Festivals in Fields - the rise and rise of WOMAD

While Glastonbury is the bigger box office, the smaller WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance), a three-day festival held since 2007 on Lord Suffolk’s Charlton Park estate in Wiltshire, has been snapping at its heels. The music, from a wider world, is just as good. And it tends to be drier.

It’s well after midnight, deep in the English countryside, and a mesmerising and unlikely duo of harpists from Wales and Senegal are charming the owls from the trees.

On the long and winding road of summer festivals, open-air listening doesn''t come more magical than this. All day music had washed quadraphonically around us from nine big stages, and occasionally seeped out into the wider Wiltshire landscape when Spain’s Coetus Orquestra de Percussió ibèrica and Croatian Goran Bregovic’s ecstatic Weddings and Funerals Orchestra were at full throttle. This was the lullaby ending.

Then it was back to our motorhome, now completely hemmed in by tents. They had been edging closer and closer all day, taking up inconceivably small pieces of land. Escape was impossible. But then we had no plans to rush away from WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance), the second biggest outdoor music event after you know where.

These annual jamborees, held under great billowing multicoloured flags in random rural corners of Britain, as colourful and animated as one of Henry 8th’s pageants, are a popular culture triumph of our times. Huge numbers of people come together with good grace, mutual respect and total disregard for the mud to listen to live music.

Glastonbury is the undisputed biggest gig, burning bright above our musical summer like a fiery musical comet. We were at one of the few events to even run it close. WOMAD has been held on Lord Suffolk’s Charlton Park estate since 2007. And, matching Glastonbury, in 2014 it sold out for the first time at its current venue.

As seasoned festival goers know, after you walk through the gates these events trap you within an invisible force field of abundant good will, and excellent ethnic food - although if you must have respite, they run a free shuttle bus to nearby Malmesbury, 1000 years old and said to be England’s oldest borough, on the edge of the Cotswolds. The medieval abbey contains the tomb of King Athelstan, the first king of all England.

Womad''s main appeal - it was launched in 1982, and is still run, by musician Peter Gabriel - is in the non-stop sounds of the world. We sauntered from Peruvian chica and Colombian cumbia, distilled in Brooklyn, via the big brass blast of Trombone Shorty from New Orleans, to a cello soloist from Sweden. But it’s also the childhood memories recalled in the vintage fairground with authentic steam-powered roundabouts and gallopers.
It’s the stalls, selling real chai, sheep’s milk ice-cream and hand-stitched bed spreads. It’s the food, a good proportion of it from sustainable sources. People literally vote with their shuffling feet - the longer the queue, the better the fare.
It’s the workshops, for children as well as adults, where you may make a wooden xylophone and learn how to play intimidating Southeast Asian instruments. It’s that glass of crisp white wine in the tranquillity of the Arboretum. And,on our visit at least, it’s the sun blazing down throughout.

As at any crowded public event, one concern nagged us all. The toilets. Pristine on Thursday afternoon, could they make it to Monday?
It was all in the plan. The least pleasant job at the festival was accomplished with high diligence. The many portable toilets were cleaned frequently, and the paper, soap and chemicals refreshed.

There were recycling stations simply everywhere. I don’t think that old adage about how close you always are to a rat applies here. The poor things would have found nothing to eat.

Now, the way to turn heads and earn universal respect at Womad, and any festival for that matter, is to drive up in an immaculately restored 1962 split-windscreen VW camper (the one with the small back window and bullet indicators). We couldn''t manage that, but the Caravan Club did kindly lend us one of their latest motorhomes as an elegant refuge and defence against fickle summer tempest.

Hiring a camper van or motorhome is becoming one of the fashionable new things to do among summer music followers. WOMAD is one of so many outdoor events you might enjoy from a warm and cosy mobile base throughout 2015. The choice extends from Wigan to Wallingford, and Raglan to Radford Mill, via the Brecon Jazz Festival to the big stage bonanzas of Reading and the Isle of Wight.

The Caravan Club has a list of specialist motorhome companies, hiring out anything from the aforementioned distinguished veteran rescued from a rusty grave in the undergrowth, to miniature five-star hotels on wheels with every flourish except a butler. But do check your licence covers you to drive some of the bigger vehicles. Apart from that, and after a brief induction, it’s just you, your favourite music and the open road.

WOMAD, July 23-26, 2015.

Join Directory of Destinations on Facebook
Follow Directory of Destinations on Twitter