Sidmouth Folk Week 2009: Bulverton marquee - so I was right all along?

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After several years of questioning the viability of the Bulverton marquee, here we have confirmation from Joan Crump, the festival's artistic director (she calls herself Ruth Archer on the mudcat website).

I would disagree with her that the Bulverton has in any way since 2005 been a loss leader for Folk Week - a loss leader is something to entice you into the main store to buy more! It has been an added extra to the main events and one that might not be too sorely missed if the weather keeps being as awful. There is nothing paradoxical about the situation either - it's just simple marginal cost benefit.

Here is what Joan Crump had to say on mudcat on 14 August 2009 (on the Sidmouth Evaluation thread). Spelling errors have been corrected.

"The trouble with both the Bulverton and the Blackmore Garden ceilidh marquees is that there is very little space for people who aren't dancing, not everyone wants to or can dance every dance and needs to sit down or have a rest which is difficult when you're squeezed in."

The paradox at the Bulverton is that, last year, the space set aside for that purpose was hardly used. It's hard to justify the extra space when the majority of it is sat empty throughout the week. Even this year, when I wanted a place to sit down up at the Bulverton I could usually find one (though maybe not the same seat all night). I think the one thing we didn't accommodate so much this year is the rows and rows of empty chairs which act mainly as a repository for ceilidh dancers' bags, jumpers etc. While I can understand that it is nice to know you have a "saved" seat to go back to when you want to sit a dance out, it costs a lot to create that extra space.

To be perfectly honest, this year was a make-or-break year for the Bulverton. It has been a loss-leader for the festival for several years, and if we didn't make it work this year, we risked losing it altogether. The strategy for addressing this was to rejuvenate the programme while reducing the costs, and to re-evaluate our catering partners in order to maximise the return on the secondary spend (bar and food) to the festival.

In reducing the size of the venue, we looked at ways of doing this while compromising the dance experience as little as possible. That's why the dance floor itself only lost 2 metres, while the space that was lost was the "sidelines" space. As I say, when I wanted to sit down this year, I usually found there was a seat available. It might have someone else's jumper over the back, but I moved if they returned. I think that a slightly more adaptable approach by ceilidh dancers in this respect will mean that the space is used to its fullest potential (and value).

So, to sum up, it isn't a case of "We'd like the big marquee back, please."
It's a case of making the size of marquee work as it is, or not having a Bulverton at all. Having said that, as I said earlier in my post, our infrastructure team is looking at ways of using the space up there differently next year in order to create more chatting-and-standing-about space which is under cover.

We have similar issues with Blackmore, but again, the team is looking at ways of creating more undercover space for next year.

Img_3949.jpg (111647 bytes) Walking (or should I say paddling) to the Bulverton marquee from the official festival car park was quite a challenge.

The direct route was through a large area of deep semi-liquid mud. The worst could be avoided by taking a long detour around the area where 4x4 vehicles had comprehensively churned up the ground. These drivers should have made detours - leaving a central walkway relatively undisturbed.

Conditions improved during the last few days of the festival, making removal of all the infrastructure less of a challenge.

Img_3950.jpg (98471 bytes) A bit of much needed festival colour was provided on grey rain-soaked days.

The approach to the Bulverton was altered during the week to prevent further use of the most muddy areas.

The venue was smaller than in previous years - 'intimate' was the term preferred by the organisers!

With a dance floor area of some 60 by 30 feet, it was about the same size as that in Blackmore Gardens - which was 56 by 28 feet.

The Bulverton in the old days was far bigger - so I fondly remember!

Img_3951.jpg (61097 bytes) The long march downhill to the campsite, lit at night (and in daytime!) by a string of electric lamps.

Again, colour added a little cheerfulness and people tried to avoid slipping down on the treacherous ground.

The campsite is just visible. In the mist and rain, it seemed a lot further away.

The more fortunate campers had a warm and dry motorhome or caravan to look forward to - others had a cold and soggy tent.

Some of us just drove home to bed - but we gave a few mud splattered folkies a lift en route.

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car park scan 195.jpg (17432 bytes)

A few stout ropes to hold on to would have helped prevent a few people losing their foothold on the precarious slope down to the road. The festival brochure should warn about possible conditions on this "relatively short walk down the hill".

It would probably have been deemed a safety risk to secure a ropeway to the steel poles carrying the electrical cables.

Img_3956.jpg (107416 bytes) The Bulverton marquee had been erected well before the rain that was so unhelpful in getting people onto the campsite.

However, even the few vehicles that used this access track made quite an impression. It gets worse every year!

The last few metres of the slope used by pedestrians was particularly steep and  treacherous. Something to hold onto would have helped.

Walking down this hill from the festival car park may be dangerous for disabled and many older people during wet weather. For long term parking they should be advised to use only Sidmouth's Manor Road carpark.

Use of the Bulverton marquee varied enormously - as in previous years. At peak capacity apparently 800 people attended the Peatbog Faeries - an absurdly high number if anyone actually expected to be able to dance! The dance floor area was about 170 m2 and could accommodate up to 170 for set dances and maybe 250 for close proximity disco dance. Beyond that it would have been collisions all round. The LNE on the Wednesday with the Old Swan Band produced excellent dance music - but it seemed to be of limited interest to many youngsters and there was (for once) room to dance. With 100 people actually on the dance floor it was very comfortable - 150 would have been no problem for many dances. The Monday LNE with Oyster Ceilidh band was LOUD, packed and with no room to dance.

At the other end of the scale the Mega Contra on the Wednesday afternoon attracted a maximum of 12 people - the event was abandoned after an hour. This could have been predicted - despite the popularity of contra dance there was really too much of it at Sidmouth in 2009. Anyone who was keen would have been 'danced out' by the Wednesday afternoon. In any case, this was the only day of good sunshine. Everyone with any sense went to the beach. This happened once before in Sidmouth during the early days of the 'new' festival when the late Mick Brookes was calling a ceilidh in the Ham marquee at lunchtime. About 12 people attended. Everyone else was on the beach - this being the first sunshine of the week.

If weather conditions had been less good for the Mega Contra in 2009, the event would still have been a flop. Who would have trudged in the rain and mud to the Bulverton for yet more contra dancing when a surfeit was available both in dance halls in town and in the Blackmore Gardens marquee - and (for men) with Wendy Graham as an added attraction?

The organisers simply got this badly wrong - and there is a lesson for the future. Afternoon events in the Bulverton will only attract sizeable numbers of people if they are specialised and available no-where else during the week. A good example was the Jewish dance workshop held on the Tuesday afternoon - a day when it rained almost non-stop for about 12 hours.

The ground conditions were utterly appalling, worse than shown in any of my photographs. The band and caller (locally based Spinach for Norman and caller Pam Hayes both of whom are popular amongst serious dancers) struggled to get their equipment into the venue. They were rewarded with an attendance between 35 and 65 at the peak. Many of these people had come specifically to learn this specialised dance - and nothing (not even Bulverton in heavy rain) would have deterred them. Pam Hayes was both delighted and amazed at the turnout.

A similar number (but maximum 35) turned out for the Dartmoor Pixies 'extra event' on the Saturday afternoon. It should have been made clear in the programme this was not a dance or ceilidh - it turned out to be a bit of a damp squib for dance (maximum 16 dancers?) but enlivened by the Kelly Quarry Blasters. Again, it was not unusual enough to attract many people up to Bulverton.

Another specialised dance workshop - the Eurodance and including the Fandango with Kerry Fletcher attracted enough people to make it worthwhile - again about 60. Many people used cars to come to this - if the festival car park had been closed then it might have been a flop.

Another example of the popularity of specialised dance was the Breton and French event held at All Saints Hall on the Wednesday, and featuring the d'Accord group from Devon. This was not part of the festival (why not, we need to ask?). Despite the extra admission charge of 4.50 the hall attracted a large number of people - all keen to learn and to dance properly. Given the number of attendees (year on year) this really does need to become more a part of the main festival - it has far more artistic merit than many of the 'hard rock' and 'headbanging' ceilidh bands that Joan Crump seems to favour. Maybe it is thought too much to expect that the 'yoof' she seems so keen to indulge would actually bother to try and learn something?

The people who ran this event are also owed an apology by the festival organisers for the mishandling of their Bulverton early evening event on the Sunday. It was originally billed as a repeat of the hugely popular Cornish and Breton dance evening of 2008. This also suffered from administrative problems with the rescheduled Blackmore Gardens venue being both too hot (despite a cool night) and packed well beyond dancing capacity. The 2009 repeat event at the Bulverton was scheduled originally for 4 or 5 hours. The bands and callers are local - Dalla from Cornwall and Poisson Rouge from Devon - and Folk Week tries hard to communicate that it owes allegiance to the local community. Maybe as gesture politics only?

The timing was changed at short notice to only 2 hours - and it appeared in the working programme as an 8 to 10pm item. The bands had got together, agreed that 2 hours was an absurdly short time and it was agreed that they would start at 7.30 - later changed to 7.15. Unfortunately few of us knew this - some people arrived an hour or more too early, many arrived at 8pm to find half the evening already gone and no-one was best pleased. This is the second year running that these popular and talented musicians and dancers have been comprehensively messed about at Sidmouth. They deserve better treatment in future years.

The event that followed - the 'silent disco' was another example of poor planning. The venue had to be cleared because of the need to collect 5 in cash from all attendees (a refundable deposit on the headphones and some people didn't have 5 in cash on them!) Letting people back in was a slow process, made memorable by the attitude of one of the security staff. Had it been raining hard, everyone would have got soaked before being readmitted. Judged by the numbers attending (about 700 - to try out a novel event?) it was a success, with Joan Crump ecstatic on the night. As a folk event - maybe.

The final LNE is usually well attended and (as usual) Hekety were too loud. The Chequered Flag dance team were simply superb - we have come to expect nothing less! Most of the ceilidh dancers were young but knew what they were doing. In early sets there were only about 120 people on the dance floor - a comfortable number.

As usual, both the final LNE and the whole week ended far too soon.


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