With Quentin Blake himself apparently in attendance, Downing’s nostalgic celebration of Roald Dahl’s childhood classics was expected to commit to its theme, but it was clear as soon as the BFG stilt-walked into sight in the queue that nobody had settled for that. The ball was a treasure trove of references, from Sophie’s wishing trees – complete with ‘bottled dreams’/WKD – to an opportunity to pose with some sleepy tortoises a la Esio Trot. Even in the early hours tipsy guests were still marvelling at the Giant Peach, lit with an orange glow and complete with an inflatable flock of birds, and spotting the smaller literary shout-outs was a game that could be played all night.
The obligatory chocolate factory was stocked with Krispy Kremes as well as chocolate fountains galore, and in general there was no shortage of sweets, but savoury stands from the ball mainstays Wildefeast and Nanna Mexico quickly attracted long queues, not helped by Yo Sushi!’s closure until 11pm. Fortunately our queue time coincided with the fireworks, which were strangely early but impressive for a ball which was already packed with entertainment, and then filled up on the pastries, tarts and bagels provided later in the night.
Drinks were plentiful and included a shot and mixer tent, some fantastic cider courtesy of Farmer Bean (and Gwynt y Ddraig), port wherever we turned and a cocktail bar. The emphasis on self-service meant that queues moved quickly, particularly at the Bloom Gin Bar, where the gin and tonic fans among us appreciated the options to essentially make our own. There was always another bar to find, but the vague map in the programme and the scarcity of signposts meant that finding them could take a long time for anyone unfamiliar with the college. However, it also meant that it was easy to completely unintentionally wander into the port and cheese room, or the Heineken tent, or the casino: we were still exploring hours after entry.
Though the themed aspects of the ball were spectacular, the most surprising part of the night was the varied but consistently brilliant musical ents. We expected to relive the Noughties with headline act The Feeling, but not to find ourselves in a mosh pit punching inflatable beach balls for both Wretch 32 and DJ Fresh, who brought the ball back up to date. The main stage area was packed for three hours and the atmosphere at 2am was as heady and adrenaline-fuelled as any big festival.
Throughout the night it seemed that Downing could have rested on their laurels, with a conventional theme and enough alcohol to keep guests happy, but again and again the ball exceeded our already high expectations. The bar for next year has been set higher than ever.
Value for money: 9/10