How Barnes local Caroline Giddings and her husband brought the defunct Isle of Wight Festival back to life in 2002 and why, with constant new quirks and a rich dissident heritage, it’s a festival for all. This year, 40 years of punk and David Bowie tributes will dominate the stages
Words: Rachel Mantock
With an original Ronnie Wood painting on the wall of Caroline Giddings’ beautiful home in Barnes, along with Marilyn Monroe prints in intense colours and an infamous 1997 Pink Floyd featuring the backs of girls painted with their various album artworks, it’s apparent that this is a household engaged with the heritage of rock and pop culture past.
Along with husband and partner in business, renowned music agent John Giddings, they formed Solo Music Agency and took on the small matter of resurrecting the Isle of Wight festival: ‘The festival started as a hobby and became a full time occupation. We both live and breathe it,’ Caroline says.
The Isle of Wight Festival launched in 1968 as part of the counterculture movement of the 60s and 70s, an era that gave rise to the bohemian hippie and saw the British music scene invade the US. In 1970, more than 600,000 people descended onto the tiny island, more than at the Woodstock festival, crowning it as the most widely acknowledged musical event of its time, with the likes of Jimi Hendrix headlining. Residents complained and Parliament passed the ‘Isle of Wight Act’, effectively banning gatherings of more than 5,000 people on the island without a special licence, putting an end to the festival.
A 17-year-old John Giddings was present on the island that glorious day, so inspired by the experience that he planned to revive the festival from the ashes. Practicing as a lawyer at the time, Caroline met John when he contacted her to ask for help with the legalities surrounding the Isle of Wight Act and they were married shortly after. Together they brought the Isle of Wight Festival back to life in 2002 and, last year, it welcomed over 55,000 party-goers.
‘We pride ourselves on it being a music lover’s festival,’ says Caroline. ‘We want to keep that heritage alive. We mix heritage headliners with the latest popular artists, that way there is something for everyone.’ This year the line-up boasts the likes of Faithless, Jess Glynn, The Who, Queen featuring Adam Lambert and Stereophonics, while last year saw The Prodigy bring supreme chaos to the stage as the rain roared down and the crowd went wild before the sun came out and bathed Fleetwood Mac in warm, golden rays as they played.
We want to keep that heritage alive. We mix heritage headliners with the latest popular artists, that way there is something for everyone
Caroline’s personal highlights include The Rolling Stones performance of 2007 and Spandau Ballet singing Gold. Caroline heard Jagger and Amy Winehouse rehearsing together the same year, describing it as ‘incredible’.
As well as being a crazy celebration of rock heritage, the festival also has other wacky elements that add to its idiosyncrasy, such as Cirque De La Quirk, which is a party circus of sorts, with fire poi and everyone dressed in bizarre attire. Thumping DJ sets are played from the tops of trees and there is also a spa with hot tubs and a pampering station for the more high maintenance attendees.
Creative craft workshops are on offer, along with circus workshops for adventurous pre teens and there’s a kids zone for even younger children, anyone under 12 goes free! The association of the festival with the isle is estimated to bring in around £10m for the island: the Giddings’ are very proactive about promoting and supporting local charities and businesses in the area.
‘It’s like a holiday. Once you get on the boat with all the positive ions in the water, the party starts,’ says Caroline on the festival experience. ‘It’s just such a cross section of people. When the headliners come on you will see a 60-year-old standing next to a chap with his three-year-old on his shoulders. I love that. It’s about introducing your kids to the music.’
Away from the festival, the Giddings live in Barnes and love being there. Caroline’s a big fan of the Olympic Cinema, The White Hart pub (which does ‘the best Sunday roast in the world’), The Harrodian School, which her daughter Kitty attends, and Physio On The River where she attends weekly yoga sessions. They also own a house by the sea on the Isle of Wight, which ties them even more tightly to the community there.
This year the festival will pay homage to the late David Bowie in a number of different ways, as John was his agent and friend for over 30 years and he played his last ever UK gig at the festival in 2004. ‘It is a way of life, it is who we are and we love it,’ Caroline prepares to bid me farewell. ‘I would never go back to private practice and being a solicitor for all the tea in China!’
Isle of Wight Festival runs 9-12 June 2016, see isleofwightfestival.com