Watchet is a small and intimate Wonderland with a 5,000 capacity that is suddenly on the endangered list. The festival's regular act is the big draw of The Wurzels who suggest the capacity is 35,000 and out of the blue make an impassioned plea to the crowds asking them to appeal to the new landowner to keep the event going. Asking around locals really have no idea about his comment, (infact the land that's used has not been sold at all - Ed). So we can all hope the event continues to go from strength to strength, as it's an event I've loved coming to for the last few years to enjoy a get together and a merry old sing along. It's what the festival spirit is all about.
Whilst getting into the spirit of the Alice in Wonderland fancy dress theme, a rabbit eared lady tells me by the fact the paper factory next door, that employs hundreds of locals, announces on the opening day that it will be closing down before Christmas. The news obviously creates a bit of a dampener to the locals. And perhaps this is the cause of the unfounded worries that this festival could disappear, however by Sunday organisers assure us there will be at least one more, and that's good news.
It seems the confusion may have arisen out of organisers saying they want a year out, and the possibility of a fallow year in 2017. Certainly, the festival is special enough to deserve to be preserved, and it's good to hear it's days are not as numbered as was suggested by the The Wurzel's comment.
Organisers Mark and Jackie Bale hold an interview and Q&A session where they make clear just how hard it is to put a festival together in their spare time, the hours it occupies, the stress, and how they have changed as people.
They should be applauded as they have put a terrific annual event together that's one of the highlights of my festival weekends. Jackie reveals that when they release their line-up to other festival organisers they think both she and her husband are mad. Yet it works, the locals and festival goers from further afield love it.
We arrive a few hours after gates open, and are amazed to hear that most of the camping nearest the arena was full pretty much when gates opened. Clearly there are a lot of people camping and determined to get as much as they can out of the bank holiday weekend.
There's a few other distractions around the site like the Headphone Disco, and the various stalls selling interesting items, but primarily this festival is about providing musical entertainment. It does it this year topped by headliners of the crowd pleasing The Selecter, marmite act the shouty, sweary (and giving it 110%) Bob Geldof fronted Boomtown Rats - "hello Rat-Shit", and my personal highlight of the weekend Big Country, who had many more songs than I could remember when they took to the stage after a quick heavy downpour.
Friday's music schedule is paired back to late afternoon, but we still get a terrifically entertaining programme including great sets from Doctor and the Medics, White Pigeon, Maelor Hughes, Skeg and new for me at least The Summertides, and Ghosts Of Men, plus half a dozen or so others.
Saturday sees the festival deliver on one of the main attractions of the festival in my opinion - new acts that impress. These include main stage openers The James Clode Band, Flight Brigade, Deliah, Sam Green & The Midnight Heist, Two Man Ting (how have I missed this lot?), and Kizzy Crawford . They appear alongside more established acts like New Groove Formation, the high tempo Tankus the Henge, Desmond Dekker's old backing band The Aces, Carter USM's Les (who keeps popping up everywhere) creative new project Abdoujaparov, Doozer McDooze, and Merry Hell.
Sunday's theme is Alice In Wonderland, and aside from the fancily dressed crowd, and the on site entertainers it has a really strong music programme as it turns out. The day opens with West Somerset Brass doing classic covers and some real bad jokes. Whilst Barnacle Buoys deliver some great old South West choir singing. There's something on everywhere with Ash Mandrake, The Leylines, and Worry Dolls all demanding attention. Rapidly becoming the band of the festival the colourful tank top wearing The Bar-Steward Sons of Val Doonican, get promoted to the main stage, and pull off a great crowd interactive show including lead singer Scott crowd surfing. They then draw a packed crowd to their own slot on the Udder Stage.
Another comedy infused acts is The Sweetchunks Band who also put in a tight performance. Festival favourites The Wurzels draw a huge crowd who stream in just to see them and then stream out again. Ned Dylan got the rock star treatment from screaming girlies, and was also clearly delighted that hero John Otway was in the audience amongst the gushing fans.
The final day also sees us entertained by Seth Lakeman, Sound of the Sirens, Stevie - One Bloke One Mandolin, Muddy Summers & The Dirty Field Whores, John Otway / Wild Willy Barrett, and Company B as they round out the Sunday's entertainment before the rain threatens.
The main stage is an outdoor affair facing down the arena and visible from two thirds of the site. The smallest of the stages is the Gail's Something Else tent offering a wild mix of Uke Jams, late night jams, collaborations, festival circuit rising stars, new acts, interviews, and delicious cakes. The stage furthest from the main stage is the Udder Stage enclosed in a tent of red and yellow stripes which together with the sparkly decor create an appealing place to watch bands. It did seem there was more of a swing in favour of rock acts on the Udder Stage this year. The good thing about this festival is that you can easily get to all three stages and so if you don't like an act, you can quickly find someone more appealing.
This year sees the arena used much more in the day than in previous years and right from the opening of the gates there's a decent number of people wandering around the compact site. Many of them have kids who take part in the workshops, circus crafts, get balloon swords, hats and parrots from child entertainer Alfredo the pirate, enjoy the bizarre mashed up games in the Digital Funfair with the legendary Smacked Bottoms game (someone smashes my hi score on the second day) - think Dance Revolution on screen but instead of your feet you use a mannequin’s torso with pads in the bum.
It's even more surprising the arena is busy early on with the town so close with pubs, coffee shops, and a steam train journey to the tourist attractions of Dunster Castle and Minehead. This year sees a local pub, The Pebble, host the festival's 'fourth' busking stage - which is also hugely popular - so much so they have to close it temporarily to give the staff a breather. There's also a free shuttle bus from here back to the festival site for those who enjoy their cider a bit too much, and require a breather.
Food is sensibly priced at around £6 a meal with a fistful of options to sample, or £8 for a lovely Sunday lunch with pudding at Nana's Kitchen and beers and ciders from £2 in happy hour to £3.50 for the lethal stuff. The crowds arrive each day with the centrally located bar's happy hour from 5pm until 6pm.
The toilets are amazing, they're somehow kept clean, well stocked and smell of cherry bakewells. They're in less locations than previous years but their ranks have swelled to cope with demand. Hats off to the providers of them, Exmoor Loos, who do a great job of keeping them up to a high standard.
Okay this festival has no frills, no marvellous installations (though the lighting on the main stage is impressive), no hordes of crazy characters (though a few of the regulars are amusing), but it isn't about getting off your face at a million miles an hour. It's about easing into your bank holiday, relaxing with a beer, enjoying the views across the Severn to Wales. Resting on a pallet seat, and enjoying a coffee from The Greatest Little Coffee Box On Earth. It's also accessible to wheelchair users, and those with mobility issues, as well as push chairs, and kids aren't likely to get lost in the arena. The local kids are surprisingly friendly and there's large numbers of aloof youngsters making new friends and sitting in groups around the teen disco area, or the prayer tent I'm not sure which.
With it being such an exposed location you have to mention the weather, luckily it rained mainly over night, and didn't get in the way of the weekend. Although the heavy rain during the early hours of Monday made leaving a muddy affair for some.
The festival celebrates it's 10th year next year, and here's hoping it won't be their last. Thanks to all the volunteers and everyone who help it run so smoothly. The community in this little corner of West Somerset don't get much chance to enjoy live music, and a get together, and the event sees funds raised for good causes over the weekend, they'll certainly be hoping, like me, that the event continues for some time yet. If not next year may be the final chance before a fallow year to catch this rare beast - a community led event which offer a varied programme of live music alongside local food and drink.
With it selling out this year, it may be worth grabbing a ticket at early bird prices when they go on sale in October.
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