Observations from FolkWeek - 2014 and 2015.

Stowford Rise dance venue.

In 2014 little use was made of this venue. It ought to be 'sought after' and prestigious but somehow never manages to accomplish what is was designed to do, inside or outside Folkweek. Over the year, utilisation remains low, especially in the evenings

In 2015 an attempt was made to utilise it every evening, except the final Friday. This had mixed results. The IVFDF event attracted more people than any other folk event held at the venue. The previous record was 110, IVFDF attracted about 120. Based on this experience, the venue capacity for dancing is maybe 150. Most of the attendees at the IVFDF were students or recently ex students - some by several decades….….

In contrast the local Moor Music band with caller Sarah Bazeley attracted only about 26 people and Sarah had a hard job keeping up any sort of atmosphere for 3 hours. Despite the local popularity of this band and caller, hardly any local dancers turned up. At Gittisham’s regular winter dances with the Dartmoor Pixies, we aim for 60 to 70 people at 7.50 and the evening includes a ‘bring and share’ meal, which for some of us is worth the admission fee alone.

In discussing ‘what went wrong’ the key factors seem to be that anyone in Devon can dance to the Pixies at any one of numerous venues for around 6 to 8. Yet Stowford Rise is a ‘prestige’ venue with an excellent floor. Some people said that the 12 ticket price was too high when the cost and especially the inconvenience of the bus journeys from town were included. This didn't seem to put off the students who attended IVFDF - but they would have had reduced price young persons tickets. Maybe we need reduced price old persons tickets for Devon locals?!

I can’t think of a credible single reason why the attendance was so poor - for local folk dancers (a very small fraction of whom attend any part of the festival) one factor was that they may simply have preferred to use their allocated money for the week dancing to bands that they couldn't see regularly. But what about the majority of dancers at FolkWeek? Why shun what in Devon is thought of as a very danceable band and with a popular caller?

One local dancer told me she didn't attend partly because the programme said that cream teas might be available in the interval - and she couldn’t face scones and cream at 9pm! She told me she spent a delightful folk evening in Carinas in central Sidmouth instead.

A serious note is that Stowford Rise only seems successful as a festival dance venue when it offers something that cannot be obtained either elsewhere in Devon or elsewhere at the festival. The stewards expected the Tom Hinds American evening to be 'house full'. In the event it attracted only about 85 - sufficient not to be a flop but so many dancers felt they could do all they wanted to do with Tom Hinds in his excellent and advanced morning workshops, so why waste an evening doing simpler dances at an expensive and (for many) an inconvenient venue.

Better to spend the evening doing something that you couldn’t get during the daytime. The Playford Ball, culmination of a weeks worth of dance workshops in Sidmouth, was reasonably well attended including by some local dancers who didn’t attend any of the preceding workshops. Again it was something they couldn’t get anywhere else at the festival and not locally during the year either.

Perhaps unfairly, a couple of people said that Vertical Expression should have been the band of choice for the Stowford venue, rather than Wild Ride. Yet at the first Friday evening with Vertical Expression, only about 40 people turned up for the dance. But the first Friday is always low on numbers as some people have yet to arrive.

So for 2016, whilst a repeat IVFDF and a repeat Playford Ball would be almost guaranteed to be a success, other events might need a similarly ‘special’ and ‘exclusive’ aspect to attract sufficient numbers to warrant the cost of hiring the venue. The Irish ceili attracted about 7 or 8 sets (56 to 64 dancers) so was a success if judged by the low turnout for Irish ceili eveings at Chippenham (for example). Unfortunately I missed this and other events on my 'to do' list owing to illness.

Whilst the uncertain festival bus service is sometimes blamed for Stowford's woes, this seems an unlikely factor, despite that some people moan that the 12 ticket price is increased to 16 because of bus journeys. Only a very few social dancers use the official campsite, so running the festival bus from there direct to the venue, as has been suggested, probably would not help.

Many social dancers park their cars at hotels and guest houses and do not wish to risk losing their parking space by using their car to attend Stowford events. Their cars stay parked all week! Whilst a reliable and dedicated town centre to Stowford bus might help, it would be an extra large cost allocated solely to one social dance venue, and a bigger factor is that many people seem just not to like the ‘impersonal’ ‘cold’, clinical’ atmosphere of the Stowford building. This is despite good acoustics and excellent ventilation. It is never decked out in ‘party’ colours as is Blackmore Gardens and Bulverton - but in a survey of dancers these aspects were said to be unimportant in any venue - a conclusion I don’t entirely agree with.

So the conclusion seems to be that dancers (and especially young dancers) will flock to Stowford for a 'special' event such as IVFDF. Older dancers need a particular reason to go to it, and if this is not on offer the venue may be shunned.

Folk Week received an additional 5000 from Sidmouth Town Council for social dance in 2015 - and given that most of the events would pay for themselves, what was this money used for? Maybe to support Stowford Rise as a venue. This is a ‘white elephant’ of a development that continues to be run on a shoestring after having been constructed to the highest standards and including money from Sidmouth’s Keith Owen fund. This fund has a problem - how to spend money wisely in a town that is overflowing with surplus wealth. Hence we have acres of ecologically useless daffodils, the highest quality kitchen equipment at Stowford Rise and that is rarely if ever used for more than making coffee. And so life in sleepy Sidmouth continues.

At the FolkWeek evenings at Stowford Rise we were treated to several local councillors including Stuart ‘lunatic’ Hughes making teas and coffees - so short is the venue of staff or volunteers. What should probably have been done - and which was once mooted - was a large integrated redevelopment of the Drill Hall area near the Ham and taking in all or most of the Ham car park area. This could have been a town centre dance hall, concert venue, theatre, etc. But it didn’t suit the various competing and warring factions in Sidmouth, so an elephant was built on a green field site. In 30 years this might even seem a wise choice - if severe global warming produces a large rise in sea level and more intense storms, the Esplanade may become a no-go area for many days in a year. Whether the seafront businesses survive is another question - many may already be uninsurable, as are houses and businesses built on land that may soon to collapse into the sea.

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