Through the Wardrobe: Bacchanal

Jack’s plan was to have a little summer back garden barbecue party, until he let things got a bit out of hand. Inspired by Oxford’s expansive literary tradition, Greek and Roman hedonistic drunken celebrations and the gentle excesses of a New Orleans establishment of the same name, Bacchanal morphed into a fantastic fairy tale fever-dream festival of food and foolishness, for one night only.  For those who weren’t able to make it, here’s an inside view of Bacchanal as it was…

Your journey starts with a wax-sealed envelope that slips through your letterbox. Upon opening it, you find an old two-shilling coin, a brass key attached to a luggage tag stamped “Bacchanal” and a florid invitation.

“You are cordially invited… to Bacchanal.” There is a date, a time and a curious set of instructions.

Weeks later, eyes glued to the Smoke and Thyme updates for a hint of what you have to look forward to, you finally have crafted a costume you feel is worthy of the event; perhaps a twisting crown of branches and leaves, or a set of fairy wings, or a gown fit for the Queen of Hearts.

You arrive, fashionably late, and head to the front door, expecting to be greeted there. But instead, you find an arrowed sign. “This Way” it points, down a twist in the garden. Another sign: “That way”. You peer around the corner and see nothing but a gravel path and an old wardrobe, slightly ajar.

You try your luck and peer inside. Fur coats block your view but you can hear music now, and smell something delicious cooking, so you climb in, careful not to close the door too tightly behind you lest you get trapped inside. As you push aside the last coat, you see a wrought-iron lamppost standing in the middle of a strange colourful garden. “How curious…” you think.

As you progress further into the magical space, you see odd creatures lounging on picnic blankets, a penguin waddling into the next garden and umbrellas suspended in mid air above you. Bacchus himself, wearing a headdress of grapes and manning the grill, is laughing with a maenad as he files an entire side of salmon into the middle drawer of a rusty old filing cabinet billowing with smoke. A signpost offers directions to fantasy realms – Neverland, Atlantis, Arcadia, Oz and Narnia.

“Welcome, welcome welcome!” comes a musical voice to your left, and you are suddenly accosted by the deranged smiling face of a man who must be the Mad Hatter standing behind an outdoor bar made from beautiful slices of rough edged wood.

“Drink?” he leers and gestures seductively at bookcase of odd, multicoloured bottles bearing the elemental instruction: “Drink Me”. Upon your acquiescence, he pours a concoction of blue liquid and slips you small clear plastic sachet containing an off-white powder of fine crystals that looks suspiciously like… well, something a good bit stronger than sugar.

“Try it with a little fairy dust” he urges you – and as you dubiously sprinkle your contraband into your glass, suddenly your drink has changed from a dull blue to a shimmering, glittery pink. He winks, “Magic.” and you wander off, a little dumbfounded and bemused.

Perhaps due to the influence of the chameleonic potion (or the two or three that follow it), the rest of the afternoon goes by in a blur. You lounge on a cosy sofa in an outdoor library, meet the cuddly animals in the Bacchanal petting zoo, play card games with strangers, and go on a treasure hunt to look for more drinks tokens.

On the way you meet Alice, one of the Bacchanal hosts. She is a manifestation of Wonderland in inanimate human form, a literary explosion of printed pages, chess boards, flamingos, playing cards, and caterpillar smoke that turns into a Cheshire cat, with a pocket watch around her neck. You snap a quick picture of your face reflected in the shattered ruin of her mirrored visage.

You fill plate after plate with food from the grazing table and from the barbecue. The filing cabinet, you confirm, has been converted into a smoker and filled with meats and vegetables to slowly roast in rich, oaky vapours.

Fare both strange and familiar is on offer all throughout the day, everything from octopus to tandoori chicken, from meltingly delicious roasted sweet potatoes to toast-flavoured ice cream. Exploring more of the garden, you find one of Alice’s sisters, Sylph, an ivy-clad huntress practically camouflaged in the greenery, except for the red blood dripping from her fingertips…

Sitting yourself down on a spare corner of picnic blanket between the white rabbit and a stranger with a flower crown and an umbrella, you swap notes. “I found a shilling in the drinks globe” “Did you try the Phoenix Tincture?” “I can’t believe I missed the octopus!” “Have you ever played Unstable Unicorns?”.

As is so often the case in fantasy realms, time seems to play by its own rules here, and the afternoon slips away from you as lazily as a stoned iguana on a warm velvet pillow.

As the sun starts to set, blankets and braziers are brought out, fairy lights begin to twinkle from the bushes and the final Bacchanal hostess, Nova, is revealed in her glowing ultraviolet glory. Neon images of beasts and deities, snatched from myth and the zodiac and tarot, twist around her svelte form and whisper to you of ancient and forbidden secrets.

At the end of the night, a fire dancer begins spinning a burning staff, slowly at first, then faster and faster and you feel the thrill of the danger, and the warmth of the flames on your face as the first stars come out.

If you’re lucky, the generous host might pass you a final drink, and give you a wink before you heave yourself out of your cosy chair, gather up your wings and horns and slip back through the wardrobe, to return, reluctantly, to the real world.

Exhausted from his Bacchanallic exploits, Jack will be taking an extended hiatus to spend more time with his barbecue. All Smoke and Thyme events are suspended until further notice. Join the mailing list to be the first to hear about new dates and developments when they are announced.

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