Tag Archives: outdoor festival

Room For All: A Guide for Shrewsbury Folk Festival Newbies (including festival review 2017)

I first attended Shrewsbury Folk Festival in 2012, signing up as a volunteer very last minute and had a wonderful time, as it is just an incredibly well-run and relaxed event. It not only bursts at the seams with incredible live music and dancing, it also has an ideal location being walking distance from the centre of the historic English town of Shrewsbury, in Shropshire, not far from the Welsh border.

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The 2017 Festival

For me, this year’s Shrewsbury Folk Festival (26-28 August 2017) was all about collaborations. Some of the exciting collaborative projects were The Passerine (Folk duo O’Hooley and Tidow with musicians from Egypt, India, Sudan and other countries) as part of the new Room For All Initiative celebrating cultural diversity, all female ‘supergroup’ Coven (Grace Petrie, O’Hooley and Tidow, Lady Maisery) and the closing performance in the newly named Bellstone tent (Marquee 1) ‘Faith, Folk & Anarchy’ with Steve Knightley, Tom Robinson and Martyn Joseph. As festival co-founder Alan Surtees sadly passed away earlier this year, there were lots of emotional tributes to him as well as a CD to support the newly created Alan Surtees Trust. Other local and international artists included Loudon Wainwright, Le Vent du Nord, Skippinish, The Unthanks, Daphne’s Flight, Sarah Jarosz, the Oyster Band, Joe Broughton’s Conservatoire Folk Ensemble, The East Pointers and Ragged Union. While SFF is very much dedicated to folk music in its many forms, performers from other genres, such as the excellent Stockholm based US blues musician Eric Bibb this year, also always find a musical home here. My favourite new discoveries were The Fitzgeralds from the Ottawa region of Canada, who also offered an excellent step dancing workshop, which was attended by well over a hundred people. There was also a new stage this year, The Launchpad, near the food and bar area, showcasing up and coming musical talent, e.g. the excellent The Trials of Cato (who are based in Wales, but met each other in Lebanon, of all places).

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What accommodation options are there?

As a general punter you can arrive to pitch your tent from Friday morning (the music starts in the early evening) and the festival programme usually finishes around early evening on Monday, so most people leave around then or stay until the next morning (the last unofficial gathering in the onsite Berwick bar with lots of craft beer and cider on tap is always a highlight). If you’re in a campervan, you can park it beside your car or a car park across the road, depending on how much space there is when you arrive. I always come by train and the taxi to the site is less than 5 pounds or a 10 minute walk. There are three permanent toilet buildings (the one in the bar has mirrors and plugs for drying your hair) plus some nice toilets with sinks dotted around the site. The free showers are also good (and nice and hot) and there are drinking water taps available, too. Alternatively, Shrewsbury has a number of great hotel and B&B options, just make sure you book fairly early as it is a very popular weekend (with other events like a large steam fair on as well).

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What is it like to volunteer at the festival?

I always have a great time volunteering at SFF. You make new and meet up with old friends, are part of a lovely motivated team and help making the festival a success. In exchange for about 15-16 hours of work, you get a festival and camping pass for the weekend and work shifts of 2-4 hours at a time. You can also arrive a day early on Thursday from lunchtime. It is advisable to sign up as early as possible, i.e. email the festival for more details about steward applications. You can then choose one of the teams to work in, but please be aware that you might not always end up on your preferred team (especially if it’s your first time) and that it is not always possible for you to see all the artists you might want to see (but you can always try and request one or two). Some shifts also run fairly late (I had an evening shift until 1am), but this depends on your particular team. You can also volunteer to do setup and takedown, if you have time to arrive early and leave late and thereby be free during most of the festival.

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What kind of food and drink can I expect?

There is an outdoor food area around a large tent with tables and seats right beside the main marquee and it offers all the food you could possibly want (burgers, pizza, Mexican, Indian, Italian, fish & chips, two specifically veggie/vegan stalls, sandwiches, coffee, ice cream and cakes). This is supplemented by two large bars, the Berwick bar in an actual building and the beer tent beside the food area, both with tables and chairs, so you definitely won’t go hungry and thirsty!

What is there to do at the festival apart from the live music concerts?

I tend to focus on the concerts, but I often meet people who spend all weekend in trad sessions or in the dance tent. If you play an instrument, there are many tuneworks sessions, which include fiddle, whistle, guitar, accordion, melodeon, ukulele and even mountain dulcimer. You can bring your own instrument(s) or, for some of the beginners classes, borrow one for the class or the weekend (but please confirm this before you arrive). There is a whole separate Children’s Festival section (0-10 years) with a circus tent, lots of music, craft and acrobatic workshops all weekend and a lovely lantern procession in the dark. Older kids (11-20 years) can join the Refolkus Youth Festival and also improve their samba drumming or singing skills, be part of a dance battle or try some aerial acrobatics.

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How accessible is the festival?

SFF does its best to be inclusive to everyone. The location has paths leading to all the main venues, which are suitable for wheelchair use and mobility scooters and wheelchairs can be rented for the weekend. Accessible toilets and showers are also available beside the Berwick bar and there is a special disabled camping area beside between the Sabrina marquee and the bar. Most of the venues have an easily accessible wheelchair area (usually in the front) and the volunteer stewards can point you to it in each venue.

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Can I bring my dog?

Yes, you can, if it’s friendly and you look after it well. Which means you pick up after it and don’t leave it in your car for hours on end. Dogs are not allowed inside the main music venues, but there is usually space on the grass at the back or side of the tents where dog owners can spread out a blanket and enjoy the show with their four-legged buddies. I petted so many nice dogs (you can see a selection on my Instagram account Cuddle a Dog a Day), including a number of adorable puppies, this year and it’s nice to find out their stories and a great way of getting to know people, which is super easy at SFF anyway as most people are very friendly. There are also many dog owners in Shrewsbury itself and there is a great app/website called Doggie Pubs to find out about dog-friendly places to eat and drink around the UK.

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Will I enjoy myself even if I’m not a big fan of folk music?

This depends a bit about how open you are to trying out new things. The good thing about folk music is that it covers many different styles and SFF only book top class musicians, so if you’re willing to be open-minded, you will definitely have a great time. Plus, you can learn a new instrument from scratch over the weekend, improve your dancing skills, do some yoga, browse the many clothes and pressie stalls or simply chill in the sun (which we’ve had buckets full of this year, not a drop of rain!). Don’t worry about visiting by yourself, it’s practically impossible not to get chatting to some friendly folkies at SFF and lots of people return year after year. You can always opt for a day ticket to start with and I’m sure it’ll be a weekend pass next time around ;-).

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Is it worth checking out the town of Shrewsbury while I’m here?

Absolutely. The birth place of Charles Darwin has a number of museums and historic sights and is just a lovely, lively town to explore any time of the year. During SFF there are lots of morris displays (my fav this year was Pig Dyke Molly from East Anglia) and a parade around town on Saturday and Sunday. The city’s many cosy pubs, cafes and restaurants serve excellent food, including quite a few veggie and vegan options and I often head into town for breakfast to start my festival day. I also always do a charity shop crawl as there are a good dozen or so dotted around the city centre. A few of them also have stalls at the festival itself. In addition, Shrewsbury hosts lots of other interesting events year round, including the Shrewsbury Literature Festival in November. Free festival shuttles take you in and out of town on Saturday and Sunday, but the ten-minute walk along the river is a great way to stretch your legs, especially if the weather is as nice as this year.

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The Transformative Power of Yoga: World Yoga Festival 2017

When I got off the train at Pangbourne, near Reading, on my way to World Yoga Festival, I noticed some graffiti on the wall opposite the station. It read “Buy More. Work Harder. Live Less.” A great reminder why it’s sometimes good to stop and think and take time out to reconsider what is important to us in life. World Yoga Festival, which took place from 6-9 July in the beautiful natural setting of Beale Park by the river Thames was the perfect place to do this. In fact, it was like a positivity boot camp.

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The festival only started last year, but it felt like it’s been around for decades. Ram and Sonali Banerjee and their team have created something very special, which in itself reflects the power of yoga as a philosophy, that oneness is not just a theoretical, hard to grasp concept, but that by doing the right actions, big and small, and working actively towards positive goals with others we can achieve something incredibly beautiful. World Yoga Festival brings together renowned masters from different yogic disciplines and embraces all eight aspects of yoga. It is yoga in practice.

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I don’t think I’ve ever been at an event where there was so much spiritual knowledge gathered in one place. I had never heard of most of the speakers and teachers before last weekend and I’ve still not been to India. But World Yoga Festival is probably the closest you can come in the UK to get a taste of spiritual India while also having a real outdoor retreat with a swimming lake, lounging in the chai tent at sundown, eating the most scrumptious vegetarian and vegan food and getting lots of healthy exercise. There were a number of gurus (removers of the darkness of ignorance) and swamis (spiritual teachers) present and every speaker I listened to (pictured above is Swami Satvananda Saraswati), had something helpful to add to our own practice, no matter where each of us currently was on our path of learning.

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In fact, the variety of festival attendees was quite astonishing. I met people from various countries, holistic practitioners, yoga teachers, lawyers, engineers, people making the most of their retirement by travelling and learning, seasoned yogis, musicians, groups of friends on a weekend away, families with little ones and older children, enjoying nature together and the craft workshops and classes on offer especially for them. All the volunteers were really into yoga and super friendly and we exchanged lots of tips about other yoga events.

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It was also really easy getting to know new people before and after classes and over some of the yummy vegetarian and vegan food, which included salads, crepes, risotto and pasta, Mexican and lots of delicious Indian food, which was my favourite (South Indian masala dosa, savoury Indian pancakes, curries and dhal). In addition, there were stalls with yoga clothing, mediation cushions, a non-alcoholic cocktail bar, fresh juices, coffee and yogi tea.

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By the lake you could learn to drum or play the didgeridoo, have a massage or simply lounge in the beautiful Earth tent, which was strewn with large cushions and little lights, which glowed beautifully in the dark. Even the toilets were amazing. I don’t often post pictures of something as basic as this, but it just underlines again how much care went into every detail of the festival. There were hardly any shower queues and it all made me feel like I’m at a holistic retreat rather than a camping festival. So nice.

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The main draw and best part of the festival, however, was of course learning from the wonderful masters and teachers, many of them from the birthplace of yoga, India. As at most festivals, there was a packed schedule divided across four stages (Space, the largest, where all the evening concerts and some ceremonies took place, Air, Fire and Water). The tents were spacious and each had a differently coloured floor with white walls and ceilings. It was a little overwhelming at first to choose between so many excellent sounding classes, workshops, gong baths (see pic further down), meditations and talks, plus a Bharatanatyam dance workshop by Ananya Chatterjee, which all seemed unmissable and to also get enough time to relax (or rather let all the teachings sink in!). So I just tried a few different ones each day.

Unlike at quite a few other yoga festivals, there was a huge emphasis on knowledge and learning. So rather than lots of physical yoga, even the asana-based classes in the water tent were often more on anatomy (e.g. by Sri Louise from the USA) or positive thinking (Neil Patel talking about yoga and cancer).

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My favourite teacher at the festival was 98-year young Tao Porchon Lynch (see pic above – the world’s oldest yoga teacher and ballroom dancer, who grew up in India, marched with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, was a resistance fighter during WWII, a top model before that term even existed, Hollywood actress, business woman etc.). I went to her first session on Friday morning and decided to go to the two other ones, too as I’ve learned from other festivals that it’s often good to stick with someone you can really relate to. Her personality, kindness, gentle sense of humour, fierce strength (shoulder stand with lotus) and resilience (three hip replacements, broken wrist etc. never stopped her) was just beautiful to witness. The first time that weekend when tears came to my eyes was when we did sun salutations with her to tango music. And she just kept reminding us that a positive mindset is everything, that she always feels every day is going to be the best day ever and nothing is impossible. How lovely that she felt grateful to be there with us this weekend just like we felt lucky to witness her boundless energy. What a role model!

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Iyengar teacher Zubin Zarthoshtimanesh’s daily 2-hour early morning and afternoon classes in the large Space tent were also a huge draw. He went into lots of detail about the poses he taught and speaking to attendees afterwards, it was a very valuable learning experience, which I’m sad to have missed (as were Dr. Bali‘s sessions, another nonagenerian yogi!). I did catch a beginners’ Iyengar class with Uday Bhosale and Mary Niker, however, who were great at assisting us with different asanas and despite the hard work, the hour and a half went by quicker than I thought. The longer session concept of the festival with various classes building on the previous ones, was a good system, so you actually felt you progressed throughout the weekend. Alternatively, you could sample lots of different styles and talks and then continue learning more about specific ones after the festival.

I also attended various talks on non-duality and yoga philosophy, which began with festival director Ram Banerjee’s sunset talk on Friday night, followed by a Ganga Arati ceremony by the lake. Throughout the weekend I listened to a number of gurus and philosophers discussing complex concepts, usually with a lot of humour, but also lots of space for serious questions. It felt very good being able to sit or lie in a sun-flooded tent with others who were all keen to soak up knowledge, respectful of the speaker, the space and each other and take it all in. This year’s masters and teachers included some of the above mentioned as well as Swami Ambikananda, Guru Dharam, Swami Brahmavidananda Saraswati and others.

The live music in the evenings was a great mix of traditional Indian musical instruments and singing blended with a more Western sound and I very much enjoyed Manish Vyas‘ quieter devotional music as well as Soumik Datta’s (see pic below) Saturday night set, which turned into a real drum and base dance party with an Indian twist at the end of the night. There were also some great outdoor lunchtime sets by Sam Garrett and Brett Randall. And how lucky (or well-planned) that Guru Purnima (homage to the gurus, i.e. our spiritual teachers) happened to be on Sunday, which was of course marked with a ceremony in the Space tent. To top everything off there was also a full moon on Saturday night, a truly auspicious weekend for a yoga festival!

WYF Soumik Datta.jpg

Writing this in my home in London and looking through other festival goers’ social media posts with lots of smiles and the sun shining on us all weekend long (we did have a lot of influential people praying for good weather!), I still feel buoyed by the vibrant and playful energy of World Yoga Festival. This is why this blog exists. Go out there wherever you are and find these special gatherings, be open to learning new things and you will see that the world is an amazing place!

My main take-aways from the festival weekend:

  • Meditate regularly (so please ask me next time you see me if I’m doing this as I really, really want to make it a habit, but find it even harder than my regular yoga practice)
  • Deepen my knowledge of yoga philosophy and my personal yoga practice
  • We can all achieve more than we think, if we believe in it and are open to learn (I improved my bridge, tree and dancer poses through simple but effective tips from Tao and Uday)
  • Travel to India (I’ve been wanting to go for years, but the more I learn about yoga philosophy, the more this is becoming an actual plan)
  • Remember to be more like Tao whose motto is ‘Nothing is Impossible’ as in ‘Everything is Possible’
  • Finally, return to World Yoga Festival, because it was just fantastic in every way!

WYF ganga arati.jpg

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a weekend pass for the 2017 festival in exchange for a personal review of the event and mentions on social media. Opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the same as the official views of the event organisers. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.