Houghton Festival is a marathon, and all the more rewarding for it
In this immersive account of Houghton, Tom Goulding makes a case for doing your stretches, mentally preparing, and pacing yourself in order to make the most of what's undoubtedly become one of the most exciting UK festivals around.
The unmistakeable descending bassline of Gat Décor’s 1992 monster ‘Passion’ ripples across the water, through the trees, over the opening night crowd, many of whom moved like they had been waiting for this night for weeks. A few cheers and whelps shriek out onto the lake behind the DJ’s wooden cabin — they know what’s coming. A delicate piano melody of thirds, for one, but also four nights of a festival charged with an unprecedented amount of excitement and anticipation for something so new.
The afternoon contained a two-hour queue in the pouring rain to get into the festival site of Houghton Hall, but the struggle and anxiety that comes with all the logistical hurdles are done. People are here, people are ready, and the woodland rave that all sorts of accolades have been bandied around about – the best festival nationwide, or even in Europe – has begun. Thursday’s closer, German DJ Luca Lozano, ends on Gat Décor’s classic. It’s a perfect opening night anthem, hinting at a whole world out there ready to be explored.
Houghton Hall, a huge, Grade I-listed Palladian country house not far from the northern coast of Norfolk, was commissioned in the 1720s by the first Prime Minister Robert Walpole. The house, passed down the aristocrat family of Cholmondeley, has four kilometres of gardens, fields, forestry and a lake to it. Much of the grounds were designed by British landscaper Charles Bridgeman, who in the early 18th century pioneered a technique to incorporate the wilderness more deeply into British gardens. In 2018, nearly ten thousand people descend upon Houghton Festival’s 13 stages of house and techno, organised by Gottwood Festival and Craig Richards, stages incorporated equally creatively into the wilderness, with the environment and the music equally as prominent.
In the 1730s, Walpole would host hunting parties for the Norfolk gentry at Houghton that would last weeks at a time. A Victorian historian compares the “cavalcade of visitors” coming in and out of Walpole’s grand hunting parties in the early 18th century to “an army going on its march”. Lavish sessions on the ground floor of the Hall would see ‘Hogan’, a particularly strong strand of beer, served in abundance.
Houghton festival lasts four days, but its music does not stop from Friday at 10am to Monday morning at 3am. Equidistant between London and the Midlands, Houghton’s crowd include a strong local contingent from the Norwich and wider East Anglia scene, but many come from further and wider than Walpole’s parties, such as a Spanish contingent from Ibiza, flying in to see South Americans Nicolas Lutz and Ricardo Villalobos for their marathon sets, or a large group of French camped nearby.
13 stages across a dogleg of a field, two forests and the perimeter of a lake means ambling is encouraged. The grassy banks of the lake offer a place to sit or lie down, with the noises of stages from the other side wafting over, beckoning you around. Deck chairs also line the water, while stumps of messily felled trees lie open to climb or lean against. There is no main thoroughfare or set directions of travel. The contrast to an urban nightlife where the parameters of space, and behaviour, are rigidly policed, is both freeing and alarming. It’s a dangerous privilege when the powers of disorientation increase across the weekend.
As the first full day progresses, it becomes clearer that the people are not holding back. The crowd slants towards an older demographic than your average festival, with plenty more over-25s than under, and seems to be a collection of the most seasoned rave warriors, fully-fledged members of the UK’s Sesh Hall of Fame.
Few people throughout the weekend seemed to be out of control, however. The festival site is neither too big to feel overwhelming, nor too small to feel like you can exhaust all the space. While you can get to any stage in little more than five minutes, it’s not easy to find friends, and so groups stick together like glue, with the ever-present threat of losing them for hours or even days if separated.
The exhibitionism of the seven thousand or so dressed-up ravers is bountiful. Furry bucket hats, garish ‘90s jackets and fishnet tops, there is no peacocking too outrageous for Houghton. Stick men in thick jackets tower over models draped all in lace, crews line eight deep in matching lanyards and trainspotter anoraks. A man with Lil Yachty-style purple braids, in a long red kimono, is daggering with a man who, in a long beige mac and trilby, can only be described as having come as French fictional detective Inspector Clouseau. Needing to take a few seconds to fully interpret a single person’s look in a crowd of 300 compounds the state of continuous discombobulation.
The 1970s, LSD-hippie look of flower-power colours is a common choice. Others come as the early ‘90s, baggy clothing of kitsch brands and Matrix sunglasses. The chosen sub-culture costumes are not all white and Western – which leads to regretable native American headdresses, as well as a sea of matching fezzes. The threat of rain from the perpetual hang of clouds see extra layers, extra hats, extra colours. There is not a single sighting of black Berlin normcore all weekend.
Props rise above the sea of heads – a foot-long, plastic Tyrannosaurus Rex keeps jumping up and down to the beat by the front left speaker. A see-through umbrella with small light bulbs tied along the inside bobs up and down, while a small girl that looks from far away like a child sits on someone’s shoulders, wearing a similarly translucent jacket illuminated by different coloured bulbs up her spine.
Artists are generally playing harder, more industrial than they might elsewhere, from Midland to Tama Sumo to Willow. The line-up is strongly represented on the heavier, more minimal side, as you might expect from Fabric supremo Craig Richards, who has said previously that he didn’t want to have “such a wide spectrum with the styles”, so that you “weren’t going to be shocked by being in the wrong tent like at other festivals”. Sets feel uncompromising, and so do the punters.
Spotlights on the ground light up the forest’s trees along the various paths surrounding the lake in a vibrant red, blue or purple. Tonight, many paths lead to Hunee at the Pavilion cabin for the sunrise set. The ‘dancefloor’ at the Pavilion curves on a hill, highest about 15 metres from the DJ’s wooded cabin, which has the lake behind it. From this peak, the ground falls gradually back in all directions, steeply to the side. As a result, it’s difficult to see the DJ from many positions, like many dancefloors across the festival. The lack of vantage point denies a visual anchor to lock into. Most bodies choose to still face forward, forced to gaze across the lake’s horizon, or into the sky.
It’s 3.01, is Hunee on yet? It’s hard to see what’s going on in the cabin. As the spritely, prancing chords of thirds from Touch’s ‘Fixation (Dub)’ skip down the muddy plain, the epitome of the mischievous instrumentation the German is known to deliver, you know the answer. The first night’s peaking, and there are three hours of the German wizard coming right up.
At the start, you can hardly move near the front as ravers jostle up and down the exposed roots of the big trees dotted around the dancefloor. The bassline of Reese and Santonio jerks bodies in and out of costume – fast-paced house and italo rise and fall, with a customary brief interlude of ‘harder’ techno for about fifteen minutes before returning to melody and song.
As it passes 4am, the crowd becomes a more manageable size, moving more and more peacefully as the light of the sun creeps over the lake over the course of several hours. Tear-jerkers and slow-paced ballads replace the fast tempos – Hunee’s sincere romanticism is in sharp focus. An extended remix of ‘In The Air Tonight’ sees a slow, chuggy bassline stomp calmly under the raspy Phil Collins vocal, the climactic drum breakdown raising the arms of a crowd until then slowly descending into pleasure paralysis.
The Clearing comes into its own at night. The stage is set apart, about 100 yards away from the path that loops around the lake. Tall, thin trees surround a clearing of space of around fifty yards across, eight yards long, filled with a growing crowd. In the middle, a rectangular wooden structure hangs above the dancing space, supported by wooden posts, with only a square booth in the middle. Most of the posts are hidden in the smoke-filled dancefloor, illuminated by brilliant royal blue light. A crowd surrounds the DJ booth from all angles. There’s both a large crowd and space to dance, the holy synergy, and the darkness of the woods and the smoke relieves you from exposure to the elements.
Optimo, the Glaswegian duo, are not wasting a minute of their four-hour set. They slalom through all genres of fast-paced techno, through Tessela, Special Request and Green Velvet. The sliding, screeching notes of Axel Boman’s ‘Nokturn’ invite you to stop thinking and melt into the forest. The acid squelches and strangled-cat oboe of Haruomi Hosono’s ‘Laugh-Gas’ wipes away any smiles from the faces of people getting too happy.
Into the set’s last hour, the instinct for surprising the crowd grows exponentially. A whole taxonomy of the “party-starting banger” is delivered – the emotional ballad (Depeche Mode); the risky (Stealer Wheels’ ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’); the furious classic (Jeff Mills’ ‘The Bells’) to the matrimonial (ABBA’s ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’). An itchy, frenetic atmosphere develops, each new tune more greatly anticipated than the last, each expectation of having pushed the limits of workability.
Like Phillippe Petit walking on wire between skyscrapers, the daredevil duo wilfully tests the limits of what can be pulled off without catastrophe. Bob Marley’s ‘One Love’? AC/DC’s ‘All Night Long’? The answer may be the Mamas and Papas ‘California Dreamin’, which they leave as the final song for them to wrap up, ravers entertained by what they’d just witnessed, forced to sulkily trudge back to the other stages, away from an oasis of musicality in an industrial weekend.
50 metres away in the Pavilion cabin, Ricardo Villalobos, Houghton’s Patron Saint of Bewilderment, is just getting started.
It’s not clear where tracks start and end – not because of sophisticated layered mixing, but because it’s not clear if the noises are indeed tracks. Tempo was surrendered long ago, melody a bygone artefact. Optimo’s techno-wedding bangers were surely a dream — their memory makes Ricardo’s sunrise marathon that much more gruelling.
The sound of a train going round and round the stage comes through the speakers. After an hour and a half, it’s still unclear if the music can be categorised as meant for recreational use. After so long, you stop questioning it. The sheer feat of the festival’s myriad stages and idiosyncratic designs lends an authority to everything else. Questioning the tunes seems cocky, especially for Ricardo and his cult of personality as exemplified by his entourage — an ever-present army of pan-Mediterranean influencers behind him, constantly exchanging air kisses with the flamboyant protagonist.
Conversation is restricted to admin. Occasional questions attempt to piece together the last 12 hours, clarifying when various friends dropped out. At what point will your body say ‘enough’? In all the anticipation of my big weekend I never fantasised about the moments when mental resilience will be tested. Ricardo’s extraordinary rendition are testing these faculties to the limit. Ambitions and anxieties flow in tandem internally.
There’s a new, vulnerable look on a lot of punters’ expressions. Holding it together is all that matters now – enjoyment at times feel beside the point, and there are fewer friends on hand to help you snap out of it. The assault on the senses of a loud, busy nightclub would allow you to lose yourself, but, there’s no hiding in the 7am light.
I manage to last for a few hours before taking my leave, and as I approach my tent in the adjacent field, I can hear DJ Koze’s smooth summer blanket ‘Pick Up’ waft over the lake from the Pavilion, the kind of tune you could listen to for hours when fragile. Never underestimate Ricardo’s ability to thoroughly troll his audience.
Whatever time you rise, there will be queues to get into the ‘secret’ stage, where Nicolas Lutz, Craig Richards and Margaret Dygas have been going all morning. 24-7 music is an alluring idea, but you have to pick and choose your battles - none of those who went without sleep through either Friday or Saturday are still present by early evening on Sunday. Perhaps there is an argument for this – consolidate your physiological debt into one easily unaffordable, 36-hour battering.
Many have left Houghton by lunchtime, retreated to normality and faced the rehabilitation, some exits more voluntary than others. The final day feels like a hazy afterparty for the survivors, a soothing glide down into the recovery and reality. The romantic dreaminess of reminiscing about the festival that usually happens in the coming weeks, listening to “that tune” on bus journeys and train platforms, has been expedited to this final day. People sit across benches and tables near the bar and pop-up food vans, deep in debriefs and eulogies at a funeral for a weekend that has not yet completely died.
Soulful garage wafts across the lake from Joy Orbison, who soundtracks the nostalgia for previous nights. Figures drift slowly and silently across the field. Friends huddle together, people simultaneously more irritable and also with a deeper reserve of empathy for the souls still standing around them. Time has no meaning until you have mentally and physically regrouped, and decided that the one final night left in you is ready to begin.
Ben UFO plays, followed by a final slot performance from Helena Hauff, which seems a cruel joke as the finale after 36 hours of music, her selections liable to overwhelm even after six months on a spa retreat. Antal plays The Magic Carpet – a strange name given it’s the least magical of all the stages, an Eden Project-type dome roof split into polygons over some grass.
The Rush Hour man’s playful, feel good mix of African disco, Italo and kwaito seems anachronistic on such an epilogue of a night. The “let’s dance!” essence of NG Jules and Yvonne Chaka Chaka is not really the mood – although the presence of hopeful melodies and songs about love is also a welcome analgesic after a weekend where the DJs’ impulse to pulverise has been well represented. Coming back is a decision that won’t be taken lightly, but it will be hard to resist.
What did you think of Houghton this year? Let us know in the comments below!