Friday morning dawns grey and drizzly in London and, with complete trust in the optimistic BBC weather forecast, I load my rucksack (minus the wellies) into the car and set off. A quick stop for petrol and to pick up Clare, a work colleague who has not had the chance to camp or visit a festival for 20 years, then we make our way out onto the M25 and immediately wish we’d chosen a better route. As we crawl our way along in 2nd and 3rd gear for about an hour we have the consolation of seeing the rain dry up and little patches of blue appear ahead of us in the sky, roughly in the direction we are headed.
We are an hour late for the meet up in Woodstock (ooops) and find Gary sitting bored out of his mind and staring into his pint of cola in the Woodstock Arms. Deb is late too but mainly as she is driving round and round trying to find the place; Gary has been receiving her progress reports with increasing incredulity. Finally we are all assembled. Suitably refreshed and having made use of what we suspect may be the last decent loos of the weekend, we stock up on cash and cigarettes and continue our journey the eight or so miles to the Cornbury House estate (just one final detour en route and a couple of u-turns – I blame the GPS system).
The setting is stunning. The campsite is in a slightly sloping field bordered by a double avenue of shaded trees with glorious views of the arena and house in the distance and the open fields beyond. We are able to park close by which is a joy for Clare and Deb who have got more luggage then Imelda Marcos (Gary and Karen have a rucksack each). We opt for sunny, rather than shady (in retrospect a mistake) and start to make our encampment.
Karen has a new tent that has hitherto only been erected in the living room and the garden, Deborah has made a last minute purchase en route and arrives with something called a ‘pop-up-tent’ that cost her all of £20 in Aldi; we are all rightly sceptical and soon we have three beautifully erected tents, in a circle, plus a gaudy lime green thing which lists slightly and is a tad baggy but it was a bargain, and becomes known as the gin palace (thank goodness it doesn’t rain!)
Campsite facilities are excellent. There is even a Waitrose shop on site – in a refrigerated lorry where you can buy deli products, sarnies, milk, fruit etc, crème brulees and lemon yoghurts (yum), cigarettes and toiletries all at shop prices (thumbs up Waitrose!). There are still only about 50 tents on site (although hundreds more will arrive over the course of the weekend) and the toilets are amazingly clean, a state they stay all weekend - brilliant! Showers (cold – a state they stay in all weekend – boo hiss!!), a tented bar with real ale, a couple of food stalls, braziers for communal camp fires and standpipes for water constitute the rest of the facilities – it’s the best we’ve ever seen. Even our camping-resistant harleymates who have given this one a miss would have approved. Gary manages to break his brand new chair completely (lardy arse!) – Fortunately we phone Neil who is on his way to join us and he stops at a service station and gets another.
We chill out for the rest of the afternoon and evening and are joined at about 7pm by Neil and two very excited 15-year olds (Nicola and her mate Alice). Neil joins us for a one-pot pasta extravaganza cooked by Gary, whilst the two girls set up camp as far away from us as possible; aiming to prove that they can camp at a festival all by themselves and manage independently (until their money runs out – more of this later).
The five of us settle down for a mellow night of leisurely drinking under the stars. Neil is the first to retire and it’s not long before the drinking turns the conversation surreal and Karen (who is sipping red wine slowly) and Deb (who is not drinking tonight) exchange worried glances as the conversation between Gary and Clare turns increasingly slurred and incomprehensible. Finally Clare clatters off to bed and, shortly afterwards, Gary, Karen and Deb call it a night too. There are going to be bad heads in the morning!!!
Saturday morning and we awake to the morning sun and sauna like tent – why oh why did we not pitch in the shade – those who did are still fast asleep! Gary and Clare put a brave face on the excesses of the previous night. Gary cooks up a big breakfast and we plan the day ahead. Sun cream all round as it looks like it’s going to be a scorcher.
We trundle off to the arena, a pleasant walk through the deer park and past the lake before a steepish climb to the arena in front of the Georgian house. There are two stages, the large one and a smaller stage with bales of hay as seats. There is a circle of stalls, selling all sorts of festival tat. The whole thing is really well laid out and exciting to the eye. Various random acts prowl the market area, Deb is accosted by an emu, a push-me-pull-you lurks with intent, stilt walkers and magicians perform, Nicola and Alice become green fairies for the weekend (and blow their entire budget on costumes – good job the bank of Mum and Dad is there to help out with food and drink for the rest of the weekend – independent festival goers they are not!)
A schools band competition is in full swing on the 2nd stage with each getting their 15 minutes of fame. The temperature is rising and we investigate the stalls. The local record shop has a stall and has stocked up with CD’s and records from all the artists appearing at the festival – cool! You can buy the Make Me Smile vinyl and CD single and Deb avails herself of a copy of Best Years of Our Lives and buys us both a compilation we never spied (before).
We visit the bar and Gary buys us all a drink and we settle down on the grass at the main stage to await the first of the main acts. Warriner Rants are a school band who didn’t make the final of the battle of the bands competition (why not! They were excellent) but are on the main stage – quality stuff from a group of young people. Purple Stacks are soulful, mellow and entertaining and Bonnie Tyler is … well Bonnie Tyler. Neil and Gary appreciate her style a little more than Deb and Karen but we all sing along to ‘Lost In France’ and Deb delights us with the stories of how she…. got lost in France. We stuff our faces with Tortilla chips and salsa. Amy Winehouse is not my thing but I can appreciate the quality of the act if not the style – it makes for pleasant listening though in the sunshine and Clare loves it. It’s now baking hot, Neil has to buy a hat to stop his head burning, Gary discovers he is ‘wearing’ white glasses, where his sunglasses have protected his face and Clare discovers that she managed to miss part of her leg with the sun tan lotion and now has a burning red stripe to prove it – ouch! Deb and Karen are slowly turning brown in the sun. This is paradise!
Colourful hot air balloons take to the sky, the sounds of the funfair fill the air and the atmosphere is incredibly relaxed with campers and day visitors lolling on the grass, drinking, chatting and generally enjoying the Cornbury atmosphere.
As the sun starts to sink in the sky, Joe Cocker takes to the stage. Quality stuff – his set consists of many soul classics which he and his young band deliver with true professionalism and aplomb. We are on our feet and dancing, singing and applauding. Gary and Karen play recognise the song which Gary loses – he really is hopeless. We all sing along to ‘Love Lift Us Up’ and ‘A Little Help from My Friends’. Clare and Gary are weary (too much drinking the night before!) and we start to make our way to the exit. Karen and Deb stay for the encore watching from the side as Cocker delivers his final two numbers, the crowd go wild and the honey coloured moon lights the way for the departing hordes.
We settle around a couple of instant barbeques (on a stand provided by our lovely camping neighbours – it’s so friendly here!) and Neil cooks bbq chicken and beef for everybody which is washed down by red and white wine, beer, vodka and pimms. The two independent campers appear when the smell of cooking food gets too much to bear and walk away to their tent with a plateful of food to keep them going. Gary wanders up to inspect their camp and warns anyone else against going up there – it’s a right mess!
It is a gorgeous night, the lighting on the campsite makes all the trees appear plastic against the deep blue night sky, barn owls swoop over the site and we all lean back in our chairs observing the millions of stars above. A mad, mad moonlight.
Sunday, and we sensibly decide to hang around the relative cool of the campsite rather than get to the arena too early. We loll in the shade, Gary does breakfast again, lunch from Waitrose – crème brulee and lemon yoghurts, stock up on water and after a small incident with the car keys make our way back to the arena around 3.30pm. The car park is full – people are unpacking hampers and sitting in the long grass of the deer park, sipping champagne and picnicking.
We make a beeline for the second stage and grab our seats on the straw for the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain – Clare gets a jug of Pimms to share and we enjoy one of the best and funniest festival performances in a long-while. A rendition of ‘Wuthering Heights’ that even eclipses Ian’s drunken performance of the same number in Holland last Easter. We leave with smiles on our faces as do the thousands who were flocked round the stage to witness eight very talented and amusing musicians.
We arrive at the main stage and plonk ourselves down to catch the last of Lucie Silvas’s set (I feel we have missed nothing much although it’s not unpleasant listening). Once she has departed, Deb and Karen check out the front of the stage which is already 2-3 people deep. Ray is there with Mary and we say hello. Sebastian and his Dad (whose name we still do not know) are there and he shows us the single that Barry has signed for him. We chat with dad and work out that we were going to some of the early Rebel gigs at about the same time. We wave to other fans, nip back up the hill for a bite to eat then take our place in the crowd at the front and await the arrival of Steve and the Band.
We had our money on the set opening with ‘Here Comes the Sun’; how could he not in such a beautiful setting and on such a sunny day? There seem to be a few glitches but these are rectified by switching guitars and the bass sounds a tad loud (mind you, many of the bands who appeared on this stage seemed to have the same trouble). ‘Best Years’ gets the crowd singing – there are obviously many in the crowd who know Steve’s work well. ‘Mr Soft’ and the crowd are up and cheering the man performing.
‘Saturday Night At The Fair’ goes down an absolute storm and ‘Last Time I Saw You’ and ‘A Friend For Life’ soften the tone. The sun is shining full onto the stage, right into the faces of the band, Adam (in shorts) is the only one in dark shades, Steve thinks about putting on his sun glasses but instead throws them into the crowd to a grateful recipient – it’s only a matter of seconds before another pair lands on the stage in return – Steve ribs the thrower about the diamante studs and then puts them on – the press have vanished and it’s only the members of the happy audience that get the snaps.
‘Judy Teen’ makes us happy, the drums thump, the violin soars and the hot air balloons take off over the crowd again. Unlike the artists on the previous nights, who seemed oblivious to their presence, Steve spots them and pauses before wishing them on their way with a few choice mumbled words – the front few rows get the message and laugh with him.
Mr Raffles has the whole crowd singing along in the sunshine – ooh, ooh, we’re having a party! And then we’re ‘Riding the Waves’ without the Glaswegian aboriculturist. The crowd get the feeling and when you look back up the hill there is not one person who is not singing along.
Barry is playing out of his skin tonight, in fact the whole band, despite the fact that they must be tired after their whistle-stop tour of three countries in as many nights, are able to react to the crowd, the stage-set up and the happy mood. Maybe not a vintage performance for die-hard fans but it goes down so well with the crowd and the smiles and applause say it all. Steve just puts in 150% every time. He made us happy – he always does. He could go out on that stage and sing nursery rhymes and he’d have the crowd in the palm of his hand.
I’ve just read a review on efestivals from a neutral who was so impressed and could see the power of the stagecraft and what a total and complete mastery Steve has to be able to deliver a free and exciting performance (never the same twice) that spoke to the people who were there in a way which delighted thousands.
“Few other bands are prepared to be this free on stage and it pays dividend in Cornbury this evening.”
Scott Williams (efestivals)
‘Sebastian’ is a delight tonight and the knowledgeable crowd (young and old) join in until overwhelmed by the ending and the power of the sound that six musicians can produce on that stage, which goes right through you, wrings you out and leaves you gasping for air!
Finally ‘Make Me Smile’ draws in the remaining festival goers. Neil, Gary and Clare are watching from further up the hill and say that as the first notes of the song rang out, the hospitality tents, toilets, fun fair and markets emptied and hordes of people joined the back of the already huge crowd and sing along as if their lives depended upon it. It was a sight to behold, thousands of sun-soaked festival goers, hands in the air clapping and dancing in the late summer sunshine. Magic! The applause and cheers were deafening! Steve is grinning from ear to ear!
Fabulous weekend – think we’ll have to come here again – it’s been brilliant!
Our thanks to Karen Morrison for the report and pictures