"Don't go back, you can never look back." Well this year I did. I don't know why I thought that 30 years on, I would return to the site which was home to Elephant Fayre. The first festival of my youth, and where my love of a particular type of UK 'old school' alternative festival was instilled in me.
The lyrics of The Boys of Summer by Don Henley stick in my mind after escaping from the hot and humid weekend in the verdant estate in Cornwall, which is the seat of the Eliot family, whose current head is Peregrine Eliot, the 10th Earl of St Germans. The Port Eliot festival is not a model of a perfect old school weekend, but a model of a perfect family event that delivers an appealing arts programme alongside, one which matches it's music programming for creativity.
To a certain extent I wish I hadn't tinted those memories of a crazy weekend in another world with this new incarnation. The festival site has changed forever from it's slightly out of control, punk craziness of the Eighties. Alright the coloured hair and the mohawks may be back - but they're part of the 5 minute 'festival hair' sessions with the pampering hairdressers of Bumble & Bumble. Festival hair is not recreating the Elephant Fayre 'festival hair look' of mud splattered matted locks scrunched in cider, straw and sweat. No they're creating proper fashion styles although they are done for free.
I've not been to many areas of festivals that are aimed at specifically at kids recently - now that my own daughter has 'grown up'. This festival is on my doorstep and celebrating it's 10th year, it's a smaller less crowded version of Latitude I guess, which started a year or too later, mixed with the even younger Camp Bestival. It’s heavily orientated towards children but with no Disney type endeavours, or kids characters on show. The walled garden may be home to young fashionistas at The Wardrobe Department, but even this isn't commercial advertising or exploitation, and there's some big movers in the fashion world here my sister tells me, all providing their services to the kids (and their mums and dads) for free.
But there's lots of stuff to do, and all of it is free. There are also a lot of gin palaces, champagne, Cornish cider and cocktail bars to haunt should that appeal. By far the most impressive jewel in the kids activities is the Anthropologie, where you have to book early to join some great workshops, and craft sessions inside their wonderfully decorated tent. The tent is inspiring, the creations clever, and the decor quirky, and it’s one of the best workshops and most stylish venues I’ve encountered.
As if that wasn’t enough there was also the Hullabaloo Area - which is the area where we spend most of our days with those with children. Stretching from the Garden Maze up through Circus Skills, beside the world’s smallest Cafe, a small outdoor stage, wandering creatures, bouncy castle, bigger performance tent, and two making things tents, it reaches the edge of the Garden Of Delights - the festival's healing area in the middle of the lush garden. To one side through a hedge lined avenue full of clocks, and under old wedding dresses is a door to a world of characters and strange decor with Rogues Theatre. One of the best performance groups I've ever seen! Their show is slick, well paced, a good mix of song and show, with a few acrobatic tricks, fire, strong characters, and they tell a good story. Even the littlest kids on the mats in the hot sun remain still and intently follow the tales. They set everything up themselves, lights, rigging, stage, make-up, costumes, and decor, and their shows are well worth seeking out.
This festival is not so much for the people, it's firmly middle class, really really middle class, well upper middle class with a sprinkling of upper class and a dusting of aristocracy. But then perhaps they are the people who inhabit festivals now, and I have to concede that perhaps their tastes are such that they prefer a cleaner more cultured version. Worse though, to look at this event it’s not really visually any different from your usual festival crowd, so you can't tell when you arrive, or even when you're there just how upper middle class the whole thing is, well unless you hear the names of the children politely loudly exclaimed across the sun bleached grass lawns.
Photographer Martin Parr comments on how middle class it is in his talk, and how much he'd love to photograph the crowd here, and he's openly honest that it would probably in one of his satirical styles. There's much here to lampoon. The kids' names, the picnic hampers, the brand new camping equipment, the glamping, the way many are dressed. But, despite this it works, the festival isn't pretending it's something it isn't, it's celebrating what it is, and who the audience are now.
The advantage of having posh clientelle is that the portable loos are amazing, wide white beasts, with decent locks, lights in them, proper flushes and they're plentiful, conversely there's not quite enough showers, and they could do with longer usage hours for those who aren't crew.
It calls itself a creative festival, Jarvis Cocker labelled it (accurately) a 'festival of ideas', rather than just a literary festival, and whilst I see various writers across the weekend, I see less of them than any other genre of the arts I stop to dip in over the weekend. Bizarrely I do remember what I was reading at this festival 30 years ago it was 'Low-Flying Aircraft and Other Stories' by JG Ballard, and I feel at times rather like Halloway in the first tale trying to recreate something lost in my mind's eye. After a while the unused swimming pool, yellowing grass, broken sunglasses, silver painted art treasures, the dust of Port Eliot and late nights in the lively campervan field see me beginning to lose the plot. I start to see connections from the past everywhere. Worse still it being Cornwall I feel lost in the dark ages, as only The Long Gallery café has wifi internet access. I have to do stuff to keep myself occupied and I rarely see anyone else on their smartphone either, we were starting to get lost in this olde world.
I have to seek medical attention after succumbing to livid bites from the insect life thriving on the borders of the water. Who knew the insect life is now attracted to the chemicals 'deet' in insect repellent, and we had merely advertised ourselves for feasting upon by applying the stuff the medical crew tell us. One of our party has to leave for hospital after her eye entirely closes up. The swamp of 30 years ago has been drained, but the river, and the iconic mud flats are still there attracting flying beasts, and creating the mud people from my past. It is so hot that the water and the mud looked more and more inviting, an escape from the bugs and wasps.
The pain of the bites and the heat irritate at least there's solace in decent Lyonesse, and Apple Slayer ciders by independent Skinners Brewery. They also offer a range of their ales, as well as their own Skindog Lager all priced at £4 a pint.
There's also quite a choice of food to sustain us, lots of it in varying price ranges, the top end including an evening meal for £45, a cream tea for £14, or a crab burger at the same price. But, there are also good meals to be had around the £6-£7 mark, and probably my favourite of the weekend is a beetroot and mackerel pink pasty, absolutely delicious! All the food on offer was of high quality. Kids meals were a bit expensive, but most expensive of all were lemonades for £2 each for the children. This is supposed to be a family friendly festival any chance of more sensible prices on the bar for children’s drinks?
The price tag on some of the food and drink was I suppose an indicator of the class of my fellow festivalgoers, I mean there was the aristocracy in attendance, and many of the London set - but neither bothered me that much apart from their left to run wild, bullyish sexist gangs of young boys. The festival appeared to concentrate more on activities for the creative young feminine mind, the boys it seems were more interested in recreating Lord Of The Flies.
This is not a music festival, it's much more than that, it's a different breed of event, one that much of Glastonbury away from the main stages is also like. Imagine a festival with no big name headliners, no Pyramid Stage, and requiring no big musical acts to sell the tickets. Where people don't go to spend the day in front of the main stage, or spend their time only listening to music. The music is on offer in the main, once the day's creative juices have been spent, and the mind given a work out listening and questioning the country's finest creatives, movers and shakers.
The venues are small, and there's a lot of them which means there's plenty of walking although we don't need to replace our flip flops over the three days, and you can happily watch the headliners without your feet being squished. The site is large, there are 7,000 people on site, and there are inclines, but gentle enough for wheelchairs. There are proper paths to most of the venues, and shortcuts for those who seek them. I'm so used to hearing music 24/7 at a festival, but at Port Eliot you aren't relentlessly exposed, and as well as the quality of the hand picked acts playing it makes the music you do hear better by not having your senses dulled by naff acts.
There are also many stages and areas to explore in the shade of the woods, or the chance to relax on the river bank, and stay cool. In the evening the music properly starts with one tent fostering mainly local acts, and the other two alternating, plus more music up in the Bowling Green, Orangery, Walled Garden, in the woods - heck everywhere. Even in the house's own ancient church, where the highlight of the festival comes in the form of Luke Sital-Singh who delivers a set of his forthcoming debut album, including unplugging everything to play totally acoustic, in a LG Ballard moment of synchronicity the only two images in the stained glass window behind illuminated from outside are the singing angel and the lute playing angel. A memorable performance, other highlights include Cate Le Bon, Public Service Broadcasting, Mik Artistik, an incredibly loud Jimi Goodwin, and Gruff Rhys' hilarious exploration of his imaginary historic journey of John Evans. Plus the bonus of a surprise set from Beth Orton.
Salena Godden in the majick infused Ways with Weirds Tent proved an accidental highlight. I never realised the venue hidden in the rhododendrons was open, stumbling upon it on one of our wanders in the cool woods, we entered to find Salena bearing her soul about finding her father’s grave, she was crying and we were crying it was one of those unexpected emotional connected moments.
Then there was my new favourite person ever, the Oliver Reed reminiscent Julian Cope sporting long hair, sunglasses, a huge beard, mischievous grin, and huge leather gauntlets, in conversation with Andrew Weatherall. Other highlights included comedians Sean Hughes, and Murray Lachlan-Young, as well as talks with Shami Chakrabarti, and Viv Albertine . I really wish I'd had more of a chance to explore what else was on offer over the weekend.
Chakrabarti's Liberty actually have their own area and stage this year, and there's various talks throughout about the need to rally against this current government and protect our civil liberties and promote human rights, I do like a bit of politics with my festivals.
However, I was there with my nieces, who live locally, and their various friends turned up at times. I wonder what it's like if you don't have kids. Is there enough to keep you entertained? I expect so, I wouldn't be surprised if the ones without kids aren't the ones listening to fascinating talks on the Bowling Green or interviews in The Idler Academy, or wandering around the market traders who are selling decent wares, and not the normal festival tat.
Certainly I didn't have enough time during the day to escape making things. Although I did leave them to it when they wanted to make their own knickers, and when they were paid a pound for their story, I suggested they were giving away their creativity far too cheap but it fell on deaf ears, and they wanted to spend it on locally made ice lollies. Stories exchanged for goods seemed a reasonable economic strategy to me.
The Round Room that in my mind’s eye sports a chequered floor and a naked lady astride a motorcycle of my first visit has changed, now the floor is carpeted, and there's a jaw dropping Riddle Mural by local maverick artist Robert Lenkiewicz which I wonder how I did not remember. Below it in the bowels of the house there's a local food and flower competition being held which gives the event a more Village Fete feel, despite the competition being judged by Jasper Conran alongside Candida Lycett Green & Kitty Arden. The flower displays on show are stunning, as are some of the cakes. Most memorable is the dead flower arrangement covered in cobwebs, I recoil as I see the real spiders strewn in front of it.
There was a lot more I wish I'd done, and I was quite busy all weekend, only taking an occasional break on the lawn in front of the house to enjoy wandering street performers, or look at the motorbikes in front of the stages. The present Eliot is biker mad apparently, hence the motorbike in the round room.
Although the event visits the arts it is also very much a family orientated event, and there's generations here. Though there's much more for girls to get involved in, the boys tend to play games of football between the recycling and general waste bin goalposts.
Saturday is busy, yet the footprint of the site is quite large, possibly the largest of a festival of this size. There's much to explore my feet hurt from all the walking, though not from being stamped on in the audiences at the end of the night, which have thinned. There doesn't appear to be a back stage area, and the guests are seen wandering the site with us, where else can you stand in a crowd with Anneka Rice on one side and Jessica Hynes on the other while watching John Shuttleworth perform?
Bizarrely considering the lack of mainstream DJs, it does seem to attract the occasional band of roving 20 something pissed up ravers. Though they seem to be mainly wandering about aimlessly trying to find a party, that I suspect they never do. There are some guest DJ slots, we go to see one, but unless it was TV chef James Martin, they didn't appear to show up after DJ Eliot (a relative?) had done his slot, next morning we hear rumours of Craig Charles, and Nile Rodgers, but it was enough to enjoy a great set from Don Letts over the weekend.
This is a festival where the big name draws don't exist, and it's much better for it. This is a very British affair, where else in the world would have a scarecrow competition, alongside marshmallow making workshops? And I've not even mentioned the food and horticultural festival which ran alongside the whole thing with cooking seminars attracting the local crowds to hear the advice of the region's top chefs and gardeners.
Perhaps the most interesting contrast, and one I'd forgotten used to happen at festivals, is that it has no major late night pull, so everyone heads back to the campsites.
Both the campsites and the campervan fields are quietly lively, with what become communal fires, and conversation, where large groups form to talk about the day's experiences, while the children sleep. When you go to the loo at 2am (which are still in good knick by the way), it's surprising just how many people are still up in the warm night chatting, the place is vibrant.
On the site 30 years was a festival where the vision of how independent music festivals could be, and once perhaps were, and there are many good examples of events which took the template, the Levellers' own event I know is inspired by Elephant Fayre. Now here today they have created a new vision of how community events and festivals could come together to entertain a crowd for whom the music doesn't come first but is an integral part of the entertainment. Port Eliot is perhaps one of the best of the festivals I've been to that do this well, with a well balanced mix, without overloading the programme. There’s no big advertising, most of the traders sell local produce, and textiles, and the most corporate names are Fortnum & Mason, and Faber.
Thanks to all that made it happen, the acts, writers, fashionistas, chefs, horticulturalists, craftsfolk, stewards, security, stage crew, traders, and everyone else, your efforts make for a lovely weekend.
latest on this festival
festival home page
video of the day
joining Gaz Coombes, Baxter Dury, Gwenno, Chris Gifford, Andrew Weatherall, & more
line-ups & rumours