For fifteen years now we’ve been coming to Beautiful Days festival. Whilst it’s grown a lot since Dave and Laura Farrow, together with Biff Mitchell first organised a two day gathering of 5,000 for the Levellers. It has retained that classic ‘old school’ festival feel that keeps people coming back year after year, and always ensures that 17,500 of us have a fantastic weekend whatever the weather.
Taking place annually at Escot House in Devon in the middle of August, you’d have thought that the festival would always benefit from the great British Summertime weather wise, but no, I can only remember 2 in those 15 which were rain free. And the last few have all seen gold green fields turn a muddy brown around our temporary homes.
I’m not sure why the mud has so much sand in it, presumably it’s what Capability Brown used to sculpt the landscape of Escot House. It certainly keeps the integrity of the ground below well as the surface starts to slick. The house’s grounds are home not only to the festival but also the location for re-wilding lynx and wolves. I’m disappointed to hear no wolf howls in the night from the animals the other side of the fence, as i sit by the fire in the middle of the tipi field, watching embers soar into the night. Maybe, I think into the starless blackness, it’s because it’s not a full moon.
I do hear a lot of great music over the four days however. The festival opens on Thursday and there’s a few low key appearances in the Dirty Daveys bar. The line-up always manages to showcase festival favourites alongside the occasional rarity, big name acts we’ve grown up with alongside new acts, and folk favourites. Joining festival headliners Levellers at the top of the big were Beautiful South’s Abbott and Heaton who delivered a set chock full of hits from (mainly) Paul Heaton’s past. On Saturday Frank Turner returned to frankly blow fans away with just how good a live prospect he now is - his crowd walk from the main stage was a confident saunter across the heads of the crowd. Levellers themselves delivered a strong set, not holding back, despite next year being their 30th anniversary. It was a crowd pleasing on a warm night were the rain stayed away throughout.
There’s something about the compact arena with it’s gently sloping sides and tree lining that really makes the site appealing. Though it rarely changes layout each year there’s something new for the faithful, well newish, the year saw the return of collective Leviticus with their Rebel Tent - showcasing DJs, talks, films, and poet Linton Kwesi Johnson. There’s a fair bit of politics mixing with the pop at the fringes.
I hear again of Beanfields whilst watching a wandering pair of uniformed police photobomb an unsuspecting hippie couple. That’s some serendipity. The hippies laugh, as do the coppers, least some things have mellowed in the last couple of decades.
Opposite the rebel tent stands the Little Big Top. A noisy, colourful interior that’s mainly populated by the night owls of the audience drawn to DJ sets, and the later still silent disco. Though Big Youth joining Mad Professor concluded a Sunday which also showcased Don Letts, and Craig Charles and significantly widened the age demographic. Packing the tent and the bubble filled space outside. At other times this was mainly the domain of the youth, and of course one or two of us that had been the original custodians of this dance music that the youth now appropriate as their own.
Tucked away at the furthest end of the festival was The Bimble Inn where festival favourites Hobo Jones & The Junkyard Dogs (celebrating a decade of pestering the Levellers), Winter Mountain, Funke & The Two Tone Baby, The Leylines, Davy Cowan, and more kept the tipi tent crowded at times all weekend. At other times the dry flooring and cushions provided a respite and a chance to snooze. Here at the margins was the more relaxed and tranquil corner of the festival. The grass banks providing comfort both by day and at night as the candy coloured lightshow filled the air overhead. Pastoral hedonism at it’s best.
The other end of the arena side of the site is home to the large vibrant kids area. Packed with colourful children enjoying an all day free programme of workshops, wandering acts, play, making, and activities. There were some paid for kids’ rides including trampolines, a big wheel, and the helter skelter (owner slightly irked by the 2 for 1 offer inaccurately published in the paid for programme).
Above all this happy craziness in the quiet high reaches of the site overlooking the main arena is the healing area, and a chance to listen for those wolves (maybe they were muzzled?) as those aches and pains were massaged away. The pains from supplication of heavy nights balmed and soothed, and cleared further still be a nice cuppa tea.
Around the edges of the arena and the paths were the various handpicked food stalls and festival shops. The shiny festival stuff for sale was interesting enough to attract the attention, and the food sensibly priced at around £8 for a main meal. If you spent too much there was a local village cornershop offering cheap provisions and if that was insufficient, next to it a cash machine. Bar prices at the main bars ranged from £3 for the Avocet guest ale to £4 for local cider like Green Valley, Screech or Tricky. At the same price Otter Brewery offered a range of summer ales. Here you’ll not find corporate sponsorship, big four advertising, or the commercial beverages on tap.
In front of Escot House and the last venue before crossing the flower lined bridge to the main camping and camper van areas was the Big Top home to the bigger more acoustic or folky acts. Headlined by a darkly addictive Therapy? Acoustic set, an upbeat Hayseed Dixie (with fistfuls of new covers) and the wonderful voice of Alison Moyet. It was disappointing that Songhoy Blues failed to get visas, but this tent featured some exceptional talent over the weekend. Often rammed too, as festival goers escaped the rain. A brilliant set from Eliza Carthy & The Wayward Band rightfully had them claiming Bellowhead’s now vacant throne. More festival favourites featured including Gaz Brookfield, The Eskies, Rev Hammer, and The Worry Dolls. Almost a year ago I recommended on the eFestivals forums Round Mountain Girls and both them and All Our Exes Live In Texas proved great new acts to watch for the first time live.
Other new highlights (for me at least) included main stage acts Warsaw Radio, Dubioza Kolektiv (may have seen them at WOMAD I forget), and Raging Fyah. Much of the programme I’d seen previously but I didn’t see a single disappointing performance all weekend.
What was slightly disappointing was the new location of The Band Stand still sited back across the bridge in the camping area, but, it had been turned slightly. Forcing the audience to stand downslope to watch festival favourites like Geoff Lakeman (ably assisted by sone Seth), Doozer McDooze, Michelle Stowdart, and The Bar-Steward Sons Of Val Doonican. For short people this incline resulted in them moaning at anyone only slightly taller than themselves for ruining their view and the blustery rain just exacerbated things.
Also on this side of the site, was the Redwood trees where storytellers kept kids up all night thinking about fantastically spun stories. Here too the Theatre Tent which entertained audiences under thick canvas in proper seats. Which, gives me a nice link to the only other slight gripe… Festival goers why bring chairs or sun/rain shelters if you’re gonna abandon them down in front of the main stage when it gets dark? Is it so those leaving the crowd steaming after rocking out to New Model Army, or Stiff Little Fingers go arse over tit in the failing light? Highly annoying! If you're gonna leave things in a busy crowd by the main stage front barrier in the dark use a glo-stick, ELwire, or similar! It’s not rocket science! Certainly don’t complain if your one foot high dark boot-trap snags someone in a busy crowd!
Might as well get this off my chest too. Queues for loos! Whilst I can’t see the merit in putting 6 person urinals over a trough where about 20 once stood, I do disagree with those who say they felt there won’t enough Andy Loos. There were plenty, and they did a great job keeping them clean, and regularly emptied. It’s just that everyone wanted to go between acts, though I noted that within 20 minutes there wasn’t anyone queueing. If you want to go at the same time as everyone else then yes there’s going to be a massive queue. Timing is everything at festivals.
Other complaints heard over the weekend mainly revolved around there being too many people. As far as I’m aware capacity had not been increased. What had increased I felt were the number of experienced festival goers. People that were happy to enjoy themselves whatever the weather. People that stayed out watching the acts in the rain. Then, as the mud set in, the trackways narrowed and all these people enjoying themselves instead of sitting in their tent or waiting for their 10th shower (the free showers were great) meant that more revellers were out and about. During headlining acts most stages were pretty full but at no point did it feel unsafe. The whole place felt incredibly safe all weekend. Well lit, well stewarded, well managed. It was great to see Beautiful Days crowds once again ignoring the elements, and the number who got on board with the fancy dress theme made it really vibrant. Though some of the more fragile creations fell apart, positively adding to my slightly listless feel come Sunday.
The festival organisers have had fifteen years to get it right, but in reality they have been getting it right since year one. Nick Harper told the audience he wrote ‘The Field of the Cloth of Gold’ about the festival, and that sums the festival so well. Go give it a listen.
Thanks to everyone that helps make this event such a success. DMF and the Levellers have really surpassed themselves this year and the next one can’t roll around soon enough. Surely, we are owed a sunny one on the fields of the cloth of gold.
review by: Scott Williams
photos by: Karen Williams / Andy Pitt
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