I recently returned from a pleasant weekend at The Big Chill festival in Herefordshire. We had the best weather I’ve ever experienced at a festival - pretty much no rain whatsoever. The crowd were friendly and the music and comedy was excellent. But is slumming it at a festival for a long weekend of portaloos and sleep deprivation really worth the hassle? Have I grown out of festivals now, at the grand old age of 27? Read on to find out.
Me and Rachel left London at 11.30am for a long drive up the M4 via a torrential rainstorm - mercifully it turned out to be the only rain we had all weekend. Rachel’s H-reg Nissan Micra is a seasoned festival veteran - indeed in the picture below, in the top right, you can see that we’ve still not quite managed to remove the car parking sticker from Glastonbury 2007 (here’s my blog from the time).
The directions to the site on the car park ticket are nice and clear, and the festival is well signposted. We arrived at about 4pm, having not experienced any particularly bad traffic.
We parked up in the blue car park and were immediately surrounded by ticket touts and some kind of hippy beggar. It seemed that the Big Chill was living up to its name as far as their approach to security was concerned, which was a little worrying. But apart from those people, and a few conspicuous drug dealers wandering around the main site, it felt like a very safe festival and we didn’t have any problems.
We pitched our tent and later met up with my brother Matt and his friend, who is also called Matt. They were camping only a few yards from us as it turned out, in the blue camping area near the edge of the hill.
We went to explore the main arena. Unlike Glastonbury, the arena is separate to the camping areas, so you need to show your wristband, and you’re not allowed to take alcohol in. It is 24 hours though, unlike some other festivals I’ve been to where you had to queue up to get in in the morning.
There was not much happening entertainment-wise on Thursday evening, though the various food stalls were open. We checked out Mr. Scruff’s tea tent, where you could get a pot of tea served in a proper china tea set - very civilised for a festival, if slightly risky, hence the refundable deposit. For all the talk of being tea experts, it was a bit of a disappointment that they were only generous enough to stretch to one teabag for a pot for four people. If I’d wanted a cup of muddy water there was plenty available in the nearby lake.
As well as the tea tent, there were various stalls open where you could buy stupid hats:
There was a bit of a zombie theme to this year’s festival - people dressed up as zombies had been able to skip the queue for wristbands and there were some impressive costumes on display. The zombie brides were my favourite. There had been some kind of record-breaking mass zombie filming earlier in the day, and this impressive wicker zombie towered over the site:
Other visual spectacles available on Thursday, and throughout the weekend, included a post-apocalyptic drive-in cinema, full of abandoned cars which people could sit on or in. They were heavily graffiti’d by the end of the festival, possibly officially. Anyway I was quite impressed with these smoking lamp things around the edge of the drive-in:
There was a good selection of food available, and that night I had a tasty falafel. The drink selection was not great though - the only beer available was Amstel, so when I got sick of that (after one pint) I had a pear cider. Alas unlike Glastonbury there was no Brother’s pear cider so I had to make do with Kopparberg which is a bit sickly in comparison.
It gave me a splitting headache so we went back to the tent. The boys in the tent next door were ready to large it up and party hard, so I was thankful for earplugs and settled down for the first of three nights of uncomfortable and fractured sleep. I was beginning to wonder why I’d thought this would be a good idea.
Overnight the tent got very cold, only to rapidly turn into an oven at the first glimmer of sunrise. With a hangover it’s possible to lie there for quite a while, procrastinating, somehow not being bothered to open the tent as your entire body begins to evaporate. Eventually you give in and unzip the front, the paltry breeze only offering a small amount of relief. So then you play the procrastinating game with yourself again, until you finally summon the energy to get up and escape your sweltering canvas hell.
After a cursory clean with some wet wipes and a change of clothes, we went to get a cup of tea and a BLT from a converted Routemaster number 19 bus in our campsite. Just what the doctor ordered - it was a shame that they were so disorganised though, as the queues got quite long and for the rest of the weekend we couldn’t be bothered to go back.
The festival got underway properly and we saw a couple of acts on the Castle stage. The Leisure Society gave us a lovely chilled out beginning to the festival. They did a great cover of Cars by Gary Numan (there’s a YouTube video of them performing this elsewhere here). Then we saw James Yuill who somehow manages to be a singer-songwriter crossed with Aphex Twin.
We got some lemonade and sat in the shade for a bit. Some ducks waddled past - I don’t think I’ve ever seen ducks at a festival before. The scene looked very tranquil - but it would only be tranquil for the deaf. Even though we were quite some distance from the stages and bars, it felt like we could hear all of them at once from our position on the hill.
We got some decent fish and chips from the Seacow stall, then we went to spend the entire evening in the Big Chill Nights comedy tent. Ben Norris was compere, introducing acts Andy Askins (like a male Sarah Millican with bitter and twisted songs about his wife), Josie Long, Rob Deering, Alex Horne (none of his usual PowerPoint here, but he did have some technology on hand to help with his Justin Timerblake style human b-b-b-b-beatbox) and Wendy Wason (young bitter Scottish single mum with nicely sick material). Then the tent packed for Tim Minchin, and although his show was largely familiar to me from the show I saw on E4 a month or so ago, it was still hugely enjoyable. It was the first time I’ve seen his superb song “Taboo” all about the language of prejudice (YouTube link) - in my view the chorus should be made law! Lots of people left when Tim Minchin had finished, but more fool them as they should have stuck around for Robin Ince, who was excellent.
We then went to see Chris Cunningham’s AV set. Cunningham made his name directing videos for Aphex Twin and Squarepusher, so one could reasonably expect freaky visuals set to a soundtrack that was hardly easy listening. But it all seemed a bit too predictable to me - yeah, there’s some disturbing images on the screen, and yeah, this is a particularly harsh remix of something Aphex Twin shat out in his sleep about 10 years ago, but that was basically it. The music and visuals weren’t pleasant but they didn’t make up for it by being interesting either. Chris Cunningham was probably blowing the minds of stoned hippies who had wandered to the wrong field, but I found it just a bit dull.
We watched Basement Jaxx on the main stage for a few minutes, though I don’t really know their stuff and it didn’t grab me. So we wandered back to the tent, past some very conspicuous drug dealers who were dealing right next to the police compound. I was beginning to wonder whether I was just getting a bit old for this - the highlights of the day had been comedy, and that’s much better suited to venues that have walls, solid floors and chairs.
We spent most of the day sat in shade, listening to Craig Charles DJing on a nearby stage - a mix of funk, though somehow less irritating than his 6Music show. It’s often worth buying a copy of the Guardian at festivals for the freebies - today’s came came with some tasty free fudge (as well as moistened toilet tissue, presumably in case your guts reacted badly to the fudge). A very pleasant afternoon spent spotting clouds:
…and drinking Zubrowka vodka cocktails:
We then went back to the comedy tent to see Sean Hughes, who is still most famous for his stint as team captain on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, and frankly you can tell why. He’s perfectly competent but sadly that’s all - maybe I have been spoiled by having seen so many excellent comedians in the last few years, but it seems Sean Hughes hasn’t really moved on to make himself stand out as anything other than somebody who was famous in the 90’s.
We had a tasty burger, then caught a bit of Four Tet DJing, while about a hundred lanterns took off from behind the main stage. We went back to the comedy tent to see the always excellent Mitch Benn, and then to the main stage for the entire point of the festival (for me) - the newly reformed Orbital.
Orbital played an absolute blinder of a set - probably their best performance of the eight that I’ve seen over the years. There was only a smattering of material from their later albums - they mostly concentrated on their earlier tracks, including a brilliantly updated version of Halcyon, where they took their usual Belinda Carlisle sample and just ran away with it to turn it into an immensely silly cheese-fest. My only complaint would be that they finished so suddenly - I’m used to an encore to tell me when a gig is about to end, but it seemed that they were on stage one minute and had disappeared the next, leaving the crowd hungry for more. Fortunately I shall indeed get more as I’ll be seeing them twice in Brixton in September - and I can’t wait.
Afterwards we briefly checked out the comedy tent which was hosting a late-night circus. There was a guy with a robotic horse, which was an impressively strange contraption, but ultimately not actually entertaining enough to make us want to stick around for longer than five minutes.
After another night on a slowly deflating airbed, freezing only to boil a couple of hours later, we’d made the decision to leave on Sunday night instead of Monday, so we packed up and took our stuff to the car, and resolved to stay sober.
The main event during the day was more comedy - big names in a bigger tent. Unfortunately it was a tent without sides, right next to the Amstel bar which, although empty, was pumping out music at an absurd volume. So if you were on the outskirts of the comedy tent, you had no hope of actually hearing anything. We sat around for Russell Howard for a few minutes, but decided that it was completely pointless.
So we went back to the shady spot in which we’d spent most of Saturday, and ate some Goan fish curry. We then returned to the comedy tent for Dylan Moran, and thankfully managed to set up our camping chairs well within the confines of the tent. It was an amazing set even though we couldn’t see him, and the boom-boom-boom noise from boom-boom the bars was boom-thud-boom distracting. Sort it out Big Chill!
We then spent yet more time resting in the shade, as the sun began to get lower. As you can see, most of the grass was still there, even at the end of the festival - I think that’s the first time this has happened in the five or so festivals I’ve been to:
We then went to the Words in Motion tent for Brian Appleton, a character from the same man who brought us John Shuttleworth. Pretty silly stuff, though again, without wishing to sound like an old man, I have to complain about the noise from the surrounding bars and stages, as it made it quite difficult to hear at times - even though it wasn’t a very big tent.
Fortunately I was able to hear John Hegley a lot better. Brilliant poetry as usual - funny, poignant, mundane, ridiculous all at once.
We caught a small amount of headline act David Byrne, who was being about as strange as you would expect. Some fireworks went off which signalled that we should return to the wicker zombie, which was now looking like this:
The face and arms were already gone, leaving a burning tower structure which we saw collapse - impressive stuff.
Then we made our escape via coffee, hot chocolate and empty motorways. We arrived back home in London at 2.45am, which was excellent timing. The shower and the bed had never seemed so luxurious.
The after-effects of a festival fade at different rates. As soon as we got back, the rooms in the house seemed massive, as we’d got used to having a tiny tent as home. The toilet seemed especially cavernous - you could actually move! It had space for a sink with soap and everything! That effect fades within a couple of hours.
One effect that for me takes a long time to wear off is what I call “phantom wristband”. As I’m writing this a week later, I still get the occasional sensation that I’m still wearing the festival wristband, even though I ripped it off as soon as I got to the car on Sunday night. I recall that it took about two months after Glastonbury 2007 for that effect to go away. I wonder if anyone knows why it occurs, and why I seem to “suffer” from it more than other people?
Any bad memories of the festival have faded faster than my phantom wristband, anyway. Not that there were very many bad things at all - sleeping is uncomfortable and loud, the tap water tastes incredibly chlorinated, the constant whooshing sound of teenagers with their nitrous oxide cannisters is tedious - certainly it’s a much shorter (and pettier) list than the list of bad things at, say, V Festival or T in the Park.
The Big Chill is one of the nicest festivals I’ve been to. It has a great atmosphere and attracts a nice bunch of people - I don’t think I encountered anyone who I could reasonably call a complete and utter twat, which definitely hasn’t been the case for me at other festivals.
So, if you’ve ever been to a festival and were disappointed and wondered what all the fuss was about, I recommend you try it, because it’s a world away from Reading or V. And compared to the king of British festivals, Glastonbury, there’s as good a range of food (if not drink), and the people are just as friendly, although there’s less in the way of freaky and weird stuff. So perhaps a bit less of the character of Glasto, but it’s much more manageable because of the smaller site - and it’s cleaner and less crowded.
As for me though, I think I’m pretty much done with festivals. I would happily return to the Big Chill, but only for a compelling reason - there has to be something truly spectacular on the line-up for me to make it worth the hassle.
And now that Orbital have reformed, what spectacular line-up could drag me away from my comfortable house for a summer weekend in a field? Well, I can think of quite a few other bands who would swing it for me, so perhaps my festival days aren’t over yet.