TNT went to Winchester to check out one of the most bonkers festivals in the UK.
Throw all your expectations of what constitutes a music festival out of the window. This is not another Glastonbury clone, this is something very different indeed. Boomtown Fair has been growing steadily for the last 8 years, having started its life as a humble village fair. It now hosts 30+ stages hosting an array musical genres from folk, punk rock, reggae all the way through to banging techno and everything else in between! There are literally hundreds of artists and DJs across the 4-day event performing in intimate venues or on one of the many huge main stage sets. This really is something quite unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before and I’ve done my fair share of festivals and partying. It’s a totally bonkers pop-up city masquerading as a music festival with a population of around 60,000 equally bonkers inhabitants bringing the whole place to life in a truly delightful way.
The sun was blazing as I rocked up on a rather dusty field and dragged a brutally heavy rucksack up what felt like the north face of the Eiger for the first of many ascents of the steep hill which separates the many districts of Boomtown. I battled through the sun and altitude sickness with the assistance of a lukewarm can of Red Stripe, threw my tent together until it vaguely resembled the picture on the side of the bag and headed off to start exploring this strange place I had just checked into.
Boomtown Fair has been on my radar for a few years, but this was the first time I’d actually managed to get there. I had arrived with a certain expectation of what I was letting myself in for but nothing could have prepared me for what greeted me as I made my first lap around the HillTop town centre district and surrounding areas of the Wild West, OldTown and Mayfair. When they say Boomtown they really do mean town, this place is massive and the level of detail put into the streets and buildings is astounding.
The OldTown blew my mind with a full size galleon ship providing the main stage for music acts and acrobatic and pyrotechnic pirate performances. It really felt like an old shanty town littered with very convincing pirate folk and scurvy riddled delinquents (although they may have just been Boomtowners who had overdone it on Thursday night). It’s really quite hard to tell who is working as one of the many actors who bring the areas to life, and who is a punter immersing themselves in the spirit of Boomtown with their own flamboyant costumes.
Every district is unique in design yet similarly immersive with the actors further enhancing the experience. Each area also hosts its own camping, so you can choose your place to stay based on your taste in music and décor. The campsites are very tightly integrated so you can really immerse yourself. The Trenchtown camping literally overlooks the mainstage so you needn’t even venture from your tent to enjoy the music, a true room with a view!
‘This place is mental’ must have repeated in my head at least 100 times over the weekend as I discovered more and more madness around every corner. I found a group of Mayfair occupants holding a sign with the word “CUNTS” illuminated on the front of it. Boomtowners were crawling on their hands and knees under the sign to gain favour with the wealthy elite of Mayfair and the hope of a few handouts from these opulent residents of the rather swanky district with its own casino, hotel and ballroom. I loved this district and if that makes me a bit of a cunt too then I’ll happily get on my hands and knees and crawl under the sign to show my allegiance.
I could go on all day about all the many delights that make up Boomtown but you really need to be there to really understand the scale and wonder of the place and see how much creativity is crammed into every area of the site. The crew put an enormous effort into getting the details just right, and the end result is simply staggering, as so much of the effort can only really be appreciated if you stop and explore the hidden delights down the streets of each district. If you simply march (or stagger dependant on your choice of poison) between the main stages and your tent, you’ll miss so many of the best bits about this event.
There are quirky little venues to explore on every street in every district offering a mix of cabaret, performance art and musical obscurities and I spent much of my time staggering into these intimate little venues and getting sucked into these tiny parallel worlds…I lost many hours and missed many main stage acts on my bucket list, having lost all track of time jumping around to drum and bass in a Post Office or playing Black Jack in the casino surrounded by mock mobsters and tarts.
Whilst these micro venues were immersive and unexpected, the main stages were equally outstanding. From the bonkers Bang Hai Palace (or ‘the bang tidy’ as affectionately nicknamed by the crew) with its flaming pyrotechnics and lightshows, to the Aztec temple which formed the reggae stage with real waterfalls and fire cauldrons. I shamefully didn’t even get to the new Sector 6 stage as every attempt to get there took me via the Psychedelic Forest tucked away in the woods and I found myself seduced by the throbbing beats and wobbling trance baselines.
Missing whole areas is to be expected when at Boomtown, as it’s such a big site, and there is so much going on everywhere. Despite being given a secret press schedule of the main theatrical events and their locations and times; I still managed to miss most of them! I would imagine much of the underlying storyline which flows from year to year was lost on many of the other town inhabitants who, in many cases were a little (or a lot) worse for wear on various over indulgences. There’s not just the overriding storyline of conflict between the rich and powerful elite and the dark and mysterious masked men, but many tiny yet well orchestrated events happening all over the site. The organisers have created a very special place to explore and the experience is very rewarding whatever depth you choose to delve into.
On the final day I took my first look at some of the previously unchartered DownTown areas and explored the lower districts of the Barrio Loco and ChinaTown. I wished I had spent more time there earlier on with the relentless pounding sound systems around every corner – it was like the maddest rave you had ever been too and reminiscent of the illegal parties of the late 90’s with a lively but happy and friendly vibe.The whole place is such a melting pot of musical styles, and with that a diverse mix of people from punks, rastas and ravers (and pirates) all living together harmoniously sharing in this unique experience. I ended up seeing much fewer of the acts than I thought I was going to see, and ended up seeing many acts that I had never heard of and genres of music I would not normally enjoy.
I eventually dragged myself back out of the rabbit hole and regained my sense of reality. I reluctantly packed up my shit and walked back to my car relieved not to have been one of the unfortunate victims of a cigarette butt and a dry stubble field which took out a load of cars, and watched the madness fade away in my rear view mirror.
See you next year Boomtown.