Have you done anything creative today? If you’ve not then stop reading this, and go and do something - sculpt, paint, draw, write, sing, cook, sew, arrange, or perform, whatever takes your fancy but do it, do it now. It’s what those dedicated to giving life to the radical Port Eliot Festival would want you to do. It’s what they’re all about, it’s why so many creative industries are gathered together under the banner of the elephant. The festival’s iconic symbol.
Done something creative yet? Right, good, let’s get on with my appraisal of this July’s Port Eliot held over four days on the last weekend in July. I firmly believe art and creativity is an important part of life, and it dominates the days throughout Cornwall’s Port Eliot festival. Centrally it’s about getting together, and doing something, learning from one another, all with dash of a spirit of activism and political engagement. It’s not in your face protest but it is there. For instance Zandra Rhodes calls on her audience to send protests to Justine Greening to show our disapproval of the removal of the arts from the national curriculum. Our host of this the 13th edition of Port Eliot Festival, Catherine St Germans, the widow of festival visionary Peregrine, proclaims in the front of the festival’s programme that, “The Department of Education may be downgrading arts subjects, but we’re not having it!”
And they certainly are not! There’s a wealth of workshops to get involved in over the four days, though by early Saturday morning nearly all of them are fully booked. There’s still open-access art classes, and chances to “join the creative resistance.” The festival hosts 18 stages, and arts spaces and a litany of over 500 luminaries.
Sunday hosts a remembrance of the Free and Independent Republic of Frestonia leader Heathcote Williams. The playwright, poet, anarchist and magician lived at Port Eliot for 12 years and died a month ago. A quote of his seems apt, and sums the ethos of the weekend up nicely. “Industrialists, who turn the Amazonian jungle into useless tundra or cement over half the planet, are not, for some reason, machine-gunned en masse, nor captured and exhibited, nor do they have their teeth extracted and carved into little men.”
His radical vibe is borne throughout the weekend. It’s anti Tory, and staunchly anti-Brexit. Even the science talks in the house’s esoterically painted roundroom see experts in their various fields, shake their heads at the prospect of losing funding, and their ability to collaborate with their EU colleagues. I sit in on the ‘Harnessing the Waves’ talk where Dr Keri Collins from the School of Marine Science and Engineering at Plymouth University, is openly unsure of funding post Horizon 2020 for their work in groundbreaking large scale wave energy technology.
But the defiance doesn’t stop there. It is at the top of the agenda throughout the site where spiritualism and science are entwined. There’s climate change campaigns, women’s rights in the music and arts field, education, and LGBTQ rights. Even in the peaceful corner of the wellbeing Lark’s Haven area we find Doug King Smith and his rocket logs making a case for The Hillyfield’s Woodland Appeal to help fund their legal fees in their impending court battle. Activism is everywhere just under the surface. A bit like the kids running about everywhere, it takes you a while to realise they’re pervasive as they’re not really bothering anybody. Organisers have a host of ways to keep children engaged, with great swathes of the verdant garden dedicated to shows, activities and entertainments for the resident little folk.
We start our weekend firmly embracing the various talks, getting orientated to the site. It’s changed a bit since our last visit three years ago. But not too much. Anthropologie that I raved about after my last visit has moved up into the walled garden, which still houses the Wardrobe Department, the book shop, and obviously the Walled Garden Stage.
There’s also a cocktail bar and Fal Oyster here. Just as I remembered from previous visits, the food and drink on offer on site is amazing. We lose a few hours sipping gin at Slipsmiths whilst watching festival goers cavorting in the mud and calm waters of the estuary. We sup reasonably priced ales at Caught By The River, whilst listening to upbeat grooves, we sample rum cocktails in the Dead Man’s Fingers Bar, and then meander further to discover the Skinner’s Bar and Black Cow Saloon. It’s a paradise for those that like a tipple or two. There’s even a hidden venue for getting a groove once darkness, and your dancing inhibitions fall.
But the highlight has to be the food on offer. It’s not just the output from Freddy Bird’s new open fire area or the Flower & Fodder chefs, who talk us through their dishes before we get a chance to sample them. There’s festival food here in abundance from mac&cheese, ice creams and sorbets, cheese or avocado on toast and gourmet burgers, to Persian, curries, fish, crab, seafood, oysters, hot pots, Asian street food, burritos, faeryfloss, wood fired pizzas, pasta, pastries and many more. It’s heaven on a bamboo plate or cardboard box for foodies and I spend more on meals than anything else - prices vary from £6-£10 in the main and the portions are decent. Making four meals at each sitting tricky but necessary for the purpose of a fair review! And they’re so delicious! We feel we’re being really well catered for, and nearly all of it is sourced locally.
Our bodies are really well looked after over the weekend, and there’s much here to pamper our spirits once fed and watered. There’s tasty teas from Pukka, charcoally chai, and lots of opportunities to participate in wellbeing. There’s comedy, yoga, meditation, wildwood craft, mindfulness, holistic health, massage, sound baths, surfing, cleansing, and even a death cafe (somewhere? We hunt for Claire and Rupert Callender’s Green Funeral space but fail to find it).
As each afternoon approaches the festival moves it’s focus more to music, with the six main music venues sparking into life. My favourite being The Church, though that wasn’t because it afforded a chance to escape the rain which pestered the site throughout Friday and Saturday. Practically all the venues were under cover, and the others also included enough space to dance. Instead we sat. restrained, on wooden chairs under the stained glass windows. But, what made it special was the quality of the musicians showcased infront of the altar. The highlight of which for me was the wonderful Martha Tilston who delivered a stunning set on Sunday as the sun began to dry the muddy site out.
There were other musical treats too Flamingods, Keeva, Cut Capers, festival regular Mik Artistik, Nick Lowe, The Lilac Time, John Otway, The Orielles, and St Etienne stood out amongst a high standard of aural pleasure. It felt like the programmers had chosen quality over quantity.
There’s no back stage here, so everyone is treated equally. Musicians, comedians, speakers, gardeners and experts in their fields, artists, poets, healers, thinkers, and aristocracy all rub shoulder with festivalgoers over the weekend.
This utopia where wellbeing and science converge, seems to have very few issues for those that attend. Okay, so this year was the first time in the festival’s history that it’s been a ‘wet one’ and it survived the drenching fairly well. Crowds remained undefeated by the downpours though many retired early, once the rain showed no sign of abating. The grounds stood up fairly well throughout, there was an ankle high carpeting of mud between house and camping grounds. Getting extra trackway or chipping proved problemtic every event in the counties both sides of the Tamar also wanted it. Straw was deployed to areas worst hit, and the gardeners found some wood chipping which was dutifully shovelled sparingly onto mud. Whilst onlookers commented that Peregrine wouldn’t have been happy to have seen it deployed. Much of the grounds still had grass to rest upon once skies blued on Sunday. Most pathways where vehicles traversed were muddy, boots also doing much of the damage. Areas where boots were removed, or where barefeet or flip flops mainly traversed were verdant on the final day. Boots had to be removed before entering the house itself and that remained fairly mud free throughout.
The campervan fields cut up badly, and for some early departures a tractor had to tow them off site. Those who stayed and hoped the grassy areas would dry were rewarded for their patience. Unfortunately hidden pot holes and deep muddy puddles caused a few problems for those traversing the site. At times the mud meant some main routes were compromised and some toilets could not be cleaned regularly, resulting in obvious difficulties.
As horror stories emerged from disgruntled punters at other festivals across the country which had also been hit by deluges. It was comforting to know we’d been so well cared for on the estate by the River Tiddy. Port Eliot has a special heritage. It was here, Elephant Fayre was held. It was the archetypal blueprint for an independent festival, that many of the new generation of successful independents have since emulated.
It’s good to see that the driving forces for the organisers are still entertainment, enlightenment, enrichment, and activism. It’s a special mix and an antidote to the capitalism that drives much in this country these days. The festival may have only been four days, but the effect on it’s inhabitants will last much longer. Thanks to everyone involved in its creation.
review by: Scott Williams
photos by: Karen Williams
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