Sidmouth Folk Week 2006 (4 to 11 August) - feedback, observations and discussions in no particular order of importance. Some comments about the Chippenham folk festival held in May 2006 are also included.
The Esplanade at Sidmouth: what happened to all the colour and the Morris dancers?
Folk week in 2005 was characterised by an impressive number of performers along the Esplanade - amongst them Morris teams from across the UK. Many local musicians also added to the general atmosphere, thus helping to support the 'rebirth' of the Sidmouth festival.
In 2006, it all seemed so quiet and colourless despite the teeming hordes of holidaymakers. Dukes (previously the Marlborough) attracted large crowds on a regular basis. Closing the road past this venue to all but essential traffic could be considered as a safety improvement. There were several instances of cars and vans 'inching' their way through the crowds - one misjudgement could have left many people injured.
The lack of colour was commented upon in a letter published in the Sidmouth Herald, and reproduced below:
add letter here.
Little needs to be said about these apart from the fact that they were received to near universal acclaim. 'Superb, stunning, excellent, uplifting' were just some of the comments - and the 1000 seat venue was well liked also. There were some Health and Safety issues but the artistic content and delivery was by all accounts well up to the standards of the International Festival years. Both The Warsaw Village Band and Lunasa set a high standard for the week - I heard many compliments. This part of Sidmouth Folk Week does seem to be a great success - perhaps because it follows so closely the model used by Steve Heap?! There was some early confusion over ticket validity - see below.
Food and catering
Sidmouth Folk Week 2006 saw the welcome addition of 'Chez Nous' catering on the Ham. Because of the excellent weather during almost the entire week, the seafront at Sidmouth was packed with holidaymakers and food outlets in the town were always busy. An article in the local newspaper confirms the length of queues, and at least one town centre food outlet closed temporarily for restocking!
For many years, a particular concern of some town councillors and Sidmouth traders (and the two are closely related!) had been that the food outlets in the Knowle Arena took too much business away from the town. It has been argued on previous pages of this website that this is a spurious argument because the food outlets in Sidmouth are barely capable of coping with the demand during an especially busy holiday weekend let alone during a bustling folk week.
It is therefore to be hoped that if the new style festival continues to prosper (and even expand once again into the Arena?) more provision will be made at the Ham for further perhaps specialist food outlets that are so popular at other (competing) festivals. Is it not a rule of marketing to give the punters what they want? The catering at the Manor Pavilion during 2006 was apparently excellent. For comparison, some of the food stalls at the 2006 Shrewsbury folk festival are shown here. This new 'long weekend' event also had its share of teething problems but managed to attract around 3000 campers onto two new sites.
At the Bulverton venue outside Sidmouth, there was extensive provision of food, drinks and snacks and these seemed to be widely appreciated. Prices were reasonable and the only criticism was that the chips were not up to the standard of those provided by the White Horse Cafe in Old Fore St. These are widely acknowledged to be the best in Sidmouth! Also, Bulverton ran out of just about everything to eat on the last night.
However, discussions with the personnel running the Bulverton catering indicated that whilst the week had been a moderate success the venue needed to expand further in terms of attracting more people to more events if it was to be worthwhile in the longer term to provide such an amount of catering equipment.
The Saga of Sidholme hotel.
In early publicity for Sidmouth Folk Week 2006 it was envisaged that the music room at Sidholme Hotel would be used as a major venue for the social dancing. The hotel is within easy walking distance of the town centre.
Use of Sidholme was eagerly anticipated because the small venue at the Sidmouth (Manstone) Youth Centre is inadequate and the halls at St Frances and Sidford, whilst adequate, also have no particular festival atmosphere. Travel between them and to and from the town proved tiresome even in good weather.
However, in later pre-festival publicity, the three halls to be used for the social dancing were once again given as those used during 2005.
Apparently what happened was that the local (Sidmouth) management of Sidholme Hotel were perfectly happy to accommodate Folk Festival attendees and to have the music room utilised for some social dances. However, and despite the fact that several well known folkies had also booked accommodation at Sidholme for folk week, (and after cancelling their reservations at other hotels in the town) all of the Sidholme bookings were cancelled during May. In August, during folk week, the regional manager of the hotel chain met with several representatives of FolkWeek.
The situation has been left apparently that further discussions might be possible in 2007 in respect both of accommodation for folkies and use of the music room. Whilst the people who have been most affected (and who lost a lot of personal money) have maintained a remarkable degree of good humour about the whole episode, there was some resentment at the behaviour of the hotel chain.
One example of inconvenience was relayed to me. A couple had cancelled their reservation of many years' standing in a Sidmouth hotel in order to take accommodation at Sidholme, so as to be close to the new major dance venue. They had to pay cancellation fees at their original hotel. When Sidholme cancelled the entire 'folkie' booking they were left with no option but to take whatever accommodation was on offer at a late stage. They ended up paying £90 per night for what was described as a broom cupboard accessible via steep steps.
The last two years (2005/2006) have seen a determined effort to keep Social Dance alive as a part of the Sidmouth week, but the quality of the venues and the mix of dances (and dancers) cannot compare with those of the Steve Heap years - I keep citing those called by Cis Hinkle and Geoff Cubitt in the town centre marquees - and so do other people who attended them.
During 2006 an element of boredom crept in, especially amongst the rather pedestrian English workshops. And of course, so many highly accomplished dancers who used to come from overseas just to dance at Sidmouth (and who contributed to such high standards being attained by everyone else) now no longer come at all.
Use of the Sidholme hotel in 2007 and beyond (even if it proves possible) is by no means a guarantee of continued success for the social dancing and so its loss may not be the blow that some might imagine. Getting the dancing back where it really belongs - in the heart of the town and on full public display - would arguably be the best (albeit by far the most expensive) long term solution.
An explanation of the Sidholme saga was provided to me in 2010. It is reproduced below in a shortened and edited form:
Sound levels at ceilidhs (and not only at Sidmouth)
The issue of sound levels in ceilidhs is becoming a particular concern at several folk festivals, including Sidmouth. During the 2006 week I discussed sound levels with probably 40 people none of whom actually wanted to dance and be deafened at the same time. It would appear that bands such as a Tickled Pink, Florida, and Jabadaw regard it as a part of their cultural identity to have sound levels that are verging on deafening.
In fairness, these bands often do not have their own sound engineers and have to rely on whoever the venue supplies. Nevertheless, they have always seemed to me to be amongst the loudest of ceilidh bands whereas the Dartmoor Pixies and the Bismarcks would never warrant the use of ear plugs. All parties need perhaps to recognise that many (most?) ceilidh dancers would be quite content with a lower sound level.
For some of the less well known bands, there is the usual suspicion that amplification may be being used to mask a lack of artistic ability.
For the people who sat out some or all of ceilidh dances, conversation seemed to me to be virtually impossible. Other contributors to the 'mudcat' discussions have said it was not a problem - but during the dances or in the intervals?! I did not attend any of the early evening extra thrash around events that were aimed specifically at younger people but reports received indicate that even some of the youngsters thought that the sound level was excessive. Two young (late teens?) and accomplished folk dancers from the United States told me that they had tried one of the early evening (Bulverton) events and were shocked that such 'unco-ordinated mayhem' could have become a part of what had been one of the most prestigious folk festivals in Europe. In fairness, the early evening events of the Steve Heap years were probably similar! These two girls also commented on the excessive amplification. They also seemed bored with the low standard of the social dances - maybe they were used to Cis Hinkle and Lisa Greenleaf as callers in the USA!
A father with several teenagers in tow told me that he had "pulled his children out of one of the early evening events" simply because he did not want them to be subjected to what he regarded as absurd level of noise. I asked the teenagers what they thought of that, expecting the usual comments about parents not understanding how to have fun. I was surprised that unanimously they agreed with their parents' decision and said that the whole event (Peatbog Faeries) had been ridiculous. There followed some discussion of statistics that showed (apparently) that the average age for onset of clinical deafness has reduced markedly in the last 20 years and this may be owing to exposure to excessive noise at a young age.
Another parent said that she was appalled that young children were nowadays being taken into such noisy environments presumably to save on babysitter costs! These are comments from only a few people. They do however mirror comments from local middle-aged 'folkies' who no longer attend some of the ceilidhs held in Exeter (and organised by Great Western Morris) simply because they are too loud. Other accomplished dancers avoid these events because of the increasing 'rough and tumble' and risk of injury - a problem noted below in respect of Chippenham also.
The fact that many people now find the amplification to be too high could be deduced simply from the fact that so many earplugs can be seen in use. I was told that 'Mr Red' (a man who is a familiar sight at many festivals and who dresses exclusively in red even down to his spectacles and shoes) has a pair of matching red earplugs - although at Sidmouth both he and a partner transmuted into 'Mr Yellow and Ms Yellow' - and maybe with yellow earplugs too? He is on record also as being one of the (many) people to have stated that some sound levels within the concert marquee at Shrewsbury festival in 2006 were ridiculously high - so it is concert goers as well as ceilidh dancers who have to suffer!
A sound engineer who attended Sidmouth 2006 has kindly provided some comments. These are reproduced below - complete with jargon that I don't understand!
There would appear to be a health and safety issue here that is not being addressed. Lower sound levels at ceilidhs would much enhance the festival experience for serious dancers except perhaps for those whose hearing is already seriously impaired. There might also be fewer of the 'traditional' complaints from the residents of the Woolbrook area of Sidmouth.
In passing, it may be noted that there were similar issues raised at the Chippenham Festival held late in May 2006. Part of an e-mail sent to the festival organisers is reproduced below. Given that very few people, and especially not the occupants of nearby houses, actually want excessive amplification it would seem to be the responsibility of festival organisers to insist that the 'sound engineers' employed by various bands under contract (or supplied by the venue organisers) should be told to turn it down in future years.
It is ridiculous to suggest that this would in some way limit the enjoyment either of the music or of the dance, except perhaps for a small minority of attendees who would be more at home in a rock and roll or garage music venue. In 2006 the Sidmouth Folk Week organisers gave a particular emphasis to 'attracting young people' - all well and good if they come for the high quality of Folk Arts that traditionally have been a part of the Sidmouth week. However, if the artistic integrity of the week is to be compromised and diminished by pandering to a 'dumbed down' set of values just to increase 'footfall' (in the jargon), then neither the middle-aged folkies who provide the bulk of festival finances nor many residents of Sidmouth are likely to voice their approval.
Nevertheless, the organisers of Chippenham festival are aware that noise can upset residents. The Festival Newsletter dated 29 May 2006 included the following:
When leaving venues and events late at night, please go home quietly and respect the residents already asleep. Thank you.
Social dance venues (and not only at Sidmouth)
The social dancing at Sidmouth in 2005 and 2006 was held primarily in Sidford Social Hall and St Frances Church Hall. These venues have been discussed on previous pages and are tolerated rather than liked by many attendees. Some people actually prefer them to the old in-town marquees - on the basis that the sedate dancing can be kept 'well away' from the bustle of the town centre!
Sidmouth is not the only folk festival to suffer from 'venue degradation' - at Lichfield, I am told there used to be a large all purpose civic building that was used for concerts and dancing. Now, with Lottery and other money, this has been replaced with a plush new fixed-seat concert venue - so dances now have to be held in various school halls. Maybe folk dance (or any type of dance?) does not feature highly in Lottery priorities for Arts funding?
During the later stages of the social dancing in 2006 a petition was organised (and signed by probably over 150 people) asking the Sidmouth Folk Week committee to consider a larger venue in 2007. Ray Goodswen was said to 'know about' the petition but could not be seen as having organised it - indeed, it seemed to be a spontaneous exercise. Other possible 'low-cost' venues have been discussed before - Sidmouth College (ruled out apparently because of obstructive staff and Fire Regs), Sidholme Hotel (see discussion above) and function rooms in other hotels. Several people praised the use of the Woodlands Hotel and said what a splendid building it was - I have to admit I have never been there: it really does take about five years to 'do' the Sidmouth festival!
Leaving aside the element of boredom that seemed to creep into some of the social dancing in 2006, the first year of bad weather will show the extent to which people are prepared to suffer inconvenient travel to these dispersed venues. In 2005, attendees would have suffered anything just to support the organisers, and in 2006 the weather was excellent. On a positive note, the folk bus services are set to be improved in 2007.
Also, (and a problem in several areas of the festival) stewarding may have to be better organised - in 2006 there were few stewards allocated for door duty and an appeal for more was made on several occasions. It does not seem to matter at these 'fixed' venues whether stewards are 'trained' - the numbers of people in the halls at any time does not exceed those routinely present for dances and functions outside of folk week and these do not need to be formally 'stewarded'.
One element of dancing seems now almost wholly lacking at Sidmouth - ceilidh instruction for newcomers. There used to be sessions of basic instruction (some held at the Knowle Council offices?)for beginners wanting to learn basic folk dance and to join in later in the week at the ceilidhs or social dances in town. Sadly, this seems to have vanished. You are either expected to attend a social dance knowing most of the basics or make a nuisance of yourself at a ceilidh by completely messing up a dance set. A few brave couples and individuals did take their first tentative steps in several venues - and found it rather intimidating and/or dangerous.
A few sessions held early on in the week maybe at Bulverton or at the Knowle, might be an idea for the future. Of the 'workshops' that did exist these assumed a substantial degree of knowledge even if some of the basics were taught (or retaught to people who had being doing it incorrectly for years!). The 'specialised' workshops for clog dancing or Irish set dancing (for example) started at a basic level but progressed so fast that most people would have needed some previous dance experience to keep up.
The callers at 2006 all seemed to be well liked. The Cajun, Breton and Cornish workshops were apparently well attended - over 70 for the Cajun - just a pity about some of the venues that have so little of the real in-town festival atmosphere!
This remains one of the few places frequented by 'non-paying punters' where there is little discernible difference between the old Sidmouth Festival and the newly styled Folk Week. As a dance venue it continues to be appalling (hard and sloping floor and usually either too hot or wet!) but in 2006 it was highly popular - if a little too warm. It is also where many hip and other injuries occur - so care is always needed.
The first of the lunchtime sessions saw the Pixies playing to a sizeable audience and with some spirited dancing. The last lunchtime session was equally well attended - despite that Spinach for Norman had one or two temporary replacement members. However, so long as Pam Hayes was still calling, who cared? Some of the evening sessions sounded more like 'an infernal din' than anything to do with folk music - but I suppose it is all a matter of taste.
Many people questioned the need for as many as eight 'goons' - a motley selection of 'bouncers' in bovver boots and black combat trousers walking around with walkie talkies - as if the Anchor was the likely centre for an uprising. There are H&S issues in the enclosed courtyard because it has only one easy exit. People were being denied access because numbers had reached a predetermined limit that seemed well short of what it had accommodated in previous years - even with a hog roast taking place in the entrance area and (so I recall) fuelled by propane! There have also been some comments elsewhere on the internet - and it seems a valid question to ask why the Anchor and the Bedford seem to be treated so differently. It is apparently that venues over a certain size (in terms of numbers or floor area?) trigger H&S assessments - and the Anchor has some security personnel outside of Folk Week.
Comments on the 'mudcat' website:
I wanted to ask the Middle Bar Singers what they thought of the 'bouncers' at the Anchor. Health & Safety my a**e. They seemed to be just looking for trouble. How come the Bedford can have people crammed in and spilling out the door with no issues? On Sat they were even stopping people going in the pub. That was it for us - didn't frequent the place at all. Totally against the spirit of the festival.
Re: the Anchor & it's security goons.
I agree with your sentiments. This was my first visit to Sidmouth for 10 years, most of my waking time was spent in the Middle Bar where I had a great time. I felt that the presence of security guards was not at all necessary, in fact they were a bloody nuisance.
I was particularly miffed at having my bag searched one lunchtime before they let me in the pub. Mind you it did contain my song-book.
Perhaps the landlord will move, he clearly has no idea what 'we' are about. I would have thought it would have paid him to research his customers....he would have saved a lot of money by not having the goons, he would also made a lot more money by selling more beer by not antagonising his customers so.
Health and Safety and Fire Stewards at the Ham
Having some interest in Health and Safety matters I was bemused to see one of the sound engineers at the Bulverton smoking in close proximity to the black hanging curtains behind the stage area. This was during the American dance workshop on Sunday morning. Even if the fabric is fire resistant it seemed a particularly blatant breach of the general 'no-smoking' rule.
Later in the week, in the Ham marquee, the seating was only about 70+ per cent occupied during the final hour of a concert. I stood by the wall of the marquee for a few minutes deciding if I was going to stay. An officious steward in a red 'FIRE MARSHALL' fluorescent jacket (never before seen at the Ham?) came and asked me sharply if I would like to find a seat. I said I was quite happy where I was - thank you all the same! He then entered into a well rehearsed explanation that fire regulations prevented anyone standing in what was a fire escape route. Here was a real Jobsworth - he would go far as a local government official!
With the venue only some 70 per cent full and nearing the end of the concert such an instruction was patently absurd. It showed a complete lack of common sense and indeed a lack of understanding of why fire regulations are framed in the way that they are. It is a matter of simple logic that with a given number of people in a venue, then the more of them that are sitting down, the longer it will take to evacuate. If some people are already standing near to the exits then provided their numbers are not excessive (which in itself could precipitate an instant stampede) then one or two people standing near the exits is a matter of a total and utter insignificance. The common sense approach in such circumstances would be either to say nothing or to suggest that I might like to sit down if I was staying for any length of time.
Over-zealous application of all manner of regulations is of course an inherent problem when they are written in a perhaps too prescriptive format and then applied by people who have little training and even less intelligence or common sense.
However, the whole episode made me think about what were the primary requirements in the Ham which, if only because of its capacity, is a sensitive venue for fire evacuation. One of the principal problems of evacuating a large venue with many loose chairs is that in any stampede or rush for the exits, especially in subdued light, if chairs are overturned and moved out of their discrete rows then an orderly situation could rapidly degenerate into a shambles of upturned chairs and upturned people. Therefore, it follows that it is a probably a principal reason for holding down chairs firmly to the floor or other base so that when reasonable sideways or fore and aft pressure is applied to them by people seeking to exit, the neat ordered rows do not readily transform into a mass of tangled steel.
In order to achieve this objective, it would appear that the organisers relied on tiny plastic self locking ties - these are usually used to hold small electrical cables together. It was clear that quite a number of these were missing. Others appeared never to have been installed correctly because they were just hanging off the chairs. Upon closer examination it was apparent that instead of these small ties never having been installed correctly, they had been installed but had subsequently been pulled free by small movements of the chair(s) as people shuffled around.
In case of fire and the need for sudden evacuation, there is no doubt that many more if not a majority of these tiny plastic ties would have fractured with the result that most of the chairs would effectively have been unrestrained. This is probably contrary to one of the principal requirements for adequate evacuation of a large space with many chairs such as the Ham marquee. A few of the ties were a larger size. Again, I removed one that appeared never to have been installed correctly. In this case, examination proved that in fact that it had never been fastened despite having been wrapped around two chairs. Once joined in a loop it was still easy, and using only hand pressure, to destroy the locking mechanism.
Therefore, there is in my view a serious question as to whether these types of electrical ties and especially in the sizes used in the Ham are adequate for their purpose. Later, during the same concert and in the same area, stewards in yellow fluorescent jackets walked up the same aisle and made no attempt to move several people who standing by the walls with rucksacks placed on the floor effectively blocking a fire escape route. There were also a couple of pushchairs in the way, and it might have been advisable for these to be placed in a corner of the marquee.
The Ham marquee does of course have a substantial history over the years of particularly stupid application of fire regulations. Many people were almost broiled during the years when it was not permitted to open the sides of the marquee adjacent to the river. This was apparently ordered by East Devon District Council on the grounds that people might rush out of the sides and straight over the parapet walls into the river Sid!
More recently, proper fire doors have been a feature of the Ham marquee on the Eastern side and these are now left open, which much ameliorates the build-up of heat.
Common-sense would suggest that an open-side to the marquee is every bit as adequate as a fire escape route as are proper fire doors with the possible exception that these have illuminated escape signs included in their construction. Despite its size, the fire risk within the Ham as a non-smoking venue is small - the principal risks are probably the Chez Nous cooking stoves at one end (with a fire break provided by the CD stalls!) and all the backstage electrical equipment at the other.
During the Steve Heap years of the International Festival, concerts in the Ham always ran particularly smoothly with a team of of volunteers were were noted for their calmness, courtesy, politeness and common sense. Standing in the side aisles, provided that it did not constitute a serious blockage to the fire exits was never in my experience disallowed.
Now, with the new management installed and maybe a tougher line being taken by East Devon District Council (because of the bigger size of the marquee?) common sense seems to have become the first casualty - replaced with an impolite and unyielding adherence to 'the rules' even when they are completely irrelevant to a particular situation.
Such developments are not unique to Sidmouth but need to be recorded and addressed if only because as a general point, over-zealous application of all manner of rules within a blame-oriented society is leading to the demise of many small cultural events and indeed threatens some major ones also. There is a huge academic literature on risk management - and some of the most sensible advice is that governments must protect their citizens but not at any cost.
The most serious hazard in the Ham would appear to be the inadequate tying down of the rows of chairs. No doubt there were paragraphs in the licence documents that this was to be undertaken "to the satisfaction of the fire officer" - which rather begs the question of his/her qualifications and indeed common-sense. Also at Bulverton, a risk could be avoided by proper adherence to the no smoking rules. Indeed, during one LNE a 'teenage lout' made a point of smoking right in front of the stage. Stewards and security personnel did not intervene. It was left to a couple of young girls in his dance set to refuse to continue until he behaved.
Finally (!) the same plastic ties that would prove so inadequate in the Ham with a thousand people trying to get out from between tightly packed rows of chairs would prove probably entirely adequate for holding the same chairs together alongside the walls of the Blackmore marquee. Why? Because it is a totally different situation with different requirements. Jobsworths everywhere, please take note.
Little feedback on this apart from the fact that some people found it so noisy late into the night (to about 5 am!) that they are considering going elsewhere next year. This is not the way the maximise campsite income from loyal folkies! In the Steve Heap years, stewards enforced a no-noise policy after about 1 am except in a small designated area. This is common practice at other festivals and needs to be reintroduced to Bulverton. In fact there was little need to 'enforce' anything. People just stuck to the known rules.
Ten years ago, I can remember that the campsite was so quiet after midnight I was concerned not to wake anyone as I walked around 'on patrol'. Comments from the mudcat forum show a divergence of views - including that noise is not a new problem. What may be an unwelcome recent development is use of the campsite by crowds of 'non-folkie' youngsters perhaps drawn by the early evening Bulverton events. Also, the density of tents and caravans seemed quite high in 2006 - maybe the organisers were seeking to minimise the cost of renting land by the square metre!
Improvements could include a separate designated 'late night noise' part of the camping field with a well enforced midnight curfew elsewhere. Other (commercial) campsites around Sidmouth were praised for their 'peace and quiet' and helpful site staff - and they may be less likely to be targeted by the professional gangs of thieves who apparently now go to folk festivals with the specific aim of stealing from tents. Separating out the tents into one smaller 'enclosed' area with the camper vans and caravans left to themselves and with free public access (as happens at Chippenham) would mean a major rearrangement of the site - but it would have safety benefits also: the problem of caravans perched precariously above tents remains an accident waiting to happen.
Events for children
A couple of comments this year (2006) about the relative lack of things for small children to do compared to 2004 and previously. Also, the large craft marquee in Blackmore Gardens together with wood turning etc means that the available space for the children's events is more limited than many people would wish. Blackmore remains an ideal venue for children's events because it can be stewarded easily - with a guard on each entrance to stop any would-be escapees. The craft tent workers also seem to like being in Blackmore Gardens - comments range from 'easier to be closer to the town and the beach' to 'half the price of the Arena'.
The following is one of several comments received:
In general the new ticket arrangements appear to have worked well. The credit-card type of ticket was thought popular because of its durability. However, unlike at many other festivals, it did not offer the degree of fraud prevention that is inherent in the wrist band system. No doubt therefore, there was the usual degree of lending tickets to friends when people went to the beach and this would have resulted in some financial loss to the festival. This may be expected to increase if more emphasis is put on attracting 'young people' to 'thrash around' events. There were apparently quite a lot of people attempting to gain entry to the campsite without proper tickets.
During the week it became apparent that some season ticket holders had assumed, despite all the written warnings to the contrary, that their season ticket included every event and especially the evening concerts at the Ham. Nevertheless, separating out the Ham concerts is perhaps a good idea because they provide such an important part of the total finance of the new look Folk Week. It would be at unreasonable and indeed unrealistic, to increase the price of season tickets to obtain a similar amount of money.
Also, the advantage of selling many more 'event tickets' is that the people who buy them can be assured of entry provided they turn up on time. At other festivals, there is always a degree of doubt whether season ticket holders will be admitted to every event. There are many disappointments. The worst situation occurs when people travel to use tickets purchased for specific events and even then cannot gain entry. All of this is undoubtedly a juggling exercise. The learning curve from one year may not necessarily suit the next simply because of different weather conditions - and especially in Sidmouth which has so much else to offer during good weather.
At the Bulverton LNE site, there was a resurrection of the old system that was in use many years ago whereby all attendees at the early evening events were turned back out into the field to be readmitted once their ticket validity for the LNE could be checked. This procedure led to complaints because people were sent out with inadequate clothing and in the cold and rain. In 2006, because separate tickets could be purchased for the early evening events there was really no option but to remove everyone and readmit them - or to have stewards check tickets at every entrance to the dance floor all night long. Once again there were insufficient stewards in evidence. However the procedure may need to be re-examined.
If the credit card type of tickets are used again then a practical touch would be to provide a hole punch at ticket collection points so that people could if they wished punch a couple of holes in their tickets and thread a strong cord through them. Or indeed, prepunch every ticket!
Blackmore Gardens (dance) marquee
Of all the dance venues, this one was probably close to an ideal 'final form' for the new-look Sidmouth Folk Week - perhaps (like the large Ham marquee) because it was so similar to the format used by Steve Heap.
Apart from a slight slope at the edges, the dance floor was as good as they come in marquees and much improved on 2005. In fact, it was better than the one at Bulverton which developed several 'ridges' between adjacent sheets. These caused several people (including me) to trip over in a spectacular fashion. In my defence, I would cite as a contributory factor that I was wearing 'proper' earplugs for the first time. These are so effective in blocking out noise (far more so than wads of tissue paper) that the warning sound of a shoe hitting a ridge in the floor is rendered inaudible - hence the brain is deprived of an 'early warning signal' and only a split second later can attempt to correct unintended aerobatics. There may also be an effect on ability to maintain balance irrespective of tripping over anything - the ears playing some part here? No doubt there is a body of scientific literature on this - and it might be worth pursuing to provide further justification for the sound levels at ceilidhs to be reduced. So many people now use ear plugs and others complain that after a ceilidh they go home with 'ringing in their ears'. Sound levels are further discussed in another section.
The Blackmore Gardens volunteer bar staff (organised by Great Western Morris) added to the general bonhomie of the venue and the organisers and stewards were their usual cheerful yet efficient selves. All profits from the bar were donated to Folk Week. These people worked long and hard and took nothing for themselves. I was almost tempted to partake of my first alcoholic drink of the year just to help support them!
Health and Safety announcements (when they were given at all) were in the irreverent yet adequate style that has become associated with Great Western Morris - "In case of fire, sudden depressurisation of the cabin or forced landing, evacuate via the usual exits but let the band get out first" - or words to that effect. Whilst H&S was always entirely adequate (in my view) it was not undertaken in the officious and 'over the top' style that seemed to be an unfortunate trademark of the new Ham marquee management.
The evening events started with the Dartmoor Pixies - always a firm favourite with those of us who go to ceilidhs to dance rather than to be deafened. The other bands ranged from a little too loud to far too loud (Florida). The Mick Brooks Memorial Ceilidh with Hekety and Martyn Harvey calling was particularly well attended. Both the Pixies and Hekety were about as good as it gets for a Sidmouth Folk Week ceilidh - but the whole week in Blackmore Gardens did not contain any disappointments.
Other points that seem worth recording include the exquisite Sciorr who gave a lunchtime Irish dance workshop (I tried, failed miserably and left). Provision of a lightweight radio microphone would have helped people hear the instructions. Sciorr later put on a superb floor spot display on Friday evening. This was real talent on show and with no need for excessive amplification - a point made by attendees at other festivals where concert sound levels have been too high.
Fee Lock was not the clearest of callers, either at Blackmore with Steam Chicken (where she was hilarious in fancy dress or earlier in the week in the Bulverton marquee with Grand Union and Steam Chicken.
There were many complaints that people couldn't hear the calling. This was in part the fault of dancers who would not be quiet when asked (a type of simple rudeness that is all too prevalent?) but mainly owing to Fee's 'smoochy' sensual voice that seemed to merge each word with the next in what one person described to me as a soporific vocal caress. Nice, but you had to force yourself to listen carefully for where soft chat-up ended and the hard-sell instruction began - and even so, many people missed it. It was particularly a problem at Bulverton where use of earplugs (used to help prevent permanent ear damage) rendered her almost inaudible.
In contrast, John Kirkpatrick was especially clear and proficient as a caller, as indeed was Sarah Bazeley - who can be quite strident when faced with a collection of noisy people who refuse to 'quiet down'. It seemed such a pity, because Fee Lock was always really trying to help people and to make a good impression - yet often she did not succeed.
The Blackmore dance venue was well used this year and should easily have repaid the investment. Lack of stewards for the Friday afternoon showcase event meant that an appeal for (trained) volunteers had to be made. The marquee was packed. The Festival Choir led by Sandra Kerr was apparently superb and this is one part of Folk Week that continues to attract nothing but the highest praise.
One improvement for the venue itself would be to move it to a hilltop site with more wind - it did get rather hot and sticky at times! In past years, excess heat and humidity in the in-town marquees was dissipated a little by opening the side flaps at the tops - but this may have been disallowed by overzealous interpretation of Fire Regulations - as discussed elsewhere or maybe (again!) a simple lack of stewards. At Shrewsbury in 2006, the side flaps of the main marquee (capacity 1400 people) were rolled up and marker tape used as a temporary barrier. It worked well and with 'overspill' attendees being able to sit outside. Probably the most welcome single improvement for 2007 would be to provide two Blackmore Gardens type marquees in the town centre - but with the possible sale of Church House (the site of the smaller dance marquee in the Steve Heap years) a new site might be needed - as well as £12,000+ for the second marquee and dance floor.
Car parking in Sidmouth was never a particular problem during the International Festival years because of the provision of a large edge-of-town field midway between the Knowle Arena and the Bulverton LNE venue. Also, so many of the worst of the elderly Sidmouth drivers simply keep out of town during folk week.
However, if Folk Week continues to grow in size, alternative arrangements may be necessary, especially for Bulverton. Whilst the standard free car parking at the Ham after 6:00pm is a welcome feature of that area, the charges levied by both the cricket club and the rugby club bring significant profits into the town (or more correctly, to the clubs!) while still (allegedly) returning little to Folk Week finances. Charges for a camper van on the cricket field were apparently £22 per night (say £150 per week) but with a magnificent sea view. Typical Caravan Club charges are £12 per night with electrical hook-up and nearby waste disposal points.
It is noted elsewhere that the Bulverton venue may have to expand further in size if the catering arrangements are to be viable or maybe the catering will have to reduced in scale. Even during the excellent weather of 2006 many people found the trek up the hills to be a disincentive. The dangers of the main Bulverton road can of course be avoided by using the narrow lane that used to be a one-way route to the main festival car park, but not for people wishing to go via the main campsite. There needs to be far more signing of the Bulverton road to help ensure pedestrian safety, day and night. I am aware of only one road traffic accident - two buses in a spectacular shunt, but they were not Folk Week buses.
It was helpful that despite the formal proclamation that there would be restricted parking only at Bulverton, there was no enforcement of this during the week, maybe owing (again!!) to lack of stewards. More and more cars found their way up the narrow lane to the site after the Blackmore ceilidhs, and this probably swelled the number of attendees at the LNE by around 50. Discussions with several of the organisers confirmed they were well aware of the need to provide either stewarded car-parking at the venue or perhaps nearby on the large field that in previous years had formed the main Folk Festival car park and all included in the Steve Heap season ticket!
However, given that in Sidmouth, few if any facilities are given free or at a reasonable rate to the folk week organisers (in sharp contrast to Shrewsbury), then acquiring such an area of land would probably be prohibitively expensive in terms of marginal cost/benefit.
Future finances - not a new age of certainty
Sidmouth Folk Week in 2005 made a profit because of five factors:
None of these factors were guaranteed for 2006 but the organisers were especially lucky with the weather - it could have been so different.
In fact, 2006 could so easily have been the last year of Folk Week. This is simply because so much money had been committed to hire marquees and pay artistes and bands. A large number of ticket sales (especially for the 1000 seat Ham concert venue) were needed to achieve break-even - let alone make a healthy profit. The season tickets were much better value than the individual tickets of 2005 but several people have said that they will not be buying them next year - the quality of the events to which they offer 'free but not guaranteed' access simply does not warrant the expense. More people may buy a few 'top name' Ham concert tickets (which guarantee access) and maybe a few workshop tickets.
For example, for some longstanding visitors to Sidmouth (and a few local residents) the dance workshops were 'pedestrian' with boredom setting in after a while. This was no reflection on the bands (Hobson's Choice and Skylark were singled out for especial praise) but more a matter of what anyone could achieve within a village or Church hall that has no particular atmosphere.
There is a further factor that may reduce festival finances in the future - the impending smoking ban in pubs. For many years, a section of the population have avoided pubs wherever possible simply because of the stench and aftertaste of stale tobacco. Once the air clears, the 'free' pub sessions, sing-songs, etc will become accessible to more people - who may then buy into fewer ticketed events. It may be a small effect, but it will work in the wrong direction for folk week finances and in the right direction for both traders and the government (alcohol tax!).
Probably the most inept comment of the whole week therefore belongs to none other than Councillor Ann Liverton, Chairman of Sidmouth Town Council and as quoted in the Sidmouth Herald of 11 August 2006. She "heralded this year's event as 'a new age of certainty' following the euphoria of the success of last year's Folk Week".
A new age of certain success it most certainly is not - Sidmouth retains all the inherent disadvantages of its location and lack of fixed infrastructure and must increasingly compete with other festivals 'standing on its own two feet' and not relying on goodwill. I would have expected a more perceptive comment from Ann Liverton. It is usually her husband (councillor Graham Liverton) who can be relied upon to 'play to the gallery' and utter ill-considered or plainly illogical nonsense.
The honeymoon is over. The key people who organised 2005 and 2006, and to such universal acclaim, are probably exhausted. Some of them are well past normal 'retirement'. They retain a huge fund of knowledge of the folk arts and no doubt have all their contacts in the folk world intact. But the load must be shared amongst more people (and with the inevitable squabbles that will then occur, as in other festivals). Indeed, most other festivals have a key person or husband and wife team who take control of any dispute and order its resolution.
The 'committee' structure of Sidmouth is less likely to produce firm action when required. It will be the first year(s) of bad weather that will help determine whether the new formula is workable in the long term, not the easy year of 2006 with its residual fund of goodwill and remarkably good weather.
Future of the Arena and the International events.
Much has been written on this website and elsewhere about Sidmouth having now become 'just another folk festival'. It used to be, of course, a highlight of the Folk Arts calendar and known throughout the world. It is tempting to speculate that had Steve Heap not become (apparently) so disillusioned with the lack of support from traders in Sidmouth he might have persevered with the International Festival for several more years. Certainly the weather in 2005 and 2006 would have attracted large audiences to his Arena concerts.
But the International aspect was already in trouble because of external factors - including the change in State funding available to teams from Europe who often were amongst the most colourful and accomplished of dancers and artistes. Some feeling for the changes that have taken place can be gleaned from a summary placed on the mudcat website and reproduced below. Even with Steve Heap still in charge of the Sidmouth Festival, the writing may have been on the wall in the absence of (say) major Arts Council funding for an event that was a showcase for UK and overseas talent. Another major factor was the ever increasing burden of H&S directives and (especially) over-zealous implementation by inadequate local officials.
Maybe if Steve Heap had relinquished some control, maybe if the festival had become a charity earlier, maybe if the Arts Council had been more interested, maybe if the town of Sidmouth had shown a decent level of commercial support (instead of taking the festival so much for granted), maybe if EDDC had not had a funding crisis, and maybe if the Eastern Bloc had not unravelled and become dominated by 'market forces' - just maybe it might all have changed slowly and yet survived.
There are some vitriolic comments on the Internet about all of this - saying in effect that Sidmouth has now become just too comfortable as a 'day out for the children' type of event (a bit too much like Bunkfest maybe?)
In addition to the factors discussed on mudcat, there is one perhaps overriding reason why the International Festival and Arena components may never be seen in Sidmouth again - the townspeople view them either with indifference (inability to recognise what they once had and have lost) or with outright hostility ("the festival is now back in the town where it belongs"). This is sad but unfortunately true. Taken together with the disadvantages of infrastructure in the town, Sidmouth is maybe the last place to try and recreate the Sidmouth International Festival. The discussion below is taken from this mudcat thread - dated about 20 August 2006. If you like tedium, vitriol and petty messages and if you have two hours with nothing better to do, then take an aspirin (or three) and read the whole mess.
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