DAY ONE – FRIDAY
Cheltenham is renowned for the annual Cheltenham Festival which takes place in the Cotswold town every March, but for one weekend in June Wychwood Festival brings in the crowds for an altogether equine-free event but that won’t stop this reviewer from shoehorning in references to horse racing with gusto!
Wychwood Festival is regularly nominated for Best Family Friendly festival and the difference between the punters that descend on the town for race week and Wychwood couldn’t be more marked…especially in the fashion stakes as the flat caps and tweed suits were replaced with bucket hats and Hawaiian shirts.
The festival had a new home within the racecourse this year, bringing the camp site closer to the arena, making the walk between tent and stage much shorter. As a Cheltenham native and yet to my shame a Wychwood first-timer, I decided to walk to site. This turned out to be a LOT further than I’d anticipated, taking about an hour from town to the northern edge of the racecourse!
For anyone not driving to site, the local D bus service runs from the train station, through the town centre and out to the park and ride at the racecourse. From there its approximately 30 minutes-canter through the grounds up to the campsite entrance. On arrival there were plenty of volunteers pointing the way and greeting with smiling faces so you’re never far from help.
With the first acts to the post not scheduled until 2pm, I went for a wander around the festival site to get my bearings and find out what Wychwood has in store. First things first, the setting is pretty stunning. Cleeve Hill, the highest point of the Cotswold Hills, makes an amazing backdrop to the festival and in the other direction, the Malvern Hills stretched out in the distance. As locations for festivals go, this is top notch!
The site is well laid out, with the main stage at the far end of the arena. Most of the catering options, more of which later, are in the middle of the site, flanked by fair rides and with bars both sides – including a VIP area which guests can upgrade their tickets to access.
Aside from the music, there are activities galore at Wychwood. Workshops teaching visitors all manner of new skills from playing the Ukulele, to circus skills and magic – as well as the Makers tent full of artists selling handmade items as well as giving pottery lessons and the chance to make art using fabric cut offs with local maker Jen from All Agog.
While having a look at the merch tent it became clear there’d been a bit of a mix up as Saturday night headliners Travis’ merch was on sale ahead of Friday’s closing act The Happy Mondays. This was soon fixed though. Disappointingly the largest size of the official festival T-Shirt was XL, but the bright yellow shirts were proving popular with a lot of guests as were the lanyards with set times on which were definitely useful with such a busy schedule.
It wasn’t just the festival merch on show though, as festival goers strutted their stuff in butterfly wings, capes, bandanas, silver cowboy boots, stripy leotards, glitter and sequins as far as the eye could see. Sunscreen was also very much the order of the day, with 20 degree heat and bright sun all weekend while shaded spots were greeted like old friends or an oasis in the desert.
Friday’s main stage music kicked off with local family act, The Pop Tarts, whose set of popular covers and sweet harmonies launched the festival into the weekend, playing a set later in the evening too.
On The Garden Stage, indie band China Bears brought their melancholic sound to the tent. Citing influences such as The National and Frightened Rabbit, the frenetic drumming and energetic front man caught the crowd’s attention playing songs from 2022 release ‘All That Distance’. Oxford’s Still Pigeon followed on the main stage playing a clean sounding electro pop, including a sweet version of Blink 182’s ‘Miss You’
By now my tummy was rumbling and I set to finding some lunch. With something for everyone the food options were pretty excellent. Obviously festival prices were in play, but that’s to be expected and the quality of the food was really good. I settled on a Tempura Crab Burger with homemade slaw from The Crab Shack which was delicious. Seating at the festival was a bit limited though, with most people bringing their own chairs on site, so I ate on the go.
With my tastebuds and stomach sated I headed back to the mainstage for The Beat’s set. Their up-tempo ska sound perfectly soundtracking the bright sunny afternoon Cheltenham was putting on for us. The band had people dancing from the off and with their vast repertoire they kept the Wychwood crowd moving for the duration of their slot.
Back on The Garden Stage, London-based duo Berne brought dreamy electro songs to the shade seeking audience. During eco-anthem ‘Stay’ Deborah Borg Brincat’s dramatic, soaring vocal fills the tent as she explains the song is about “asking the planet to stay around for a bit longer”.
The first Brit Pop icons of the festival, Republica, were next up on the main stage and ripped through an energetic set fronted by the irrepressible Saffron. Mixing in the massive singles ‘Drop Dead Gorgeous’, ‘From Rush Hour with Love’ and anthemic ‘Ready to Go’ the group played some new material, including ‘New York’ with a Nile Rogers-like riff underpinning the funky return to form.
At 6:30 and with the sun bathing the stage, reggae act The Dualers came out to keep the good times going and announcing that “There is no water that can put out this fire”. Thankfully there were plenty of water points on site to refill bottles and stay hydrated in the heat!
Over at Howlin’ Pete’s, RuPaul royalty Vinegar Strokes took to the stage with The Morning Afters to bring their fun, upbeat and all kinds of sassy sounds to the packed-out tent. Closing with a huge cover of Lizzo’s Juice, Vinegar Strokes served up the party vibes to prepare for the next act in the tent…Barry from EastEnders aka Shaun Williamson with Barrioke!
The tent was absolutely rammed with fans joining in the karaoke session, including a deafening rendition of ‘Sweet Caroline’ to close out the slot.
Main stage action continued with Northern Ireland’s punk rockers Ash who managed to blow up a bass amp with their set list of classic after classic, including ‘Girl From Mars’, ‘Burn Baby Burn’ and ‘Shining Light’. On the subject of light, with the sun now at eye level to frontman Tim Wheeler, he remarked that when he’s asked for a review of the festival he’ll reply “It was blinding!”.
A huge crowd formed for Friday night’s headliners The Happy Mondays as they brought day one to a close. Rowetta’s incredible vocals filled up the evening air as the sun went down behind the Malverns. Shaun Ryder was an honest frontman, stating “I’ve come on stage needing a wee so, if I leave, you know where I’ve gone!” after arriving a little later than anticipated. Rattling through their extensive back catalogue including ‘Kinky Afro’, ’24 Hour Party People’ and ‘Step On’ the group gave the people what they wanted with their Madchester anthems to make for a perfect finish to day one.
As I retire for the night, the sound of the Silent Disco (oxymoronic I know but IYKYK) fades into the distance and day one is complete.
DAY TWO – SATURDAY
Saturday morning arrives and living legend Mr Motivator is leading an assembled throng through a mid-morning work out routine to get the blood pumping ahead of a bumper day. Credit where it’s due to the more than a few bleary-eyed participants regretting that last visit to the bar the night before! Not content with getting people moving, Mr Motivator ended his set with a, well, motivational speech and encouraging the crowd to love themselves and to keep moving before taking pictures and chatting with fans still assembled at the front, including one man in a leotard harking back to the main man’s GMTV days!
The festival site was much busier today as Saturday day ticket holders descended on the racecourse. The vendors around the site enjoyed queues for ice creams, food, drinks and even hats with the sun continuing to beat down making the going at the racecourse firm if anything.
Maella followed Mr. Motivator on the main stage next with their atmospheric rock. Front woman Maella from Prague prowled the stage all charisma and incredible cowboy boots, singing with her sultry tone and encouraging the crowd to check out her music on streaming services with a handy spelling tip “It’s like Paella but with an M!”.
Back to The Garden Stage and the intriguing Syren Belly Dancers who dance to alternative hits covering bands as diverse as Korn and Massive Attack in their performance. The tent is packed and more than a few metal heads got their fill of the heavier music from their captivating performance.
Indie act Dancehall kicked off with an energetic early afternoon slot, but the fatigue from dancing to Mr Motivator had clearly kicked in and attempts to get the crowd to get more involved fell flat. They left the stage with a few minutes left of their slot, I assume to find something tasty for lunch.
Which is what I did next and went all in on a delicious sushi tapas style dish which I upgraded to a meat option for an additional £2. At £17 in total it was pretty steep, but very tasty and definitely drew some envious glances from friends. It was nice to have so many options to choose from, beyond burgers and so on, and there had been a real commitment to meeting people’s dietary requirements too with vegan and gluten free options widely available.
Swansea four-piece French Alps Tiger were next up in The Garden stage tent. Playing through songs from their debut EP ‘Switch Off All the Time’ the group were the most current sounding band of the weekend yet. Tight, relentless guitars and a pulsing drumbeat that would probably be diagnosed as tachycardic if found in a human were the order of the day and it went down well with the audience.
A palpable buzz was building around the Main Stage for the late afternoon slot featuring Scouting for Girls. Masses of people turned out for them as they emerged to an adoring crowd with the James Bond theme playing over the PA. Dab hands on the live scene, Roy Stride got the crowd going immediately, leading them in jumping, clapping, singing and ticking all the boxes you’d expect from crowd participation bingo. One that would have definitely not come up on the bingo card is Stride’s wife calling him during the set. He called her back and explained that he was on stage before the frontman’s daughter took over the phone and the crowd hollered “Hi Rosie!” to greet her.
Playing all the hits including ‘Posh Girls’, ‘Heartbeat’ and ‘She’s So Lovely’ they also covered Busted’s ‘Year 3000’ and ‘Stacy’s Mom’. The ‘James Bond’ stars definitely have a licence to thrill!
The Wychwood dial was now turned up to relentless and next on stage was Heather Small of M.People. Her huge disco songs and absolutely incredible voice lifted the crowd further still, with hits including ‘One Night in Heaven’, ‘Sight for Sore Eyes’, ‘Movin’ On Up” and ‘Search for the Hero’ A seriously impressive performance from a total pro.
In the welcome shade of Howlin’ Pete’s something epic was lurking – Sambaoke. The premise is simple, a samba band plays along to a karaoke track and the crowd performs. The execution was anything but simple…the crowd absolutely loved them and danced along to samba versions of songs such as Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’, Toto’s ‘Africa’ and John Farnham’s ‘You’re the Voice’ while belting out the words with much gusto.
Brit Pop survivors Sleeper returned to the festival circuit on the main stage playing to an excitable crowd filled with fans from the band’s 90’s heyday. Frontwoman Louise Wener cut about the stage in her bright green ‘Rock Hag’ t-shirt, a nod to her ‘Another Female Fronted Band’ tee from back in the day while checking in to see if people had got their sunblock on and then playing ‘Factor 41’ (for the record it was definitely a Factor 30 and up kind of weekend!). The band then performed their excellent cover of Atomic’s ‘Blondie’ and mashing it up with ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ and closing their set with a euphoric version of ‘Sale of the Century’.
Back onto the horse racing parlance and one band that definitely has staying power is The Proclaimers. With over 30 years of performing behind them, twins Craig and Charlie Reid were almost certainly pleased that Cheltenham is only 323 miles from Leith, leaving plenty enough in the tank to give a rip-roaring performance.
Kicking off with recent release ‘Dentures Out’, the Scottish band flew through a 20-song set that was chock full of anthems. A particularly beautiful version of ‘Sunshine on Leith’ fitted the setting perfectly as day shifted towards night, with couples dancing, people swaying and even the odd tear on show – it was a performance heavy on feelings. The main feeling for set closer ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’ was that of giddy joy as the audience bellowed back the band’s most famous number and set the tone for the night’s headliners Travis.
Fellow Scots Travis headlined Saturday night and brought along an arsenal of hits as well as Fran Healy’s stories of growing up watching horse racing at Cheltenham on the TV with his Granddad and so having his mind blown that the racecourse had a hill in it.
Last year marked the 20th Anniversary of the band’s The Invisible Band release and they kicked off proceedings with ‘Sing’ before effortlessly switching between their impressive back catalogue covering all eras of the band. Fran explained that his physics teacher at school had inspired the song ‘Side’ and while he didn’t learn much in the class, that influence has served him well since…even if he forgot to turn his guitar on to start the song much to bassist Dougie Payne’s enjoyment “That’s Physics” he suggested, “Touche” replied Healy.
The last song on the setlist for the night was ‘Why Does It Always Rain On Me?’ and thankfully the weather held off adding any sort of poetic addition and the night sky was clear with a huge full moon and Venus on show. Encouraging the audience to join in with “Total audience participation” to jump along to the song, Healy did request that no lawsuits were submitted should anyone get injured but it looked like the main cause of pain would have been in people’s cheeks from smiling so hard through the banger of a set.
Eking out the last of Saturday night and huddling for warmth in The Garden stage, revellers were given a treat by comedian Mark Watson who had the assembled audience in stitches with his own unique brand of frantic beffudlement. Watson was appalled that people were still around, with the temperature dropping he said “No-one should be on this site right now, it’s not fun anymore” and that he didn’t blame people for leaving. His hilarious set covered subjects from the pandemic (clapping for hauliers), how left handers’ plackards at protests are all smudged and checking on his son’s internet search history before threatening to enter people’s tents using the codeword ‘Bacon’ later in the evening.
By this point I realised I hadn’t eaten since much earlier in the day and sought out sustenance. Enter ‘Oh Babu’ Indian street food and a frankly amazing wrap (with extra spice to warm up) which was only £12 and very filling.
The silent disco in Howlin’ Pete’s once again drew in the crowds for the last of the evening before they made their way home, whether the short walk to the campsite or a slightly longer walk out to the drop off points, but either way full to the brim with festival good vibes.
DAY THREE – SUNDAY
The final day started much the same as the others, with searing heat and the scent of suncream in the air.
The heat didn’t put off Sambistas, the Bristol-based samba collective, as they took guests through a samba workshop. Not content with filling their tent with dancing and music, the group paraded around the festival site to serenade the crowds with their up tempo beats to fill the Mr Motivator shaped hole in the day’s schedule.
Over in the cinema tent ‘Lyle, Lyle Crocodile’ was keeping the kids entertained, as were readings from authors in the Storybox tent. The tent had books available to buy, some signed by the authors, and all manner of fun board games to keep the young and older alike entertained.
Kicking off the music at 11:30am was Newcastle’s Lauren Amour, performing at her first festival of the summer. The up and coming popstar has over 380,000 followers on TikTok and her chart friendly pop music was a great start to the day with unrequited love bop ‘Friendzone’ a stand out.
Beware of Leopards followed next and had a QR code on stage for the audience to scan. My phone wouldn’t work so I couldn’t tell you what the link led to but I like to think it was a tutorial on how to avoid being a victim of a Leopard attack…or their music, either or. Despite an initial tech issue the band got stuck into their ear-friendly indie rock. At one point they covered The Killers’ ‘When You Were Young’ causing one confused punter to ask if they could check my lanyard to see who was playing as he was sure he hadn’t seen Brandon Flowers et al on the bill. Suitably reassured we went our separate ways.
The Mountainside tent featured a rap workshop hosted by local performers Robin Hood-Shaw and JPDL and encouraged children to try their hand at rap music. If Cheltenham emerges as a rap heartland in the future then Wychwood started it.
On to lunch and today the Schnitzel wagon caught my eye with their buffalo wings and goodness me did they deliver! For a mere £7 I was handed a tray brimming with delicious wings in a spicy sauce. What I did realise was that eating wings was not the most festival friendly decision I made over the weekend and had to repeatedly wash my hands to remove all that delicious, sticky sauce.
Feeling fresh and clean I went over to The Garden stage to see Wurlitzer. The Birmingham-based sextuplet bounced on stage in brightly coloured jumpsuits (which were hastily removed at the end of the set) and tunes to match the look. Wurlitzer were a personal highlight for me, playing their first festival they didn’t look in the slightest bit unnerved and zipped through an upbeat set including the super energetic ‘Origami’, lo-sodium lament ‘Sodium’, the vegetable saluting ‘Eat Your Greens’ and the entirely danceable ‘Sumbody’. The band also unleashed the first public sighting of a cowbell of the weekend, which is always a thrill. You could hear elements of Architecture in Helsinki and Los Campesinos! in their sound, along with a perfectly interwoven bassline from The Knack’s ‘My Sharona’ at one point. First festival this may have been, it won’t be their last so if you get the chance to see them do!
Back to the Main Stage and Electric Swing Circus took to the stage with their lively swing sound and causing a mass outbreak of swing dancing couples in the audience. While swing isn’t my cup of tea it never fails to please festival crowds and was met with rapturous applause and out of breath cheers.
Nipping to The Garden Stage for a bit more shade and this reviewer appointed ‘Most Stylish Band at Wychwood’ London-based Preen came onto the stage starting with a song called ‘English Sun’. Their gorgeous, layered harmonies worked beautifully and stand out ‘The Last Act (Goodbye)’ was a real treat. Most interesting inspiration for a song of the weekend was an as yet untitled song about Jane Barber who was the voice behind voicemails, leading to a spoken word tribute “please hang up and try again” in the middle of the song.
Next up were Toploader and long gone were frontman Joseph Washbourn’s curly locks, replaced with a slick looking blonde do. What remained was their ability to command a crowd and a huge amount of self-awareness when announcing the next song was about a moon “No not that one, obviously. We’ve seen what happens when we play it early!”. It was in fact a joyous cover (unless you’re under 30 and Joe “definitely wrote it…”) of The Waterboys’ ‘Whole of the Moon’. The band’s set was full of upbeat, soulful songs and encouraged crowd participation. Ahead of a raucous ‘Just Hold On’ the singer called it a “Song of hope” and remarking that it a Sunday at a festival “doesn’t get better than this”. Bringing the set to a close the band brought out their biggest hit to date with ‘Dancing In The Moonlight’ and had the whole of Wychwood singing along.
Unluckily for Wings of Desire they were scheduled at the same time as Cheltenham favourites and 13-time Wychwooders Thrill Collins and the numbers in the tent didn’t do justice to their synth and bass heavy indie. There are elements of all sorts of great bands from the early 2000’s, including LCD Soundsystem, Secret Machines and The Teenagers in their tracks and with single ‘Choose A Life’ featuring on EA Sports’ FIFA 2023 official soundtrack they’re bound for big things.
Speaking of Thrill Collins…wow! While they are a covers band they aren’t just ANY covers band. The Cheltenham-based trio plough through hit after hit with their own inimitable style which has made them such a crowd favourite over the years. Despite a very tongue in cheek claim to have written ‘Barbie Girl’ over two afternoons, frontman Andrew Lansley, Cajon player Peter Harper and Andrew Lansley on double bass make the songs their own throughout the set – this despite a bloodied knee for Lansley. The band’s patter is well rehearsed and well received, from denying any legal responsibility for anyone falling over attempting the lift from Dirty Dancing’s ‘Time of My Life’ to thanking fellow nerds for recognising the Cantina Band theme from Star Wars. They’re a slick act and end with a UK garage mash up and the rebellious scream of “Don’t go home until they make you!”.
A quick refuel was needed and the wafting scent of Raclette cheese finally lured me in for the most amazing macaroni cheese. Thankfully there was no time for the highly plausible carb-coma and it was time for total, certified legends Soul II Soul to take to the stage.
Counting 11 microphones on the stage it was clear we were in for a performance and sure enough they came, they saw and they conquered. Jazzie B took the assembled audience on a trip down memory lane, revisiting the late 80’s through an incredible cover of Prince’s (or Sinead O’Connor) ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ followed by ‘Keep On Movin’’. Closing out their set with the absolutely iconic track ‘Back to Life’, Soul II Soul reaffirmed their legendary status with a crowd pleasing show.
Coming into the final straight of the festival and with the golden hour delivering Melanie C emerged on stage in a blue and white tracksuit. This lasted all of one song before she was down to her signature look with sports bra and abs that made more than few in the audience green with envy.
Her setlist was littered with hits, some of which I’d forgotten all about, but had members of the crowd singing along and shouting “We love you” throughout the show. The artist formerly known as Sporty Spice dedicated Northern Star to all the mothers in the audience, and a rip-roaring rendition of her duet with Bryan Adams ‘When You’re Gone’ to the dads. So as to avoid missing anyone out, the last half of the set was punctuated with Spice Girls classics ‘Spice Up Your Life’, ‘2 Become 1’ and ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ before closing out with her number one hit from 2000, ‘I Turn To You’. Mel C left the stage leaving the crowd hoping for the rumoured Spice Girls reunion to happen but safe in the knowledge that even if it doesn’t, she’s still got star appeal.
The temperature began to drop as the sun slowly faded on the last day of this wonderful festival but not before the Sunday night headline capped off the weekend.
Entering the final furlong was the suitably hirsute Sam Ryder with his luxurious mane. Bedecked in a white jumpsuit with silver sequins covering it, Ryder looked every inch the rock star and launched into proceedings, promising to give the crowd the “best possible show in the cosmos tonight” at his first ever festival headline slot.
It’s fair to say the last couple of years have been a whirlwind for Sam but he doesn’t show any signs of letting up as he encourages the crowd to join in with his vocal gymnastics, harking back to Freddie Mercury at Wembley, waving at fans, giving peace signs and giving the whole crowd his undivided attention.
It’s also worth noting the sheer number of children in the audience. While much of the bill was tinged with nostalgia, Sam Ryder is very much in the here and now and seeing kids singing along to his songs shows that he’s going to be around for some time yet.
Highlights of the action-packed set included a medley of massive songs featuring Candi Staton’s ‘You Got the Love’, Taylor Swift’s ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ and Paramore’s ‘Misery Business’. For the penultimate song Ryder performed ‘Fought and Lost’, the first live performance of the song, which he proudly announced as having been in an episode of Ted Lasso. The pretty ballad features Brian May on the recorded version and has echoes of Queen hit ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’ giving the singer chance to show off his full, and incredibly impressive, range. By way of some cosmic serendipity, an incredible pink Strawberry Moon rose into in the sky behind the stage cueing Ryder to deliver a triumphant ‘Spaceman’ to end proceedings and bring to a close a truly excellent weekend.
With the festival staff packing up around me I picked up pizzas from Pan De Mania wood fired pizzas and delighted in crispy slices of delicious spicy meat offering but also a vegan version with vegetables and dairy-free cheese on it. Suitably stuffed both with pizza and joy I made my way to the exit, passing the last remaining tents and my taxi home.
Looking back over the past few days I can honestly say Wychwood Festival is a belter! From the setting to the breadth of entertainment on offer and the entirely reasonable ticket price you’ve got a brilliant festival that caters to everyone. There were only good vibes on show throughout the weekend and with a family friendly focus there was enough to keep the kids entertained while allowing parents a bit of a break and some fantastic bands. It’s a relatively small festival and that suits it to the ground. It feels like a private secret between friends, but it looks like the secret is out! See you all next year!