On the eve of its 10th birthday, Tim Hughes finds out about Wychwood's eclectic line-up

A decade ago, a group of West Oxfordshire music lovers hit upon an ambitious idea. Inspired by the number of music festivals springing up around the county, they set out to host their own.

They knew what they wanted – a mix of music, wholesome fun and culture with a minimum of corporate branding. What they lacked, though was a site.

With an eye to the raucous Wychwood Forest Fairs, which provided a highlight of the summer in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, they called it Wychwood, and set about finding a location in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds. They failed, falling victim to local nimby-ism – but struck lucky in neighbouring Gloucestershire, setting up camp at Cheltenham Racecourse.

Since then it has grown and acquired a loyal fanbase of festival-goers, who are drawn to the first big outdoor music gathering of the summer.

Next week Wychwood opens its gates for the 10th time, and organiser Graeme Merifield is leading the celebrations.

“It’s brilliant to still be here at 10 and that people still want to come,” he says, talking from Wychwood HQ in Witney Market Square. “It’s very strange to think I’ve been doing this for a decade of my life, though. My daughter Laura is 10 too, so the family has grown up with it.”

"The idea was always to set up a festival which was very family friendly and where everyone could have a good time. We set out with the idea that music has a common language to unite people. And while that is not a mantra, it has provided an inspiration.

“We appeal to a cross-range of society with a cross-range of music, which also makes us different to other festivals in the area. And while I always hoped it would grow, I didn’t know whether we’d get here.”

Oxford Mail:
Graeme Merifield, left, with daughters Laura, 10, and Hannah, eight, and Stefan Edwards

Despite the crowded festival market, and general lack of disposable cash, Wychwood is flourishing – with ticket sales up 30 per cent on last year. At least 10,000 are expected over the weekend.

“We’ve got a lot of regulars who wouldn’t miss our 10th birthday celebrations,” says Graeme. “It has a great line-up and is still cheaper than many other local festivals.”

Wychwood is celebrating with a line-up which pulls together some vintage gems and a wealth of new talent. Lending a heady post-punk flavour to proceedings are headliners The Boomtown Rats, The Stranglers and anarcho-folk band The Levellers.

“We are really looking forward to coming back to Wychwood Festival this year for their 10th anniversary celebrations," said Leveller’s frontman Mark Chadwick.

Oxford Mail:

Pop punks: Black Hats

They are joined by 10cc’s Graham Gouldman, ‘Lip Up Fatty’ stars Bad Manners, Madness saxophonist Lee Thompson and his Ska Orchestra, and indie-pop act Reef.

Representing the new crop are King Charles, Bipolar Sunshine, Wolf Alice, Racing Glaciers, Pretty Rascals, Polly and the Billets Doux and Mr B the Gentleman Rhymer.

Oxfordshire is ably represented by the city’s Cuban Big Band Ran Kan Kan. The 20-piece band is led by singers Pancho Vera and Melisa Akdogan and incorporates an array of horns, flutes, guitars and strings to perform mambo and Latin jazz.

Also starring are Witney’s self-styled ‘yob savants’ Black Hats – who will provide a welcome hit of turbocharged pop-punk, and Oxford’s former Candyskins indie-rocker Nick Cope, now a children’s singer-songwriter.

The festival will also be graced by aristocracy, at least of the fictional variety. Blues-jazz-folk band Sadie and the Hotheads are fronted by American Elizabeth McGovern – aka Cora Crawley, The Countess of Grantham from TV’s Downton Abbey.

“We’ve got a really solid line-up,” said Graeme. “The Levellers are the most-requested band ever and put on a great festival show; they give it their all. I’m also looking forward to seeing Lee Thompson, who plays a full-on ska show with a few Madness songs thrown in, and Reef – who are also great. The Black Hats are a great Witney indie-band and will open the main stage on Saturday. I’m really pleased to have them back.”

Oxford Mail:

Party time: Ran Kan Kan

A solidly family-oriented festival, Wychwood continues its tradition of providing first-class children’s entertainment. The big name is BAFTA Award-winning CBeebies star Justin Fletcher – aka Mr Tumble – who has starred in such kids’ favourites as Gigglebiz, Higgledy House and Something Special. His previous appearance at Wychwood saw dedicated young fans queueing round the field in drizzle for autographs from the star, and this year’s midday Saturday slot is sure to be a festival highlight.

Urging fans to come along for the show, Justin told The Guide: “I’m looking forward to bags of singing and dancing and having a party at Wychwood again this year.”

“Justin will certainly be one of the biggest stars of the festival,” laughs Graeme. “That’s why we’ve got him back. But only a handful of artists have played the festival in the past – we do try to keep it fresh every year.”

Young visitors will also be encouraged to join a series of sessions, including Indian-style Bhangra dance classes, circus acts and mime and crafts. There will also be a storytelling session by children’s author Cerrie Burnell.

For the grown-ups there are more than 100 workshops, plus late-night comedy and a real ale festival to sample. And, if the excitement, or the hangover, gets too much, there’s always the healing garden for some quality relaxation – or a massage.

Wychwood Festival runs from May 30-June 1 at Cheltenham Racecourse. Tickets from wychwoodfestival.com. Weekend adult tickets are £125

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Survivors: The Stranglers