Sidmouth Folk Week 2008 - discussion of the Bulverton venue - and why youngsters prefer Towersey.

Depending on your point of view, the Bulverton marquee continues to be a hugely disappointing or a great venue. Whether it makes any net profit would be an interesting calculation. If Sidmouth Folk Week needs to save a substantial amount of money the entire Bulverton venue is the obvious one to go - at least for a year or two. Under the current ticket structure (as used in 2008) it draws in little money (most attendees now being covered by their season tickets) and it is one of the most expensive pieces of infrastructure. The calculation seems simple enough - how many season ticket holders would not come to Sidmouth if the LNE was to be abandoned and what would be the saving on infrastructure costs? It may yet be an option.

The Bulverton venue suffered no doubt in 2008 because of the appalling weather early in the week. Thankfully, the adjacent car park was kept in operation (albeit precariously) and this provided some splendid examples of H&S issues (see below). Again, whether the car park makes a profit as a cost centre would be interesting! It was not stewarded at all at some times, again reminiscent of 2007 during which there were (so I am told) periods at the Bulverton when there were 6 stewards where there should have been over 20. The biggest problem remains the low usage of an expensive facility with few of the 8pm events attracting more than maybe 100 people. The exception was Blowzabella who in 2008 attracted a near capacity audience of over 900 with (so I was told) over 300 'event' tickets sold. This five-hour extravaganza worked - but there are few bands that could be guaranteed to draw such a crowd, including many from outside the normal Sidmouth Folk Week attendees. However, it is worth noting that even Blowzabella cannot be guaranteed to draw a capacity audience - at Towersey on the Sunday night they were competing with Bellowhead. The ceilidh tent was hardly packed and (as at Sidmouth) it was difficult to dance to a lot of their music. It was also too loud (and not only I said so!)

The ceilidh bands at Sidmouth were fine if some were little known. Many ceilidh dancers shunned Sidmouth this year because of the low 'perceived quality' of the line up. Maybe they missed something! Grand Union were as good as ever but attendance was poor - maybe owing to their Friday night slot at the beginning of the festival.

Steamchicken did much better on the Saturday - although it was a little too riotous for many older dancers. It was also rather on the loud side (do they ever listen?). Sunday was an unusual night, with the LNE replaced with Asha for four hours (8pm to midnight) owing to a last minute problem with a Sunday late music licence (or similar admin issue). Folk Week lost money (selling tickets for 2 events not 3) and Asha had to play for longer than they had envisaged, so it is difficult to see how "everyone wins".

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Article from the Sidmouth Herald, July 2009

Strangely, Asha seemed to me to be undanceable but the music was "the same as we played in Blackmore". Monday was better still - and back (almost) to the LNE days of old. Trinculo with Gordon Potts played danceable music to a packed floor and with the welcome announcement (welcome to some) that the drinks licence had been extended to 1am. Yet as always with a successful LNE, 1am was simply far too early to finish. We could have danced for another hour at least and still felt it was too soon to end. Is this just impossible to arrange even if sound levels were to be reduced a few dB for the last hour? All this evening needed was 100 more good ceilidh dancers and an extension to 2am.

Maerlock Big Band were (in the opinion of many dancers) an experiment not to be repeated. I thought they were simply awful and with sound levels too high, maybe in order to make up for lack of ability. They may be good musicians (if you like that sort of racket) but they seemed simply out of place even at LNE. Many experienced dancers  had walked out of their earlier performance in Blackmore Gardens. A different opinion was offered by the Sidmouth Herald in its review: this quoted other sources as saying the band were "one of the best ceilidh bands... fresh tight and eminently danceable".

Wednesday saw the highly successful Blowzabella play a range of English, French and Breton dances to people who (in the main) knew how to dance. Thursday saw some excellent dance music from 422 - I thought they were superb but the number and quality of the dance sets was pretty dire. The evening could have benefited from an additional hundred or more expert ceilidh dancers - the music really was excellent. OK, so it's only my opinion but people who didn't attend missed out! This is really a continuing problem for Sidmouth - the lack of large numbers of accomplished dancers. There was no such problem at Towersey a few weeks later. The ratio of good ceilidh dancers to those who could not dance was markedly higher. Towersey also enabled another young band - Last Orders - to show they could produce excellent dance music. At least two band members have links to the Folk Arts degree at the University of Newcastle. Maybe Sidmouth next year?!

On the last night at Bulverton the Demon Barbers produced their expected party act - some dancers arrived to gaze in bewilderment - "what the hell is this - it is supposed to be a ceilidh". Read the programme I guess! The previous event, a ceilidh with Token Women was yet another disappointment in the early evening slot. A good band and hardly enough dancers to make it worthwhile. There were certainly not enough on the large floor to generate an atmosphere.

If the organisers were relying on good audiences for both the early evening and late evening events at Bulverton they must be wondering by now how to get it right  -  I doubt the venue can be cost effective on just the LNE events and both the bar and food areas were often rather less than packed out. It would seem that there are few dancers who want to attend both early and late evening events and mostly they choose the LNE. The only remedy may be simply to attract more dance-oriented folkies to Sidmouth, and preferably ones who can actually dance. Or of course to use the venue for other things entirely - but would people bother to trudge up the hill in the rain when there is so much else on in town? That was surely tried in earlier years? The early expectations for this venue of providing an 'all day experience' oriented towards young people seem rarely to have been realised.

Many people have expressed to me their disappointment with the Bulverton venue: "empty" and "no atmosphere" tend to recur. So who would really miss it? It was certainly a prime feature of Sidmouth during the years of the International Festival - but it was packed out so you could hardly move and the 'buzz' was uniquely a part of the Sidmouth experience, as offered by Steve Heap. In those days Sidmouth was so unique in the UK people put up with an awful lot of campsite aggravation and trudging up and down hills. Sidmouth Folk Week offers the same aggravation (if not more) but without many of the attractions of the International Festival - there are no Arena concerts, few if any international dancers and no final torchlight procession worthy of the name.

So what of Bulverton in 2008? There were some people who just sat and watched (maybe not much else to do?), there were the youngsters who just thrashed about and maybe drank too much ('twas ever thus I am told) and there were a few - a few - people who really wanted to make a great success of the late night dancing. None of this seems to justify the major capital expense of this venue. So maybe the question is how to plan for future years without it? It all comes back to the key question asked on this website some years ago: is Sidmouth viable at an intermediate size? In essence, this 'awkward' size would be defined by too many people to accommodate in the few fixed venues of Sidmouth but too few to make proper use of major and expensive infrastructure such as the Bulverton site. The Ham is another matter - it generates probably enough revenue to pay for itself - and make a profit.

Sidmouth vs Towersey - why youngsters choose Towersey - and should Bulverton be axed?

In discussing whether Sidmouth has lost its way with the Bulverton it is helpful to compare its usage with that of the principal Towersey dance venues in 2008 - the ceilidh marquee and the Festival Dance House. The latter was used for daytime events as well as for early evening and late night LNE type music and dance. Towersey was simply packed out both with good dancers and with youngsters there more for the loud music and the late night drink. The two  venues were packed most evenings but with much smaller daytime attendances.

So why do so many young people prefer Towersey? There may be several interlinked reasons but they could perhaps be summarised in a few words: "sheer convenience for drinking, dancing and camping, overall good value and a real 'festival' experience".

All venues at Towersey are within easy flat walking distance of the extensive campsite - which is in itself a delight compared to Sidmouth, especially in wet weather. It can get muddy, but the tracks remain largely passable and the ground seems to recover very quickly from a sustained downpour. It is also substantially flat and pitching a tent or a caravan would rarely be a problem. One couple I met at Towersey had been directed to a spot on the Sidmouth site and found it was so sloping they couldn't level their caravan side-on or facing down the hill. Waste water ran back from the sink into the shower unit! They gave up and went to Salcombe Regis (a commercial site) instead. Towersey is also not a full week event and so is cheaper - within budget for many youngsters perhaps.

Sidmouth does of course offer the seaside and the 'in-town' experience - but these appeal more to the middle aged and the elderly and to families with young children, not to the 15 to 25 age group that the 'Bulverton Experience' was aimed at.

So how would Sidmouth grow if the Bulverton was to be axed? The Ham would continue, all the minor events in pubs and halls would continue and the social and ceilidh dance could, in time, be expanded in quality and quantity to include maybe many of the excellent dancers who attend the Eastbourne festival. The Church House Lawn marquee was packed for the Cis Hinkle contra dances a few years ago (and for many other events) and this could be reinstated - if dancers could be persuaded to return in large numbers and if Kennaway House is amenable to its lawn being used once again for festival purposes.

In all, the organisers may have made the mistake of aiming the Bulverton at an age group for whom Sidmouth as a town has little innate attraction. Aiming it at older people would also probably not have worked - they wouldn't be bothered with the slog up the hill in poor weather (or even in good weather).

So why did the Bulverton (and the Bowd too in earlier years) work so well for Steve Heap? Simply because in those days the Sidmouth International Festival offered so much (and so much that was unique in the UK) that attendees of all ages and from many countries simply forgot all the downsides - the mud, the sloping campsite, the rain, the slog up hills and the muddy tracks. You knew you would be so immersed in a continuing spectacle of colour, music and vibrancy that you simply wanted to be there, no matter what.

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