Houghton Hall, Norfolk
Arriving at Houghton Festival, excitement levels ratchet with each passing landmark. First, there’s the long, straight, tree-lined approach, humped and stretching just a little beyond a clear sightline, creating a vague sense of unreality. Next, walking the short stretch down to the festival gate, you pass the imposing Houghton Hall on your right, with a great sweeping channel cut into the landscape away to the left, the sheer size of empty land driving home how remote the site is.
For the entire weekend, that dreamy spell never lifted: there was no phone signal at all, and the lake, dense woodland and breezy plains all felt straight out of C.S. Lewis’ imagination. What you’re left with is a sort of utopian playground soundtracked by one of the most impressive line-ups in recent memory. With a 24-hour license it was non-stop too, with curator Craig Richards playing for more than 20 hours over the course of the festival.
That summed up the direction of the programming in general, with average sets around four hours in length, and plenty of DJs playing multiple sets over the weekend. The result was a wealth of choices at any given time: do you see Joy Orbison or Midland? Andrew Weatherall or Nicolas Lutz? Nicolas Jaar or Radioactive Man? Of course, it didn’t matter. The beauty of the place was you did it all.
Apart from, well, the actual beauty of the place. Anyone who has experienced Gottwood, which has the same behind-the-scenes team as Houghton, will tell you that the level of care and attention payed to that festival’s setting and staging is second to none. Until now, perhaps. There may not have been anything that looks as iconic as the Tricon at the Anglesey festival site, but between the woodland Pavilion and the Quarry, a cauldron of a dancefloor situated at the base of a subterranean bowl, there was plenty of charm to the stages.
Then there were the sound systems. I have honestly never been to a festival where the sound was so good. Bar Hunee’s closing set at the Quarry on Sunday night, when either the speakers blew or – depending on who you believe – an environmental group’s complaints meant the organisers turned them down, it was loud and crisp at every juncture. Particularly special was the Trojan Soundsystem, which imbued every track in Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy’s Cosmodelica set of lush classic disco cuts with a magically heightened feel. Likewise, the Brilliant Corners stage, where the Analogue Foundation’s outrageous Giant Steps system encircled the wood-panelled dancefloor and lush green foliage framed the old BBC Technics turntable and mixer unit. Here, sets from Hunee, Danny Bushes and Floating Points seemed to take off to another level.
The site’s obligatory warehouse stage was likely the least interesting aesthetically, but still played host to sets by Raresh and Rhadoo stacked with mind-bogglingly intricate mixes unlikely to be replicated. On the main outdoor stage, named for Richards’ old friend and London clubbing icon Derren Smart, live sets from Tony Allen, Kamaal Williams, and Villalobos and Max Loderbauer’s Vilod delivered a welcome change of pace, as did Nicolas Jaar’s two hours of celestial curveballs on Saturday night. Perhaps most special of all was the secret Terminus clearing, where Margaret Dygas and Craig Richards B2B Nicolas Lutz made full use of the capabilities. Four stacks faced inward from each corner and hours seemed to fly by in a sea of incredulous faces.
The set of the weekend for me though, belonged to Optimo. With the sun rising again over the Quarry, the Glaswegian duo dragged the willing crowd through to the final day, Nathan Fake’s sublime The Sky Was Pink unleashing a wave of emotion for the final ascent, culminating in Nina Simone’s Feeling Good. Shell-shocked ravers retreated up the hill, most making their way to the festival’s arguable centrepiece, Craig Richards’ eight-hour B2B with Ricardo Villalobos.
By that point, with sleep so often trumped by whatever stand-out moment was happening at any given time, I was surprised at my own willingness to continue into the morning. But with the duo turning out leftfield breaks cuts and a crowd captivated in unison, the party didn’t slow. Like so much of Houghton Festival, it was incomprehensibly fun.
If I could level one complaint at the festival it would be the lack of diversity in the line-up. There are wider problems in the scene that make it hard but the onus must be on festivals to try and rectify this and it should be food for thought.
Still, when we left the site, mobile phones sparking back to life and the outside world looming into view, no-one could quite believe what had taken place, as if everyone had shared some lucid dream. A genuine jewel in the festival calendar had been born.