The sounds of Phosphorescent drifted over the treetops as I headed into Larmer Tree Gardens past a covey of twilit grouse (partridge?), and 48 hours later I wandered down a dusty road to the first strains of Joanna Newsom. The intervening two days were filled with arts, music of every ilk, colours, smells, and sounds, and everything else I have come to expect from what is proving to be the UK’s best little festival.
Sadly this year I couldn’t make the full three-and-a-teensy-bit days of the 11th edition of End of the Road festival, but what I did manage was just… wonderful.
Sad at missing Thursday night headliners the Shins (and Savages, and Phosphorescent, etc) I still managed to meander into the festival in plenty of time to catch the final Friday performance, Cat Power, on powerful form in the semi-darkness of The Woods stage. Then it was straight on to the first evening of spraffing around the enchanted forest that is is the festival’s big draw (for me anyway).
From meeting new friends (part of the festival’s veteran Kernow contingent) by the pizza van to catching the first of many mystery sets in the late night Tipi, the first night seemed promising.
Part of the fun of End of the Road is that while it’s small, its vernal setting means nights can pass in a blur as you pass from the reading tree to the Disco Ship hidden in the woods, its dancefloor shimmering under the stars. Or you can just stroll the paths of Larmer Tree Gardens, slink into the grotto, or simply read the messages printed into the leaves of the living trees.
While you may feel blissfully remote, you can also be sure you’re never too far from the bright lights, and there is never any feeling of anything other than perfect safety. And if all else fails, you can dance along at the Somerset Cider Bus until at least 3am.
A slightly sore head and mulled cider mouth didn’t prevent an early-ish rise for a look at the yoga the next morning, but a lack of available space and dawning recognition of its ridiculousness did prevent me from taking part, sloping off instead for a pint at one of the festival’s bars – all with pubbish names like the Badger Inn, with less of the Reading factory line feel and more of a real ale welcome – and a glimpse of Laura Gibson.
An afternoon spent ping-ponging between Woods to the Garden stages rudely interrupted by the rain – albeit just in time for a fantastically smash-and-grab set from Martha in the Tipi channeling punk and early noughties indie into songs about young love, low paid jobs, and stick-and-poke tattoos.
Then it was time to brave the chill for Bat for Lashes, whose brilliant, bridally-berobed set combined new songs from The Bride with favourites such as Daniel – as well as a real onstage proposal – keeping the crowd toasty as the winds blew in over the South Downs.
End of the Road prides itself on having kept small, only 11,000 tickets sold this year, but has still seen a reasonable expansion over the last few years. While it still feels intimate, independent and interactive, the relocation of the main stage to open fields has removed some of the hygge feeling of watching the last of the night’s performers on a with everyone in a glade surrounded by uplit trees.
As well as having implications for warmth and sound (trees act as a excellent windbreak, obviously) the new field can sometimes feel like the add-on that it is, where before the line of mouthwatering food tents demarcated the edge of the festival proper.
Another less-than-welcome change is the disconnection now between the Tipi bar and stage. Where before you could ensconce on a haybale with coffee or gin and watch the likes of Smoke Fairies or Esben and the Witch, now you have to walk from one to the other. Although sitting is still de rigeuer.
Still, it’s smaller than most, welcoming, and the visual delights grow year on year – the illuminated fox from last year’s main stage has now taken to the woods, and has been joined by a swarm of paper butterflies. And at what other festival might you bump into a peacock around any corner or catch a glimpse of a macaw flitting through the trees?
I reflected on all this during a chance encounter with the festival’s charming founder Sofia Hagberg – not realising until after who she was – as we queued for cream teas served from a vintage London Routemaster.
The final afternoon saw Broken Social Scene entrance the crowd for an hour on their first performance in the UK for four years. Packing in a riot of fuzz and noise, clashing beautifully with the brass, and sending out a message of hope to all. After that I really should have gone home, but Thee Oh Sees grabbed my attention on the Garden stage with their mesmeric double drumming and psychedelic stylings, holding me until way past home-time.
Then it really was time to drive back over the Dorset hills, heading for Cornwall and bed. Reflecting that, while the festival has grown, it is still recognisable as the tiny musical vision of the two people who started it over a decade ago. And hopefully the End of the Road has many more miles to go.
Disclosure: While looking for a bit f information about bands etc, I stumbled across the suggestion that End of the Road has links with Scientology. While it would appear, from what little digging I have done, that these links extend solely to having two Scientologist shareholders/financiers, and I have never seen any evidence of proselytising or using the festival as any kind of front, it did give me pause for thought. I hope there is no link between money taken from the festival and funding going to this pernicious, troubling (and troubled) sect, but I will have to carefully consider whether I would wish to continue going. A shame, for one of the most consistently lovely, welcoming, and high quality festivals in the country, and my personal favourite.