Timber Festival 2023 - The Review

Timber battles gamely on despite the storms

By David Vass | Published: Thu 27th Jul 2023

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Timber Festival 2023

Friday 7th to Sunday 9th July 2023
Feanedock, Rawdon Road, Moira, Swadlincote, Derbyshire, DE12 6DQ, England MAP
currently £155 for adult weekend camping
Daily capacity: 6,000

In the summer of 2021, when the country was still largely in lockdown, Melvyn Benn conducted what was effectively a laboratory experiment in a field in Suffolk. Could the perimeter fence of a festival be used as a protective ring against Covid? (Spoiler alert: no it couldn’t). Garnering both praise and condemnation, he invited festival goers to get tested and enjoy what was widely reported as the first attempt to bring festivals back to life. Few seemed to realise that he had been beaten to it a month earlier by Timber festival, an event that, by taking advantage of its limited capacity, managed to legitimately squeeze between the letter of the regulations, discreetly putting on a truly magical weekend. Afterwards, I found myself asking whether his one of the best festivals I’d ever been to, or would I have felt that way about any festival after such a long time. Two years later, I've come back to find out.

 

Timber festival has no perimeter fence, or at least not one I came across. Instead, it is nestled within a stunning 70 acre woodland setting that feels like it's been there forever, but is actually the result of a plan hatched as recently as the nineties to plant a million trees where once the land was scarred by heavy industry. This isn't simply a festival taking place in a forest – it is imbued with the philosophy of the people that planted and nurtured the stunning flora of Feanedock. Sadly, there was little time to soak all that in upon arrival, as we were given a brief two-hour window to set up camp before revels began. I appreciate that it might seem curmudgeonly to gripe at entertainment starting so early on the Friday – it’s not like you have to go see it - but if it's offered then give your weekend campers, many who have come a long way, the chance to ease themselves into the weekend. The consequent rush to get sorted in under two hours was surely the very antithesis of the relaxed atmosphere the festival aims to project. Patrick Barkham, the opening speaker on the main stage, deserved a bigger audience for his engaging talk about author Roger Deakin, and I'm sure would have got one had more folk been ready in time.

Patrick Barkham - Timber Festival 2023

Fortunately, the Field Notes venue had filled out by the time Janet Ellis took to the stage, where she was interviewed by Geoff Bird for his Wilderness Tracks podcast. Notionally, this was an interview connecting music choice with nature, but it very quickly developed into a reflection on bereavement. This might seem an odd focus for a festival, but she proved such a warm and engaging person, it was more a celebration of what Ellis once had, than regret over loss. This was in no small part due to sensitive questioning by Bird, who over the weekend would demonstrate what a fine interviewer he is.

Afterwards, I eagerly sought out the Eyrie stage, a stage I remember fondly. It proved a spell binding venue, set deep within a forest clearing. Duke Keats continually apologised for not bringing his band along, self-consciously worried that the audience might feel short-changed that he was only offering a guitar and his fine voice. He needn't have worried – both were exceptional. The Field Notes stage had by now been redressed for its evening role as the music stage, playing host to a double bill of N'famady Kouyate’s modern twist on African rhythms and The Destroyers's, Balkan influenced sound. Both gave committed performances that got the crowd going. My only misgiving was Timber's disappointing decision to fire up the smoke machines that seem to have become ubiquitous at music events. To my mind it adds little to the performance, frequently obscuring clear sight of the act, but that's a subjective view. More concerning is the health implications for performers and audience alike, particularly in such a confined space. As I stepped back from the venue and watched noxious glycol fumes billow out into the forest (it’s not water vapour and don’t let folk tell you otherwise), I had to wonder how this fitted in with the ethos of the festival.

 

On the plus side, it encouraged me to abandon ship and instead go on an exploratory bat walk. We ended up seeing more dragon flies than anything else, but the huge crowd demonstrated a thirst for nature that seemed to both bewilder and delight the fellow taking us around. I rounded the day off in the delightfully intimate setting of the Coppice, where a campfire further warmed an already balmy night, and was serenaded by the Guacamaya Latin Trio, heralding all the way from Manchester. They kicked off with a really rather good cover of Pink Floyd before foraging in more conventional songbooks for a set that was musically accomplished but did go on a bit. So much so that is was past my bedtime when Butterfly Moon came. Had I known what was coming the next day, I might have stayed up and enjoyed the dry weather a little longer.

Guacamaya Latin Trio - Timber Festival 2023

Saturday started off fine, and keen to embrace the Timber spirit, I dived into one of the many workshops running in the Crow Flies area. Previously unfamiliar with what nine in the morning looks like at a festival, I was surprised how many were up and eager to get stuck into Helen Jukes's writing session. Exploring the impossibility of removing ourselves from the narrative of the forest, it struck me the message resonated way beyond those of us scratching away on paper. Such an early start also disguised just how early Raynor Winn appeared on the Field Note stage, making the full house attending all the more impressive. They were rewarded with an insight into how and why, almost by accident, she came to write her ground breaking book, but also what a delightfully unassuming woman she is.

Afterwards, I nipped over to the Eyrie stage to see Nour, who was fine, as was Melanie Pegge before and Rebecca Hurn afterwards. However, there are only so many singer songwriters and their guitars you want to see in a day. I couldn't help think that unadventurous programming had let both the audience and the performers down a little, not least when compared to the astonishing roster of talent Elizabeth Alker brought the stage in her '21 takeover. No more than pleasantly diverting, and conscious storm clouds were gathering, it was time to return to cover. Raymond Antrobus and Simon Armitage proved a worthwhile double bill to watch safe from the rain, with both of them expertly interviewed by the tireless Geoff Bird. Antrobus spoke movingly about the challenge of deafness, and while Armitage notionally promoted his book, he was mostly just terrifically good company. The rain was now becoming more persistent, but I nevertheless braved the elements to see pecq, a couple of laptop boys twiddling their knobs, and thereby bringing a much needed dose of variety to the Eyrie stage. Hope springs eternal, and with that in mind, I went in search of the big ticket Fireside. Delayed by an hour, it finally got going for all of ten minutes, before the rain cruelly finished it off for good.

Nour Gassa - Timber Festival 2023

On the way back, I wandered by an impenetrable Field Notes, where happy punters, crammed undercover, were seemingly having a fine old time watching the Go Team. Later on I learned the cabaret was a hoot. But for rest of us, which was most of us, there was nothing for it but to wander about and get very wet indeed. The Poet Laureate moon lighting as a DJ was fun, but otherwise things were winding down. Determined to see something, l hung on while Avanti Display waited for their electrics to dry out. It was some consolation that Crow was a well-constructed mix of music and mime, but it was hard to completely forget just how soaking wet my feet were. I do feel sorry for Timber, cruelly punished by bad weather, but when only a tiny proportion of your audience can meaningfully hide from heavy rain, attendance becomes a gamble reliant on fine weather. It was a gamble many people weren’t prepared to take, and as I was to discover on the Sunday, a lot of punters voted with their feet.

I woke early, reflecting on the horror of the previous night. Anyone who says bad weather has no impact on their festival is frankly bonkers. All around me, folk who must have looked in dismay at that day's forecast, were packing up, making ready to leave, if not immediately then certainly before the day was out. Ironically, above us was a clear blue sky, so more in hope than expectation, I made my way to the arena, determined to do as much outdoors as the heavens allowed.

The Eyrie Stage schedule looked much more interesting on Sunday, and so it proved, with Karen Wimhurst's performance of Jump, a piece that evocatively fused the sound of the clarinet to that of crickets and toads. Afterwards, having noticed a queue forming to watch clouds, I was seduced into doing the same. Granted, the clouds looked much the same either side of the rope -pleasingly fluffy - but I did get to hear some harmless nattering from Gobbledegook Theatre over earphones. Far more successful, and a highlight of the weekend, was Teabreak from Trigger, who also used earphones to whisper intimate sound bites into my ear. This time it was while watching dance, something I had imagined was going to be harmless fluff. Instead, it subtly developed, touching first on the colonial roots of tea growing and then on to its restorative powers in times of grief. Powerful and moving, several audience members broke down in response to this exploration of our vulnerabilities.

Karen Wimhurst - Timber Music Festival 2023

What better, after that bruising encounter, than a Gong bath to put things right? If lying on your back for an hour while a fellow bangs a series of gongs sounds unappealing I suggest you give it a go. I dropped off, which makes it at least a relaxing experience, while others came out the other side convinced they were spiritually transformed. Personally, music is my go-to for spiritual transformation, especially when it's as elevating as Cerys Hafana's elfin voice and her beautiful harp playing. With deft timing, she just managed to squeeze her set in before the rain returned, this time followed by thunder and lightning.

Although it passed, and in its wake blue skies returned, it felt the festival had taken a battering from which it struggled to recover. When I returned to the arena I was surprised Lady Nade was still performing in what must have been a hastily rejigged schedule. Sadly, she wasn’t performing to many. The clarity and strength of her vocals were enjoyed by those who were still in attendance, but I don't think I've ever seen an emptier arena. Such was her unease that she broke half way through a song and asked an audience member to stop talking. I applaud the sentiment - audiences don’t show nearly enough respect for the artist - but I doubt she'd have picked out an individual in the hub-bub of a crowd.

 

The Keston Cobblers Club did their best to raise spirits, and those that stayed on in spite of the rain were determined to have a party, but I was more interested in the Eyrie Stage. William Crighton's mordant wit meant the breaks in between songs were as entertaining as the music but it was Shunya that followed who proved to be the highlight of the day, and perhaps of the weekend. A preposterously talented multi-instrumentalist, Shunya mashed up violin with drum and bass, looped sound effects and engaged in all sorts of bonkers time signatures. Sitting somewhere on a line between John Adams and The Enid, he then topped off his already accomplished performance by showcasing a fine singing voice. Cut short when the stage generator packed in, it said much that so many people hung around the half hour it took to get it fixed. The wait meant the festival was all but over by the time Shunya finished, though I saw enough of Call Me Unique around the campfire to make me regret missing her main set during the thunderstorm.

Keston Cobblers Club - Timber Festival 2023

So was this the best festival I've ever been to? On reflection, I wonder if it’s the right question. Timber's pleasures are small but plentiful, and it’s about finding out things, talking to people, stopping to think, and delighting in the too-frequently unobserved. It’s the coming together of like minds, exploring what they don’t know and sharing what they do. There's no denying that the storms mitigated straightforward fun, and to be frank, I did think the music was weak this year, but I rather think that misses the point. Tempting though it must be to stick up a huge tent and populate it with better known acts, I suspect the essence of the event might evaporate if they did that. If we are to embrace nature in the way the festival encourages, we have to accept its foibles. Much like the forest itself, the festival may be a fragile, vulnerable thing, but that’s also what makes it special. If I could be assured of a fine weekend, I know I’d have a glorious time, and one day that day will come. On that day I ask the question again.

 

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review by: David Vass

photos by: Ian Roberts


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