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Houghton: Why it was the festival we needed

Photo Credit: Khris Cowley / Khroma Collective

The triumphant return of Craig Richards’s forest fete was as creative as the mind of its founders. Imagination and discovery are part of the DNA at Houghton. Here are 5 reasons why it was worth the searing August heat.

1. Designed to get you lost

“Fuck the schedule…let’s wander.” That’s the general consensus when the music programming is impeccable. After years of canceled parties, Zoom-life, and too-careful socializing, it’s a relief to just go with the flow. You don’t have to worry about missing your favorite artist. Most acts play at least twice during the 4-day weekend, but more importantly, they’re all superb. This may be subjective, however, when the festival is curated by legendary fabric resident Craig Richards and his partner, wellness aficionado Amanda Eastwood, it’s a little easier to trust the rave gods and throw away the map. Actually, they never gave us one—see?

2. Those shady hidden gems

The benefit of getting lost is finding new and vibrant things—and this discovery is Houghton’s gift. One moment you’re off to see Ricardo Villalobos, the next you’re sidetracked by the syncopated pull of Greg Paulus’ 4-piece jazz ensemble. You thought an espresso martini would hit the spot, but after catching wind of Midland’s captivating ambient set —you landed under a tree smoking a joint instead. You remembered to eat—well done! But before you could swallow your last gyoza, you’re whisked away by friends-in-passing–– to sacrifice your feet to Magda at a thumping warehouse stage you didn’t know existed. These are the surprises we cherish at intimate festivals—-a twist, a turn a new world opened.

Houghton welcomed about 8,000 patrons to dance and play across thirteen stages in the Norfolk countryside; including one very hidden stage with no line-up posted at all. Terminus––which must have been named for its location at the end of the earth–– housed a deep bench of talent, from Craig’s B2B session with Nicolas Lutz to Doc Martin, DJ Three, Mayan Nidam, Francesco del Garda, and Masda, just to name a few. You only knew who was playing by word-of-mouth and if you took the 20-minute pilgrimage to get there, you were not only met with top-notch tunes but the sweet shade of the old-growth forest and a dope-ass light show—making this the coolest stage in all the ways.

3. Thoughtfully curated whimsy

If you want pandemonium, go to Burning Man. If you want vision, come to Houghton. The former is the result of a thousand artistic ideas but Houghton is one idea done well–––and you have 4 nights and a thousand ways to explore it. The Houghton team seemed to have the festival-goer in mind at every turn, like on Saturday, when the heatwave peaked and angels arrived with ice-soaked washcloths to revive the sun-scorched loungers at The Gramophone Stage.

Amanda Eastwood curated The Orchard —a wealth of feel-good experiences from massage and foot-washing to disco yoga and life-drawing. The sound bath and cacao ceremony by Ibiza’s Cosmic Pineapple quenched all the senses. When attending a 24- hour festival you might have forgotten that all-important factor of sleep. Maybe you missed out on the only temperate sleeping hours because you couldn’t stop dancing to Dave Harvey, Seth Troxler, or Bobby. Tristan Da Cunha’s Freakenstein certainly did not inspire sleep. Then, at Stallions, was Felix Dickinson, Shane One, Andy & Renata when ——oops! It’s suddenly 10 am. Your tent is a furnace that is no longer inhabitable. It’s too hot to dance or to sleep, this is where the chill zone of the Orchard starts to speak your language.

Raving ain’t easy so if you do find yourself in need of some support, mental health experts known as ‘the Guardians’ are on-site, but if you just need a little emotional grounding, head to Aunt Tea for a cuppa and a chat. The bell tent designed like your auntie’s living room, comes complete with ‘the good China’ and some old-timey furniture. You are welcomed by a kind lady in a conspicuous wig who offers you a pat on the hand and a good laugh. After tea, head to The Turntable & Napkin for a delicious three-course meal. Then, top off your comedown at the Pinters stage, where you might find epic producer Howie B playing live or an ambient opera by Ricardo Romaneiro & Noision. Ok, is your energy restored? Excellent timing to expend it once again because up next are Shanti Celeste, Jonny Rock, Voigtmann, and Sonja Moonear. This festival can beat you up and revive you all in a day’s work.

4. Founded on creativity

In a world of gimmicky high-production festivals, there’s nothing more unique than the authenticity of Houghton Hall. This towering stone estate from 1722 is ever-present in the distance alongside Lord David Cholmondeley’s world-renown sculpture garden. Not only did Craig somehow convince the Marquess to let him hold a festival here, but you can even take a free tour of the private art collection. It’s quite a bizarre scene to watch the open-air jitney roll along with bedazzled festival tourists on their way to see masterpieces like James Turell’s ‘Skyspace’. However, it’s extra entertaining when a few (very high) patrons were shocked to learn that the art tour they were on was not the Terminus Stage.

Not to fear, if you skipped the tour, just open your eyes and look around. There is plenty of art selected just for Houghton’s surrounding stages and food vendors. Would you expect anything less from Mr. Richards, who in addition to his auricular talents also attended Central Saint Martins? Those who know would have recognized Craig’s signature handwritten scribbles and earthly abstract shapes on stages and backdrops. In addition to artists like Antonia Beard and Daisy Dickinson, he also debuted 3 new metal sculptures, each one over 7m high. You might say art is in the bones of the place.

5. The world needs imagination now

How about that heat at Houghton, though? Here’s the unfortunate bit…the grass — lush in previous years––was brown, crisp, and coarse. Oxygenated water was pumped into the dry lakebed to save a few remaining fish. By Sunday, The Pavilion stage was too dusty to comfortably dance, while the Old Gramophone was transformed from a dance tent to a shaded lounge. It was the hottest summer on record for the UK and everyone felt it. Beyond this incredible celebration of music and life was another conversation stuck in the back of our dusty throats: this is climate change. What can we do?

There’s no shortage of practical tips out there about sustainable raving: Take the train, fuck the glitter, don’t let tents go to landfills, and use biodegradable wipes. Houghton did a great job by providing (and collecting) reusable cups. Water was free—-as it should be at every festival. Though no human or event is ever perfect, small actions by many can create significant change.

One of the less talked about aspects of making change however is imagination. Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking we used when we created them.” Which means it’s time to level up. Envisioning a greener world is the first step to achieving it–– and it’s no one’s job but our own.

The corporate clones of convenience aren’t going to get us out of this mess. That’s why supporting independent thinkers, artists, musicians and parties is an often overlooked strategy in the journey to sustainability. How can we utilize the weird, transcendent experiences art provides to think out of the box? Solutions do come from science but imagination is an ingredient that the future needs too —-and I’m certain that the founders of Houghton know just that.

Check out some of the best shots from Houghton Festival below:

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