Sidmouth Folk Week 2010: The Bulverton Campsite - will it take a fatality before the festival organisers pay proper attention to vehicle safety and campsite stewards do their jobs properly?

Photos were taken on 29 July 2010 (the Thursday before FolkWeek).

Compared to 2009, setting up and running the Bulverton campsite was easy. This was just as well - because before FolkWeek 2010 even began the campsite manager Issy Fremont resigned (or lost her job, depending on which version of events you prefer). This followed a disagreement with festival management over a pint of cider that was consumed when it should not have been. Issy had apparently already worked sufficient hours to gain her 'stewards ticket' and would have worked probably an additional 40 or more hours during FolkWeek - and without the festival even paying her travel expenses. Several other stewards were appointed as temporary campsite managers.

Festival management tried to gloss over the whole affair - I was told that everyone was happy and the site was running smoothly. I have also been told that the replacement campsite managers were all experienced and capable people. Just a pity then that they didn't get the car parking right!

In fact, the organisers were simply lucky that the weather was good, the ground firm and the problems few. Those of us who have experienced many festivals know that it is the dedicated principal stewards and others behind the scenes who make it all possible. Some stewards seem to be there to do the least amount of work (and in some cases none at all). 

142_4239.jpg (125746 bytes) On a bright, sunny day and with the ground dry and firm, few folk festival campsites could have greater aesthetic appeal.

However, the marked slope (see discussion last year) detracts from both comfort and safety. The ground is poorly drained and can easily become waterlogged.

Some people still don't read the small print - in order to camp on this site you need either an advance event ticket or a season ticket for every day (and for every person who wishes to camp) and valid for each day of camping.

The only other route (and much cheaper) is to pay 25 to join the Supporters Club - but this has to be done in advance of the festival.

142_4231.jpg (163377 bytes) As advised last year, access roadways in both the camping fields and at the Bulverton and including this track into field 2 had been surfaced sufficiently to help ensure that vehicles could maintain traction in wet weather. If the ground had become really soft more ballast would no doubt have been needed.

In the event of course, the weather was so good that none of this effort or expense was required in 2010. The festival organisers also provided excellent wet weather walkways around the Ham and Blackmore Gardens marquees.

The main campsite entrance is in the top right of the picture.

Apologies from the tree that is casting a large shadow across this photo!

142_4232.jpg (108525 bytes) A caravan pitched on the second row down Field 2, adjacent to the top campsite track that runs parallel to the Bulverton Road.

Even on this gently sloping ground, the front stabilisers are fully extended and perched precariously on small blocks of wood. Given the good ground conditions during the week, this was safe enough - especially as the caravan was fitted with a wheel clamp.

The lower slopes of Field 2 are considerably steeper and wholly unsuitable for caravans.

Many caravan owners do not realise that most of the nose weight should always be taken by the jockey wheel - and never by the front stabilisers.

142_4233.jpg (107524 bytes) Motorhomes and caravans alongside the Bulverton Road.

This strip of almost flat ground is highly prized - and was used for motorhomes and caravans in 2010 (in contrast to 2009) both because of the good weather and because precautions had been taken to help ensure vehicle access if the ground had become wet.

The string of small roadway lights (top right of photo) are appreciated by campers.

One year I'll figure out how to get a night-time photo that captures both these lights and the campsite spirit.

142_4234.jpg (135274 bytes) A row of cars parked sensibly across the field gradient. Even if handbrakes had failed or not been applied properly, these vehicles would not have constituted a risk to campers.

In the background several cars can be seen parked down the slope - which should not have been allowed.

Whilst handbrakes on cars are generally reliable (if properly applied) those on many caravans are either inadequate or non-existent. Caravans do not have to pass an annual MoT in the UK (unlike in some countries).

142_4237.jpg (135986 bytes) Wide roadways, sunshine, vast open spaces and plenty of room for newcomers - just as well because the festival had not yet even started.

At the bottom of the field there is less of a slope - which is better for camping. However you are more at risk from runaway cars and caravans - and first in line for a mud bath if it rains heavily.

All you need to add to this picture is the aroma of grilled bacon and the sound of a few guitars. And maybe a few Morris dancers?

"I don't know why we are here, but I'm pretty sure that it is not to enjoy ourselves"

Ludwig Wittgenstein, philosopher, 1889-1951.

142_4235.jpg (143672 bytes) This vehicle is pointing down a quite steep slope directly at a large tent. Campsite stewards should not have allowed this.

The technicalities are straightforward. Despite that modern cars have good brakes, handbrakes are inherently more likely to release as they cool down than were the designs used on older cars. On most modern cars they operate via disc brakes. As the discs cool (either after a drive or overnight), thermal contraction of the disc may cause the handbrake to release unless it has been quite firmly applied.

With old fashioned drum brakes, the opposite can occur - they can grip more firmly as they cool.

However, drums are less effective on the road because they readily overheat and fade.


142_4236.jpg (140426 bytes) In all, about 50% of vehicles were parked correctly across the slope and 50% were parked down the slope, suggesting that there had been little or no enforcement of good practice.

For over ten years the organisers of Sidmouth Festival have been made aware of the basic rules for caravan and car safety - yet a few mistakes are still made. It will perhaps take a fatality or serious injury to make them sit up and take notice - but it will then be too late to avoid consequences in terms of legal liability, adverse publicity and maybe future insurance premiums.

Leaving cars in gear would be OK - but how could stewards be sure that every car had been left in gear?

Let's see if they manage to get it right in 2011!

142_4238.jpg (102463 bytes) One of the more unusual and photogenic of the tents on the lower slopes, where the ground is almost flat..

The expensive security fencing that used to surround this field is no longer deployed. This will save the festival money but may increase the number of 'illegal' campers.

142_4240.jpg (125237 bytes) 2010 saw an emphasis on availability of 'local food' - but it would all have detracted from sales in local Sidmouth shops and in the days of the old International Festival would have led to further objections from Sidmouth traders - and from some of Sidmouth's less able councillors.

Nowadays, these inter-related and self-interested groups seem to have been brought more 'on side' despite that takings must be well down from those when the town was truly packed during the first week in August.

Prices for food at the Bulverton were extortionate - but the traders have to make money somehow to ensure that their attendance proves worthwhile. The campsite Farm Kitchen was apparently well liked.

Details of alternative campsites around Sidmouth are given here. The festival organisers are not keen to promote other sites but logically, they should welcome anyone who buys festival tickets. It needs to be accepted that the official (Bulverton) festival campsite has always been inherently unsuitable for camping (some of it is on quite a slope and all of it is badly drained) but for those wishing to experience the full festival atmosphere, there is no alternative.

For those who doubt that motorhome or caravan accidents occur, one was reported on an earlier page. More recently, a runaway car demolished a trailer tent at the Bulverton campsite.

Here is an anecdote from Europe in 2010:

A large motorhome was parked on a gentle slope. The handbrake was applied but not well enough, or maybe not at all. The motorhome rolled gently down the slope, across a road and ended up perched over a steep drop at the side of the road, its chassis having ground into the edge of the roadway. It narrowly missed a couple of English folkies on holiday - the first they knew of it's approach was the sound of the chassis grating on the edge of the roadway. The accident was similar to the famous ending in the original version of the film 'The Italian Job' starring Michael Caine - a coach ends up gently swaying over the edge of a canyon.

For the motorhome occupants it was a lucky escape: many people apparently came and jumped on the end of the motorhome that was still over the road, thus weighing it down and making it less likely to slip over the edge. A woman and later a dazed man emerged from the side door - so the story goes!

The moral of the story (apart from use your handbrake properly) is always memorise the emergency number for foreign countries: no-one on the scene immediately knew it was 112. 999 apparently works but only after a delay. There is a move to standardise this number to 112 throughout Europe (including the UK) - believe it or not there has been a sort of quango discussing this for over 10 years!

and here is a news item from the internet dated 6 September 2010: the bale of hay is reported to have weighed 94 stone (about 600 kilo). A car would weigh two to four times as much.

ELO founder killed by bale of hay

A founding member of rock group Electric Light Orchestra was killed when a giant bale of hay tumbled down a hill and crashed onto his van.

Cellist Mike Edwards died after the 94 stone bale careered down the side of a steep Devonshire field before it smashed through a hedge and onto the road.

The 62-year-old died instantly in the accident on Friday afternoon.

Police are now investigating whether the bale may have fallen from a tractor working on farmland next to the A381 in Halwell, near Totnes. They believe the musician was killed after the loose bale gathered momentum as it rolled down the hill before landing on the front cab of his white van.

He is understood to have swerved into a similar vehicle as he was struck, at around 12.30pm. The second driver was unhurt in the collision.

A tribute to Edwards was posted on the Face The Music website, described as an "official information service for ELO and related artists".

It said the cellist, who played in ELO's first live concert and was with ELO until 1975, attracted fans with a unique solo turn - playing his instrument with a grapefruit.

The tribute said: "He played in ELO's first ever live concert (Croydon, 16 April 1972) and over the next three years toured with them as the band strove to develop and establish their distinctive sound. Mike quickly became a crowd favourite with his exploding cello and rather unique solo party piece that involved playing the cello with a grapefruit!

"His accomplished playing featured on the ELO 2, On The Third Day, The Night The Light Went On (In Long Beach) and Eldorado albums. He will be sadly missed by all."

Car and caravan safety on the Sidmouth Bulverton campsite (and in the festival car park) is one of the most important H&S issues of the whole Sidmouth festival, yet seems to have been accorded a low priority and with stewards being either poorly trained or insufficiently disciplined. It is simple to get things right, so if an easily preventable accident occurs the directors are going to have some explaining to do - and including to their insurance company.

I believe that in English Law it is not possible to contract out of negligence or duty of care, so any terms and conditions or small print saying that attendees accepted any risks on the campsite would not hold water.

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