Are you a parent who still wants to go to festivals? This quaint new festival in Hertfordshire might be the perfect event for you – and for non-parents, too.
Had you boarded the train from Liverpool Street to Cambridge this weekend, you would have likely been sat amongst scores of bucket-hat-wearing festival-goers heading up to Strawberries & Creem Festival (though sadly not to see Lil Wayne). Just a few stops into the journey, though, a much smaller crowd would have hopped off for the inaugural Birch Arising Festival in Cheshunt.
Set on the grounds of a 55-acre estate, this is more than just glamping; this is a festival with a large stately home containing some 140 rooms. Yes, you can stay. Yes, that means it’s a festival where you don’t have to temporarily dissociate yourself from reality when you go to the toilet. Yes, that means – if you so wish – you can have a shower after dancing till the early hours.
The site has a bit of history to it. It was formerly owned by Lady Meux in the early 20th century; one of Britain’s wealthiest women following the death of her husband, Sir Henry Meux, in January 1900. A known eccentric (she reportedly used zebras, not horses, to pull her carriage into London), Lady Meux spent ten years imbibing the grounds with a quirky expressiveness, turning the site, formerly known as Theobalds Park, into a retreat just outside the capital.
In many ways that spirit lives on, with an evident focus on ensuring a pleasant time for all ages, including childcare arrangements and activities. Such a setup might put some people off, perhaps those hoping to have an edgier, child-free time. But we’re all young at heart – especially at festivals. And in fact there’s few things more liberating than seeing a young family dancing to house tunes with their toddler. (I think that’s the kind of parent many of us would hope to be before life and all its nappies get in the way).
At one point, rather sweetly, DJ Nadia Ksaiba played with her young daughter strapped round her front. And before you ask: yes, the baby was wearing strong headphones to cancel out the noise.
Other acts shone too – although this time without their kids joining them. Singer Falle Nioke, from Guinea, appeared to hold back the heavens from rain throughout his upbeat set. The closing set from DJ Greg Wilson, a former Haçienda resident, was replete with well-known classics for a jolly time all round.
By far the most compelling performance, however, was from Gabriels – the LA-based trio who stepped up to the mark as the headline act. Frontman Jacob Lusk’s exceptional vocals, harnessed from his time as a gospel singer and choir director, left you wondering just how he was able to reach those high notes at times.
Such divine singing seemed rather fitting for a festival that also boasts a wellness tent where reiki, crystal clearing, tarot reading and other such spiritual activities were on offer, alongside massage and vitamin shots. (I opted for the last spot of crystal clearing if you must know – the effect of which is difficult to fathom after a fair few drinks).
I know what you’re thinking: all a bit la-di-da. But what works about Birch Arising is it’s unashamedly middle-class. Many a festival nowadays will act the egalitarian pauper who’s “just here for the music” but be the expensive serpent underneath. This is a festival that knows what it is. A boujee weekend of revelry for Soho House member-types.
Judging by what one festival goer, Sam, told me at the bar – that he’d been to Glastonbury for ten years and stopped going because of his children, until he was able to bring them to something more manageable (with a room and not just a tent) – it seems the perfect event for some.
Not everything is tip-top, and there were inevitable teething problems for a festival in its first year. The lighting and setup for The Hub, essentially the second stage, suffered from being plonked in between the hotel and the bar; making the music feel more like glorified music in a hotel lobby than an actual set.
The local taxi rank told me they weren’t aware of the festival beforehand, leading to a slight pile-up outside Cheshunt station. And, frankly, more people to create an atmosphere that would suit the large outside space would be welcome.
That, hopefully, is just a matter of time, now that Birch Arising has finally risen.