IF you go down to the woods this summer, you’re sure of a big surprise.

For most of the year, the ancient copses, lakes and rolling grasslands of Cornbury Park are the exclusive haunt of elusive woodland wildlife. But this secluded corner of the Oxfordshire Cotswolds is set to be transformed into one of the country’s most creative and imaginative festivals.

Designed specifically to complement the protected landscape which surrounds the grade I-listed 16th century Cornbury House, Wilderness, which takes place from August 3-6, is unlike any other festival.

While its musical line-up is impressive, it is about so much more than bands. A genre-hopping sonic line-up sits alongside dance, theatre, cabaret, comedy, food from big name chefs, talks and discussions, craft workshops, wellness sessions and outdoor pursuits.

Where else could you start the day joining a run through the woods, head to a lake for rowing and swimming, feast at a banquet cooked by a Michelin-starred chef, catch hot new bands and international stars, and end up dancing the night away to world-class DJs in a wooded valley lit by lasers?

Oxford Mail: Revellers at Wilderness Festival in 2021

For festival boss Rory Bett, putting together this kaleidoscopic feast of arts, culture and hedonism is a labour of love.

“We don’t programme stages, we programme people,” says the easygoing chief of festival supremos MAMA.

“We create experiences on a big scale and intimate. We push every sense and sensibility so you can feel you’ve had a Wilderness just for you. Even if you come with 10 people, you can have an individual, unique experience.

Oxford Mail: Fatboy Slim

Fatboy Slim headlines

“We try and get people to change their outlook as soon as they come through the door.”

This year’s line up is a beauty and typically eclectic. Headlined by dance music superstars Fatboy Slim and The Chemical Brothers, and art-pop act Christine and The Queens, the four-day extravaganza also boasts reformed pop idols Sugababes, Australian electro-indie quartet Confidence Man, soul singer-songwriter Pip Millett, indie-punk artist Nuha Ruby Ra, electronic music act Acid Klaus, Latin rhythm-fuelled band Los Bitchos and Brighton guitar heroes Lime Garden.

Also up are Arlo Parks, Honey Dijon, Franc Moody and club legends Laurent Garnier and Todd Terry.

Oxford Mail: Wilderness 2021 Wilderness Festival

The festival’s respectable dance line-up is focused on the Valley – a steep wooded canyon in which festival goers dance to big name DJs as lasers light up the trees overhead. Also returning is jazz venue Ronnie Scott’s, which will present a tribute to soul queen Aretha Franklin with singer Vanessa Haynes, who has previously backed Chaka Khan and Van Morrison. There will also be contemporary classical music from pianist and composer Karim Kamar.

“Coming up with the line-up is aways quite tricky as there’s such a breadth of age and demographics, and there has to be something for everyone,” Rory continues. “It’s easier for Reading Festival where almost everyone is aged 18-24. But we have people aged 0-90 and want something for everybody.”

Oxford Mail: Arms in the air: The main stage crowd. Picture by Tim Hughes

A lot of love goes into the planning, and it shows. Every aspect of the event is curated to fit the landscape and add to the sense of exploration. Put simply, Wilderness could not take place anywhere else.

“We spend most of our time trying to make things site-specific, and want to keep it like that,” says Rory. “It’s a tribute to the beautiful Cornbury estate – and the landscape is the biggest hero. There are lots of festivals that are not as welcoming as ours is.

“We are literally in the front garden of Cornbury House – and that makes people feel welcome.”

The festival is respectful of the park and wider area, he says.

Oxford Mail: Wilderness Festival

“We Also think local. We try to engage with the location as much as we can. The festival is in a very beautiful landscape in a very beautiful county – and we want to engage with people around it.

“All those things come together to make people feel at home.”

He smiles. “It’s always good to come with friends, but if you’re on your own, you’ll come away meeting lots of people in a good place.”

While the festival’s popularity grows organisers refuse to increase capacity. This ensures a spacious, gathering with room to breath, roam and lose yourself among the trees – or stages – without crowds and crushes.

Oxford Mail: Wilderness Festival

Rory says the festival is evolving though, with new venues and tweaks to the site to improve revellers’ experience. This includes a redesign of the Valley dance venue which will this year be longer and broader, allowing more people into what is the night’s hottest space and eliminating fences and queues.

Festival goers are encouraged to dress up according to themes on each night, and as yet undisclosed ‘spectacles’ will take place over the weekend to keep the element of surprise and add to the sense of discovery.

Rory loves that his festival remains fundamentally different to the many others cropping up throughout the summer.

“We don’t regard ourselves as being in competition with anyone else,” he says with satisfaction. “It’s all about putting on the best show. By not trying to be like other festivals we can achieve not being like other festivals.”

And he encouraged experienced Wilderness ‘wild things’ and the curious and uninitiated alike to return to Cornbury Park for the gathering.

“People don’t leave Wilderness tired, they leave fulfilled,” he says. “It’s full of life with great artists in an amazing landscape – and it’s right on your doorstep. What have you got to lose?”

Wilderness Festival is at Cornbury Park, near Charlbury from August 3-6. Tickets from wildernessfestival.com