Festivals; the UK is absolutely teeming with them and if you had asked me earlier this year, I would have told you there is no space for another one. I was wrong. Houghton festival has stormed onto the scene this year and managed to fill a space that we didn’t even realise existed. Delivering on all fronts, the Norfolk event has firmly asserted itself as a staple of the UK festival calendar.
Arriving at Houghton Hall, before the festival has even come into view, the sense of leaving behind reality and entering another realm overcomes you. Travelling the long, straight, road lined by towering trees and idyllic English countryside, the sheer size of the location becomes apparent and it’s clear this weekend is going to be good. Curated by Fabric resident Craig Richards and produced by the geniuses behind Gottwood festival, expectations were high from the outset.
The unique and original production had clear notes of Gottwood, coupled with the expert musical choices of connoisseur Craig Richards, the festival has set the bar high. But what really makes this festival so special and stand out in the UK and European scenes is the monumental 24-hour music license. No longer do you have to face the dreaded moment where silence echoes out over the woodland and you and your groove gang resign to squeezing 10 of you into a 2-man tent to crowd around your dying Bluetooth speaker. The music starts at 9am on Friday morning, and it doesn’t stop until the early hours of Monday. Along with barely any phone signal, revellers were whole-heartedly encouraged to completely lose themselves in the bewitching fantasy of Houghton. (Some, like me, are still trying to find themselves…)
Based solely on merit, Richards curated an all-encompassing line up comprised purely of ‘chefs not waiters’. The 24-hour license allowed artists to really get things cooking with the average set lasting around four hours and many DJs playing multiple sets over the weekend. Richards himself managed an impressive 20 hours over the three days. The music played over the weekend covered everything from ambient dub to trippy techno, and it was superb to see these true artists morphing and experimenting with each performance across the three-day period.
A stellar line-up is nothing however, without a decent sound system and thank God Houghton knew this. The speakers blew me away at every opportunity bellowing out clean, crisp drum rolls and impenetrable, weighty bass. The stages themselves were varied and interesting, providing the perfect backdrop to a magical experience. Most notable was The Quarry, a deep pit surrounded by trees that encased the impressive sound systems perfectly. Starting here on the Friday afternoon Calibre was a great introduction to Houghton and when dusk fell Joy Orbison followed by Ben UFO fully flaunted the capabilities of The Quarry, whipping the crowd into a state of euphoria with some classic UK sounds.
On exploring the festival site further, we came to stumble through the woods into The Pavilion. Centred around a large lake (very Gottwood-esque), The Pavilion lies deep in the forest just at the water’s edge, a beautiful sight when the sun was rising over Craig Richards and Ricardo Villalobos b2b 8-hour marathon on the final morning. Just past the pavilion lay the token industrial Warehouse. Designed specifically for the minimal heads among us, the derelict semi-enclosed cow-barn-cum-hangar was an interesting juxtaposition to the other earthy stages surrounded in shrouded trees. Featuring sets from Seth Troxler, Raresh, Rhadoo and Sonja Moonear, you could always rely on the Warehouse to pump out gigantic four-to-the-floors and satisfy those cravings for some harder techno sounds.
On the main outdoor stage, named after dear friend of Richards and London clubbing icon Derren Smart, Nicolas Jaar played the stand out set of the weekend. Drawing in huge crowds with two hours of sublunary original cuts and an eclectic selection of his own productions, Jaar took his crowd on a journey through atmospheric ethereal melodies to serious skank inducing worldly rhythms, at one point sending the crowd wild with an insane tech remix of Rihanna’s "Bitch Better Have My Money". This main(est) stage played host to several live acts over the weekend, closing with a live set from minimal techno groovers Cobblestone Jazz. Featuring live jazz piano and rippling drum patterns, sets such as this one proved how comprehensive and universal the music heard over this wonderful weekend was.
Credit must also be given to the smaller areas of the festival; Seth Troxler cruised through low-key deep house and robotic oozing bass at the Magic Carpet stage. A particular nod to Dalston’s music venue Brilliant Corners, whose tent, complete with their insanely good Analogue Foundation portable sound system brought good house party vibes. With a plethora of house plants, wooden floors and a cosy atmosphere, it was a delight to see some favourites like Hunee, Floating Points and Ben UFO in such an intimate setting. Something I really appreciated throughout the festival was the opportunity to watch the masters at work from eye level, to see them selecting and mixing their tracks rather than towering 10 feet above me with 100 ‘VIPs’ behind them.
As well as outstanding music and sound the festival catered to those looking for a more wholesome experience offering yoga, saunas and life drawing in The Orchard and sculpture tours on a toy train throughout the day, which if boarded later on in the evening ended up at the secret Terminus stage. Richards played a surprise set on Sunday morning at this secret after party stage and the real clingers-on found themselves entranced in the woodland pit until the afternoon, when the proceedings started all over again. There was a decent selection of food on offer and plenty of areas to sit and enjoy the surroundings. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly. A festival for true discerning music lovers, there was a strong sense of a family feel for those that had experienced this dreamland together.
As with any festival in its first year Houghton was not without its issues. It seemed the organisers were perhaps not confident of the capacities of stages with barriers set up throughout the weekend to control crowd numbers at certain stages, namely the Quarry and Pavilion, resulting in dangerous bottle necks. People were forced to queue for up to 25 minutes at times – total buzzkill – even queuing twice for a period of time at the Quarry. The lack of phone reception, although a quiet relief from the constant snapchat/Instagram onslaught seen at most festivals these days, did make it harder to co-ordinate with friends and if you were separated you just had to hope you were reunited later on. The lack of toilets in close proximity to the stages, for me, also seemed to be an issue. Although they were quick to respond to this problem in the Quarry as the festival unfolded.
Despite being promised we would be handed set times and a map on arrival, unless you had the forethought to print the map and set times or managed to keep your phone charged, I could find nowhere to purchase a programme and this made the first day a rather discombobulated mess of figuring out stage names and locations. Houghton was also extremely lucky with the weather and despite being a beautiful location, how this venue would cope with a typical British summertime downpour is yet to be seen. A more diversified line up from Houghton would also catapult their success further. This years bill only featured a small number of female artists, some of which perform together. It's important for events such as Houghton, being so forward thinking in many other aspects, to assume some responsibility and affect change in the current electronic music scene when it comes to booking equal amounts of male and female talent.
Having said that, the positives completely outweigh any negatives I can list for Houghton. The festival has a great potential to become one of the UK’s best dance events. Not many festivals can have the effect Houghton has in its inaugural edition and that is testament to the great production and curation from Gottwood and Craig Richards. I look forward to seeing how this festival will flourish and improve, and I will definitely be back in 2018.
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