Cornbury Music Festival, Oxfordshire

PUBLISHED: 12:32 23 December 2010 | UPDATED: 16:01 20 February 2013

Cornbury Music Festival

Cornbury Music Festival

What am I? I take a month to put together, a weekend to happen, and a week to put asunder. Answer: the Cornbury Music Festival which will take place next month on July 11-12......

There is a wonderfully funny clip on the first ever Cornbury Festival DVD which Cornbury Park resident Lord Rotherwick takes in very good humour. Will Young, fresh from his success of winning Pop Idol, and the TV presenter Emma Forbes are lounging in front of the mellow yellow faade of Cornbury House pretending to be the aristocratic residents. How do you feel about opening our home to the public she enquires playfully? To which Will playing Lord Rotherwick responds, "I think when you're left these stately homes one should..." "Invite the public in?" Emma quips. "Help other people I think" concludes Will. Well that's how Will - the Young Pretender - feels. And in fact Cornbury Park, which was first mentioned in the Domesday Book, has been the site of festivals for centuries, drawing crowds of 40,000 during their heyday in the mid-19th century.

The weather may not have been too kind to Cornbury organiser Hugh Phillimore who lived the dream in bringing the festival to fruition in the first place. But even though the heavens may regularly open on the event, it takes more than a shower to dampen the spirit of the festival which Lady Rotherwick describes as heaven-sent.

"From our perspective, without doubt, it's the best weekend of the year. The children adore it, even Robin (Lord Rotherwick) likes it and it's always great fun. We have all of the upsides and none of the downsides."

Locals, celebrities and hardened festival-goers alike pour through the wrought iron gates of what was formerly a royal hunting lodge to woo Pop Idols and Icons at Poshstock, as it was dubbed by Mark Ellen in The Word magazine.

When the rains came down on the Saturday of the opening weekend on July 10 2004 everyone reached for their complimentary Boden waterproof ponchos to keep dry. (The very fact Hugh had the hindsight to sign up Johnnie Boden as a sponsor at this stage says something for his target audience). Even Will Young gamely donned his Boden must-have accessory as he burst onto the stage for his 45-minute set.

The event had been launched a few months earlier at a private drinks party hosted by Lord and Lady Rotherwick. Jeremy Clarkson, who makes no secret of his love of Chipping Norton, was more than happy to endorse a festival on his own doorstep. Hugh recalls the speech Clarkson made as hysterically funny: "Jeremy stood up and said he'd been asked to say a few words on behalf of this guy Hugh Phillimore who he'd just met in the car park - obviously dodgy! He told everyone that I'd got this mad idea to launch a rock festival in the Cotswolds and endorsed it by saying 'well good on him because, let's face it, the countryside is bloody boring, so at least it's something to do'." Clarkson has since put his money where his mouth is and has visited all five. (Autograph-hunters however beware - if hounded; he can bark at you and bite back).

Likewise, the support of local MP David Cameron, Alex James of Blur and Rowan Atkinson has no doubt nurtured the Poshstock tag.

This year the VIP tickets will be made more exclusive by Hugh reducing the number available to a mere 1,000. "Last year we sold 2,000, so if you want one you'll have to be quick," says Hugh. VIP weekend tickets cost 175 versus 90 standard. VIP day tickets cost 100 versus 55 standard. And what do you get for your extra money? "A beautiful tent, outdoor seating, your own bar, better loos and free Pimms," says Hugh.

For Cornbury House, it is undoubtedly the busiest weekend of the year. "It's the only weekend of the year when every bedroom in the house and most of the floor space is taken. We always have a big lunch party in the garden on the Saturday and Sunday for house guests and friends before we walk over to the festival," says Lady Rotherwick.

As I remember my own first Friday evening, attended by just a couple of thousand, it felt more like cocktail hour for the Cotswold jet set. As I parked my car in the car park I brushed shoulders with Jules Holland on his way across the park to tinkle away on his ivories as the Cotswold set tripped around in their Boden kitten heels and designer wellies. But my how you've grown. Visitor numbers last year, despite the washout, reached 28,000 over the weekend. And this year's line-up of acts, that will feature names such as Scouting for Girls and the Sugarbabes, is expected to take crowds ever nearer to the tantalising maximum capacity of 40,000 for the weekend.

The choice of act is crucial as Hugh learned from bitter experience with last year's signing of Paul Simon. His stress levels rocketed and he even took up smoking again.

For Lady Rotherwick it's all about the rules of engagement. "Last year KT Tunstall and Crowded House were amazing. The teenagers loved Toots and the Maytals, and The Feeling was probably one of the best bands we've ever had. They play well on the night, and what all these performers have in common is the way they engage the audience."

The mix of artists is something that Hugh agonises over for many months. "It was always the intention to appeal to 40-somethings with acts like Blondie, Robert Plant and the Pretenders for instance, but with the emphasis on it being a family festival, there had to be something there for their offspring too," says Lady Rotherwick whose own brood range from toddlers to young adults.

Artists like Blondie and Jules Holland describe the Cornbury experience as 'gorgeous, a wonderful place' and 'a beautiful location' respectively. Crowded House were amazed last year at the lack of barriers between the stage and crowd.

Hugh has had some real coups along the way too. Amy Winehouse played at the festival in 2005 - Hugh's personal vintage year. "I loved the second year (2005) with Joe Cocker supported by Amy Winehouse. It was great. He was on fire, and she was really lovely and bluesy and jazzy - and undrugggy at that stage."

Last year Hugh became a family man himself with the birth of his daughter Rose just a few weeks before the festival took place.

Both Hugh and the Rotherwicks are keen to preserve the wholesome image the festival has cultivated and I wonder whether Amy would be welcome now? "It feels so safe it's astonishing. You only have to look in the Lost Property Box to see how safe and secure it is with things like wallets and purses full of money, mobile phones and cameras all being handed in," says Lady Rotherwick.

Aside from the official acts which this year will be played from four stages, there is plenty of additional entertainment to be had. There is the shopping village, craft tent, the funfair, and loads of street entertainment too.

Last year there was a particularly lifelike man in a gorilla suit who both terrified and thrilled the Cornbury crowds as he capered around, and when the weather's kind the launching of anything up to 20 hot air balloons from the site is breathtaking as they skim across the crowds.

There is always a charity angle too. Oxfam did a roaring trade at last year's festival among those who wanted either a change of clothes or simply more layers. For the local pre-school and primary school at Charlbury, it is by far the biggest fundraiser of the calendar year. Likewise, Chipping Norton School will be hoping to make their mark with sixth form band Relay opening the event on the main stage and similarly, Lady Rotherwick's chosen charity ROSY (Respite care for Oxfordshire's Sick Youngsters) will benefit from an arrangement whereby sponsors in particular will be asked to make a hefty donation for their free tickets.

Even from the early days Hugh made a big deal about the quality of the food that would be on offer. "I refuse to have anything ordinary. Our ice cream for instance is sheep's milk ice cream from Herefordshire. A lot of the food is award-winning," says Hugh.

For those that choose to spend the weekend at the festival and camp, cleanliness is next to godliness. Campers can either bring their own tent or choose from an eclectic array of bell tents, pod pads or yurts. Lady Rotherwick says campers remember the site for its great showers, shop and beer tent, and long after the music dies, it's the place to party way into the night.

Lord Rotherwick, whose family have owned Cornbury for 43 years, takes it all in his stride. "Robin loves music and he's more of a music buff than I am," says Lady Rotherwick. But while he enjoys the festival and can be seen wondering round in trademark baseball cap, he particularly enjoys overseeing the logistics of the whole thing which is run with military precision. The perimeter fences go up a month beforehand, which is largely a measure dictated by health and safety to ensure there is no deer poo on the ground when the festival takes place. The main stage and other infrastructure such as the shopping village are constructed over a few weeks.

Die-hard Cornbury Festival fans reminisce over the various festivals they've attended depending on the weather they've endured. Lady Rotherwick is no different. "The inaugural year in 2004 was not fabulous, but not disastrous. The second year was utterly gorgeous. We've actually been pretty lucky compared to festivals like Glastonbury and even last year when it rained for the whole of July it wasn't too bad. In The Year of The Floods the festival weekend was amazingly dry but the driving rain meant the clean-up period was hideous."

If the sun shines, however, Hugh and Cornbury could well hit the jackpot with their festival this year. If not, as Crowded House and last year's crowds could be heard singing at full volume across the shires - you can Always Take the Weather with You!


We are offering free weekend entrance to the festival for two adults and two under-16's (camping included) for one lucky reader of Cotswold Life. For your chance to win please send a postcard with name, address and phone number, quoting code 'CORNBURY' to: Candia McKormack, Cornbury Festival, Cotswold Life, Archant House, Oriel Road, Cheltenham, Glos. GL50 1BB or email: by Friday, June 26.

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