Clouds of dust billowed upwards into the four apexes of a spectacular Big Top marquee as Wickham Festival drew to a whooping close on a Sunday night. The golden, barley-stubble turf had been pummelled to powder by the feet of over four thousand festival-goers enjoying three days and four nights of evocative entertainment. The Festival's return to Hampshire's Meon Valley was a rousing success with a super line-up, decent site and welcoming atmosphere.
Great artist selection, crystal clear PA and a running order with rapid, well-worked changeovers gave the event a sense of incessant momentum. Over thirty acts take to the main stage in thirty hours. Thursday night's opening concert with Eliza Carthy and The Treacherous Orchestra sets the benchmark. The theme develops in Friday's damp weather with traditionally inspired acts including Chris Wood, and Shooglenifty. The pace upped on Saturday, young acts Uiscedwr were terrific fun and Tyde (folk) dreamy. Early evening saw more mature punk-folkers The Men They Couldn't Hang and Hazel O'Connor delivering emotive sets. Saturday night's concert featured the superb thirteen member genre-benders Salsa Celtica and climaxed with an exceptional show of booty-shaking, Zoot suited funk from Kid Creole and the Coconuts. Sunday afternoon's sunshine saw the ever-increasing audience taking in the lively shows of festival stalwarts 3 Daft Monkeys and pedigree Irish band Dervish. As the evening drew in there were standing room only performances from the firm favourites Show of Hands as well as The Undertones, and Peatbog Faeries. The Levellers' set brought these traditional, innovative and punk strands together into a magnificent culmination.
Groovy Movie Picture House Solar Cinema was a most interesting addition to the proceedings. Pitched away from the Main Stage in the adjoining Arena field the cinema is set up in a blacked-out, carpeted marquee. Over the weekend they screen gems such as the Eric Idle and Neil Innes's Beatles pastiche 'All You Need is Cash' and Mark Thomas's fight the power documentary 'Serious Organised Criminal'. A slashup of the animated Star Trek series with William Shatner singing Pulp's 'Common People' provides somewhat lighter entertainment. After the main stage closes the music continues at the Solar Cinema with proprietress Hattie Hatstar's satirical ditties accompanied by herself on the accordion and Random Bass Player. Amazingly this attraction runs through each afternoon into the small hours powered solely on batteries charged by the their solar panels.
A platform stage in the centre of the Arena field hosts the weekend's live dance programme. Ten Morris sides take part in Border and Cotswold displays and workshops. The dancers are predominantly local and include Wickham's own side. The fantastic costumes, jangling bells, cracking sticks, waving hankies and stomping clogs attract a steady stream of spectators. Morris went electric with Southampton's Samhain Morris replacing the standard acoustic backing group of melodeon, drum and fiddle with electric guitar.
Stalls are set up around the Arena's perimeter and upslope from the main stage. There is no shortage of eating options for carnivores and vegetarians alike. Chilli, hog roast, burgers and crepes vie with chickpea curry and yakisoba noodles for the tummy trade. Adjacent to the Big Top, the Tea Stop is a particular hub for both punters and wasps. They serve well-priced hot drinks and snacks from a converted Routemaster bus with seating upstairs and outside in their floral forecourt. The food traders face competition from the ubiquitous camp kitchens set up in the campsite. Self-catering is a popular, and economic, choice for many families. The good stalls seem to keep their trade, whereas the unexceptional have very short queues.
Licensing conditions mean alcohol can't be brought onto the site so the Beer Tent is sole provider of booze. Fortunately this position is not abused. A choice of three 6X beers, plus cider and lager all around £3 per pint are available. A long polished oak bar and plenty of staff keep queues to a minimum, so that even at its busiest the waiting time is only a minute or so.
Traders are on hand to part you from any money remaining after the eating and drinking are done with an array of enticing wares and therapies. If you need Nepalese fabrics or African and South American knick-knacks you are in luck. Likewise if you're looking for jewellery, a rough looking £10 guitar or hula-hoop you won't be disappointed. A bewildering variety of flags and banners appear throughout the campsite but should you have omitted to bring one along then there are two stalls devoted to this merchandise. The Whole Wide World music stall promotes the Festival performers CDs together with thousands of appealing titles to further tempt the cash from your pocket. Massages and Tarot readings are available for any £10 or £20 note surviving any or all of the above.
Festivalgoer's corporeal needs were equally well catered for. The plentiful Portaloos were generally found to be clean, with separate urinal for the chaps keeping the sit down seats in good order for the ladies. As an extra bonus washing facilities were provided from 7am to 10pm by Posh Wash Showers, with actual hot water, hygienic cubicles and drainage! Water points were well designed and situated so as not to turn their immediate vicinity into mire. Recycling opportunities on site were limited, presumably because glass and cans couldn't be taken beyond the security gates. Still, apart form a couple of noticeable exceptions the campsite was well kept.
Demographically the event was skewed towards the thirty plus with children, perhaps attracted by the great facilities and ease of access from the motorway. Campervans and caravans took around half of the camping field. The other half of the stubbled field was filled mostly with family size tents. The majority of these homes from home had flags flying and cookers ready to go. Sadly thieves were attracted by these easy pickings, but the security were able to disrupt their pilfering before too many people lost out.
A good number activities and entertainments were provided for the children. In the Arena field Ticklish Allsorts lo-tech Punch & Judy show attracted an enthusiastic crowd despite its proximity to EA Games' hi-tech multimedia video gaming extravaganza. This certainly stood out from the more common folk festival children's area with paining, pottery and playing - but was clearly popular with the youngsters, if not such a hit with some parents.
Wickham Festival's admirable intentions to create a great event for all to enjoy really shone through. The event felt distinctly 'customer' focused. I suspect a great number of those enjoying themselves kicking up dust on Sunday will be back next year hoping for another stellar line up and excellent hospitality.
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