A unique festival experience, where live music meets Arcadia.
Along a narrow country lane, an hour and a half outside London, a handwritten A4 paper sign indicates that we have reached our destination: “In the Woods”
As the modest sign suggests, this is a small, low-key festival. So low-key in fact, that it is more like a private party, with only 500 tickets available and the secret woodland location only being revealed to ticket-holders a few days before the event.
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The one-day festival, arranged by the Laurel Collective, originated as a small gathering for their friends, however now in its 6th year it has grown to accommodate a larger public audience. The entire event takes place in a small area of woodland and an adjoining field. The field plays host to the campsite, bonfire, silent disco and cinema tent and a rather impressive hog roast, while two paths lead into the woods where a bar and, more importantly, the stages are found.
Throughout the day, the acts are split across two stages; the Laurel Lounge, a marquee squeezed under overhanging trees in a clearing, and The Quarry, the main stage erected at the front of a small dell which forms a natural arena, even sporting log seating on the opposite incline. The stage times are alternate so navigating clashes is not an issue and the site is small enough to skip between the stages in seconds. The line-up is largely made-up of breaking bands, with a few familiar veterans on the bill (including the Laurel Collective’s own set), which bridges an eclectic mix of genres, from folk to hip-hop.
Entering the woods for the first time is a little bit like stepping into a surreal dream. Lampshades hang between trees, straw bales and fallen branches form seating areas and tree trunks are adorned with knitted jackets. Even the most eccentric hipster ‘look’ appears to be more at home here than back in native East London. Although there is a certain exclusivity to this event, it isn’t a pretentious affair, instead there is a sense that you are all privileged to be privy to this secret party. Watching a band play while streams of sunlight burst through the woodland canopy gives the festival a wonderful Arcadian quality. This is the complete antithesis to the likes of V or Reading and Leeds festivals, which are saturated with corporate sponsorship and mainstream press coverage.
While the day has been bathed in golden summer sunlight, it is at dusk that the festival really comes to life. The woods are illuminated by an array of electric light, creating a beautiful spectacle. Bulbs are strung between the trees overhead to light the pathways below, while coloured ground lights illuminate the forest canopy. An arrangement of white cubes sitting rather conspicuously on a slope suddenly come alive with projected images and hanging glass jars emit the yellow glow of artificial candles.
It is easy to get caught up in the grandeur of the surroundings, but there is also the matter of live music to consider. Despite being such a small festival there is no shortage of bands to see, with live acts running from 12.30pm to 11pm. Peter and Kerry on the Laurel Lounge stage are a particularly welcome discovery at a festival synonymous with showcasing new talent. Their folky style with sweet melodies and vocal harmonies produce quite a hypnotic performance. In the Woods regulars, Pete and the Pirates are another highlight with their upbeat indie-pop providing a worthy accompaniment to the sampling of the hog roast, which just so happens to be ready at the same time. However, it is Man Like Me that prove to be an act not to miss. The genre blending trio that encompass indie, ska, rap and electro, play a knock-out set that really gets the crowd animated. Although I am not a particular fan, the atmosphere they generate at the Quarry stage is one of the best of the night. Despite being faced with the difficult task of following the boisterous Man Like Me, Lucy Rose successfully slows the tempo with her beautiful folk melodies. The singer and her band produce the sort of dreamy folk music really befitting of the idyllic forest surrounding.
Following the live acts, the silent disco and cinema tents open and at midnight the bonfire is lit. By this point the local cider has taken its toll and I next find myself waking up fully clothed in my tent at 5am. The fire has died out, the port-a-loos are at full capacity, and a pig’s head from the hog roast is lying on the ground next to my tent. All signs point to it being a truly amazing festival.
Speaking to other festival goers, there is a general concern for the festival’s ability to maintain its intimate and unique feel if it continues to grow in popularity. With the festival as unspoilt and natural as its setting, it possesses enough of the ‘cool’ factor to attract heavyweight advertisers and sponsorship. However, assuming that ticket numbers remain limited, and the organisers keep their independent ethos, the festival will be preserved. The moment the biodegradable cups are replaced by ones advertising well-known brands of cider it may be in trouble. As it is, the sense of freedom is incomparable to most other music events, to the point that the presence of security guards begins to seem incongruous. There are no large metal fences as is standard at larger festivals, just polite signs advising you where you aren’t meant to go. In a true festival spirit it seems there is an unspoken consensus at In the Woods, everyone is just here to have a good time.