I had only been to Banbury Folk Festival (6-8 October 2017) once before, as a volunteer steward a few years ago and had very much enjoyed spending a weekend in this historic Oxfordshire town with its canal boats and lots of friendly pubs with live music. It is a mostly volunteer-run community festival, which cherishes the folk club tradition and is never really that much about well-known artists, but about getting together with a pint around tables and listening – and often singing along – to talented musicians you will most likely not have heard of (yet). As this year was the 18th and last year for festival organisers Mary and Derek Droscher, it was definitely time for another visit and I certainly didn’t regret my decision!
Last weekend was a great example why I love volunteering at folk festivals and why they are such a nice weekend getaway, particularly as a solo traveller. From the moment you check in for your shifts (usually jobs like taking tickets, doing reception for stewards or artists, helping with the café, setting up venues, cleaning up after gigs, helping with the parade etc.) you’re part of the team and often run into people you met at similar events (like one of my favs, Shrewsbury Folk Festival). It’s always a good idea to be cheerful and helpful, especially as a newcomer. Offering to make cups of tea or carry things from A to B are always appreciated. So is flexibility about shift times. Helping out with stewards’ reception on Friday afternoon was a nice and busy start as a lot of people were arriving around that time. I also met a guy who must have had the best volunteer role I’ve ever seen at any festival: Hobby Horse Liaison. Just brilliant!
After a quick dinner on the go and dropping in on the main venue, Banbury Town Hall, for the start of the evening concert, I had to make my way over to the Banbury Cross pub where I was doing the door for the club room at the back were a couple of traditional singers were on until late. I’m glad I stayed on for a set by the energetic Granny’s Attic in the front bar of the pub and it made up for missing most of the Irish concert over at the town hall.
As October isn’t the best time to pitch your tent anywhere in England, the festival offers the option of ‘indoor camping’ upstairs in the Methodist Hall, the second largest venue. Sleepovers in a room above a church are a bit like being on a school trip decades after you’ve left that part of your life behind. People just bring their sleeping bags and there are tea making facilities and bathrooms available. Basic, but it makes for a nice atmosphere among your fellow volunteers (just make sure you don’t forget your ear plugs!) and Dave the Hat (see pic below) made sure we were all happy campers.
After a lazy breakfast in the local Wetherspoons just around the corner, I was ready to explore Banbury’s charity shops for some second-hand book finds and the UK’s oldest working inland waterway boatyard, Tooley’s, which happened to have an open weekend with narrow boat trips and historic engine displays.
At 11am it was time for the Hobby Horse Procession and some Morris sides to parade through the middle of town. There were so many great handmade costumes, mostly horses, of course, but also a unicorn, sheep, boar and a bear. Luckily the weather played along nicely, too, most of the weekend.
This year’s headliner was award-winning Scottish songwriter (including an OBE) Dougie MacLean and as the festival organisers anticipated a lot of demand for his two appearances, they had come up with a pre-queueing system for tickets (free for festival pass holders), which required people to line up separately for his afternoon and evening events. I would have quite liked to see some other bands as well, but the timings were so tricky that I ended up doing a shift organising the first queue and doing audience mic for Dougie’s ‘Meet the Artist’ session at the Methodist Hall and then queued again for his evening concert in the Town Hall. It reminded me a bit of volunteering at Toronto Film Festival a few years back, where queueing had such a capital Q that it ended up being quite an entertaining experience.
As it turned out, it was well worth making it to both events though. I had never seen Dougie live before, but once he started singing, I realised I knew most of the songs from the cover versions of Irish sisters Mary and Frances Black, who I saw live many times when I was living in Ireland in the past. The ‘Meet the Artist’ session was a great format, an hour of audience questions interspersed with songs, just him and his guitar and that lovely, subtle voice. It was easy to see why he has so many fans around the world. His songwriting is a winning combination of memorable, often fairly melancholy melodies and thoughtful lyrics, which seem to resonate with many people.
After a well-deserved coffee break, I joined a few others for the next queue at the Town Hall, which was a little chaotic and actually quite fun as we met lots of other festivalgoers. After all the wait, we scored first row seats – success. While we were passing the time chatting with other folkies, Pat Smith and Ned Clamp, who had run a beginners’ ‘spoons’ workshop earlier that day, began handing out pairs of spoons, which was followed by instructions on how to behave during our ‘performance’. Yep, we had just been volunteered to join the ‘Spoons Orchestra’ and were basically warming up the audience for the other (real) acts to come. Defo time for a drink or two!
After appearances by Granny’s Attic as well as local band Scarecrow, the wait was eventually over and Dougie performed his main set, which included harmonica playing AND didgeridoo. But seriously, who could be envious of the talent of such a humorous and soft-spoken man? I was just grateful he not only sang some songs from his latest album ‘New Tomorrow’ (the title track being a very moving one for his grandsons), but also a lot of my favourites including ‘Broken Wings’, ‘Talking to My Father’, ‘Caledonia’ (probably for the 3578th time in his life…) and the best encore ever, ‘This Love Will Carry Me’. Sigh. Singing along en masse to beautiful folk songs just makes you feel all warm and fuzzy (me anyway) no matter whether the majority of the audience hit the right notes or not. This concert certainly did! The very low-key ‘after show party’ (as it would be called in London) was held at the Cricket Club where we did more singing along to mostly shanties and traditional folk songs and got to chat with Dougie over a pint about his musical adventures around the world before getting herded onto the shuttle bus for a transfer back to our church home for the weekend.
Sunday was basically a recovery day following two fairly late nights. In the morning, what felt more like the middle of the night to me, I caught a lift with the festival shuttle back to the Cricket Club for a ‘singing breakfast’. It wasn’t the greatest start to the day if you were vegetarian like myself, but the atmosphere totally made up for it. Seasoned and entertaining performers Pete, John and Andy of Alhambra led the singalong and then we went around the various tables with people contributing songs or tributes to Mary and Derek, who had some great stories from 18 years of making Banbury Folk Festival history. Back in town, I caught one more singer-songwriter, Irishwoman Paula Ryan, at the Banbury Cross Pub before my last shift of the weekend back at the Town Hall.
This was supposed to be a ticket checking shift, but as they were short of a hobby horse handler (lol), I got volunteered for the second time this weekend for something I had no qualifications for. It reminded me of dressing up for carnival as a child back home and my horse with no name was actually a beautiful specimen handmade from papermache. So I trotted into the town hall following a cow, with a furry brown bear hot on my heels. Can you think of a more hilarious way to spend a Sunday afternoon?
After all this excitement, it was time for Keith Donnelly’s and Anna Ryder’s (she also has a pretty cool website about moths!) humorous set and Anthony John Clarke closed the festival including a tribute to Vin Garbutt, who sadly passed away in the summer. Mary and Derek deserve to be very proud of their achievement in the past (nearly) two decades, what a lovely festival with so many friendly people.
Like every last festival day, the post festival blues hit me soon after leaving Banbury, but the good news is: the folk festival will most likely continue in the future and I found out that Dougie and his wife Jenny (who looks after all his merch at gigs and is a very talented artist in her own right) have been running their very own festival called Perthshire Amber each November (taking a break this year). So it took a weekend in the wilds of Oxfordshire to serve as an unexpected reminder that I need to spend more time in Scotland. I’ll hopefully also make it to a few of the island festivals in 2018, watch this space…