In early August, the team behind Gottwood festival returned to the idyllic grounds of Norfolk’s Houghton Hall for the second instalment of the acclaimed Houghton Festival, lovingly curated by Fabric mainstay Craig Richards. Despite the disappointing return to typically British summertime drizzle, what unfolded in the woods, down in the quarry and in the scattering of assembled yurts and teepees over the four-day festival were truly magical.
Much of its success is down to Richards, the man behind it all, who has insisted previously that his vision for Houghton is simple; invite his friends and respected peers to play what they want, when they want and for how long they want.
Absent were hour-long sets, major timetable clashes and predominantly empty, side-lined stages which sometimes tarnish other festivals. Instead, artists were allowed to play lengthy, meandering sets, with big names littered across a wide array of stages big and small, intense and intimate.
This ethos resonated across the entire weekend and the results were stunning. It allowed artists to dive into the obscure, weirder sides of their record collection, and rewarded audiences for sticking with it throughout.
Those that committed to Calibre’s deep exploration of house and dub, for example, were heavily rewarded when he finally plunged cathartically into exquisite liquid drum-n-bass, such as his remix of London Grammar’s “If You Wait”, accompanied by the rhymes of MC DRS.
Similarly, those that managed to squeeze into the Old Gramophone stage on Friday night, and resisted the allure of other headliners such as Hunee were taken on a musical journey by Willow and Shanti Celeste, from slower grooves like Roy of the Ravers’ “Emotinium” to more upbeat rhythms such as Four Tet’s remix of Nelly Furtado’s “Afraid” and darker cuts such as The Persuader’s “What Is The Time, Mr. Templar?”
Away from the bustle of large stages such as the Pavilion, there was intimate charm to be found in smaller areas dotted around the site. Whereas other small festivals such as Lost Village opt for grand, immersive decors and theatrical experiences, Houghton’s restraint and simplicity when it came to staging allowed the music and sound systems at these smaller stages to loom front and centre.
This was especially evident at the cosmic Stallions tent and the beautiful, leafy Giant Steps yurt ran by the team behind London’s Brilliant Corners bar, where the likes of Shane One and Eliphino played on luscious, crisp sound systems to however many people could squeeze through the low, inconspicuous entranceways.
None of this could have worked without a crowd that was accepting of the unexpected, willing to embrace oddities and daring left turns from the likes of Andrew Weatherall alongside well-known crowd-pleasers, such as Chic’s “I Want Your Love” dropped by Horse Meat Disco during the weekend’s sunniest moment. The same ravers could be seen skanking to Binh dropping DJ Zinc’s “138 Trek”, and then bopping to glistening disco from Mr Scruff the morning after.
These fellow festival goers were friendly, carrying an infectious, up-for-it vibe that seemed to seep its way into every stage, every set and every song. This led to some silly, truly unforgettable moments, such as games of throw-and-catch with strangers during a lovingly crafted disco set from Nick The Record, or an entire crowd deciding to become one with nature and transforming into a shuffling, boogying fern forest during Midland’s quarry set.
It’s this good spirit, backed by very good music, that’s made Houghton such an acclaimed event in just two years. Regardless of who you were seeing and at what stage, there was fun to be found; whether you had opted for the spacey, trippy rhythms from Craig Richards himself or the genre-spanning silliness laid down by the Glaswegian duo Optimo, memories were being made.
So even if you missed key performances such as Ricardo Villalobos’ sunrise set or three hours of note-perfect house from Jayson Wynters, it felt nearly impossible to leave Houghton feeling like you’d missed out on something truly special.
So is there much room for improvement going forward? Perhaps the occasional lapse in speaker volume at the larger stages could be addressed. Maybe the toilets could have been a bit less grim. Maybe even the organisers could find a way to make the weather less terrible. But past these minor complaints, there isn’t much else to say. Richards and team have landed on an absolute winner of a formula, crafting one of the finest festivals in the UK circuit. Next August can’t come soon enough…
Words by Elliot Tawney // Photography by Kris Humphreys for Here & Now