Tag Archives: Oxfordshire

Sunshine & Good Times: Folk Weekend Oxford 2018

The recent heat wave coincided perfectly with the seventh Folk Weekend Oxford (19-21 April 2018), which seems to get better every year. It’s one of those festivals where you might not know very many of the bands on the line-up beforehand, but which always delivers in terms of quality, fun and a friendly community feel, something many of the larger festivals simply cannot offer.

Jo Rosie Penny FWO Volunteers.jpg

Before my first stewarding shift on Friday night I had plenty of time for a pizza in the sunny backyard of The Rusty Bicycle pub and a leisurely stroll around the Cowley Road charity shops. Then I was off to St. Barnabas church in the Jericho neighbourhood, just north of Oxford City Centre. The ceilidhs always draw quite a crowd (up to 200 dancers) as the festival puts on fantastic live bands every year and this time was no exception. I was very impressed with the sound of Banter, one of the most quirky ceilidh bands I’ve come across so far, whose sound goes far beyond English traditional music including jazz, pop and soul influences. Unsurprisingly, they were a huge hit with the dancing crowd. The night also included a performance by local rapper (sword dance) team Mabel Gubbins.

Venue Sign FWO.jpg

After an incredibly sunny Friday, I woke up to more sunshine and met up for breakfast with a friend for coffee and exceptionally good cake at Barefoot Café on Walton Street before checking out some of the morris spots around town for live dancing with sides from various traditions, including Black Annis Women’s Morris and their adorable canine mascot Hattie (see pic further down). Around lunchtime we headed to one of my favourite Oxford venues, the airy hall of the Quaker Meeting House for a concert of traditional folk music, which included Dan Evans and Rebecca Hallworth (see pic below). Dan is a renowned fingerstyle mountain dulcimer player who also held an interesting workshop on the history and different styles of instruments on Sunday afternoon.

Dan Evans Rebecca Hallworth FWO.jpg

There was just enough time for dropping into Blackwells bookshop’s Norrington room for a set by young contemporary singer-songwriter Martha Bailey (see pic below) and a quick burrito dinner before my shift at the Wesley Memorial Church. The line-up consisted of Oxford vocal duo Hoverhawk, traditional singer Nick Dow and a solo set by one of the festival headliners, Eliza Carthy, who obviously drew the crowds for this event.

Martha Bailey FWO.jpg

On Sunday morning, during breakfast at the Nosebag restaurant, I got talking to another festival goer, who told me their Appalachian dance team, Cornucopia (see pic below), would be performing around lunchtime in the pedestrian area on Cornmarket. Their spot was one of my favourite performances all weekend and got a lot of positive reactions from locals and tourists alike. I then made my way over to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Centre where I caught half of the Topette workshop, a French-Anglo collaboration including Andy Cutting. They played some very beautiful dance tunes and spoke about the joys and challenges of working together across cultures and borders.

Cornucopia Appalachian Dance FWO.jpg

As I had not managed to join any workshops yesterday, I decided it was time for some dancing on the festival’s last day. So I took part in the Harlequin Morris Cotswold morris workshop (hankies and bells) for an hour. After we had warmed up for a few minutes we got taught a routine of various steps, jumps and hanky movements accompanied by accordion music. Let’s just say it was an ‘interesting experience’ and is a lot harder than it looks, but I think I’ll stick to Irish set dancing in future. It was great to see, however, that the class attracted people of all ages, including some enthusiastic youngsters, and we did manage to learn a whole routine in the short time we had.

Hattie FWO.jpg

My last event of the festival was a great ‘Meet the Artist’ session with Ross Couper (from Shetland, now based in Glasgow) and Tom Oakes (from Devon, now based in Edinburgh). I had last seen the pair play one of the BBC Seirm recording sessions at Celtic Connections back in January and had been well impressed by their energetic performance and expert use of fiddle (Ross) and guitar (Tom).

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Of course, I managed to only catch a fraction of the huge programme for all ages, which was on offer during the weekend. I love supporting smaller festivals and I’m always amazed at how entirely volunteer-run events, such as Folk Weekend Oxford, manage to pull off such a big event so well. It’s usually down to a lot of hard work by a dedicated committee and many volunteers (like Jo, Rosie & Penny in first picture) throughout the year.

I highly recommend visiting the beautiful city of Oxford (picture above is Christ Church) during the festival to see for yourself what a positive impact such a community event can have. You might come back with a new idea what grassroots arts are all about, get a more in-depth understanding of local heritage and culture and have a lot of fun with like-minded people!

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Caledonia Dreaming: Banbury Folk & Hobby Horse Festival 2017

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!

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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!

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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.

Gisela & Dave the Hat

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.

Banbury Tooley's Boatyard.jpg

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.

Banbury Hobby Horse.jpg

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.

Banbury Dougie MacLean.jpg

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.

Banbury Paula Ryan

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.

Hobby Horse Farewell

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…

Banbury Town Parade.jpg