Marquees at Sidmouth Folk Week 2007.

Social dance and ceilidhs: Blackmore Gardens, Church House Lawn and the Bulverton LNE.

There were some welcome changes this year - and a few disturbing pointers for the future.

One principal development was the eagerly awaited reintroduction of social dance into the town centre. The organisers had spent some months discussing options with various church and other halls. In the end, the main dance workshop venues were All Saints Hall and the Methodist Hall. Both are on the small size for a large festival but are conveniently central.

The welcome reinstatement of the Church House Lawn marquee almost made this end of town look like the old days. It is rumoured that the marquee was ordered at a time when the Anchor pub was threatening to have rock bands during folk week, rather than the traditional folk ceilidhs. Whatever the reason, now that the venue has reappeared (and at considerable expense) it is unlikely to be a viable PR option to remove it again. Steps must therefore be taken to maximise income by making it as attractive as possible - see below.

The only difficulties with the church halls were lack of size. 'House Full' signs appeared once or twice, usually when the popular high energy contra dancing was in progress. On one occasion, I was denied entry to the Methodist Hall on the basis that I was a man - the steward said that he was only going to admit three more women. Such behaviour is probably illegal - but I got in a few minutes later anyway (after changing into my best summer frock).

All the dance floors were fine - Blackmore Gardens had the usual undulations but a superbly surfaced plywood floor, Church House Lawn looked a little dreary with adequate flooring-grade chipboard (this doesn't have quite the spring of plywood but it was OK) and Bulverton had a very good albeit slightly sloping (and in places slightly slippery) plywood floor. In all, there was no real cause for any complaint and whoever screwed down all the floors made a good job of them. It was all a far cry from the improvised Blackmore Gardens dance floor of 2005 - that was memorably awful but no-one really minded at the time. This provides one reflection of how far Folk Week has come in just three years - in 2005 it was string, sealing wax and hammer and nails and in 2007 the infrastructure (if not the quality of the dancing) was in parts approaching that of the Steve Heap years.

There were few complaints either about the callers. They were not in the class of the Steve Heap years - names such as Cis Hinkle, Lisa Greenleaf, Geoff Cubitt - none of these were at Sidmouth in 2007, and nor is Sidmouth any longer a serious rival to Chippenham or Eastbourne for dance quality. Nevertheless, a few of the social dance callers can be singled out for the clarity of their instruction - Emma Darby (a dancer with Gog Magog Molly but new to festival calling), Ian Jones who possessed a school-masterly air of authority, and Pat Murphy, who made the Irish Set dances so enjoyable because you were told and shown exactly what to do. Pete and Marj Hendy are always good value - and would you dare to do anything out of place with Marj in charge? The social dance workshops and musicians were all entirely adequate if not outstandingly memorable.

Unfortunately I was too ill to do the Irish Ceilidh (not having been a well bunny for many weeks) and neither did I feel up to the three running set workshops organised by Ray Goodswen. These were apparently superbly executed - as were so many of the other workshops that I didn't manage to attend. This is one of the enduring problems of Sidmouth - you can't be in six different places at once.

On a negative note, the tea dances were poorly attended with Mike Barraclough making a special appeal for more attendees to his Friday afternoon event. However the most negative criticism must be the quality of ceilidh dancing and to some extent that of the social dancing. There are several problems, all interlinked and without a single simple solution.

It is this that should give the organisers most concern. They have got the Ham concert venue about right - it is packed out, generally well appreciated and is relatively easy to reproduce year upon year - simply book popular bands and artistes, put up the ticket prices a little (but not so much that people notice) and sit back and count the profits. It will be more difficult to get all the dancing back to the standard of the 'glory years' for the simple reason that you can't just fill a marquee with people and switch on the music. To make festival dance venues memorable you need scores if not hundreds of the best ceilidh dancers.

In Sidmouth there are now (in percentage terms) too many locals who hardly know what they are doing, too many groups of silly girls just there for a giggle and too few people who really know how to dance. In past years (2004 and before) it was memorable when you paired up with a really poor dancer - they formed such a small percentage of the whole crowd. In 2007, it was memorable in some ceilidhs if you managed to find a really good dance partner - leaving aside the people who you knew already to be proficient.

One case sticks in the mind - a strip the willow square dance in the Blackmore. I had asked a woman to dance who turned out to be in a Morris team from 'up north'. She was a dream to dance with but there were two young girls in the set. Here we go again I thought, incompetence on two pretty young legs. But they were both superb. The elbow turns were perfect, the timing was perfect, it just couldn't get any better - and they were aged about 10 and 14. But there were simply so few of that standard, so few who had obviously put in a lot of effort to learn properly, and it is not good enough for Sidmouth.

In discussing what needs to be done, we can start with some wishful thinking published by the festival organisers in their Tuesday newsletter:

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All of these assertions are incorrect if applied to the LNE.

Some of the early evening events at the Bulverton might well have been energetic but at the commencement of the LNE events (those I attended anyway) it was more freezing cold and with just a few couples on the dance floor. Later in the week someone had the sense to shut the fire doors. In the old days there used to be hundreds of close-packed youngsters milling about outside the dance marquee and with a crush to get in at opening time - now you don't even have to fight your way to the bar. The official capacity of the venue is apparently the same as before - 1000 - but in the Steve Heap years probably more than 1000 were admitted on the basis that many remained outside the dance tent. The H&S may have been tightened up since then. In 2007, 820 were apparently 'clicked in' for Whapweasel - the most well attended of all the LNE events - but if previous experience is anything to go by (do link) many would have attended just to hear the band and not to dance. Other LNEs were down to maybe 400 to 600, well up on 2005 but still with a way to go to reproduce the pre 2005 years.

I missed Whapweasel (who were apparently very lively) but in no terms has the Bulverton been built back to what it was. All the infrastructure is in place, and it all works well. The self-styled Marketing Executive of the festival, Sue Hamer-Moss, asked me what I thought of the new flags - very nice - just the thing to encourage a few hundred more people to attend? In a sense of course, it doesn't matter how many people attend LNE since the money has already been collected in season ticket revenue. Few 'event' tickets are sold for the LNEs. Yet the Sidmouth LNEs of old were revered in the folk dance world - and it is this that the organisers should strive to see regained.

One principal problem at the Bulverton is that so few people now attend compared with the numbers that the venue could accommodate. 50% is simply not good enough, the average needs to be 70 to 80% of capacity - and they need to know how to dance. The large new car park is in an convenient position for the LNE and should be usable with care in bad weather. But it is apparently an expensive addition to the festival infrastructure and it had just a few cars left at LNE time. I was one of maybe half a dozen who occasionally made our way up to the LNE following the Blackmore Gardens or Church House evening events. It all had an air of inherent future potential combined with present underutilisation. One of the loneliest jobs of the festival must have been to steward at that cold and bleak location long into the night.

Quite apart from the low numbers attending, it is the superb ceilidh dancers who seem in the main to have vanished. There was always a large element of 'just have fun' at these ceilidhs but more often than not you could find yourself in a dance set where everyone knew exactly what they were doing and went at it full speed, or faster. Now, it is more difficult to find such a group. So many of the youngsters are disinterested girls who showed no sign of ever having been taught to ceilidh dance properly and who seem to have no wish to learn. 'Pratting about' - and not very well - is now becoming too prevalent.

Being too ill and tired to do some of the dances, I took one or two girls to one side to teach them how to swing smoothly and properly (or at least how to do it without yanking my arm out of its socket). It was obvious they had never been taught anything - they had just picked up a few bad habits along the way. All of this would have been less common at Sidmouth a few years ago. I can remember the classes for complete beginners (held at the Knowle?), being taken on one side at the Church House Lawn and Bulverton dances and being shown how to do things properly. A lot of ad-hoc 'one to one' teaching was all very much an inherent part of a festival that prided itself on being a centre of dance excellence. It still happens at Chippenham where even the late night ceilidhs are in the main populated with competent and energetic dancers. Youngsters who simply 'prat about' on the dance floor are noticeable because there are so few of them as a fraction of the total.

The ceilidhs in Blackmore Gardens also had their share of problems - but on the whole were up to the standard of 2006. The Friday event with Tricola was poorly attended - perhaps because so many people were still arriving. Yet the lunchtime Anchor Gardens ceilidh with the popular local group Spinach for Norman (and with Pam Hayes calling) was well attended and provided an enthusiastic introduction to the week. I deliberately avoided the Saturday ceilidh with Florida - who are renowned for being rather loud - yet I was told afterwards that they were 'quite mellow'. I still find this difficult to believe!

The subsequent LNE with All Blacked Up with Baz Parkes calling could have gone on for an extra hour - it seemed such a shame to end it at 1am - a comment made before on this website (do link) . Having some vocals with the music added so much to the atmosphere - could we have more next year? Maybe next year also, (and with the sound level turned down a bit) the organisers could aim for either 2am or until most people have had enough? This really does need to be tried - so many people wanted to stay longer and would they really have minded if the music was turned down a bit (or quite a bit?) to help limit objections from Sidmouth residents? After all, residents are now (so we are told) enthusiastically behind the new festival!

Monday provided possibly the low point for the Blackmore ceilidhs. Twm Twp were too loud and many people just left. Loud seems to be a Martyn Harvey trademark - and aimed at teenyboppers, maybe with the idea that what you lack in ability you can make up with volume? Some people complained they were expecting some Breton music and didn't get it. The LNE with Asha got off to a very slow start (and the marquee was freezing with the fire doors open) but picked up later. The same band were popular also at the next night's 'black tie' Blackmore Gardens ceilidh. As ever, the Committee Band were eminently danceable at both the LNE and the Blackmore Gardens, albeit perhaps a shade too loud. But you can't have everything you own way!

In contrast Random seemed (to me at any rate) just not as danceable. Their ceilidh in Blackmore Gardens also provided a good example of health and safety training and venue management at its most useless.

Towards the end of the event, an elderly lady fell badly and hit her head on the dance floor. There were relatively few dancers left at the time and with several people (including fortunately a medical doctor) attending the injured lady, all seemed under control. The opportunity was then taken to make some loud venue announcements and (even more crass) the caller Sheena Masson announced that the band "would play a couple of tunes" to keep people entertained whilst the victim was still lying on the floor barely conscious and probably in shock. I and several other dancers looked on in amazement - did the caller really mean it?

Random are never quiet and the beat of the music must have been everything the hapless victim needed. A St John's Ambulance volunteer then tried using his phone to summon paramedics. Obviously, he could not make himself heard and it was left to me (not a steward and not a venue manager) to instruct Sheena Masson rather curtly to shut off the noise immediately. "Yes of course". She may have got the impression I did not think much of her behaviour - and it was intended.

Other dancers I spoke too had similar views of how the whole episode had been handled. "Inappropriate" is one of the more printable comments.

So, we have legions of H&S paperwork, armies of predictably useless local government staff, risk assessments undertaken by teenagers, mandatory 'training' of stewards by other stewards (the blind leading the blind?), mandatory announcements about where the fire exits are situated when they are wholly obvious and yet when someone is injured and possibly in some distress, the same people with all their purported expertise and professionalism prove useless - to say nothing of common sense and common humanity. And these are folkies - people who are allegedly kind and noble towards their fellow men and women?

On a more positive note, the stewards at Blackmore came in for considerable praise for their handling of minor issues such as people placing chairs in fire exits. Those dealing with the long ticket queues at the Ham were also said to have been highly proficient yet courteous.

Church House Lawn and Ham marquees: could do better on creature comforts?

These are both Sidmouth favourites yet for years they have suffered from overzealous application of 'the rules' as enforced by EDDC. They do of course have inherent safety problems and some adherence to regulations (and common sense) is essential, especially at the Ham. Variously, we have seen flaps not allowed to be opened (so people slowly cooked) people not allowed to stand in doorways even for half a minute (one or two make no difference at all to escape route viability) and rows of chairs held together more by hope than any physical restraint. I don't know what the Ham was like in 2007 - pretty oppressive at times apparently.

Church House Lawn marquee was unbearably hot and humid during some dances. It suffers from being so sheltered - you need a large amount of 'open side area' to get substantial air movement. Yet stewards on duty didn't know how to open the sides, some said it couldn't be done (Fire Regulations again!) Others asked for my help in doing it. Luckily, I know how to balance precariously on a chair and how to undo the curtain hooks. But if I had fallen off, what then? Doing a dangerous job, untrained, without an up to date EU certificate in chair handling competence from EDDC, who would be in trouble? This needs to be better organised. The marquee is known to be prone to overheating so why not sort out  how to fix it? Shortage of stewards was a problem at Church House Lawn during some days and this may have exacerbated the difficulties.

A further and related improvement would see more people able easily to stand and watch the dancing. On hot days why not open most of the south end of the marquee and replace the opaque curtain sides with (for example) the orange open net fencing used by farmers? It would allow a large amount of ventilation, hundreds of people passing by could stand on the grass and the pavement to watch the dancing (and maybe want to get involved) and security would hardly be compromised. You just need a roll of fencing, a few stakes and a hammer.

One thing the organisers can feel particularly pleased about is the overall success of the Ham concerts - as in 2006, tickets sold well and generally feedback seems to have been good. There are however some detracting voices. The Ham is (understandably) quite rigorously stewarded and this can lead to people feeling it has insufficient festival atmosphere. Also, the internal comfort conditions can leave much to be desired and straw put down in the mud attracted criticism - bark or wood chippings seem to be preferred, straw can leave people with allergies fighting for breath and it can itself create a very slippery surface. So why was it used? At Shrewsbury in 2006 they hired a van and cleared B&Q of bags of bark chippings on a sale or return basis! However, there are reports that the bark created an awful smell and that wood chippings may be better.

peatbags2.jpg (61496 bytes) The 2006 Shrewsbury Folk Festival was hit by a sudden downpour that turned parts of the main Quarry site into mud.

As an emergency measure, a large van was dispatched to B&Q to purchase a few bags of bark chippings - the sort gardeners use to prevent anything growing through. They were apparently procured on a sale or return basis!

They work well in creating a workable footpath on a slimy mud base but one disadvantage is that they are awkward to clear up after the event. One wag commented that he hoped they were not the type that were pre-treated with Roundup (a potent weed killer). The grass might have taken longer to recover!

For years, the Ham marquee has been almost intolerable in high summertime temperatures. Having the facility to open more of the sides needs looking at - as at Church House Lawn marquee. Problems in 2007 at the Ham were not too severe because of the generally windy conditions.  Here is one gripe from the mudcat website:

The Ham Marquee needs looking at though. This year apart from anything else, it was hot, uncomfortable and decidedly smelly. The straw that some bright spark had decided to put down over the mud attracted all the flies which were buzzing round about happily. When I pay 15 and upwards for tickets I do expect to sit or stand in a relatively pleasant place.

Why is there never any dancing or even standing allowed in The Ham? It seems to me that there's just row upon row of chairs filled with serious faced folkies who don't even have the good grace to smile at the performers and let them know they're enjoying themselves. Compare this to a Seth Lakeman concert or Demon Barbers one, where the audience simply HAS to dance, where they break 'the rules' and just stand up and shimmy, far more enjoyable. Maybe they need far less seats and a big area for people to stand up/dance in.

Certainly there was some dancing during the magnificent Altan concert. I have been told that most people were standing out of their seats and 'shimmering around' and a few were dancing at the front of the marquee. So it is not all gloom and doom!

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