With a wife who is active in the Trade Unions there was never any doubt where we would be spending the third weekend in July, not at GuilFest, Latitude, Lovebox, or Larmer Tree but at Tolpuddle in Dorset to join other activists at the crucible of the UK Trade Union movement for a weekend of music, socialism, talks, activism, and the annual march from the Martyrs Museum through the small village of Tolpuddle.
With the current political climate about to bring forth extensive cuts across the public sector, the festival remained remarkably upbeat and positive. Nigel Costley, one of the festival organisers from the South West TUC, perfectly described the event as, "A festival that fosters environment, atmosphere and generosity of spirit."
At first weather reports weren't positive, and we arrived on the Friday in strong winds prepared for a weekend of rain, instead we had a weekend in the sun, although the roof blowing off the museum's porch on the Thursday was indicative of how windy it was, fortunately the gales relaxed to merely flutter the multitude of banners, flags and balloons on the final day.
This was the second year I've attended the FREE event, and although camping isn't free the camp site was fuller on the Friday then the previous year, and of course the sunshine meant the bars ran out of the four ales, scrumpies, and perry by lunchtime on the last day.
There was of course still the option to drink lager, but with a heavily weighted folk programme this was always likely to be the least popular. The Worker's Beer Company brought not only the old acoustic bar from Glastonbury Festival but also enough staff to ensure queues were kept down to a minimum, and most options were ranged from £3 to £3.50 a pint.
The only surprise when we arrived on Friday was how limited the choice of food was, there were much fewer caterers, with the café Henry's Beard joined by only a Jacket Potato/Chip/Hot Dog stand and an Indian food stall, which not surprisingly sold out of samosas.
Saturday and Sunday saw a slight increase in food options with Cream Teas (is that a proper meal?), Pig products including Hog Roast (if you were quick out of the blocks) and a coffee stall, still very much reduced on last year's options.
Other than that the facilities were impeccable, lots of recycling options, plenty of clean well stocked toilets, and showers, and plenty of stalls to peruse. The music on offer was of high standard, although the folk heavy Saturday programme, resulted in a seated audience, who constantly told the back of the marquee off for talking, and the venue didn't feel big enough for the numbers, perhaps offering an alternative on the busier Saturday night would alleviate this.
Friday offered only the evening of music, but an afternoon of talks on Captain Swing, Cider Riots, Agricultural Unions, and more, all set to an ominous looking sky and gusty breezes. The Stoned Holy Rollers kicked off the music with a dance about in front of the band by young children leading to an interesting re-working of their lyrics. Next up were expanded 3 piece Papa Le Gal, the local band filling out there ranks with two additional members and sounding even better for it, they throw the occasional cover into their set and draw in a lively crowd who leap about at the front to ska, cider, and reggae flavoured Skank Tank, who bring the first night to an upbeat close.
Saturday starts mercifully cool and after a decent lie in and breakfast we make our way into the arena, which is already a buzz. The Trade Unions have returned in force setting up their stalls directly beside the Martyr's Museum at the epicentre of the festival site. The site has a kids area, and Woodcraft Folk providing fun and games for the children, the morning starts with debate, discussion, and a chance to sign up to good causes. Each Trade Union offering, alongside advice and encouraging support for campaigns, a bundle of free goodies from frisbees, and solar powered torches, to wacky hats, squidgy toys, drinks bottles, key rings, lanyards, and the kids are kept happily busily collecting armfuls of gifts. The kites proved a big hit, with the skies above the festival filled with them for the rest of the weekend.
The highlight of the open mic session, labelled 'Tolpuddle's Got Talent and offering three songs before the audience enjoying the sunshine, for me is Cosmo. There's also someone doing a slightly stuttering cover of Frank Turner songs, which does make me think heÂd be perfect for this event. After the sessions Rango from Sudan put on an amazing show with the distinct sound of Hassan Bergamon's 190-year-old balafon providing the background to their mystical rhythms.
At 5pm the Unite tent played host to a PA and a rousing performance from the newly formed The Skimmity Hitchers (risen from the ashes of Who's Afear'd who split due to musical similarities) who even prove a bigger draw than Clive The Pig for many of the children deserting the kids fields to join in singing a host of Dorset classics and the trio's own newly penned material that mainly toasts cider, piracy, rebellion and Dorset, and the highlight had to be 'Which Cider Are You On?' a song to rouse Unionists everywhere.
The evening's musical session has queues build up outside the marquee and began with the Bristol based the Red Notes Choir who deliver Union standards including of course 'Tolpuddle Man', Woody Guthrie's 'Union Maid' and 'Power in the UnionÂ alongside human rights standards such as Chumbawamba's 'Homophobia'. The marquee has seating in front of the stage where we remain transfixed by On Common Ground ft Chris Woods and Hugh Lupton, an enthralling, sprawling story of John Clare, told through a mix of songs and storytelling accompanied by Tibetan Singing Bowls, with themes of greed and poverty, landowners and workers, land and connection, madness and exile, love and loss Â itÂs an entrancing performance. However, some arrive late to find the marquee too full to take any more and miss the performance.
The chairs remain in front of the main stage for Jackie Oates' performance, and her vocals are such that anyone talking is rounded on by the folk crowd, I for one donÂt think this is fair after 9 oÂclock at night at a festival, and feel that two quiet back to back performances had split the crowd, with the folk musos turning on the wider crowd who were expecting another night of dancing on a Saturday night.
Normality was restored in headliners The Stow who deliver a barnstorming performance and a chance for the crowd to let their hair down, now that the chairs had finally been packed away.
The festival closes for the night all too early, no silent disco or official late night entertainment here, but an impromptu acoustic set by an unknown band provides those wanting to stay up a bit later with some much needed entertainment. Perhaps with so many more taking the opportunity to camp, further entertainment options could be considered by the organisers.
Saturday's late night shenanigans means a late rise on the last day for us. Stompin Dave Allen is on in the marquee by the time we get there and tap dancing whilst playing his guitar behind his head, no mean feat! With plenty of preparation to be done to get ready for today's march it's advantageous that another bar has opened in the Unison Zone as it's thirsty work, with everyone unfurling banners, and piecing together poles in the sun accompanied by the music of Ian King, and Eliza Carthy.
There's an almost comic moment when one of the speakers answers a heckler only to have more barrack her about Labour's acts of war. I imagine her coming off the stage and whispering "Don't mention the war. I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it!"
The walk to Tolpuddle and back is an incredibly uplifting affair, I've no idea how many people are in the march until we turn around and start walking back. And if the march was uplifting the talks by Tony Benn, Ben Bradshaw, and others brought about a degree of solidarity and camaraderie that was surprising amongst the factions. The shock for me comes when Benn says that before Thatcher (sorry for swearing), Union participation was around 23 million, today it is just over a quarter of that.
The Bad Shepherds folk interpretations of popular punk brought smiles to many of the older ones in the packed crowd at least as full as last year, before Billy Bragg delivered an impassioned set of his songs combined with rousing words.
Bragg was even quite prepared to answer the hecklers and delivers an affirmation of the importance of sticking together, rallying and protesting to ensure workers everywhere get heard. By the time he's finished we all feel more empowered although that could be the beer as the bar has been drunk dry. The festival party ends in the Leftfield Martyrs' Marquee with Al Baker & the Dole Queue and we pack up our stuff and head for home.
We've been revitalised and we're ready for the long shadows that are coming girded with high hopes, another wonderful weekend of politic and music the way festivals should be, a 'festival of environment, atmosphere and generosity of spirit' indeed.
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