Wychwood Pilgrimage

Many armchair festival-goers will have soaked up the recent TV coverage of Glastonbury and probably concluded that the start of the British festival season was well and truly underway. And so it was – since the end of May in fact when a number of smaller unheralded  festivals kick started the season in their own unique styles.

One  of the first to traditionally open the festival season is the small but well-loved Wychwood Festival which takes over Cheltenham Racecourse each year for three days of family orientated fun.

The Wychwood big top home of the headphone disco

The familiar sight of the Wychwood Big Top

At first glance there isn’t an obvious connection between Lancashire and this friendly music festival in Cheltenham. The explanation lies in the difference between the likes of Glastonbury and Wychwood, one a huge global brand and Wychwood, small and heavily reliant on its determined volunteers who return every year to support the festival.

A sizable group of these willing volunteers travel from Lancashire, hence the North West connection. It is a journey they have made for a number of years to ensure that Wychwood has enough people to do the little jobs that keep the festival running.

The Christians at Wychwood Festival 2011

The superb Christians in action on the Wychwood main stage

It’s a huge commitment. Many volunteers will stay for 5 days and more in order to help setting up and shutting down the festival. They come from all walks of life and are prepared to take holidays and forego salaried work to attend. So why do they do it? Casual conversations identify a recurring theme – best described as the sense of belonging to something that is cherished and worthwhile.

The Wychwood magic works on many levels The location is one factor with the magnificent rolling Prestbury hills giving one of the finest backdrops to any festival in the Britain.There is no doubt that on a fine summer day there can be few better places to be, listening to live music as the sun gradually sets.

Main stage from the cocktail garden - Wychwood Festival 2011

Wychwood main stage from the cocktail garden

Also the size of the festival isnt overwhelming. There is plenty of space for everyone to find their own niche and numerous activities for all the members of the family. The family is another recurring theme at Wychwood with enough going on for even the most demanding of offspring. One person described it rather neatly as the festival for families who wouldn’t normally do festivals.

Other quirky activities that you wouldn’t see everyday include the once seen not forgotten “Headphone Disco”. Held in the Big Top and starting at 11 pm the disco requires everyone to wear headphones to listen to the music. Originally driven by licensing requirements (the racecourse is near to housing hence no music after 11pm) the Headphone Disco has proved to be an innovative way of keeping the entertainment going. Apart from the murmur of conversation the tent is quiet – but full of dancing people. It’s a surreal moment.

The Charlatans main stage Wychwood Festival 2011

The Charlatans bringing Friday to a close on the main stage

Having a large volunteer presence seems to help the smaller festivals more than just financially. The volunteer has chosen to be there, not employed or paid but driven by enthusiasm alone. There is little doubt that this collective enthusiasm contributes greatly to the overall magic of the event.

Returning to Wychwood each year is like one has never been away. It’s a familiar place with friendly faces. The sense of anticipation is high and the feeling is positive. Long may it remain.


The 2012 Wychwood Festival will take place from Friday 8th of June till Sunday 12th of June 2012. Venue as usual will be the Cheltenham Racecourse.

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