On the eve of Truck Festival, founder Robin Bennett tells Tim Hughes about how it feels to be celebrating the event’s 20th anniversary

Twenty years ago a group of friends decided to hold a party in a field to celebrate the 20th birthday of a south Oxfordshire musician.

They roped in mates in bands, planned a bar and camping, got a flat bed truck for a stage and launched their own festival – calling it Truck.

Then the police heard about it, told them to apply for a license and do it properly.

Truck Festival finally took off at Hill Farm, Steventon, in September 1998, organised by Joe Bennett and his brother Robin – whose birthday they were there to celebrate – and with a list of bands few can remember.

It came back the following year in early July and has remained ever since.

This weekend Truck celebrates its 20th anniversary on the site where it all started. And Robin, who celebrates his 39th birthday today, and Joe will be there.

The brothers, who grew up in Steventon, are inextricably linked with Truck. As well as organising it, their first band, Whispering Bob – named after the legendary broadcaster who lives in the village – played the first festival.

They have been a fixture ever since with their second incarnation Goldrush and latterly their soul Americana band The Dreaming Spires. The pair also play in dream-pop band Saint Etienne, while Joe is a member of the band Co-Pilgrim, who are also Truck regulars.

While the pair no longer run the festival, having handed it over to the team from Derbyshire’s Y Not Festival for the 2012 event after running into financial difficulties, they remain involved, Robin programming The Saloon stage and Joe curating the Veterans and Virgins stage. The pair also run Truck’s environmentally-friendly sister event Wood Festival.

“It’s amazing Truck’s still going and has kept growing,” says Robin, who is looking forward to returning to the main stage with Joe for a Dreaming Spires set on Sunday afternoon.

“There are so many more people now but the core audience is still the same – late teens and early-20s. The guys running it now have kept it fresh, which is great. But there are still plenty of the original Truckers at our stages – where we get to grow old with the audience. It’s the best of both worlds.

“There’s a great line-up this year. And I even know all the headliners!”

A formidable lot they are too, with rock & roll bad boy Peter Doherty and his band The Libertines, platinum-selling west London garage-rockers The Vaccines and NME and Brit award-winning Glaswegian art-rock act Franz Ferdinand.

Other big names include The Wombats, Slaves, Maximo Park, Nothing But Thieves, Hot 8 Brass Band, Twin Atlantic, Loyle Carner, RedFaces, Jagwar Ma and Sundara Karma.

They are joined by Deaf Havana, Hinds, The Moonlandingz, Pulled Apart by Horses, Jamie Lenman, The Big Moon, Honey Blood, Zak Abel, Pumarosa, Arcane Roots, Dream Wife and The Oxford Symphony Orchestra. Actor Idris Elba seals the deal, taking to the decks for his own DJ set.

This year’s festival long-since sold out, with 12,000 people expected through the gates.

It has certainly come a long way since that first year when 600 people gathered to hear sets by Whispering Bob and mates Nought, ATL, Nebula, Fan Modine, Tumbleweed, Mecca, Holy Roman Empire, Black Candy (featuring Joe Hill, landlord of Oxford’s Fir Tree pub), Swiss, Merlin and Joe Bennett’s old punk band Blinder.

Tickets for that first event were just £3, compared to £125 for this year’s three-day festival.

Flyers encouraged punters to “bring a tent, poncho, peace, love, Bob Harris and sunshine” and to leave behind “the chainsaw, brown acid, rain and Sunny Delight”.

“It was pretty low-key back then,” says Robin. “We had a burger van but no site lighting, so it was pitch black after dark, and on the flyer it had my parents’ phone number – there was no website because there was no internet. But a lot of people from the local scene came along.”

Bob Harris also became a fan, rocking up regularly.

“I’m not sure what he thought of our band using his name,” laughs Robin. “But he must have liked us as he played one of our songs on his Radio 2 show. I think he was quite pleased when we changed the name though.”

The brothers watched as their festival mushroomed, playing host to the likes of Supergrass, Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys, Edwyn Collins, Graham Coxon, Biffy Clyro, Brian Jonestown Massacre, Radiohead’s Philip Selway, The Magic Numbers, Spectrum, The Futureheads, The Mystery Jets, The Lemonheads, Bellowhead, Garth Hudson of The Band, Frank Turner, Ash and Teenage Fanclub, Mercury Rev, Saint Etienne, British Sea Power, The Low Anthem and Guillemots.

They also programmed innovative dance, hip-hop and drum & bass artists, among them Lethal Bizzle, Chase & Status Altern-8, and DJ Fresh – all in the cow barn which doubled for a rock stage.

In 2007 Oxford indie-rockers Foals were moved from the Trailer Park Tent to the bigger Barn because of the crush of people trying to see the then up-and-coming band.

“After growing beyond 2,000 people it got pretty full-on and stressful,” Robin recalls. “And we grew to more than 6,000.”

“It’s hard for me to adjust to not actually running the whole thing any more,” says Robin, who lives in nearby Dorchester, and stood as a candidate for the Green Party in June’s General election. After some years in the USA, Joe is back in Steventon.

“Psychologically my year is orientated around this weekend and for all those years of running it, the start of Truck was always the big deadline. It’s still exciting though, even though my role is diminished.

“This year should be spectacular. It is still recognisable as Truck festival though – and the farmer, Alan Binning, and his friends from Didcot Rotary Club will still be selling burgers and chips as they always have done.

“What’s nice about it is it’s not posh. It’s for everyone and it has held onto its roots. And the guys who run it have a lot of respect for its heritage.

“What we started was quite pioneering. It’s hard to get a sense of perspective, but it’s good to see it grow – and that’s something we always wanted. A lot of people have had a lot of fun doing it for a long time. And it’s in great hands.”

He also clears up a long-running myth about the name of the event. “We used a truck for a stage, but that’s not where the name comes from,” he smiles. “It actually comes from the name of a record I had – the soundtrack of the movie Convoy, called Ten Trucking Greats. I liked the Americana feel of the name, and it stuck – even before we knew we’d have a truck as a stage!”

* Truck Festival starts tomorrow and runs until Sunday at Hill Farm, Steventon. Tickets have sold out