The seventh edition of Welsh festival Gottwood was probably its best yet. On paper, the depth in its lineup hinted at what was to come, but the proof lay in its execution. XLR8R made the journey to the Isle of Anglesey to enjoy a weekend in Carreglwyd Woods, and this is what we took away from it.

Setting is key (but what you do with it is just as important)

Pouring in from all corners of the UK (and beyond), Gottwood’s punters had been prepared to make the commitment to a lengthy journey from the moment they bought their tickets. Situated in the most North-Westerly corner of Wales on the Isle of Anglesey, the site is pretty remote as far as British festivals go. Along the inbound route, homes and buildings diminish from eyeline to the point of nothingness, as rolling fields and picturesque farmland take over during the approach to Carreglwyd Woods.

Located in the grounds of an old country manor estate, the setting is a leafy paradise purposefully tailored to the heady demands of the descending masses. It was my third time at the event, and I felt just as blessed in my surroundings on this iip as my first. Even without a vested interest in the musical performers, the location alone makes Gottwood worthy of a visit. 

Gander down through the glistening, fairy-lit woods, and you passed a giant owl, myriads of disco balls, and a booming hay-bail-gated stage. At the end of the path, centred around the main house itself, a sizeable lily-padded lake spreads out through the land—at its center, an oversized fist brandishing a record had been erected, with a Hollywood-style Gottwood sign to its behind. The perimeter of the water was decorated with a splattering of jazzed-up stages, each with its own unique appeal: a lysergic lazerdome lay in one corner, opposite a quaint bandstand on the lawn, with a fully-equipped festival big tent at its other end, all encircled by the towering presence of the ring of forest. With every visit I’ve paid to the woods, it seems the production quality has made it to another level. Its early creases have been ironed out, with plenty of new gimmicks in their place (as well as a greater quantity of venues) keeping things spicy.

An intimate gathering

The site may have grown substantially, but the temptation to recklessly open its capacity in unison doesn’t seem to have seduced its organizers. How many gems across the UK festival circuit have been lost to excessive money-grabbing and torrents of unwanted visitors? Somehow even in its seventh edition, Gottwood remains a bit of a well-kept secret, an untarnished haven with an atmosphere to match.

Many of the attendees I chatted with were returning for the second, third or fourth time, regulars tempted back by the memories of their last time in the woods. Sobriety certainly wasn’t the order of the day, and the colorful outfits on display were in keeping with the jovial atmosphere. Rumours of campsite robbery and even a rogue cameo from boxer Tyson Fury circulated, though I was not privy to any of it at the time, caught up in all the and great music coming from almost every direction.

2016’s lineup was the most consistent to date

Memories from previous years at the festival, as glowing as they all are, tend to be of the general vibe rather than any real musical clout. A few highlights here and there was more than enough to carry a whole weekend, to keep things ticking over; yet, as with everything else at this year’s edition, the bill had really moved to another level.

Landing early evening on the Friday, we had already reluctantly missed Prosumer’s gig on the opening evening (though were assured that it was as good as would be expected). Upon arrival we were greeted by John Dimas’ solid four-to-the-floor selections oozing out of the owl. There didn’t seem to be a great deal of direction as to who was playing where or when, so we largely followed our ears—with a thick spread of talent on offer, all within a short walking distance, it’s a tactic that worked well.

That evening Andrew Weatherall and Roman Flügel collided atop a caravan, blaring acid jams out to the lazer-lit crowds. As the former of the pair danced fervently with eyes wide shut, there was definitely an air of old-school rave that only UK festivals can conjure up. Across the rest of the weekend the bill drifted into more obscure corners of interest: a sunny afternoon lakeside with Awesome Tapes From Africa or a live performance by the Max Graef band, for instance. On the other hand, for those looking in search of beats, there was always something of interest as the likes of Half Baked, Percolate and tINI (complete with the gang in tow) all took over different stages.

Not resting on their laurels

A big shout out has got to go to whoever grafted on improving each of the soundsystems. Anyone who was present at previous editions will have at some point endured the weak outpour of the rigs, which were often reduced to the point of losing all impact as night descended at the festival. It was more than a niggle, and it’s finally been resolved, with plenty of juiced-up units in lieu of their dim predecessors.

That aside, Gottwood’s winning formula didn’t really need shaking up: a proper knees up in the middle of the woods. This year, however, the team did try their hand at a few new endeavors. In between his three scheduled gigs across the weekend, Move D hosted his own wine and cheese bar, an opportunity to sample some of the German DJ-producer’s personal favorites. At the same arena, there were lectures from Leeds’ Back to Basics crew and a Moog synthesizer workshop, as well as a big screen a stone’s throw away playing documentaries and short films on loop (which only really appeared to see proper action with England’s Euro football fixture).

The best was saved until last

Sunday: the end of a long weekend, and the bright light at the end of the festival’s tunnel. With most of us running on fumes, it would take something special to get things going on their fourth night; however, by all accounts, Gottwood held its best acts for the final day. Jane Fitz got things going, before Tama Sumo wrapped things up at the new and improved Treehouse stage. Elsewhere, turntable wizard Hunee could be caught in action, while Ben UFO and Fabric’s Craig Richards went back to back for the second year on the trot (following on from a Shackleton live set). We were spoilt for choice; perhaps a bit too much choice, all colliding in one day of difficult decisions.

Blissfully unaware of everything else going on, I had put one foot into the Louche stage, and didn’t make it out again for the next 10 hours. In the wake of a high energy, high quality warm-up packed with rarities and curiosities courtesy of residents Josh Tweek and Tom Frank, things got going pretty quickly—the large lakeside tent heaving by the time Nicolas Lutz took the booth. Slowing things down briefly with a breakbeat opener, he was soon to regain the momentum, moving through tight minimal jams and Detroit techno. Pulling out Scan 7’s “System Work” and Anthill Mob’s “Enchanted Rhythm,” he sounded as natural rocking the big top as the smaller venues he can typically be found in.

Lutz’s assigned two hours went all too quickly, though Perlon-regular Sonja Moonear stepped up to match his performance, with a tight mixing style that perfectly showcased her brand of precise tech house selections. It was once again over in the blink of an eye, and headliner Thomas Franzmann (a.k.a. Zip) took to the stage at the stroke of midnight. Things looked to be in jeopardy during his opening trio of tunes, as a sound malfunction caused by the switch-over to rotary mixer led to a drastic drop in volume.

The error was fortunately quickly remedied, and one of the most memorable Zip sets in recent times ensued. Cruising through groovy minimal and classic house, he looked and sounded totally comfortable behind the grassy embankment that served as the booth. Classics like Kenlou’s “Gimme Groove” and Gemini’s “Ca” got a rowdy reception, set off by plenty of his mystical unknown specialties. Franzmann’s last tune was abruptly faded out by the anal-retentive sound team, who disappointingly wouldn’t allow the final minutes of it to run out past their 3AM curfew. A bum note to end on perhaps, but it didn’t really matter in light of the impressive tunes that had gone before.

All in all, it had felt like the most professional edition of Gottwood yet—whether that was a wholly positive thing is hard to say, the change bringing with it downers like increased security presence and the occasional bigger queue. To me, it didn’t matter. The same spirit of merriment still resonates loudly through the woods, and looks set to remain. As it now stands, it fills a pretty unique niche between some of the larger UK festivals and their boutique counterparts. So, if you want to let your hair down in an adult playground, Gottwood is for you.

All photos by Roo Lewis, Ed Dabney, Hungry Visuals, Hannah Metcalf & Fanatic. Banner shot by Fanatic.