Newcomers' Guide to Sidmouth FolkWeek (Sidmouth Folk Festival) - FAQs & answers.
Updated August 2021.
If you have a week to read the full history of how the Sidmouth International Festival died and was reborn as FolkWeek - start here. Otherwise you'll find most of what you need on this page. Please email to notify any errors or if you have a question that you think should be answered here.
This is one of the most widely read of my webpages covering Sidmouth's FolkWeek.
Much of the information given here you will find nowhere else - and especially not on the official website.
Update August 2021 - Coronavirus - Covid-19
FolkWeek 2020 was cancelled. In 2021 a much scaled-down festival took place, mostly out of doors. It worked very well.
Most other festivals were cancelled in 2021. Many local folk dance clubs are set to reopen only in September 2021, or later.
Some discussion of the implications for folk dance clubs and festivals is here and has particular relevance for FolkWeek in 2022 and beyond - the Ham marquee could be an appalling venue for spreading airborne diseases because of the close proximity of so many people, touching plastic chairs to get to your seat and obviously the tightly closed environment. The Ham Marquee in 2021 was a totally 'open' design and used for eating, sitting and a few stage acts. Photos here. Arguably, the design of the concert marquee needs changing for 2022 and onwards to allow FAR MORE ventilation, especially cross ventilation to achieve a high air exchange rate.
Folk dance is also a particular risk - lots of strangers hold hands and they swap secretions and breath in a closed environment for hours at a time. One option would be to hold outdoor dances and concerts - as in the old days. Indeed this occurred in 2021 at the Anchor Gardens - it was the only dance venue in 2021 and one of the few places where 'normal life' was much in evidence.
Covid-19 could have been avoided had politicians listened to scientists who have been warning for years about the next animal - human virus transmission. As usual, money dominated policy and wildlife protection was ignored. The discussion of early stages of the pandemic is here.
My own involvement with the festival has centred upon dance. Over 10 years or more, and despite not being a 'natural born dancer' I became quite proficient. I took my first tentative steps at Sidmouth Festival in around 2000. I now dance several times a week. My dance diary for 2016 shows how much fun and exercise can be had for a few hundred pounds a year.
Highlights of my dance year in 2016 are here - see if my experiences encourage you to take up the hobby! If they do, please send the link to your friends. Of course, Sidmouth FolkWeek is about far more than dance - it encompasses the full range of folk song, folk dance and related activities.
Folk dance and indeed folk festivals are full of petty disputes and rivalries - some will be detailed here and here. But don't let dismal people prevent you from enjoying the festival! More dance links are here.
GENERAL - historical context and overview of Sidmouth FolkWeek.
TICKETS - explanation of Sidmouth's complex ticket structure.
CAMPING, FLOODS and ACCOMMODATION - far more details than you will find on the official website.
A MAJOR CHANGE for 2014 was aimed to be a new location for the official campsite - details here and on several other pages especially here, but as of February 2014, use of the Bulverton campsite was confirmed for 2014 and it has been used ever since.
FRINGE EVENTS - details of how you can experience some of the atmosphere in the pubs and along the Esplanade.
CEILIDH IN THE FORD - the traditional event that doesn't happen (because it would breach Health and Safety rules if it did)
CONCERTS - details of the excellent Ham venue - except that post-Covid it needs redesigning to allow far more ventilation..
DANCE and CEILIDHS - social dance declined markedly for a few years, Covid may hasten this decline.
CAR PARKING - useful information.
FOOD SHOPPING - all you need to know.
TRAVEL to Sidmouth - by rail, road, and bus - or fly into Exeter airport!
CARAVANS and motorhomes - details of the best route to use (still assumes use of the Bulverton campsite).
SAT NAV postcodes - for people who rely on this technology.
There has been a folk festival in Sidmouth for well over 50 years. It started primarily as a small dance event and this emphasis continued through the early 1970's, after which concerts started to play a more prominent role. Most UK folk events are very small and with no significant participatory dance content. This is probably for two reasons: there is in the UK virtually no interest in 'national dance' (in contrast to much of the rest of Europe) and because dance events are often more expensive to set up and run per unit attendee than are concerts. There are only a handful of UK folk festivals having good quality participatory dance.
Sidmouth FolkWeek is the name given to the Sidmouth International Folk Festival from 2005 onwards. The change occurred because Steve Heap (a major UK folk festival organiser), pulled out of Sidmouth after 2004 - the 50th anniversary event. The result was that one of Europe's largest international folk festivals which included an Arena concert stage with outdoor space for 5000 people shrunk to being a tiny small-town affair in 2005. However, since then (and confounding most expectations) it has both grown steadily in size and survived - so far. A principal factor in its survival has been the degree to which local traders and sports clubs now support the organisers financially - something they failed to do to an appropriate extent pre-2005.
The old (pre-2005) festival was simply magical in its scope and size as a showcase of international talent. The daytime social dances and late night ceilidhs were revered throughout the folk world and people travelled from across the world on an annual pilgrimage. Quite simply, the event put Sidmouth on the map - and not only for folkies. The reasons why the management pulled out have been the subject of an academic study. It is tragic to contemplate that this probably need not have happened. A synopsis of the study is here.
Since 2005, FolkWeek has been a more local and UK affair with little international content. The event has been kept going (like many other folk festivals in the UK) by the dedication of just a handful of people aided by hundreds of 'volunteer stewards' who help make the event work in return for a 'free' season ticket. The major evening concerts have survived and thrived - and the Ham venue is larger than it ever was. It now accommodates almost 1200 people but there are serious concerns about overheating and possible heat stroke in this venue during 'heat-wave' summers. Post Covid it may also be a virus risk if not substantially redesigned.
Participatory dancing suffered a steep decline with small venues and crowded spaces being a particular problem, with 2010 being a notably poor year. in 2012 and 2013 things improved with the new Stowford Rise venue being used for social dance. More extensive use occurred in 2015 - a good point for social dancers, but the Town Council (ratepayers) will be footing the bill! Social dance at the in-town venues was very good in 2015 and in subsequent years. However, for 2019 (and maybe onwards) Stowford Rise has been discontinued and replaced by the music room at Sidholme Hotel which is situated along Temple St, closer to central Sidmouth. The music room is ornate and has character, but is hardly a substitute for Stowford Rise. Cost may have been a consideration, in addition to the access problems experienced in the last few years with inadequate bus services. It may not be available from 2022 onwards because of a change in ownership.
Sidmouth has always been one of the UK's 'in-town' festivals - in contrast to those held on farmland or show grounds and surrounded by security fences: examples would be Glastonbury, Shrewsbury, Womad, and Towersey - although at Towersey you can buy admission to the show ground and there is free car parking to encourage day trippers. Towersey was cancelled late in the day in 2021 but it is hoped to hold a large festival at the new site in 2022 - unfortunately the music will probably be far too loud in both concerts and dance venues.
Although Sidmouth festival as a whole is now much smaller and lacks the international content of the pre-2005 era, the fringe events and indeed some of the scheduled events, have continued largely untouched by time. Therefore, for many attendees, the festival seems hardly to have changed. Some further recent history is here.
Longer term, there are concerns about the increasingly commercial nature of the festival with John Radford's company displacing unpaid 'volunteers' with paid staff. Longer term also the current festival director John Braithwaite has already done a 'ten year stretch' and this cannot continue forever.
The ticket structure of Sidmouth FolkWeek is more complicated than that at many other festivals. It changed markedly in 2011 but remained little changed into 2012 to 2014. See here for a concise explanation of 2011/2 ticket structure. In 2012 the festival added a very well written pdf to their own website explaining the ticket structure - improvements continued into 2013 and in 2014 'family ticketing' was introduced, subsidised by a further grant from Sidmouth Town Council. Further changes were introduced in 2015 including two tiers of 'early-bird' prices but with no clue as to the prices in the next tier - so you didn't know how much you'd be saving by buying early. 2016 was different again with a greater emphasis on cheap all-in one tickets to encourage youngsters to come and use the under-utilised Bulverton venue during daytime. These were the new BiO (Bulverton in One) tickets - and included free camping. This made the festival far more attractive to this group of people.
In past years the ticket structure had often changed as a consequence of the new festival management trying to evolve a system that was both sufficiently popular and that produced the income necessary for the new style festival (FolkWeek) to survive.
There were season tickets that did not include all events. In particular they excluded the major evening concerts in the Ham marquee - which is the principal concert venue. You could buy a Ham evening season ticket - but only if you bought an ordinary season ticket first - or joined the Supporters Club (see below). Costs for most tickets depended on how old you are (or on how old you claimed to be).
As a general rule you could not camp on the official campsite unless you had a season ticket or event tickets for the day(s) in question - but you were allowed to do so if you joined the Festival Supporters Club prior to the week of the festival - this 'concession' was an anachronism and in 2011 and subsequently was replaced by an appropriately named "Campsite Passport". This became the most cost effective route for people wanting to camp on the official campsite but not buy any (or many) season or other event tickets.
It is often claimed that Sidmouth is expensive - but it lasts a full week so is inevitably more expensive than many 'long weekend' festivals.
You can buy event tickets for single events irrespective of whether you have a season ticket (which in itself covers most events anyway) but most of the smaller events cannot be booked in advance - you just turn up on the door and admission is granted until the venue becomes full. Season ticket holders have priority at many venues so people without a season ticket may not get in - even if they are first in the queue of non-season-ticket-holders. These general arrangements have continued.
In 2010, the cost of a FULL season ticket (season + Ham concert season) was around £200 for the week. It was more like £350 in 2019. Many people staying in hotels say that the total cost for FolkWeek may be £700 to £1000 as a single person. For 2011, the ticket prices were given here. These were little changed into 2012/2013. Many festivals have tried to keep costs down in an effort to limit the fall in numbers of people attending - as a result artists and bands are being persuaded to work for (effectively) less and less money (or 'peanuts' as a couple of bands have told me!).
My own view up to 2013 was that the cost of the basic season tickets should be reduced by stripping out the cost of the expensive and under-utilised Bulverton marquee: this is discussed here. In the event, in 2011/12 the organisers adopted quite the opposite approach - offering a new ALL-IN-ONE ticket valid for entry to ALL events - including Bulverton and Ham evening concerts.
Up to date information on tickets is available on the official website - and don't assume it will be the same as in previous years.
The festival box office is usually located near to the Ham and Sidmouth's swimming pool (near the eastern end of the Esplanade).
The all-year Tourist Information Centre number is 01395 516441 (or 578627). The TIC is located within the swimming pool building, postcode EX10 8XR. You may be able to park nearby for a short time at the Ham car park (pay and display).
CAMPING FLOODS and ACCOMMODATION:
There are a wide range of options for camping and caravanning because Sidmouth is within a major tourist region, irrespective of its folk festival. Details are given here and here and here - you are advised to take time to study all the options!
Hotels are B&Bs are discussed here (but is out of date). Again, don't leave it to the last minute. Many people book a year in advance.
In 2012 there was awfully wet weather in June and July - which made people understandably nervous about possible conditions on the main Bulverton campsite. Many sporting and music events were cancelled in 2012 because of safety concerns over car parking on very muddy fields, etc. November 2012 saw one of the wettest periods in recent history and with major flooding in East Devon and elsewhere in the UK.
So far, safety concerns have not precluded use of either the main Bulverton campsite or the FolkWeek main car park, both of which are sloping and have significant potential safety issues: take time to read the links given above if you wish to know more. Pictures and video links of the flooding in Sidmouth on 7 July 2012 are here.
You are advised not just to turn up in Sidmouth in FolkWeek expecting to find somewhere to stay. If you do find anywhere it will be likely £100 to £200 per night, all cheaper accommodation having been booked. The TIC maintains a list of B&Bs that operate only in FolkWeek but many of these are out of town so require you to use a car morning and evening - so add daily parking to your cost calculations. The Festival Box Office will be able to tell you if there is still camping space on the official campsite. Caravan and motorhome spaces may all have been pre-booked.
For 2015 it was proposed that FolkWeek would relocate to a new campsite up Salcombe Hill - discussions amongst attendees identified key areas of concern (listed below). The idea was dropped, maybe permanently, but there were rumours of other 'out of town' sites being considered. As of 2021 these have come to nothing.
1. the proposed new campsite is smaller in area than the Bulverton site and there may be more 'close packing' of outfits to make most use of the available space especially as it is proposed to encourage more caravans. If you wish to have space around your outfit then it might be prudent to consider using the large Salcombe Regis site a short distance away.
2. the most direct route to the proposed new site is up a very steep and potentially dangerous hill - the trek up (or down) would be far more dangerous than the walk to the Bulverton site, and the vertical climb is 2.3 times as large - but will feel far worse!
3. key factors in determining the success of the new site will include - the type, cost and frequency of dedicated transport, whether cars will be allowed freely on and off the camp site all week (for example, to enable attendees to reach the Stowford Rise dance venue and to allow locals to attend the new dance venue).
these factors and 'who wins and who loses' are further discussed here. In February 2014 it was confirmed that the Bulverton campsite would again be used, in 2014, for the 60th anniversary year, and also subsequently.
FRINGE EVENTS: either part of the 'official' festival or (as a separate event) a few miles away!
Sidmouth FolkWeek has a large number of 'fringe' events for singers, musicians, buskers and people watchers.
These events take place both in public areas of the town and in pubs and all have free admission (although collections for the festival are made). There are free open air ceilidhs in the gardens of the Anchor pub - but the floor is sloping and rough tarmac - and quite a few people sprain their ankles. The venue can be wet or an overheated sun trap. However, it is a popular dance venue for locals and day trippers simply because it is free. The Middle Bar Singers also sing in the Anchor - a long tradition at Sidmouth. They also go wading into the sea - still singing.
Therefore, it is perfectly possible to experience some of the Sidmouth festival (FolkWeek) atmosphere and have a seaside holiday without buying any official festival tickets. However, you'd be missing out on a lot if you adopted this approach. In 2010, these were some of the 'fringe' events that took place in pubs:
The Radway - The English Tune for the whole festival , very little singing (If any)
The Volunteer - Leaning VERY Hard on 'The Tradition' - Lots of song and a fair few Instruments
The Bedford - Mixed session in the Main Bar , with a tendency to Morris Tunes and Melodeons - Old Timey in the Other bar - All sorts of 'Good Old Boys' and various smaller things as well as Official events.
The Swan - Mixed Sessions , mostly in the garden if the weather is permitting.
The Newt - IF you can find it - Mixed session all week (On the programme as 'Gerry Milne and friends' I think . Dancers from York Steps able to take refuge there if it rains.
The Faulkner - Singaround format , some tunes , all sorts of song .
The Tudor Rose - Another mixed session.
The Ship - Seems to have been taken over by a lot of VERY competent younger musicians of late.
And the Yacht Club has a a varied selection of music too.
There is also a completely separate Sidmouth Folk Fringe Festival on a campsite just outside of Sidmouth - and used by many people who want a quieter campsite than Bulverton whilst still attending some of the official Sidmouth events. As of 2010, the two organisations were 'talking to each other' about their mutual interests. Some 2011 photos of the Thorn Park 'fringe' venue are here. Details of the shuttle bus service are here. The Fringe event was still being held as of 2021.
CEILIDH IN THE FORD: the event that doesn't happen
This is a unique part of the last day of the Sidmouth festival - and has been for many years. Often described as the event that doesn't happen it is not organised by anyone - probably because if it was they would be legally liable for any consequences. However, just as leaping into the sea is not against the law neither is paddling in a river, provided no-one forces you to do anything silly. Curiously, musicians tend to turn up at the same time as the dancers. The man who can be seen in at least one of the videos (not) helping to organise this event by (not) blowing a whistle has the further distinction of cycling to Sidmouth - from Chippenham. At the last count he was an amazing 82 years young. He told me that 2021 would be his last year - and that he now uses an electrically assisted bicycle for his longer journeys.
Amidst the numerous videos showing an event that doesn't happen are:
There are dozens of other videos available showing other aspects of the festival both up to 2004 (the years of the International festival) and for 2005 onwards (FolkWeek).
Music and concert events at Sidmouth FolkWeek are of an excellent quality - equal to anything else in the UK. The Festival Choir also has an excellent reputation and is led by Sandra Kerr. The official website usually has a lot of discussion of the concerts and links to artistes websites. I don't go to concerts myself but I have heard nothing but praise for their quality in recent years - but in hot weather there are problems of potentially dangerous overheating in what is now one of the largest marquees of its type used in the UK. More discussion will be published on this topic later. Evening concerts cost around £20-£25 per person. You can find many internet reviews, videos and photos of recent concerts at Sidmouth.
DANCE and CEILIDHS:
I wish I could say these were world class but the sad fact is that they have declined sharply ever since the heydays of the old international festival. There is more discussion here and for the Bulverton events in 2009 here. Things didn't improve in 2010. and this all led to a letter to English Dance and Song magazine in late 2010 - and which the editor declined to publish. One problem is excessive sound levels at ceilidhs in both Blackmore Gardens and at the Bulverton LNE venue. Some discussion is here. There were similar problems at Towersey Festival until an edict was issued to 'turn it down' - and it worked (for a while). Then things got markedly worse again (see my index page)!
Examples of some of the most danceable types of music you can experience at both Sidmouth and other festivals (and some of the worst types for dance - in my opinion!) are here. In 2013 there were some superb dance bands and one or two dreadful ones and the organisers have made efforts to improve the quality of the dance floors, although overall management of Blackmore Gardens marquee continued to be poor, and with possible Health and Safety implications. It improved a bit in 2015. Social dance underwent a revival in 2015 and promised to be as good in 2016. 2017 was also very good, as was 2018 and 2019. No indoor dance took place in 2020 or 2021 because of the Covid pandemic.
CAR PARKING: - for SAT NAV directions see bottom of this page.
Parking is a problem in Sidmouth at the best of times and it can be a nightmare in FolkWeek. Some local people stock up on medicines, DVDs and library books for the week and then avoid the town centre completely.
You are advised to avoid the town centre High Street. On the off-chance you find a free parking space it will be for 30 minutes only. More details here. Parking meters were to be introduced in 2011 but the scheme was put on hold after business opposition.
There is a dedicated Folk Week car park but whilst it is reasonably priced (£5 per day) it is almost a 2 mile walk from town - but you could walk down a steep grassy hill to the Bulverton campsite and get the festival bus from there. Given the cost of all this you might be better off as a family paying for more convenient town centre parking at the pay and display Manor Road long stay car park.
Do not attempt to drive a caravan or large motorhome to the Bulverton festival car park. The roads and sharp turnings are impossible for such vehicles. The festival car park is also unsuitable for disabled people or those with any 'mobility issues' especially in bad weather.
In good weather there are car parks on both the rugby and cricket fields in the centre of Sidmouth - expect to pay about £10 for the day - if there is space details here.
Sidmouth has a range of specialist shops and an in-town Co-op on the main High Street. There is also a small TESCO nearby. However, if you require good quality shopping without the hassle of town centre congestion my advice would be to head two miles out of town to Waitrose - it is a large, modern and well stocked supermarket with excellent customer service and free parking (for 2 hours but there is no enforcement of overstay charges that I am aware of). For Waitrose opening hours (automated service) telephone 01395 519416.
There is also a LIDL foodstore - next to Sidmouth's petrol station. Parking at LIDL is free for up to 2 hours only. Map showing both stores here.
Aerial photo showing Waitrose.
TRAVEL to Sidmouth:
Sidmouth is a long way from anywhere else in the UK - unless you happen to live nearby!
The nearest large city is Exeter (15 miles away). Rail and bus travel arrangements are given here. The nearest airport is Exeter but public transport to and from the airport is poor and does not come directly to Sidmouth. A taxi from the airport will cost you about £30. There is only one petrol station in Sidmouth.
Road travel includes via the M5 (to Exeter Services, junction 30) or along the A30/A303 from London and the South East. This route is congested at peak times and dangerous because it consists of many miles of single carriageway roads. Allow extra time - delays around Stonehenge can add an hour or more.
For advice about towing a caravan around the Sidmouth area - see below.
For the preferred route to the Bulverton campsite - see this link.
The traveline website provides excellent help with using UK public transport.
CARAVANS and motorhomes : preferred route to the Bulverton campsite off the A3052.
To the west of Sidmouth (towards Exeter
along the A3052 ) is the B3176 at the BOWD - a big pub/restaurant.
This junction is the FIRST road to Sidmouth if travelling east from Exeter along the A3052. It is also the one signed with large FolkWeek signs. Aerial photos on this link The Bowd junction has a high accident rate: observe the road markings as shown. This can be tricky at night if you don't know the road.
The B3176 is a winding country road but it takes you directly to the festival campsite which will be on your left.
Don't overshoot the campsite entrance: it is some distance before you can turn around if towing.
SAT NAV postcodes:
Sidmouth FolkWeek has a range of venues. Not all have convenient postcodes. If your Sat Nav will accept co-ordinates use those given below for an exact location.
For the Tourist Information Centre, Ham concert venue, Box Office and Swimming Pool use EX10 8XR. (more exactly N50:40:46 W3:14:09)
For the Bulverton festival car park use EX10 8HL which is the old EDDC offices at the Knowle, Sidmouth. From here follow signs along Broadway (the route will probably be lined with no waiting cones). Broadway is off the B3176. Turn off Broadway at N50:41:09 W3:15:07. The road from here will be one-way (although your Sat Nav will think differently). This car park is NOT SUITABLE FOR CARAVANS OR LARGE MOTORHOMES.
For the Bulverton festival campsite use EX10 9DW but be aware that travelling from the main A3052 along the B3176 Bulverton Road you will reach the campsite on your left a short distance BEFORE you reach this postcode. Co-ordinates N50:41:37 W3:15:14 are exact for the Bulverton campsite entrance.
For the Salcombe Hill campsite (if you want to see what was proposed for use in 2014 and onwards) use co-ordinates N50:41:26 W3:12:50 (or you can use postcode EX10 0JL but this is centred some distance towards Salcombe Regis village).
For Waitrose : EX10 9GA. (more exactly N50:41:59 W3:14:43)
Stowford Rise Community Centre EX10 9YL. (more exactly N50:41:57 W3:14:44) This new building was a social dance venue from 2012 to 2018.
For LIDL and petrol : EX10 9UU (more exactly N50:41:37 W3:14:23)
For Rugby Club parking : EX10 8NJ (more exactly, N50:40:49 W3:14:28)
For Cricket Club parking : EX10 8NT (more exactly N50:40:44 W3:14:30)
Finally a warning note about Corehill Road. This road is in two parts and they don't join up! You would be advised not to enter Corehill Road into any satnav device unless you know which section of road it thinks you want.
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