A lively weekend marked by an air of happy-go-lucky eccentricity combined with a pervasive sense of playfulness, generosity and silliness.
My first visit to this folk festival which has been running for over a decade, though not always at the current location or under the same name. The 'Valley' bit was added to the original 'Purbeck Folk Festival' to mark their move to the farm of the same name in 2015. The last two years have also seen the festival move forward a week from August Bank Holiday weekend, a sensible move in that it no longer clashes with similar festivals in Towersey or Shrewsbury.
My arrival late afternoon on the Friday was in decidedly adverse weather. As I was greeted with a smile by stewards at the main gate I remarked on the wind and rain only to be told "actually it's the best it's been all day!" Hey ho, it's an outdoor festival and you always have to take a little rough with the smooth. The registration process couldn't have been simpler. No queue, plenty of friendly staff, the electronic scanner instantly brought up my details and nithin seconds I had my wristband. £4 for a glossy programme and in less than a minute I was back in my car heading to the camping area. Vehicles are parked around cordoned off areas within a larger field. A sensible system…your tent will always be within 10-15 yards of your vehicle.
Soon as I found a good spot the heavens really opened and the wind picked up a notch or two. Bad timing, I thought! Twenty minutes later the tent was up, I was drenched and a complete change of clothes became necessary (not the last one of the day as it turned out). I made my way down the short track leading to the main festival site a couple of fields away. Lots of mud underfoot needless to say but large areas had also been thoughtfully sprinkled with gravel which was a considerable help. My car was to remain stationary for the duration which under the conditions was probably just as well. No delay from the stewards at the main entrance either…behind them professional security staff were making random bag searches to ensure the festival licencing conditions were being adhered to. Over the course of four days and several exits and entries I was only stopped twice to allow a quick rummage through my rucksack…always politely and slightly apologetically (they're bound to have more stressful weekends than this!)
The hub of the festival lays in a small central farmyard area with large and medium barns housing the festival's two main music stages and a third the location for the main bar (where seemingly unscheduled music sessions break out regularly throughout the weekend). Despite the close proximity it's quickly apparent there's no problem with music bleeding across from one stage to another. After a quick and highly agreeable caffeine injection at the 'Grounded Coffee' stall conveniently pitched between the barns I was finally in the mood for some music and festivity. Ranagri, a traditional quartet featuring Celtic harp and an intriguing 'bass' flute were my first port of call, their rhythmic patterns and melodic self-penned songs enough to put a smile on the face of even the most saturated listener.
The Trials of Cato and Grace Petrie, two acts who I'd missed earlier in the day in the bar were due to be playing further sets at a third performance location (the 'Fire Stage') in another field five minutes' walk up a windy trail (the festival effectively is split between two areas on different levels). As I made my way up the path it quickly became clear that the wind and rain had effectively stopped play everywhere but the main yard. Performances on outside stages and all other activities in the higher fields had been curtailed and all food outlets unlucky enough to be in that less sheltered location had closed for business. A few people were milling around ensuring everything was secured and safe but to all intents and purposes this part of the festival had effectively become a 'ghost town'. As a result events back in the largely undercover lower level were thriving…a small cluster of food outlets outside the barn bar were doing a roaring trade while trying to cope with the restrictions of preparing food in the face of gale-force wind and sideways rain.
Armed with a plate of green curry and a spring roll I found myself a good location and caught the end of John Smith's exhilarating set followed by a full hour from Thea Gilmore and her band. Thea has a new album of uplifting, thought-provoking songs and presented a selection of them here with grace and humour. It was the ideal tonic and her set to a packed barn was enthusiastically received. Egan, her 11 year old son with chief accompanist and musical director Nigel Stonier, joined the band onstage on occasion and was even handed his own feature spot, confidently playing a fiddle tune with great dexterity. By now I'd forgotten the deluge and was cheerfully ready for some beer. The main bar naturally had a good selection (though not too many to confuse or bring indecision). By now I'd met up with some friends so stayed longer than planned. We were still able to hear and enjoy the spirited '3 Daft Monkeys' set wafting across the yard. The evening ended with an exhilarating singalong session in the bar led by the Southampton Ukulele Jam. I normally have a low tolerance for massed uke gatherings but this lot strayed from the usual repertoire and before long had everyone joining in as they blazed a trail through an inspired selection of familiar chart hits. Among them The Clash's 'Should I Stay or Should I Go' (a question I'd been asking myself only a few hours earlier while pitching the tent). It was just the tonic and an altogether great way to end the first night. Our spirits were high as we trudged back to the campsite in our wellies.
Thankfully the weather had improved by Saturday morning. Still a brisk wind but combined with some sunshine allowing us to dry out wet clothes. The nearby shower facilities were surprisingly good…the farm clearly caters for visiting school groups at other times during the year judging by several plumbed-in cabins. Thankfully some 'proper' toilets were also available in this area. These were a decided step up on the chemical Portaloos positioned at regular intervals elsewhere on the site. Breakfast was available nearby too which was a nice touch…an egg and bacon roll and coffee go down well after a rejuvenating shower.
My first Saturday port of call became a weekend highlight…a Welsh song workshop attended by about 25 singers, not many from the 'Land of Song' from what I could gather. The male and female singers leading proceedings had clearly worked hard on arranging the various parts for different voices. Amazingly within an hour we'd somehow mastered an imaginative arrangement full of subtle dynamics, more complex than I've ever experienced at a festival workshop previously. Bravo! (Hyfryd iawn!)
The upper fields were now fully reopened and a hive of activity. Many children's activities were on the go, circus skills being particularly popular. May pole dancing was being taught to all ages accompanied (of course) by live musicians. Nearby the noted luthier Phil Davidson had a stall which seemed to be a constant 'jamming' location over the weekend. There was no attempt at 'hard sell' so I asked how business was. He told me he never actually expects to sell anything during a festival…any instrument sales tend to come later through people having felt free to try them out and taking away cards and flyers. Definitely an enlightened approach!
Back down at the main stage at noon a songwriter's circle began on the main stage featuring Thea Gilmore, Nigel Stonier, John Bramwell and Phil King. This turned out to be an unexpected delight with the host Bob Burke gently coaxing various song-writing secrets and tips from all four. I was especially intrigued to hear Nigel confess the one song he'd wished he'd written was Marshall Crenshaw's 'Cynical Girl', a favourite power pop anthem of mine from the early 80's. It's good to include this sort of event in any festival programme…participants and audience alike clearly enjoyed the experience.
After a gentle wander around the various stages capturing part sets by Tashkezar, Pons Aelius and Megson I returned to the main stage for Karine Polwart, someone I've admired and seen regularly since she emerged with a 'BBC Folk Award'-winning song about 15 years ago. Flanked by her regular cohorts brother Steven on guitar and Inge Thompson on various weird and wonderful instruments, she mesmerised a packed barn for 75 minutes with songs from across her career.
By now the true spirit of the festival was swiftly becoming apparent. Everyone relaxed, friendly and enjoying the experience in their own way without feeling the need to conform to any kind of standard or norm. In many ways the spirit of Woodstock had descended on proceedings with a definite whiff of 'peace, love and understanding'. Saturday ended with the thunderous beats of Afrocelt Sound System on the main stage followed by another lengthy musical sojourn in the bar. By the end everyone was jamming along and instruments were being freely passed round. A security lady apologetically asked us to restrict the tub-thumping percussion…again she's only doing her job and there's obviously a noise curfew to be adhered to.
Sunday brought even better weather…glorious sunshine and by midday dust superseded mud on the main tracks. Sadly I emerged too late to catch Flook's Brian Finnegan leading a flute workshop but I passed Festival organiser Catherine Burke leading a Nursery Rhyme sing-song as I made my way up to the top fields. The Fire Stage was now the place to be with a chance to lie on the slope and bask in the sun for a while. Pica Pica featuring Josienne Clark and Samantha Whates were the perfect soundtrack for this. This was followed by the bizarre and light-hearted 'Beard Off' competition, apparently a Purbeck tradition. An unplugged 'Protest Song' singaround was in full flow in yet another tent location nearby and I duly spent an hour in pleasant company listening to songs old and new.
Back in the farmyard I caught several songs by Marry (Waterson) and Emily (Barker). Despite marked contrast in styles they'd met and bonded at a residential music weekend. By any standard this was an unlikely meeting of minds and but a delightfully successful one. It was great to join in with a rousing chorus of 'Bright Phoebus'. An early evening ceilidh led by Threepenny Bit had everybody young and old enthusiastically dancing, before the arrival of Cara Dillon and her band. There were more musicians than I've seen her with previously (all virtuoso of course) and she duly enchanted everyone in her own inimitable style with songs from her array of albums. You could have heard a pin drop as she sang 'There Were Roses' written by Tommy Sands about an incident during the height of the mid 70's 'Troubles'.
At this point I made my way over to see all female bluegrass super-group 'Midnight Skyracer' some of who were already familiar to me. For the first time I successfully found and climbed to the higher level of haystack 'seating' conveniently placed around the barn edges. A perfect location and they were stunningly good, even better than expected. The song quality was as high as their virtuoso instrumental prowess (no mean feat by any standards).
At this point, a difficult decision had to be faced…whether to stay sober and head home that night or hit the beer and stay till Monday. The present company was good, the location perfect so the latter option prevailed. I didn't know the next band (Quinn's Quinny) but the people around me were giving favourable reports. As it turned out they were right…you couldn't wish for a more perfect way to end a festival. A stage full of people all dressed as characters in a nativity singing familiar songs for everyone to join in with. What's not to like?! Some of the musicians looked familiar (they'd played a swing jazz set in the bar earlier!) but now of course they were mob-handed and instruments had been switched. In many ways the spirit of this collective (who have apparently only rehearsed twice in ten years) summed up the joyful charm of the Purbeck experience.
A lively weekend marked by an air of happy-go-lucky eccentricity combined with a pervasive sense of playfulness, generosity and silliness. Even the Friday storms failed to dampen spirits. I hope to repeat the experience next year.
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