It's important to always do at least one 'new to me' festival each summer. Back at the beginning of 2015, when I saw the eclectic and pretty dazzling initial line up for 'Port Eliot' and realised that a trip to Cornwall could neatly coincide with my Mum and Dad's 50th wedding anniversary (Mike and Dot live in Dorset), I sensed that this could be the one for me.
But now I was having doubts.....
I knew this was going to be a posh festival. A quick scan around the car park, after a quick and functional stop to get my wristband, revealed more than a fair share of Audi, BMW and Volvo drivers. This was going to be a festival for those who drink champagne rather than scrumpy; a festival for those play polo rather than eat polos; a festival where my common welly would be sniffed at because I wasn't sporting a top of the range Hunter.
I started to sup from a can of supermarket own cheap cider and wandered into a campsite to pitch my bog-standard tent. I double-checked that I wasn't in a glamping area for many of the tents here seemed to be super-sized. Worse still, many of these epic constructions seemed to be linked by rope, bunting and chains. People here were marking out their territory in the most unglorified of fashion. I asked somebody who was loudly proclaiming that they had a GP surgery in Launceston if I might pitch inside their barrier of black and white cross flags. "Get off our land and stop spoiling the view", was an edited version of the response.
Despite these initial concerns, I persevered. And I'm bloody glad that I did. I soon found adequate space for my small tent and it had the best of views of the mini-valley in which the lovely Port Eliot house, complete with turrets, round rooms and seventeenth century plumbing nestles. Various tents buzzed with the early stages of festival activity on the lawns and gardens in front of the house. Scanning further afield from the house, I could just about make out a gorgeous looking lake. I should go and explore more, get my bearings and find out what's on when.
Port Eliot isn't your typical music festival (though it had a fabulous music line up that I'll talk about later). Some might be confused by the range of delights on offer here. In part, it's a food festival; elsewhere, it's a dedicated follower of fashion and flora; esteemed authors and critical voices talk about their latest literary endeavours, trying hard to expand our minds, whilst some tents grin and giggle as the comedians do their stuff. Everywhere you look there are artistic installations, visual delights and wild workshops taking place. In part, this is the most accessible village fete I've ever been to.
I purchase a programme and wander down to the 'Caught By The Lake' tent. En route, I can't help but be gobsmacked by the general style and beauty on offer. The Sipsmiths specialty gin tent, beautifully decorated in vintage furnishings, hugs the edge of the mud-flat lake. From a jetty a little further along the lake, people wrap towels around themselves having just jumped out from having a wild swim. Out in the estuary, heads bob up and down whilst limbs flail and splash. There's a spirit of fun and laughter around this space. I manage a smile.
Here we are in the 'Caught By The Lake' tent. I've now got a pint of the local Skinner's ale in my hand. I've always fancied myself as something of a quizzer so what better way to begin my journey through the delights of this festival than compete in a 'nature and music' quiz. A skim through the papers that I'm given suggests that this'll be a piece of piss for experts on Cornish wildlife and graphic 70's album covers. Sadly, neither are my areas of expertise. When the obscure bird songs are played over proggy backing tracks I just about drop my pen in surrender. I join forces with a jovial ex-Mayor of Fowey. He's better at this than me but we're still far from winners. It's the taking part that counts and I've just had an enjoyable hour.
Indeed, it's in this 'Caught By The Lake' tent that I spend a fair bit of fun time as the weekend progresses. Judging by the way that Jeff Barrett, the main man behind Heavenly Records bounds around, shakes hands and acknowledges punters with friendly recollection, this tent must have been part programmed and influenced by his taste. It means you're assured utmost quality. Hooton Tennis Club continue to improve as this summer progresses. It's hard not to be drawn into their lo-fi slack pop charm. I'd previously shied away from Trembling Bells purely based on the appalling judgement that any band with a lead singer called Lavinia must be terrible. I concede I was very wrong. Early on the Sunday, it was a pretty moving experience to hear Gabrielle Drake talk about the truths and myths that have built around her brother Nick since he left this world.
As the weekend drew to a close, it was left to the still stunning Sarah Cracknell to delight a surprisingly sparse crowd with sparkling pop from her new album, mixed in with a sprinkling of St Etienne classics. Half way through her set, the power went out. Looking outside, we didn't need to wonder why for long. It was high tide time for the lake and this particular high tide was causing a flood. You could no longer see the jetty. Half of the ale bar was under water. And the beautifully decorated gin tent was completely awash. Despite the disaster, people continued to go about their business with the strength of Poldark. The water subsided; the generators kicked in again and Sarah finished her set.
High tide was not the only potentially disastrous sting to watch out for. Down by the lake and up higher amidst some beautiful bushes, a swarm of deadly mosquitoes and midges lingered to bite the blood from unsuspecting punters. I exaggerate. But, there were very few who escaped the itch and scratch that accompanied the poisonous bump. My hand still bears scars and, for a time, my forehead reverted to its acned teenager look. I must have sweet blood. Further dangers lurked later. I'm pretty hardened to the cold festival experience but the first couple of nights here were off the scale. Lying in my tent, I could feel my internal organs shudder and my bones shake as the freeze got into my core.
There are workshops galore at Port Eliot. I expect if you searched hard enough you might even be able to do a workshop about designing a festival workshop. I join a queue on the Friday morning to book a place on one of them. I fancy a bit of canoeing in the lake. Or perhaps corset design; or better still Apple juice and cider testing. I get to the front of the queue to be told in abrupt but friendly fashion that all workshops for the weekend, except for 'Foraging with Fat Hen' had been fully booked on Thursday by those people who now sit around their gazebos having marked out their ample territory. "But do come back because we're finding that people aren't turning up to the workshops they're booking onto", I'm told when I pull a disappointed face. Despite knowing little about it, I take a chance with the foraging.
I am so, so glad that I did. Saturday morning arrives and a group of 16 of us are met by Caroline Davey, the proprietor of 'Fat Hen', the wild cookery school in Cornwall. Caroline tells us that for the next hour or so we're going to wander around the grounds and hedgerows of the estate finding grasses and herbs that grow by the sides of tracks or on river banks. We'll identify deadly dangers; we'll pick grasses that are delicious in wild salads; we'll eat nettles and find leaves with more medicinal 'sting removing' powers than your standard dock. We'll re-discover our sense of smell as we sniff at flowers crushed between our fingers. It's a magical hour that awakens my senses and I resolve to buy a foraging handbook to learn more.
There's food in the bushes and there's food in the tents. Just outside Port Eliot house is the Flower and Fodder tent where, over the course of the weekend, high profile cooks, chefs and foodies give talks and demonstrations. We sit in rows of chairs, like in a school assembly, as Skye Gingell, Tom Parker Bowles and Blanche Vaughan show off their talents. We can barely poke our head inside the flaps of the tent when local(ish) celebrity, Rick Stein packs the tent. This is a festival where you can eat like a king. Up in the Orangery, just beside the walled garden on this splendid site, James Strawbridge cooks up locally sourced, fab food. Most festivals now offer much more than the Sausage and chip vans of yesteryear but Port Eliot takes things to another level. If you like your food, this is heaven.
Friday morning and I'm sat in a round space. Last night this clearing amidst rhododendron bushes became a hidden dancefloor but now an undertaker sets up a shrine. He displays the cremated bones of his much loved dog and lays them, alongside other artefacts at a shrine where the head of a skeleton revolves on an old turntable. This is the 'way with weirds' tent. Across Friday and Saturday, a range of obscure, alternative, often occult-inspired speakers have been booked to tell their tales and promote their books. I hang around to hear Mike Jay talk about influencing machines, something I'd never given much thought to before. Confined in Bedlam in 1797 as an incurable lunatic, James Tilly Matthews’ case is one of the most bizarre in the annals of psychiatry. He was the first person to insist that his mind was being controlled by a machine: the Air Loom, a terrifying secret weapon whose mesmeric rays and mysterious gases were brainwashing politicians and plunging Europe into revolution, terror and war. The way that Jay gradually reveals pieces of this jigsaw flows like the very best 'whodunit' and it's the most informative hour.
It's the ability to dip into talks about the most random of things that adds to the joy of Port Eliot. At the larger Park Stage, we chance the talk by Professor David Spiegelhalter even though the programme tells us little about what's to come. Spiegelhalter produces from his 'sex and statistics' study to inform and enthral all gathered for an entertaining hour. We gasp as we learn about the percentage of men, years ago, who made attempts to self-fellate and ponder impossibilities when Spiegelhalter tells us what percentage claimed to be successful in such an endeavour. Elsewhere on site, in the Round room that's within Port Eliot house, we watch mathematician Alex Bellos explain the maths behind ellipsis as he introduces the first world championship of a sport he's created, Loop. Loop is similar to Pool but played upon a green blaze ellipsis shaped table, created at great cost for this weekend. Later, in the same room, walls laden with murals of art from across the years, I watch Rose Mitchell, map archivist at The National Archives, as she dips into her book about intriguing maps from throughout history. A random topic, and not one on paper that should be quite as delightful as it was.
Port Eliot uses all of the space on the estate to incredible effect. Behind the house is the village church. Stephen Duffy has always been a bit of a hero of mine since back in the 1980's when I danced to 'Kiss Me' at the school disco. The opportunity to see Tthe Lilac Time play their first gig in seven years was one too massive to miss. I'm squashed into a pew near to the front of this church as they take to the stage. In truth, Duffy is an awkward performer who struggles to connect like he can on record. An almighty songwriter but nervous raconteur, this set can never live up to the billing my head has given it. He seems to have over-indulged in alcohol. It meanders and runs over, only held together by the charm of Claire Duffy on grand piano and the sullen solidness of Stephen's brother, Nick, on banjo, bouzouki and accordion. On a stained glass window, behind the performers an image of St. Stephen looks down, disappointed.
Not so for Villagers the following afternoon in this church. Expecting the venue to be full to the rafters, I arrive 40 minutes early to get a front pew seat to watch Conor O Brien do his thing. Their latest album, Darling Arithmetic, has been gathering positive reviews and there was a buzz around the site leading up to this performance. I'm glad I arrived early. Conor soundchecks and he's clearly loving the experience. It's true that the acoustics in this place of worship can really amplify the nuances of the Villager sound. Conor, happy, charming and full of good humour, plays more songs in soundcheck and ponders whether he should just launch straight into his set. Ultimately, he decides to leave a fifteen minute gap before he performs an absolute belter of a show. Songs such as 'Hot, Scary Summer' (dedicated to his boyfriend) and 'Little Bigot' take on extra meaning within this rammed church. The combination of setting and quality confirm this as the gig (so far) of the summer. Simply blissful.
So laden with quality is this festival that you can't help but walk around corners to stumble upon musical acts who might have a bigger billing elsewhere. In the Idler academy, Chris Difford, the 'one from Squeeze who can't sing' according to Peter Kay, shows us that he can definitely instigate a singalong as he takes us on a journey through his history. I love singing along to 'Up The Junction' and 'Labelled With Love'. I'm distraught to miss Sweet Baboo, unannounced in the programme but announced on a small billboard outside a tent that Moshi Moshi take over for a couple of hours each evening.
A friend suggests I shouldn't make the same mistake with Meilyr Jones. I sit in the front row of two as Meilyr, slightly nervously, marks out his star quality for all to see. It's just him behind a keyboard for this set and it's another Port Eliot musical moment of which there are many.
Will Varley in the walled garden late at night; the exuberant, Libertines-lite secret show from surprise act Palma Violets; the anticipation that accompanied the Ezra Furman show; the exotic, happy soul and Afrobeat of Ibibio Sound Machine and the West Country folk-romps of Police Dog Hogan that we all dance along to like things possessed (with the bites of mosquito).
I could go on. So much is packed into this three and a half day festival and so much more is missed. There’s a vibrant children’s area, Hullaballoo, that I never venture into. There’s a field dedicated to fashion shows and catwalks that I should have explored. There are comedians such as Mitch Benn, Kernow King, Sara Pascoe, and Alex Edelman who I catch bits of but others such as Sean Hughes, and Simon Munnery who I miss entirely. I have a pint in the Black Cow Saloon, a riverside honky-tonk, out on a limb but set with amazing views of pampas grass and an impressive viaduct that traverses the lake and carries trains to the nearby village station. For everything that I see, there’s at least a dozen things of quality that I can’t see.
Sunday evening and the campsite is quieter than it was when I arrived. Those who staked out their territory seem to have headed home. I guess the GP can only have a certain amount of time away from his surgery. The whisper and conjecture amongst the locals is consumed by a fear that this might be the very last year of the Port Eliot festival. The wonderful house, which must cost a fortune to maintain, is in the process of being sold to the National Trust or to English Heritage or to a big, bad property developer. There’s doubt as to whether such organisations would want to have such a spectacle on their land. It would be such a travesty if a festival as wonderful as this no longer continued. It aims to be mellow, honeyed and laidback. It dazzled and delighted this reviewer against the odds and I would certainly return.
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