MAGAZINE

BoomTown Fair: England's "Choose Your Own Adventure" Festival

Photo by: Jody Hartley
by Eamon Armstrong | @EamonArmstrong Tue August 08, 2017 | 10:25 AM

You wake up in your tent as the sun is setting. You're well rested and ready of a night of bimbling (which is a very English word for festival adventuring) around BoomTown Fair, an experiential event designed to look and feel like a wild frontier city. Your first stop is the gypsy-punk vibe of Gogol Bordello, who is headlining a main stage in a district called OldTown. 

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Photo by: Jody Hartley for BoomTown Fair

Fire shoots from torches as Gogol Bordello demands that the hordes of rowdy punters wear purple. The crowd responds feverishly, throwing their clothes in the air, bouncing and writhing en masse.

Boomtown Fair 2015 Tristan Dunford People   23 Of 34

Photo by: Tristan Dunford

You’re distracted by an altercation from the storefront behind you. A group of cowboys in dusters are robbing the "inconvenience" store.

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You flee the scene and wander past a moored pirate ship where a haunting sea shanty plays and a mournful aerialist twists and turns in the air, swinging from the top mast on a giant swing. After a moment of calm, fireworks zip into the air and the ships spits fire.

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Mayfair is empty; its playboys and robber barons have retired to plot their next round of evictions. You could explore a side street searching for Mayfair's famous speakeasy, but you decide to press on down the hill.

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Photo by: Cal Tristan BoomTown Fair

You amble down a hill through mysterious forests throbbing with psytrance and twinkling with black-lit psychedelic frogs. Further down, you see the lights of an opulent palace and the seedier parts of town.

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At the base of the hill you wander through the gates of Chinatown, wondering just how far your adventure will take you. 

Boomtown Fair 2015 Tristan Dunford People   32 Of 34

Photo by: Tristan Dunford

You stumble through DSTRKT 5, the dystopian underbelly where androids patrol the streets, robot strippers gyrate mechanically, and a “scientist” or sketchy doctor is operating on some poor lost attendee, most likely against his will. 

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Photo by: Charlie Raven for BoomTown Fair

Finally you make it to the main stage, a nine-story monstrosity called the Bang Hai Palace that breathes even more fire along with the powerful energy of drum-and-bass. On the large screen a sign flashes ominous images of men in black. The screen says: KEEP CALM THE REVOLUTION IS COMING.

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To your left, plastered on the wall are more frightening images. There's a tension in the air. Is this a festival, or are you about to be caught in a military coup?

This is BoomTown Fair

BoomTown Fair just wrapped up its seventh year in the beautiful hills of Hampshire, UK. A picturesque landscape that includes the remains of an actual Roman amphitheater – but the lush landscape is only a minor part of the stunning spectacle. The production itself is legendary in the UK, as the producers have created an entire town to host 50,000 punters (the English word for festival attendees) from over 50 countries in a surreal wonderland. The event is popular and has sold out for the seventh year in a row, even after expanding its capacity by 10,000.

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If BoomTown wasn’t on your international festival radar before, is should be now. Featuring 102 themed venues and 22 main stages, BoomTown exploded past already high expectations this year. It's known as a hub for reggae, drum-and-bass, jungle, and – perhaps one of the only festivals hosting the very English genre – UK Garage, which pulsates out of a warehouse-like stage in one of the festival's nine districts Barrio Loco. However, while reggae and electronic music reigned supreme, there were over 500 electric musical acts from around the world.

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In addition to the elaborate, physical BoomTown itself, the festival features a narrative that has moved through each of the event's seven chapters since its founding in 2009. This mythos gives purpose to the revelry and assists the suspension of disbelief, allowing attendees to dissolve into another world, take on a new persona, and chose their own adventure. Some attendees take on a series of tasks around the festival to fill out a “Loyalty Card” in order to pledge allegiance and side with the dictatorial mayor Comrade Jose. Others join up with the secretive Mad Hatters, plotting a revolution. Watching the story unfold and participating in it sets the festival apart as a top-level experiential environment. The People of BoomTown Fair were as enchanting and transformative as the incredible set design. The incredible costuming, known in England as fancy dress, gave attendees permission to step up their game and say "yes" to adventure.

Yet the most magical part of BoomTown Fair is that, even while it is the most wild, chaotic, nonlinear dystopia yet, there is no sense of real danger. There is no sinister element and no feeling of real loss of control. In fact, the vibe was incredible and everyone was friendly, even to a visiting yank like myself. Sure someone might fall out of a doorway in the Wild West district pantomiming a bar fight, but there was no actual fighting. BoomTown wobbles a lot but the center holds, and its 50,000 citizens are remarkably well behaved. As the event culminated with rowdy jungle music and fire exploding from the massive Bang Hai Palace, although the storyline called for revolution, the orderly Brits marched pleasantly up the hill to their campsites, the silent disco and the sunrise-haloed hill giving all that madness a lovely soft landing.

Boom Town Fair 2015 Daisy Brasington

Photo by: Daisy Brasington

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BoomTown Fair

Aug 2018 (exact date TBD)
Alresford, Hampshire, England