Sidmouth Folk Week: how has it survived for so long?

As FolkWeek in 2010 drew to a close, casual attendees might have been forgiven for thinking that this was how it had always been - and that it would continue for years. The concert venues had been packed, the streets had (at least some of the time) been alive with dance displays and entertainers and almost all week, the weather had stayed dry. What could possibly have gone wrong?

It is a tribute to the organisers that anyone could have such a sanguine view. Only a few years ago, after the International Festival came to an abrupt end in August 2004, the consensus of expert opinion was that "if Steve Heap can't make it work, nobody can". There was even some suggestion that Steve Heap had simply tired of all the hassle of giving Sidmouth something that the town simply didn't appreciate.

Of course, nobody else has 'made it work'. The old festival was lost and nothing like it has ever been attempted anywhere in the UK. But 5 years on, Sidmouth still has a festival of sorts. One venue - the Ham marquee - is arguably better than it ever was.

In 2005 a small festival took place, organised by several independent groups each taking their own financial risks. Gordon Newton from Kent organised the Ham marquee and events and also, at a late stage, took over organising the LNE at Bulverton. These were both pivotal to the success of 2005 and (thereby) to the whole future of a folk week in Sidmouth. His contribution should not be forgotten.

The next few years saw several changes of management and key personalities - but the support of many seasoned Sidmouth attendees also helped ensure that every year the newly christened FolkWeek just managed to survive. This was despite that the event offered only a fraction of its pre-2005 content - and was therefore much less good value for money. Good weather also played a part - had the International Festival continued in 2005 and beyond, the wet-weather underwriting that had been sought would not have been needed until 2009.

Inevitably, many people who were primarily interested in the unique international aspect of the old festival have never returned to Sidmouth - and many dancers have also become disappointed with what has been offered especially as they supported FolkWeek in its interim years by tolerating venues that were both inconvenient and in some cases substandard. There was a brief high-point in 2007 when the Church House Lawn dance marquee was reinstated.

The interim years, 2005 to 2007, also saw many other changes. The ticketing structure changed annually as management struggled to balance costs, aspirations and income. Also, Sidmouth seemed finally to wake up to what it had lost - and to the fact that financial support for the newly created FolkWeek would be necessary if the event, in some form or another, was not to be lost forever.

Few people understood the finances of the old International Festival. Many local people viewed Steve Heap with a mixture of jealousy and contempt: he was seen as an outsider who invaded Sidmouth for a week and made a fat profit on the back of an annual EDDC grant of some 60,000 pa. Some town centre traders even resented any food being made available elsewhere - despite that they would have been wholly unable to cope with demand if they had been sole suppliers. The death and rebirth of the festival attracted academic interest. This was centred in part on analysing both the claims made for how much the International Festival had benefited the town and on the personality conflicts that ultimately helped to destroy it.

After the 'interim' year of 2005, the present unified management began to evolve. Following a few years of growth in both aspirations and costs, finance seemed to reach a crisis point: in 2009 Devon County Council were persuaded to give 10,000 and Sidmouth Town Council guaranteed funding of 5000 pa for several years - an event that caused some predictable anger.

Having survived 2009 (and including the weather in 2009) the organisers were maybe just lucky (once again) to have such a good year in 2010. The DCC grant had been halved to 5000. However, this was augmented by 5000 from the Sid Vale Association - an organisation usually more associated with footpaths and fossils. Large efforts were undertaken behind the scenes to get businesses in Sidmouth to support FolkWeek. This was aided by more people having now woken up to the fact that it really was a case of 'support it or lose it'. Somehow, Steve Heap seemed never to be able to convince Sidmouth of the value of what so many people simply took for granted.

Six years on, some things have reached an equilibrium: the Ham has been established as a superb concert venue with excellent reviews and much improved seating and facilities - 2010 was even better than in 2009. The seafront has largely been taken over by traders, much to the dislike of many festival attendees who would prefer to see a greater emphasis on amateur (as well as established) singers and musicians. The ticket structure has stabilised yet there are still concerns about the high cost of season tickets. The Bulverton venue continues to be controversial - it was nearly scrapped in 2008/9 and further changes in both layout and ticket structure seem inevitable. Much of the music played there is far too loud (both for dancers and residents of the town) and it is to be hoped some corrective action can be taken. The campsite and festival car park continue to be organisational headaches and the campsite is shunned by many attendees - a case of once experienced, never to be risked again. Fortunately for the festival, alternatives are available.

Both the Rugby Club and Cricket Club in Sidmouth make large profits from motorcampers and car parking in FolkWeek (if the ground is dry enough to allow vehicle movements) and with very little investment of time or money being necessary. A further increase in their support for the event, perhaps a 50:50 share of profits, would help ensure its long term survival. Previous donations have been paltry. The next few years are unlikely to see any increases in local government grants - despite that in other areas, councils continue their well established profligacy.

It must never be forgotten that despite many people giving hours and weeks of their time to raise a few hundred pounds for good causes it is government that wastes vastly more money than is ever collected by all the well intentioned citizens of any country. It is also governments and their stuffed shirt bureaucrats who require often absurd expenditure on 'Elf and Safety' - although there are now welcome signs (at least from central government in the UK) that some common sense might be allowed to be reinstated.

One example of waste of money is given below - from the Daily Telegraph of 19 August 2010. The 'Rotten Boroughs' column of Private Eye magazine provides many examples of corruption - by any other name.

Many pedestrian crossings cost taxpayers between 50,000 to 100,000 each. For 100,000 you can build a sizeable house - excluding the land cost. When in the hands of local councils and their 'preferred contractors' 100,000 seems to provide very little. It was not so long ago that EDDC spent 100,000 on a lavish new entrance to their offices. Routinely, these sums of money are spent without censure from long serving councillors - many of whom are part of the problem, so embedded have they become in the local hierarchy. Needless to say there is more to the story than is given in the brief report below - ask Google. The same councillors who nod through these projects expect congratulations when they find a few thousand pounds to support a folk festival or other community venture.

A COUNCIL plans to spend 3.2 million on a traffic scheme featuring a bus lane just over 100 yards long, rather than hand back government funding. Worcestershire county council officials insisted the lane, eight buses long at almost 32,000 a yard, would make public transport more reliable. But they admitted that if they failed to spend the money they would have to return it to the Treasury. Ben Phillips, a 45-year-old management consultant and resident of the county, said: 'If the council can't come up with anything better to spend the money on, it should go back.'

Commercial sponsorship of Sidmouth festival has been much improved since 2005 - the main sponsors in 2010 were listed in the working programme. The sizes of individual donations are not given so it is difficult to assess the degree of generosity. However, the festival organisers appear to be deeply grateful even for the reported 7000 raised from street collections.

sidmouth sponsors 2010.jpg (508028 bytes)

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