At a time when most UK festivals are just staggering back to life after two years’ enforced downtime, Camp Bestival Shropshire represents something a bit unusual: an entirely new addition. Well, technically it’s the latest offshoot in an existing franchise. The original Bestival was held on the Isle of Wight in 2004, and its ‘little sister’, Camp Bestival, has been running in Dorset since 2008. This new Shropshire incarnation takes place at Weston Park, formerly the site of V Festival – actually in Staffordshire, just to baffle your SatNav.
You can’t get far talking about Bestival without mentioning former Radio 1 DJ Rob Gorham, aka Rob da Bank. Along with his illustrator wife Josie, he’s the enterprising mastermind behind the brand. The da Banks remain very hands-on and far from shy of popping up at their own festival. Indeed, in Shropshire this year they make a total of seven appearances in different guises, from DJing a silent disco battle and talking about parenting techniques to introducing the fireworks finale and leading a yoga nidra session. You never got that with Dave Lee Travis.
Camp Bestival Shropshire itself is quite the experience. Some festivals are all about the music acts with other diversions and amusements arrayed about them. Here, the emphasis seems to be more on the amusements, with the music stages almost as a sideshow. Effectively, it’s like spending the entire weekend wandering around a Victorian-circus-cum-early-60s-fairground-cum-Indian-marketplace. It’s all very handsomely appointed, and overall the facilities are good. Someone’s thought long and hard about what the problems are with festivals and endeavoured to solve them. For instance, the toilets aren’t frightful, the festival site is pretty, and the camping areas are actually pleasant to spend time in.
Clearly, the name of the game here is catering to families rather than young single folk on the lash. It’s aimed at the sort of festival-goers who don glitter make-up and designer wellies before towing their offspring from their tent to the main arena in a trolley strewn with fairy lights. It’s tempting to profile many of the punters as parents whose clubbing days are behind them but who still fancy having it large while the kids are happily occupied. That’s presumably why, from late morning, the main stage is often given over to CBeebies stars like Mr Tumble or Mr Maker, or live show favourites such as Horrible Histories and Brainiac Live.
In fact, for the most part Camp Bestival holds back the big contemporary music acts – Example, Becky Hill, Rag ‘n’ Bone Man – until later in the evening, before which the general carnival vibe is the main attraction. You can pass the time on a helter skelter, a carousel or a cakewalk, bouncing on the world’s biggest bouncy castle (NB: height restrictions may apply), exploring the panoply of smaller stages and areas, such as the woodland Slow Motion field for yer mindfulness and gong baths, or Pig’s Big Ballroom where DJs favour old-timey 78s (although – haha – you’d need to rob da bank to afford a couple of packets of marked-up Haribos from the sweetie stalls).
As you might expect given its provenance, Camp Bestival has a whole lot of DJing going on, of widely variable quality. Notably, Jodie Harsh delivers a corking set late on the Friday night, and Dr Sid keeps things swinging in the aforementioned Big Ballroom. By way of contrast, Sara Cox DJs on the main stage on Saturday night, which is clearly a bigger gig, but she’s playing nothing that your average 90s mobile disco wouldn’t have banged out (not stopping short of – God have mercy on us – Black Lace’s Superman), but presumably for a fair few quid more. Likewise, Gok Wan’s DJ skills are revealed to be a bit iffy, not least when he keeps interrupting Lionel Richie’s All Night Long (All Night) by bellowing “Let’s ‘ave it!’,” “It’s your party!” – and even “It’s your Saturday night!”, even though it’s actually Friday.
There’s a definite line in nostalgia acts programmed throughout the weekend, too, including Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Scouting for Girls and EMF, the latter of whom perform a cover of Hallelujah by the Happy Mondays before their set’s even halfway through, which is a bit like holding up a big sign saying ‘NO, WE DON’T HAVE THAT MANY SONGS YOU’D REMEMBER’.
The main stage is dominated by the likes of the mighty Self Esteem, Fat Boy Slim – initially dressed as, well, a parrot – and The Proclaimers. Don’t go clubbing the latter together with those other one-hit wonders, though, They’re glorious, effortlessly delivering great songs such as Make My Heart Fly and Sunshine on Leith (this as the sun comes out and dries a fair few eyes). They’re a proper highlight, in fact, and so too in their own way are the Rajasthan Heritage Brass Band, who make several appearances across the weekend, from backing the delightful outdoor Circus Raj shows to an unscheduled, wide-ranging set filling in at the Big Top, which proves irresistible to all those present.
Yes, there are niggles. Some smaller acts listed on the website aren’t included in the programme, or else neither source tells you when are where they’re actually playing. There’s the odd bit of confusing lay-out or signage, too: for instance, you need to be quick to learn your Big Tops from your Bigtopmanias. But there’s also lots to like, such as the 30ft clockwork robot you can run around under, slightly more sophisticated activities such as axe-throwing and extreme bike displays, the impressive daily Above and Beyond acrobatics shows and the Saturday fancy dress theme, which brings out a telling amount of US Air Force cosplay, doubtless inspired by Top Gun: Maverick, among the usual favourites (Star Wars, Harry Potter, 101 Dalmatians and, um, Squid Game).
There’s undeniably a vast cornucopia of stuff to do – so why, ultimately, does it feels like there’s something missing here, something that could tie the whole experience together? Perhaps Camp Bestival Shropshire just needs more character, a stronger identity within the programming, a bit of soul, to counteract a certain wedding disco blandness. It’s kind of like eating candyfloss – it’s a sugar rush of insubstantial fun, and there’s nowt wrong with that, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t exactly fill you up.
Advance tickets for Camp Bestival Shropshire 2023 are now on sale: https://shropshire.campbestival.net/