Held on the weekend closest to the Autumn equinox, Alchemy can legitimately claim to be a last shout of the summer festival season and since it's start in 2009 I've heard many recommendations from friends lauding it's intimate old-school vibe, yet for one reason or another (including end-of-season fatigue!) it's a shout I've failed to heed so far.
This year though I was out of excuses and the warm dry September weather we've been enjoying this year propelled me towards Coningsby in Lincolnshire for one more chance to party in a field before my tent finally gets sent aloft for the coming winter months.
Arriving early evening on Friday I get the feeling we're late - there's hundreds of cars in the car park, the wristband peeps mutter about about campsite space getting tight, and when we walk through to the campsites it looks at first glance close to full. Clearly people are up for making the most of the weekend arriving early or taking the opportunity to arrive on Thursday (with the purchase of a Thursday ticket). But before long gaps are spotted and we soon have our tents up and are celebrating the easy completion of the second worst part of going to festivals - with cider and friendly neighbours.
First impressions jibe well with reports of an old-school vibe with the uncommon sight these days of quite a few dogs in attendance adding to that impression (I witness no dog-related problems over the weekend and the well sign-posted 'dogs must be on leads' rule was well adhered to - I hope Alchemy manages to keep them on the allowed list). The campsite is neatly laid out with roped-off lanes, well lit and the water points handily placed and working, all counter to my expectations of a slightly rough and ready set up and perhaps a sign that Alchemy attendees like to spend a good amount of time socializing around their tents with many fire pits and barbecues brought along to the party.
It's a short hop from the car parks to the campsite and an an even shorter hop from the campsite to the arena which is one large field with stalls and stages lining the edges and a central island dominated by the Roundhouse - a new for 2014 feature built out of straw bales, mud, tree branches and rope incorporating a bar selling real ales and ciders, a cafe selling bacon butties burgers and baked potatoes, and an enclosed open-air music venue and stage. Clearly not a quick thing to build and must have consumed many man hours in it's construction, I wonder what becomes of it after the festival ends.
Most of Friday evening is spent slowly rotating around the field, identifying stages, catching up with friends and coo-ing at the impressive lasers and Glastonbury-style search lights sweeping across the sky and lighting up the low-hanging clouds. More light in the form of a well-rehearsed fire show entertains us for an hour followed by more ambling, and so it is that we don't settle in front of a stage to watch a band until the headlining act Culture Shock take to the main Philosophers Stone stage to whip the crowd into a high tempo ska frenzy. The lack of any program for the stages (besides blackboards etc) probably didn't help but I'm somewhat surprised when the curfew on the Philosophers Stone stage is the curfew for all the stages and the site goes quiet at 1.00am - I'm (probably unrealistically) expecting more in the way of late night beats to finish off the night but the music shutdown is universal, although there's still plenty of people around in no rush to go to bed gathered around fire pits and making their own fun of course, and given the close proximity of the site to the village of Coningsby and no sound-blocking hills to intervene in this flat part of the world it's perhaps not so surprising.
This year Alchemy boasted a grand total of eight stages which is probably the highest stage-punter ratio in the land! My morning mission on Saturday was to improve on my poor band count on Friday by getting photos of blackboards and listings from the stages, although even this wasn't a complete success with some of the smallest stages not having a list up anywhere (that I could find at least). Suggestion - if there's to be no program a good half-way house would be to have a single notice board with all the stage line-up info on at the entrance to the arena that people can photograph with their phones and then not have to play hunt the thimble perhaps. Or perhaps I should just chill out about it?
Anyway by my count there were over 150 acts on the over the three days which would be an impressive tally for festivals with triple the capacity (I suspect some performers in the early part of the day must have played to one man and his dog!). Besides musical attractions there's also a dedicated circus tent hosting shows, workshops and talks, various craft stalls offering the chance to get your hands dirty and make something, face-painting stalls, and a decent selection of market traders offering a last chance to pick up a bargain at end-of-season prices.
One thing that's always difficult for small festivals to do well is to provide a wide selection of food options, especially when a large portion of the attendees bring the kitchen sink with them and do their own cooking - I would hazard a guess that half of Alchemy attendees came in live-in vehicles and many of the campers clearly came equipped to cook as well. I'm not hard to please in this department and the choice of pizza from the Pizza and Puppets stall (which seems to be following me around this year), great filling curries dished up by the Indian food stall (whose name I forget), and the regular burgers/bacon/sausage/baked potatoes fare ensured this meat-eater at least didn't go hungry. And if the choice on site didn't satisfy there's always the option of trying out the local hostelries in Coningsby which is within easy walking distance of the festival site. Prices on site were as cheap as any you're likely to find at any festival (eg basic pizza - £5) and the beers too are reasonably priced at £3.50 for a pint of decent strength real ale - this is a very affordable festival.
Of the eight music stages three were DJ-based venues with the Mushroom Stage marquee providing the psy-trance stomping beats all weekend, the adjacent Toadstool tent providing higher BPM in the form of drum and bass and the Psychadelic Breakfast Stage which appeared to provide a bit of everything, as well as sausage sarnies and a nice cup of tea. As planned, my band-tally improved on Saturday though not radically so, but special mentions to ZubZub for getting me dancing, Ferocious Dog who have established themselves as a festival favourite and the main stage headliners the stalwart Dub Pistols who are guaranteed to provoke the crowd into action wherever they play. Annoyingly the Dub Pistols clash with two other bands I want to see - Babyhead from Bristol on the Liberty Stage and Headmix Collective on the Kaplick solar-powered stage but it was delightfully easy to sample all three without wasting much time traversing between the stages such are the short distances and uncongested audiences.
I'm not sure what happened next but I woke up on a straw bale in the hidden cocktail/piano bar area in the early hours and staggered back to my tent and much of Sunday was spent in recovery mode with a visit to a Coningsby pub for hair of the dog and to watch Leicester City outfox Man Utd 5 bloody 3 (there was no way I was writing this review without mentioning that!). An afternoon nap back at the tent provided further recuperation and I finally rallied sufficiently to get back into the festival for the evening sets on The Philosophers Stone stage.
Starting with veterans from the nineties AOS3 whose psychedelic reggae-based tunes were just what the doctor ordered, followed by the harder edged trio Tribazik who blasted out any remaining cobwebs. Finally it was time for Senser to bring the festival music to a close - another veteran band of the nineties, I'd been trying to place them in my musical memory-banks all weekend. "They're like an English Rage Against The Machine" our campsite neighbours inform me which sounded promising. And they live up to it too delivering a storming set of tunes that have somehow passed me by - I plan to fill the gap with some of their albums when I get home.
Plaudits must go to the organisers for putting on this great little festival at the end of the season with an old-school caring ethos that's sure to maintain a loyal audience and keep them coming back for more. I made it at last and will be back for sure.
Special thanks to the very nice man roaming the car parks with jump-leads on Monday getting people's vehicles started for no payment without whom (etc). Now where's me loft ladder?
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