Playback: Secret Garden Party 2017

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Last month in Cambridgeshire, we saw the 15th and final Party in the Secret Garden.
It was a serious party.

From it’s beginning, it has helped to redefine what a music festival is. Sure you had many other music festivals at the time of the first SGP, but none of them had quite the ethos that Secret Garden Party had. It was never just about the music. There was more of a collaborative vibe at Secret Garden Party. It’s not about you listening and consuming a pre-determined experience prescribed by the festival organizers…. you are invited to help define the experience. Everyone is a part of creating the experience.

That’s why there is such a strong collective and collaborative vibe at SGP. Whether it’s learning about anti-gravity yoga from a man in a space suit, staging a skinny dipping lake race, or having a dance-off in a boxing ring with a man dressed like a chicken, it’s the people that create the unique vibe in the garden. They are the gardeners, cultivating the slightly hedonistic, art skewed festival that makes up the Secret Garden party. It’s an event where just about nothing is off-limits and the only rule is that anything you have to do needs to be done with love.

It’s the kind of vibe that you find more easily created in smaller groups, but everyone involved with Secret Garden Party (organizers and participants alike) have managed to scale this model up to the tens of thousands. It’s a testament to Freddie Fellowes… the man who started the Secret Garden Party. “The Head Gardener” as many people who know him well address the man. “The parties you remember are to do with the people you meet,” says Fellowes as he walks around the festival with his signature cowboy hat decorated with local foliage. “A really great party engineers scenarios where people talk to each other despite being English, reserved and terminally embarrassed or shy. The best way to engineer that is getting people involved and giving people ownership of the party.”

Looking back as the last Secret Garden Party comes to a close, I’d like to reflect on some of the best things that happened inside the garden in 2017. From the road trip through the countryside to the very last song played on the Great Stage, here are the 10 best things about Secret Garden Party 2017:


The Saturday Fireworks

As a newcomer to SGP, I was learning a lot of things as I got here. Everyone seemed to know where everything was, who everyone was and what to do. In that sense, it really was like a party. The Saturday fireworks for example. I don’t remember seeing them in the schedule, but everyone seemed to know that on Saturday at a certain time, there will be fireworks.

Firework Plane photo by Andrew Whitton
The first signs of fireworks was when I was walking back to the Great Stage from the Secret Forest and saw a massive glider plain with fireworks attached to its wings. At first I thought it was just one lone firecracker that slowly rose up in the sky and then started sparkling back down to earth. I did a double take when rather than fizzling out, the sparks decided to make a loop and reach for the sky again. “What magic is this!” I said as people around me began to notice the sorcery in the sky.

On closer inspection, you could make out that someone had mounted what looked like giant sparklers on the wings of a glider plane. It was pretty incredible.

Photo by Gemma Batterby

After the spotting the magical glider plane, I made my way to get some food. The sun had gone down and the light was fading and I noticed that everyone started walking towards the lake. It was almost tribal. As everyone gathered around, the music from all over the grounds started to die down until it was just the chatter of people around the lake. It was quite surreal actually. Then the fireworks began. The entire lake was awash with colour and sound. People were arm-in-arm with tears with the knowledge that this would be the last ever SGP.

It was one of the many last goodbyes from the garden to its faithful gardeners.


The House on the Lake

House on the lake

Secret Garden Party has become known for it’s location around a lake. Every year a new carefully crafted floating installation is built on the lake to go along with the theme of the festival. Whether it’s a floating pyramid stage or an entire armada of pirate ships, SGP has always surprises it’s visitors with something spectacular in the water.

This year was no exception with what looked like a miniature replica of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort built out on the island. Complete with dollar signs, expensive car and gaudy decorations.

But the artists behind the installation had something more than just a pretty sculpture planned this year.

On Saturday night after the fireworks had finished and people where slowly making there way away from the lake, there was a loud bang from within the house. “Shit! something has gone wrong with one of the firework launchers” I thought.

Another bang from within the house quickly followed which blew out one of the windows. Everyone was paying attention now. Fire started to pour out of one of the windows of the replica of Trump’s house. Is this part of the show? or has something terrible gone wrong. Some people were standing around stunned, others were cheering for the downfall of this icon to the American President. Then another bang went off that you can feel in your chest and one whole side of the house came off. Fire consumed the entire building and a plume of smoke went into the night’s sky.

From within the frame of the burning house you could start to see a shape emerge. It was a heart. A huge flaming heart rising from the ashes of Mar-a-Lago. It was poetic. Love over money.

It was the perfect encore to an already amazing fireworks show.

Photo by James Cahill

Photo by Danny North

blowing up the house


Freddie Fellowes Spinning his Sunday Set

the_head_gardener Photo by Laura Palmer

Every year the Head Gardener, Freddie Fellowes plays an afternoon DJ set on the Great Stage. It’s the kind of “no-ego” feel-good DJ set that everyone can just party to. Add to that the fact that it was a very emotional celebration of the last ever Secret Garden Party and you have a recipe for and excellent few hours of music.

The Head Gardener: We Don’t Do VIP Rooms But If We Did, This Is What We’d Play.


Drug Testing with the Loop + Vice

Standing outside The Loop

Last year Secret Garden Party teamed up with The Loop and Vice to provide a drug testing service at the festival. Surprisingly this was one of the first times a festival has provided this kind of service in the UK. Understandably, this is quite a controversial subject but to me the goal seems pretty clear: keep everyone safe.

This year they brought the service back in attempt to help spread that message again. The way it worked was simple: bring a sample of your drugs to be tested by the on-site chemists. No judgements, not strings attached. Just an open conversation about the effects of drugs and a quick test to make sure there were no harmful chemicals in the drugs you were taking.

Every festival should do this.


Metronomy

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Metronomy are just wicked. Their sound lends itself to Summer idling but when they get on stage they make sure you dance your ass off. This was easily in the top three sets of the weekend.

Metronomy – I’m Aquarius


The Secret Sunflower Fields

Photo by Marcus Barnes

Secret Garden Party has an element of discovery to it. It’s a festival that rewards the curious. There were hidden stages, secret bars and all sorts of other festival “Easter Eggs” if you knew where to look. My favourite example of this was the hidden sunflower fields. YES! That’s right. There was a sunflower field hidden right in the middle of the festival. I passed by the door to the field dozens of times over the weekend but never took notice. Until Sunday when I was walking past and saw a flash of gold behind a group of people emerging from the door.

When I tried to enter there was a bouncer their restricting access. “What’s behind that door” I asked. “It’s a secret” came the answer. I asked how I might get in, and it was simple: audition for entry. It could be anything, a dance move, a song, a poem….but you had to audition.

If you passed the audition, you were allowed to enter into a dark tunnel which opened (inexplicably) onto a vast field of sunflowers in the middle of the festival. What an incredible idea.

Photo by  Giles Smith


Crystal Fighters

Crystal Fighters on the Great Stage

There’s a reason why these guys were invited to headline.


The Art

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Most festivals now incorporate some kind of art alongside the music. Sculptures, installations, painting classes, talks….

Secret Garden Party has always done this quite well. From festival wide festivals of colour, to massive shark sculptures to an organ made out of multiple fire billows that everyone could collaboratively play on, there were all kinds of opportunities for expressing yourself.

My favourite bit of “art” around the site were these little black and white signs hanging up in random places. Some of them puns. Some of them just well placed. I’m not sure they were even created by SGP. I think I saw a band of rainbow coloured unicorns hanging one of the signs up at one point.

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The Lost Woods Disco

With a lineup including DJ sets from Maribou State, Zero 7 and the Head Gardener Freddie Fellowes himself, it was hard not to be drawn to The Lost Woods Disco. Not only do I particularly like seeing DJs in a forest, but the sound system in the Lost Woods was one of the best at SGP. The DJ booth was positioned at one side of a small circular clearing in the woods with the speakers positioned all around. It was one of those sound systems that was so perfectly tuned that you could still hear what the person next to you was saying but the music still sounded very loud. Like “feel it in your chest” loud.

One of the best sets on the Lost Woods Disco stage was a German DJ called Sam Goku. I don’t know if it was the setting sun, or the crowd in the woods at the time, but something about that set was my favourite that weekend. If you get the chance to see him live, I highly recommend seeing his “Sunset sounds from the Goku Man” set.

Radiohead – Everything in Its Right Place (Sam Goku Revision)


The many many many VW camper vans on site

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Last but not least, I noticed that the visitors to Secret Garden Party, more than any other festival I’ve been to, had a particular love for Volkswagen camper vans. There were literally dozens of VW vans. Every corner you turn there was another vee dub. New modern versions right down to vintage 60s ones. They all transformed in their own way: pop-up tops, expandable canvas sides, attachable vestibules.

Bonus Round

Here are some things Overheard at Secret Garden Party

“After this Red Lentil Dhal, let’s get on the acid.”

“Let the rain come down on your souls!”

“…and then I’m gonna kill the princess”

“It’s a silver thong! PUT IT ON PUT IT ON!”


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