"Would you care for a sprinkling of basil on your brioche, darling?" That's the phrase that wakes me after my first evening of sleep in the camping field at Port Eliot.
"Mmmm, isn't Gnocchi godlike?", I hear, as I open my eyes a bit more and further orientate myself to my surroundings.
I shouldn't be surprised at the lack of the unruly or the pleasant poshness of it all. On arrival into this Cornish field yesterday, I'd seen people literally pulling full trailer-loads of stuff with them into this camp site. One couple clearly felt that a blow up bed was beneath them and had lugged a hand-teased, pocket sprung, horsehair king size mattress from home. Festivals might have a tendency towards being middle-class pursuits but this is a cut above that again.
And possibly, one (see what I did there?) needs to look back to the origins of the Port Eliot festival to understand this more. In the preface/introduction of the impressive programme (£7 a pop), Catherine St. Germans, festival proprietor and wife of Peregrine, the late Lord of these parts, pays moving tribute to her husband who passed away days before the festival was due to begin. "Perry loved this festival and made it clear that he wanted this year's to go ahead, with instructions that it should be the best ever. So, we are more determined than ever that that is what it will be."
I don't want to paint a picture of exclusion. It's not like that at all. There's no VIP area here and little in the way of discernible backstage privilege. Thus, it's more than likely that you'll spot headline acts and important figures from the worlds of pop, food, comedy, fashion and literature gracefully and gratefully mingling around the lawns. For Port Eliot is a festival where we all muck in together. Once you get used to the general sense of the place, you realise that nobody is haughtily looking down their noses at you. It tries hard to be a festival for all, even if the prices at some of the stalls (more later) do their damnedest to prohibit that vibe.
The absolute beauty of this particular slice of Cornwall doesn't fail to leave you gobsmacked. There's loads of informative talks scheduled and tons of things to see and do but for many (and I include myself in this), this is a festival that offers a chance to escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. In some ways, what you watch becomes less important than simply breathing in the coastal air. We spend a fair bit of the weekend sat in deckchairs and hammocks, conversing with pints on straw bales and admiring the views offered from the bucolic, distant countryside. Whilst youngsters frolic and fight in the muddy estuary, we sip gin on the shores and imagine we're simply bathers in an impressionist masterpiece or bit parts in an F Scott Fitzgerald novel.
Nowhere did the gin taste better than up the hill in the Wardrobe Department. It's Saturday afternoon and the sun is beating down. Evening's almost upon us and we're soaking up the last of the rays as we observe the flamboyant and the more pedestrian bouncing around. Sipsmith's is the gin of choice and we go for doubles with a measure of ginger beer (£14 for the pair). "What's the theme up here this year darling?" asks one punter, in a voice slightly hackneyed with ab-fab affectation. "Oh, it's the 80's, sweetie", comes the slightly aloof reply. The delicate Flo Morrissey takes to the stage and sends out a lilting gentle folk set to all gathered. That's followed by a fashion parade that the youngsters take part in. The smiles on their faces are matched by proud parents who watch from the sides of the temporary straw bale catwalk.
And if you're a parent who can afford such endeavour then your kids will have an absolute ball at Port Eliot. We venture into the designated kids area, the Hullabaloo field. There's a play going on here - a comical adventure into another world with monsters, mermaids and Brummies. With tinsel hanging from the trees and fairy lights emitting a faint glow, you can't help but be impressed by the attention to detail.
So, we're here to learn. There's plenty of opportunity to find out about random things. I walk past a talk about 'the history of the tea cosy' but stumble upon others. In the flower and fodder tent, William Sitwell gives a fascinating talk about food policy during the Second World War. Under the guidance of Lord Woolton's careful wheeling and dealing, rationing is sold to the public and we come out of those turbulent years in better health as a nation. A fascinating hour. Rupert Thompson reads from his latest novel and gives a terrific insight into his creative process. He inspires those who have a novel in them to get that novel out. Darren Hayman, a hero from his days in Hefner, tells all in the 'Caught By The River' tent about his latest project. Thankful villages are those where all of the signed up wartime soldiers returned home alive and kicking. Hayman has travelled to these villages (there are nine in Somerset alone) and unearthed stories that he's now put to poetry or song. A beautiful moment.
Brix Smith Start is interviewed by Stephen Duffy. She tells of her initial meeting with Mark E. Smith and his wooing of her. Her time in the Fall is talked about and then Brix and Duffy pick up acoustic guitars and give us a version of one of her 'Fall' songs. Back in the day, Duffy knew Brix because they lived on a commune together along with Nigel Kennedy. Brix relays a hilarious story about Italia '90, her friendship with Michelle Lineker and how Gary revealed to her, days after playing the Republic of Ireland, that he had farted and followed through on the pitch. She encourages us all to watch the scenes again on youtube. Gary does indeed fall to the floor and shuffle his shorts awkwardly along the grass whilst begging Bobby Robson to substitute him. Brix is a witty raconteur and this was time well spent.
Amidst all of this interesting chatter, there's a mountain of great music to spy. Music is just part of the total experience at Port Eliot rather than the primary interest like at so many other festivals. Last year, the wonderful Meilyr Jones played a solo set in front of four punters (I was one) and the girls from Stealing Sheep. This year, the 'Caught By The River' tent is packed out for a full band performance. It's joyful, uplifting and theatrical, delivered by a frontman with astonishing grace and style. Another fine frontman to catch my eye was Adam Green. Bouncing and prancing around the stage, dressed as Aladdin but with movements resembling a court jester, the former Moldy Peach pretty much steals the weekend with his over the top charm and Cocker-like delivery. Bo Ningen take us to that psychedelic place with their excellently executed rock whilst Money dispatch a haunting set up in the beautiful church. Their album from last year, Suicide Songs, really is a hidden gem.
We choose to watch Henry Normal do his poetry thing. He tells us that this is only his second reading in 25 years, his first being a couple of weeks earlier at Latitude. It's a tender hour in which he flits between the silly and the serious. He pays tribute to Caroline Aherne, the woman he spent so many years co-writing with in a beautiful poem about the air in balloons. He moves many to tears when he talks proudly of the quirks of his autistic son. The overall impression is one of a fine human being, a grounded man happy to have taken a backseat in the world of comedy, ridiculously successful but never likely to be mobbed as he walks along Brighton's esplanade.
Dawn French, similarly successful, is much more likely to be mobbed. An instantly recognisable star for many a year, it's packed out at the Park Stage when she does a conversation piece with Miranda Sawyer. Dawn is exactly as you want her to be. Happy, generous in her praise of others and bubbling with that slightly silly, child-like sarcasm that's become her trademark style. It's hard to believe that this woman is now 58 years young. I don't see Noel Fielding in conversation with Bruce Robinson but am reliably told that he didn't disappoint. Apparently, he parties late into the night with a harem of admirers all wanting to inhale his cider-breath or cling on to the magical glitter of his platform boots. We do go and see Fielding's art exhibition that's mounted in the basement of the stunning Port Eliot house. Down in the dark cellars, old farming implements are positioned between Fielding's work of cartoon surrealism.
"It's cost me more than Glastonbury to bring my family here." That's just one of the grumbles that I hear about the price of things at this year's Port Eliot. I buy two pints in the Black Cow Saloon on the Thursday afternoon and nearly fall over backwards when I'm charged £16 (£2 of this was for a plastic reusable cup but.....). Fortunately, beer and cider at other bars was less expensive with £4 being the going rate for some fine Cornish ales. "We didn't have to pay for the workshops last year but this year many of them cost extra with some of the most popular costing £11 a go." I understand that festivals need to think carefully about their sustainability but once you've already shelled out for a ticket this seems like unnecessary, additional expense. There's no doubt that many of the crowd here are oblivious to the damage this might be causing upon their wallets. With most meals costing more than a tenner, this is one of the more expensive festivals on the circuit. "We'll bring our own food next year", a despairing family tell me as they leave the site on Sunday evening.
That's not to say that much of the food here isn't brilliant in quality. In fact, I don't mind spending that little extra from time to time. Some of the stalls here advertise their Michelin star credentials. Often, the ingredients are local, fresh and of succulent quality. Trust me, when surrounded with such choice, to head to tried and tested festival favourites; Tea and Toast and The Cheese Truck get much of my carbohydrate custom.
The Ace of Clubs stage deserves special mention. Situated just across the lawn from the much larger park tent, the entertainment in here whenever I pop my head in to get a top up of cider is top notch. On Thursday evening, we spend much time in here. It seems to be mostly local bands but they really get the party started. Lost Dawn excite with their Nirvana like noodlings whilst William The Conqueror, the alter-ego of Ruarri Joseph, do an intense beardy folk thing that draws comparison with Bonnie Prince Billy. We nip in on Friday and catch an accessible lesson in opera, courtesy of Virginia King. Her voice sends goosebumps your way as she sings from the heart. The Jolenes are fun with their country twang and Kezia has a sweet take on acoustic pop. If there wasn't so much going on elsewhere, I'd have happily spent more of my time in here.
That's one of the frustrations of festival going that's amplified at Port Eliot. You scan the programme and want to be in four places at once. Yet, the general ambience encourages you not to rush about like a mad thing. So, you gently amble. You rest in the Weleda wellbeing area, drink quality wine in the walled garden and look on enviously at those eating full lobster (£35). You sample the best teas in the Orangery and go to Science lectures in the round room of the house. You miss Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth do an interpretative dance piece about male rock posturing. You can't avoid Mik Artistik and his 'plastic fox' which he seems to sing from every single festival stage. You laugh at the warm comedy of James Acaster and appreciate why Kernow King is so cherished by the Cornish locals.
I do love this festival. It's like nothing else on the circuit that I know of. (I've never been to Wilderness but I guess there are similarities). The attention to detail, the comprehensive schedule, the many memories from the weekend that'll etch on your mind as you head home on a drizzly and grey Monday. You get a sense that Perry really was looking down on this weekend. Best ever Port Eliot? I reckon so.
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