Houghton 2018 – A Reflection

Art & Culture

If Craig Richards ever invites you round for tea, make sure you visit his bathroom.

I guarantee the loo roll will be folded neatly into a point. He'll have some fantastic artwork on the walls and chances are a friendly bloke will offer you a hot lemon towel on the way out.

Mr Richards cares about the details, you see.

Houghton Festival debuted last year and those lucky souls who made it to the first outing returned, breathily recounting moment-after-moment of brilliance. Word spread and this year's festival sold out in hours – before a single name was announced.

Hurtling towards Kings Lynn on Friday evening the weather did its absolute best to dampen expectations. Completely unprepared for anything other than sunshine we edged ever closer to the darkest cloud we'd ever seen before turning into the grounds of the festival and spotting Houghton Hall under a beautiful blue sky – not a raindrop in sight.

We're not 100% sure if Houghton had engineered that entrance but wandering around the site it was clear how much thought had gone into the things they could control. The festival is arranged around a huge, beautiful lake with stages positioned carefully between trees, within bowls and around open spaces. Craig's artwork is dotted around the site and when darkness falls the lake is lit up – with a full installation in the middle of it – and lighting is used carefully to bring each wooded area to life. Nothing is missed – the sight of Craig painting a fence when we first walked around the site confirming the hands-on nature of our host. You notice small details, like elevated areas, perfectly positioned to stand staring at nature with doe-eyed friends, occasionally pointing at swans and saying "swaans" to each other.

It really does feel as though the team behind Houghton have spent months with the site, thinking about every possible way to make the weekend as perfect as can be. But while identifying swans is, of course, a great way to spend your time, it's the attention to detail with sound that puts Houghton above any other festival in the UK.

Houghton runs for 24 hours each day and somehow, some way, the sound at all times is impeccable. Trying our best to take in the site we find ourselves unable to leave the Tantrum stage, hearing Dayz by Mathew Jonson on a soundsystem that sounded better than the majority of clubs we've been to. It turns out we're listening to Adam Shelton, who takes a small but rabid crowd through two hours of techno and electro. Over at the Quarry, DJ Sotofett packs hundreds of people around a stage to listen to a typically odd, percussive-driven set. It's a busy dancefloor but the production team have lined-up additional speakers above the quarry so pockets of people surround speaker stacks, dancing and smiling at each other like lunatics.

Friday evening flies by, with Omar, Binh and Francesca Del Garda all commanding The Clearing – a 360° stage set in the woods. Hunee comes on at the Pavillion and a disco rumour spreads – that he picked up a Yoga injury(?) so wouldn't be playing a full set, but soon enough he's soaring through records like Stages by Don Laka and The Bees – Never Give up, before changing course and switching quickly into a techno track that made three separate people have to have a little sit down by the trees.

Word spreads about Jane Fitz playing a 'secret' stage and with legs tiring we take a long walk to find it. Arriving to the stage it's clear something very special is happening and finding a space amongst hundreds of happy people we hear Jane Fitz play an absolute stand-out set, weaving through (actually decent) 90s trance records like Return Of The Jedi by Mizaro before diving into acid house and techno, with Futurama by Bassrace creating a moment for everyone. Closing her set with Don't Go by Yazoo at 7 am we retreated for a bit of a breather and overheard a girl say quietly to her friend "I just heard the best set of my whole life". It was a pretty special set at the end of a pretty special day.

Saturday started at a slower pace, with a fascinating couple of talks – editor's note, we didn't pay him to write this – at Trevino's; a record shop, social space and dance floor set up in tribute to Marcus Kaye (aka Trevino) in collaboration with Audio Technica. Andrew Weatherall, Jonny Rock, Danny Psychemagik and Dan Beaumont talked about the art of the record sleeve, with R$N Records' Aiden D'Araujo chairing a round-table about record dealing.

Next up was a wander into the Orchard, a 'healing fields' area where you can immerse yourself in a sound bath or visit a Compliments and Flattery campervan. We found ourselves in a tent with our hearts mic'ed up and a band playing percussion in time with it. The Orchard is also where you can find Pinters, the ‘ambient’ tent of the festival. Catching live sets – sat in a deckchair – from Smagghe and Cross, Begin, Howie B and Lost Souls of Saturn as well as ambient excursions from Craig Richards, Mixmaster Morris and the like you’re reminded that you can actually sit still at a festival like this.

Wandering out of the tent, the heavens opened and we spotted hundreds of people huddled under the cover at Trevino's. Jake Manders had jumped onto the decks for a quick mix and suddenly found himself playing to hundreds of soaking wet people, with a security guard sitting on a box above him trying to work out where on earth the rave came from. Playing Maurice Fulton's remix of Happy Sunday and Syclops – Where's Jason's K?, Manders' Saturday evening mix turned into another highlight, soggy singalongs an' all.

It'd be fair to suggest that playing a quarry in torrential rain doesn't sound ideal but it didn't look as though Call Super felt he drew the short straw. His set was a masterclass, ripping through breakbeat, garage, electro, techno and acid house, luring more and more soaking wet people to the dancefloor.

Saturday night came to a close with Ricardo Villalobos at the Pavillion, a stage nestled into the trees, backed onto Houghton Hall's lake. With the worst of the weather behind us, those who'd stuck it out were treated to peak Villalobos – Ricardo weaving Pick Up by DJ Koze in and out of the set for what seemed like hours and using tracks like Don't Laugh by Josh Wink to send dancers over the edge. Craig Richards joined Villalobos a few hours into the set, which pulled thngs in another direction and then, like that, it was all over for Saturday night.

Sunday was programmed in a way to nurse the more delicate of us back into the day, with the great Truth and Lies running an Africa Is Everywhere Takeover at Trevino’s. Elsewhere, Mulatu Astatake feels like the perfect Derren Smart stage afternoon ‘headliner’ without being a headliner. Into the night and we hear reggae spilling out of Stallions, a small circular yurt/tent hybrid. Dave Harvey, Keith Tenniswood and Craig Richards slow things down with hours of amazing reggae, giving respite to tired legs from all of that 4/4 stationary dancing. Ivan Smagghe and Vladimir in the Clearing for a long, long time was very, very good, followed up by Ben UFO and Helena Hauff, who closed The Pavillion with an urgent, frenetic end to the weekend.

Heading away from Norfolk with the rain beating down, the excitable accounts from Houghton's year one attendees all made sense. This is a festival with an impeccable lineup but there are a few festivals like that. It's the details that make this festival – the little touches that make you feel miles away from home, the discoveries wandering around the site and the glances from other festival goers just as wowed as you by that track on that system.

The loos weren't bad either.

Photo Credit: Here & Now