs from ‘Dare’ including ‘Love Action’ and ‘Sound of the Crowd’.
Each song had its own visual projection that was roughly related to the song, such as ‘Seconds’ had big clock faces counting down second by second (see above). The Human League really put on a good show and you could tell they have perfected their act after countless years touring the globe. They also played songs from their most recent studio album and the track ‘Night People’ really stood out as one of the best songs in the set. Obviously the crowd went crazy for their hit single ‘Don’t You Want Me’ and as I looked around I saw the crowd was made up of a real mix of people. There were older people who clearly were original fans from 1977, people in their 20s/30s and even young people all singing along. There are not many bands that have such a diverse fan base and I put this down to the Human League’s timeless sound of poppy synthesizers and iconic vocals.
Craig Charles is a man of many talents, he is obviously very well known for acting career having appeared in Red Dwarf and Coronation Street. He was also the voice of Robot Wars for many years. Craig now has a weekly funk and soul radio show on BBC 6Music. As you entered the big top it was more like entering a club than a festival tent, as everyone young and old was boogieing away. Craig played tune after tune including some Jackson 5, which really got the crowd in frenzy. It was great watching Craig DJ as you could see how passionate he is about music, from the look on his face. His energy and excitement was infectious and the atmosphere during his set was awesome.
Kitten & Bear
Kitten and Bear are a brother and sister duo from Cirencester and were selected to appear at Wychwood by BBC Introducing within Gloucestershire. Katy has a very delicate yet haunting voice, which made the tent fall silent. Throughout all their tracks a slight delay was added to her voice, which gave their songs a real unique sound. They are a very stripped back band and simply rely on the beautiful simplicity of a female vocal and guitar and piano.
Bill Bailey also performed on Sunday night at Wychwood and I am absolutely gutted that I had to miss this. But I’ve heard lots of great things about his performance and hopefully some clips will appear on YouTube soon.
Overall I had a fantastic weekend, especially with the glorious weather, I am definitely looking forward to returning in years to come :) If and when I do decide to have children I will definitely be taking them to Wychwood! Tickets for next year’s festival are on sale now too.