I'd never been to a folk festival before. There, I admitted it. Mind you, until 2008 I'd not been to any music festival of any description - the late Mrs A had a pathological fear of using toilets in a field. This meant that, although we were both avid and regular gig-goers, our musical forays always ended with us tucked up in a proper bed, either back home or in a local hotel.
Since 2008, I haven't missed a Latitude and, since giving up work two and a half years ago I have got into the habit of volunteering for all sorts of music and arts festivals, as well as becoming part of the volunteer front of house team at the local arts centre. So this year I thought it really was time to spread my wings and offer myself to one of this region's biggest folk festivals, Folk East.
I had always enjoyed folk acts, and remember seeing the likes of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span in the seventies whilst still at high school. Then came my pharmacy degree course at Chelsea College that started in 1976, just as punk was kicking off in the Kings Road, and it kind of changed my musical direction somewhat.
Latterly I have started to appreciate folk music again, probably as a result of the fantastic range of acoustic acts that have played the Norwich venues, a combination of local acts as well as those from further afield, and those from across the pond that tend to get labelled as 'Americana'. One of the regular promoters of 'folk' gigs at Norwich Arts Centre were John and Becky Marshall-Potter, who I first met at one of their Folk East nights almost two years ago. This year, I finally got to sign up as a volunteer for this year's festival in the grounds of Glemham Hall in Suffolk. This is the story of my weekend.
Glemham Hall is an Elizabethan stately home owned by the Cobbold brewing family since 1923. Situated on the A12, just a few miles south of the turn off for Aldburgh and Snape Maltings, the hall has hosted Folk East within its 300 acres of grounds since 2012. I needed to arrive in time for a volunteer briefing at 12 noon on the Thursday, and was told that I could arrive to pitch my tent any time after the campsite opened at 10am.
On-Duty. The Lowdown
The Volunteers - A complete mixture - singles and couples, students and retired folk. Some had already worked at several festivals this summer, some had not even been to a music festival before, ever! By the end of the weekend we were like one big happy family.
Volunteer camping - Volunteers could camp either in the main public camping (if wanting to be with ticket holding friends and family), or in the artist and crew campsite close to the backstage area. There are a larger number of showers and Portaloo toilets in the main campsite, though the number in crew camping were more than adequate for the number using them. A separate camping area known as 'Morris Town', adjacent to crew camping, was provided for the large influx of morris dancers. In addition to those sleeping under canvas, there were a large number of trailer caravans and motorhomes in all camping areas, and chemical toilet emptying points were provided, along with drinking water standpipes, and the full range of recycling, composting and landfill bins.
Catering - There were a wide range of reasonably priced food outlets in the main festival site (my favourite was the Billy Burgers, made from 100% goat meat), but volunteers are provided with breakfast each day, and a free meal for every four-hour shift completed. This was provided by the lovely Anglia Catering Services, whose bacon and egg rolls were the most welcome start to each day. Lunch was usually a help-yourself filled baguette with ham, cheeses and salads to choose from, and a hot meal was provided in the evenings. Tea and coffee was also available.
Volunteer Shifts - our volunteer coordinator bent over backwards to make sure that our shifts did not clash with any acts that we particularly wanted to see, and tried to allocate duties according to preference and experience. As well as traffic duties on the external gates, volunteers were also needed on internal gates between the different parts of the site, as well as stewards for each of the six stages, help with recycling, assisting with accessible camping, and manning information points. No volunteer shifts started before 9am, and none ended after 11.30pm. Shifts lasted a maximum of four hours, though these could be split into 2 x 2hr if preferred. Most of us did one shift per day, although some did extra, simply because we are nice like that. Over the five days from arrival on Thursday to leaving on Monday, I did four shifts on external gates, one stewarding the indoor Broad Roots Stage, and one backstage at the Soapbox Stage. I was well lucky. Most of my gate duties were in the morning, starting at 9am, meaning that I hardly missed any of the music programme.
Alcohol and Smoking - Smoking is not permitted whilst on duty, and neither is alcohol. Whilst you were allowed to have a drink before going on duty it goes without saying that anyone turning up the worse for wear would not have been allowed to commence their shift. You are allowed to have your mobile phone with you for urgent use only.
Radios, High-Vis Vests and Lanyards - For all shifts, we were required to report to the Production Tent fifteen minutes before the start of a shift, and were issued with high-vis vests, our ID lanyards and, if appropriate, a short wave radio handset. All these needed to be returned at the end of each shift.
Off-Duty - The Lowdown
The Festival Site - This is a small, friendly festival, and you soon find your way around the site, and regularly bump into fellow volunteers as well as people that you have previously stood next to at a stage or met in the bar, or that you helped onto site earlier in the day. Do not be surprised to find yourself standing next to one of the artists that you saw on stage only a few hours previously. A lot of them are here for the whole weekend.
The Bars - There are two main ones, the appropriately named 'Cobbold Arms' (next to the food tent), and the smaller 'Hop Inn', in the Broadwalk. Both operate a deposit system, which I did not initially crack. The beer was priced at an incredibly reasonable £3 a pint, although if you needed a plastic glass there was a 10p refundable deposit. I must have chucked about a dozen of these away before finally buying a £2 souvenir glass and subsequently finding that the price of a pint had dropped from £3.10 to £3.00. The range of 16 real ales was impressive, although I followed my time-honoured habit of sticking with Adnams simply because it would invariably be the first to run out. I was not wrong, although by the end of Sunday evening a concerted effort by the Morris Dancers and hardened Folkeys meant that every one of the Suffolk real ales on offer had been finished off.
Both bars were always a magnet for anyone wanting to join in with a song, or to play along with an instrument (Almost everybody seemed to be a musician - I felt so inadequate in comparison!)
The Stages - Whilst the Sunset Stage was the focal point of the set, and home to headliners Eliza Carthy & The Wayward Band, Blowzabella and Usher's Island, there were five other stages - two within the Broad Roots tent, a Dance Tent featuring tea dances and ceilidhs, a special 'Garden Stage' on the Sunday and, my favourite, the wonderful Soapbox Stage curated by Amy Wragg, a little paradise in the woods with its own bar, and that hosted some of the most exciting sets of the entire weekend. And it was all powered by the Solar Decker, a bus equipped with an array of solar panels.
The Sunset Stage
The Broad Roots Stage
The Soapbox Stage
Power for the Soapbox Stage from the Solar Decker
Best Bits (Music)
Despite my claims of not being a folk-music aficionado (I've already seen Eliza Carthy & The Wayward Band, Blowzabella, and Honey & The Bear in the past twelve months, as well as Norwich acts The Georgia Shackleton Trio, and Alden, Patterson & Dashwood), I do seem to have quite a bit in my CD collection. These are some of my personal highlights from the weekend :-
Grace Petrie - folk singer, songwriter and activist from Leicester. Performing on the Soapbox Stage just after the 9 o'clock watershed on Saturday night, Petrie is just the rocket that Jeremy Corbyn needs to cement and reunite the Labour Party. If she could win me over (a lapsed middle class property-owning socialist with savings in the bank), she could sort out anyone with her uncompromisingly direct, yet personable and well-humoured assault on our consciences. If she can win over Folk East she can win over the whole country.Love her.
Fishclaw - a five piece from Colchester who worked the Soapbox crowd into a sweat on Saturday night. Call it prog-folk if you must.
Band of Fools - European 'gypsies' from Wivenhoe who know how to party , and push the boundaries of folk music. Did you know that Boney M's 'Rasputin' was actually a folk tune? No, neither did I!
The King Driscolls - A wonderfully entertaining folk band who played the Sunset Arena on the Friday, then turned up again on the Sunday on the Soapbox Stage. Despite problems with a guitar with a neck about to snap, and a singer with a lower back about to snap, these guys were the best.
The King Driscolls
Alaska Hart - Previously seen in 'Wildlife' at this year's Norfolk and Norwich Festival, Alaska's delicate voice and gentle guitar charmed the Soapbox stage as part of Access to Music's contribution to the weekend.
BROADS / Alex Carson Trio - two Norwich acts with very different styles premiering a soundtrack to material from the East Anglian Film Archive. Neither can be described as 'folk' per se, but the nature of the material made a spellbindingly relevant contribution to Sunday evening.
Eliza Carthy and The Wayward Band - a whirlwind of a performance from Eliza and her band that never fell short of expectations. Even a sudden loss of light and power to the main stage half way through their set failed to knock them off balance. Perfect.
Eliza Carthy & The Wayward Band
Blowzabella - Musical maestros with a set that that included a virtuoso solo by Gregory Jolivet on the vielle à roue (that's a type of hurdy gurdy to you and me), and a selection of instruments including saxophones, accordions and bagpipes. Another spellbinding headliner on the Sunset Arena.
Gilmore & Roberts - Thwarted by strong winds that forced the Sunset Stage to close for a time on Saturday afternoon, Gilmore & Roberts simply de-camped to the food tent and performed their set there instead. Beautiful and intimate for those lucky enough to get in.
Gilmore & Roberts
Honey and The Bear - Jon and Lucy always charm every audience they play to, and Friday teatime's slot on the Broad Roots Stage was no exception. And a pleasure to see 'Bertha' the double bass again, as well.
Honey & The Bear
Peter Knight and John Spiers - Two superstars of folk making it look 'oh so easy' in the Broad Roots Stage on Friday. Pure class.
Peter Knight (Steeleye Span) and John Spiers (Bellowhead)
Georgia Shackleton Trio - Georgia, Noel and Nic looking really comfortable on the main Sunset Stage on Sunday. A Norfolk personal favourite of mine.
Alden, Patterson and Dashwood - Noel Dashwood pops up again on the Soapbox Stage as part of this Norwich trio. Always a pleasure.
Alden, Patterson & Dashwood (but not necessarily in that order)
Dingus Khan - a bit of a wildcat act to close the Soapbox Stage late on Sunday night before Ben Ward takes his other band, Superglu, off to Reading and Leeds to headline the BBC Introducing Stage. Wonderfully shambolic unplugged set that ended a memorable weekend.
Ben Ward from Dingus Khan
Best Bits (Non-Music)
The Giant Jackaloupe - crafted out of straw the jackaloupe dominated the main arena, and the antlered hare also provided the logo for this year's festival.
The Morris Dancers and The Mummers - Not since I went to the Rochester Sweeps Festival ten years ago have I seen so many Morris Dancers in one location. Not only did they have their own camping area, but they had TWO stages on which to perform. The Mummer plays were performed on these stages and at various points around the site. Amazing to watch, and also to experience the friendly rivalry between troupes and marvel at the costumes.
Pigeon Plucking Competition - A contest open to anyone brave enough to handle a dead pigeon, and with a proper trophy for the winner presented by Philip Hope Cobbold of Glemham Hall, the resulting sea of feathers turned the outside of the food tent into looking like the scene of a massacre. Do not fear. Wood pigeons are classified as vermin, and their numbers have to be controlled by shooting in agricultural areas. They were not shot just for fun.
The Broadwalk - Home to the 'Hop Inn', as well as a bewildering array of musical instrument manufacturers and more food stalls. I would often stop to listen to musicians trying out a new instrument, or taking part in a musical workshop.
I have to say that this was probably the best festival that I have attended in years, either as a volunteer or customer. Everybody was so friendly that it was a pleasure to work my shifts, as well as enjoy my down time. Nearly everybody vowed to be back in 2017, and I will definitely be there. The weather did, at times, cause some problems with the strong winds, although luckily most of the rain fell overnight.
My advice to anyone thinking of volunteering for next year's Folk East is to follow their Facebook page, and check out their website in the Spring of next year. In the meantime, watch out for any Folk East events happening near you through the Autumn and Winter.
Thank you to John and Becky, and all the Folk East staff, for making the whole weekend such a pleasure, and a resounding success.