Secret Garden Party 2015 @ Abbots Ripton, 23 – 26/07/2015

Secret Garden PartySecret Garden Party 2015 promises a world of childhood magic and adventure, with a programme emulating a golden era of children’s literature. The booklet, entitled My First Secret Garden Party – A Guide To Having Fun features the silhouettes of two children in a field full of flowers and butterflies. After three days of mud and rain it looks like it really is a hundred-odd years old.

When we arrive on Thursday evening, the site looks like a nocturnal Teletubby Land; green hills and strange sculptures dotted around. A sound system is pumping out dance music and Gardeners, as attendees are known, are chasing each other round a life-size Pac man maze. An early highlight is spoken word duo Mark Grist and MC Mixy on the Amphitheatre Stage, alternating between rap and performance poetry. Mixy gets surprisingly philosophical on why we don’t say, "I want to fuck you" and poet and former English teacher Mark Grist recalls how he got his worst students to behave by entering a rap battle. Many of the small stages dotted round the site offer a short programme of entertainment but other areas are closed off, keeping their secrets under wraps until the party really gets going.

It starts raining the next morning and continues for 24 hours. But there are plenty of undercover stages offering shelter, such as The Crossroads stage where we chance upon country and blue grass band Ella and The Blisters. Ella’s energy is unrelenting as she switches between a dozen instruments during a furiously upbeat set. Wherever you go there are random performances and entertainment to be discovered, including mud wrestling, a lecture on flirting and a couple dressed as genitals performing a courtship dance.

In keeping with the childish things theme there are giant toy bricks and children’s games scattered round the site. Some of the performances tie into the theme too. In the Amphitheatre 47 members of the Basement Orchestra cram onto the tiny stage. The conductor is forced to stand on a box with the rain gushing down his back as he leads the musicians in a performance of Peter and the Wolf.

In the early evening Leanne La Havas attracts a sizeable crowd to the Great Stage where a lake of mud is starting to form. She rewards drenched Gardeners with vocal skills that give a unique depth and flavour to her exquisite soul numbers. Kate Tempest follows with a band who embellish and rework tracks from her debut album Everybody Down, in an impassioned performance. Kate reminisces about blagging a gig at an early Secret Garden Party, which involved rapping to someone with a bucket on his head with the result that they vomited. Tonight there are only enraptured faces as she closes with a spoken word piece bonding with the crowd as closely as is possible on such a large stage, as she preaches with an unquenchable fire in her heart.

There is less human emotion in the following set from Public Service Broadcasting, who communicate with the crowd via a robotic voice. However, they create an epic show of sound and visuals and are joined by a brass section and dancing spaceman for an explosive rendition of "Gagarin". Elsewhere, Jungle close the Great Stage, delivering a slick set perfectly synchronised with a blazing light show. Their massive sound reverberates across the lake, though it feels like their performance is too dependent on the visuals to make its impact.

I am in no hurry to get back to my soggy tent and there is plenty of entertainment going on into the small hours. A highlight is Orbital's Paul Hartnoll, playing an intimate show in the Psychedelia Smithsonian tent. He performs new material from his solo project 8:58 and revisits Orbital tracks including "Halcyon", "Satan" and "Chime".

On Saturday, I spend the early hours of the morning bailing water out of my tent with a Pringles tube. When I return to the main site there are groups huddled around and weary people trudging through mud, some without shoes. One wild-eyed man demands to hug everyone who comes near. But the rain has stopped and the mood becomes more cheerful as the sun climbs higher and Natty opens the main stage with lush reggae grooves. London group Brassroots keep up the good vibes with a loud funky set.

As the day warms up, more and more Gardeners can be seen in childhood themed fancy dress. I don't know how anyone manages to organise a costume along with all the camping essentials, but the site is brightened with people dressed as everything from Disney characters to Tetris blocks.

In the middle of the afternoon I find myself sat on a slightly muddy sofa watching an improvised play in the Amphitheatre. I doze off and am woken by a woman dressed as an angel lioness rubbing something on my nose. The Basement Orchestra returns, this time out in the open and joined by a choir for a performance of Disney classics, during which I become possibly the last person in the world to hear "Let It Go".

Back on the Great Stage Temples’ psychedelic rock on a warm evening by the lake makes it feel like the summer of love. The next unbilled band are the apparently hotly tipped White from Glasgow. They take to the stage in kitsch attire and give an assured performance of their 80s styled pop-rock, looking like they’ve been playing stadium gigs all their lives.

The success of Secret Garden Party 2015 lies not in booking as many big name bands as possible but in creating an atmosphere where surprising and once in a lifetime events happen. At ten o'clock all eyes are on the lake that lies at the centre of the site. The organisers unleash an immense display of fireworks launching across the length of the lake. There is film playing on a huge screen, smoke, light and lasers, music, pyrotechnics of Hollywood blockbuster proportions and paragliders swooping overhead showering the crowd with glowing purple gems. It makes the mud, cold and possible case of trench foot seem a small price to pay.

The Cat Empire has the tough task of following up, which they do by playing as many instruments and genres of music as they can, as quickly as possible. It’s around this time that someone remarks that my nose is glowing. I look up to find myself standing beneath UV lights and remember the sneaky angel lioness.

Away from the Great Stage there is a raucous atmosphere on the Lunched Out Lizards stage where Tankus The Henge run riot with flamboyant brass and rock. Their fearless frontman hails the crowd from on top of his upright piano — a piano with built in smoke machine no less. As we watch, Willy Wonka appears and hands out doughnuts while a girl dressed as the contents of his factory passes round flying saucer sweets. The small stage can barely contain the band's might. A definite contender for the Great Stage next year.

Sunday promises another fantastic line up including Roots Manuva, Marika Hackman and Caravan Palace but the skies deliver more rain to deepen the mud I'm amazed I haven't fallen in yet. We trudge over to the main stage where singer-songwriter Lail Arad gives a beautiful opening set to a disappointingly small audience. In the afternoon mud, rain and a lack of dry clothes force us to join an early exodus. We board an old London bus, a fittingly surreal vehicle, for the transition back to the real world.

Secret Garden Party 2015 got everything right except the weather. Sun can never be guaranteed but better drainage is planned so even if future years are wet, they shouldn’t be quite so muddy.

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