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Happy Campers Despite The Rain: Cambridge Folk Festival 2017

Of the three years I’ve been to Cambridge Folk Festival, the 52nd edition, from 27-31 July 2017, was the least euphoric for me (for lack of coming up with a better adjective for it). The weather was not great on most days and really sucked on Saturday night plus there wasn’t really any act that I was dying to see live this time. On top of that, on the last festival night, I managed to pick a bus to the campsite with a driver how wasn’t in the mood to do the roundabout thing, which I’d been looking forward to practically for a year. Having said all that, I still had a great time because of the fantastic new music I discovered, the always friendly vibe, the yummy food and last but most definitely not least the fun team I worked with (third year in a row).

Main Stage Crowd CFF 2017.jpg

Of the acts I did catch I was most impressed by a few of the bands I had not seen before like the excellent She Drew the Gun from Liverpool, Amythyst Kiah from Tennessee, the Indigo Girls with guest band member Lucy Wainwright, Juanita Stein, Worry DollsMoxie and Daoirí Farrell (both from Ireland), 2017 Grammy winner Fantastic Negrito (see second pic below), The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, Blue Rose Code and Scottish band Admiral Fallow (see pic below), the last set of the festival for me and the perfect end to this year’s event.

Admiral Fallow CFF 2017.JPG

Acts I didn’t care much for were Jake Bugg (really doesn’t compare at all to, say, the Passenger performance in 2015, but still attracted lots of screaming selfie-taking teenagers) and, a bit unexpectedly, Shirley Collins, whose main stage performance was rather uninspiring and who seemed to favour sticking with just music from the past and dissing musicians creating new ‘folk’ music. Surely traditional music was also new at some point and it’s exciting to witness the emergence of new folk songs, the best of which are bound to be classics one day while keeping the best of traditional folk music alive as well.

We also got some fantastic surprise sets at the Clapham’s Common After Hours Stage (my favourite way to relax after a long festival day) with appearences by Jon Boden (yes, really!) and lots of other great performers until about 1.30am most nights. The campsite was still fairly quiet overall and I had a few good nights’ sleep.

Fantastic Negrito CFF 2017.JPG

Instead of doing a run-down of my festival weekend I thought this time around I’ll answer a few questions people tend to ask me about going to festivals. Here we go…

What is it like working at a festival?

I do a mix of attending festivals with a press pass, volunteering and, like at Cambridge, working as part of the festival team. Each of them have their advantages and disadvantages. With a press pass you tend to have easier access and can see any acts you want, but it can also be a bit boring as it takes more effort to interact with people if you’re there by yourself. As a volunteer you have a ready-made group of pals you work and hang out with, which is great fun and a lot more sociable and you still get to see a lot of acts as you generally get given a festival pass. I try and volunteer only at festivals that ask for no more than 4 hours per day, as I think any longer shifts are basically work and should be paid accordingly. At Cambridge we do about 6-8 hours of paid work a day and as you’re staff it comes with a bit more responsibility than simply being a volunteer. But it’s so great to work with other people who are motivated and to make sure, together as a team, the audience is having a fun and is having a safe festival experience. As we are usually the first to notice if anything doesn’t go according to plan (accidents, logistical issues, lost children, the lot), we really get to see how much work and coordination it takes to make such a large event happen and how good teamwork positively contributes to it.

Stewards CFF 2017.jpg

Isn’t camping sort of roughing it and not very enjoyable?

I first started festival camping in 2012 when I made the crucial mistake of buying a super light tent with only one skin. It makes me cringe thinking back to that summer when my little tent got flooded by rain and after a wet and uncomfortable night I headed into the nearest town desperate to buy a sturdier model. Since then I’ve had the best of times with my ‘happy tent’ (see pic below), a 3-man dome tent, which is just perfect for one person actually. It fits my self-inflatable sleeping mat and sleeping bag on one side and my handluggage-sized trolley and other bits and pieces on the other side. I only go to festivals with reasonable shower and toilet facilities, so do read the FAQs of the festival(s) you’re planning to go to. I also always travel by public transport, so it’s essential to keep everything to a minimum while still bringing enough change of clothes, wellies etc. to keep you comfy no matter what the weather gods throw at you. Although there tend to be very few thefts and festival security patrolling the camp sites at most festivals I’ve been to, it’s also wise to not leave any valuables in the tent if you can avoid it. Some festivals offer lockers or you might be able to ask a neighbour in a Campervan to keep things for you if needed. Campers tend to be friendly, helpful folks, so don’t be shy to ask for help and offer it yourself if you see anyone struggling with putting up their tent (we’ve all been there).

Happy Tent CFF 2017.jpg

Don’t you get lonely attending a festival by yourself?

I love solo travel and that also applies to festivals. Most of my friends are not quite as excited about festivals as I am and I’m not quite as excited about drinking, smoking and just hanging out when there are the most amazing bands on the line-up. So I just tend to have more fun on my own. Yes, the first night when you don’t know anyone yet, can be a bit lonely, but it’s a great opportunity to get out of your comfort zone and talk to new people or learn to sit with that feeling of loneliness, which is also a good experience from time to time. I always bring books to read and a journal to write in and there is so much on all the time that I hardly ever have any spare time anyway. Like already mentioned above, volunteering or working at a festival is a great way of meeting new and most of all trustworthy people, who can keep you a seat or look after your bag while you’re off to the loo, all of which is a bit more difficult when you’re on your own.

Molly Orange CFF 2017.jpg

What do you recommend bringing to a festival?

I hate being cold even more than being too warm. So I always pack a blanket, a hot water bottle (onsite ambulance stations or coffee vans sometimes let you fill those if you ask nicely or you can bring a travel kettle if there are plugs around the site), a water bottle as festivals always have taps for drinking water (saves the environment and quite a bit of cash, which you could spend on artist merch instead), band aids, dry shampoo, plastic bags (you can never have enough of those, especially when the weather is bad) and for those weekends when it gets really sunny don’t forget your sun protection and a hat.

Women in Music CFF 2017.jpg

How do I get to be in the front row for a particular set?

Every festival is different, but at Cambridge you basically have the largest stage (stage 1), the slightly smaller stage 2 and the Club Tent (talks/Q&As, folk clubs and more traditional music during the day, fairly up-tempo acts at night) plus The Den (up and coming acts, just outside the main festival area). For both stages 1 and 2 I recommend getting to the front at the end of the set just before the one you want to see. If you get there only by the start time of your preferred artist, that is usually too late, so you do need to plan ahead. Having said that, Cambridge is always fairly relaxed and you won’t have to worry much about it being too crowded and claustrophobic. The tents are open on two sides (stage 1) or three sides (stage 2) and this might be an English thing, but there are often gaps in the middle as most people tend to stand around the edges, so if you say ‘excuse me’ a lot in a friendly way while threading your way through the crowd, you might get further to the front even if it looks busy from outside the tent. People are also generally willing to let children stand in the front. During the Indigo Girls set on Friday night, there was a girl even sleeping in between other people’s legs right behind the front row, so it’s definitely no problem with little ones.

My partner doesn’t care much for music, what else is there to do?

Cambridge has lots of alternative activities on all day and most of them take place by the Duck Pond, a bit outside the main arena. The Hub offers workshops for children and young people (craft, dance, music), the Flower Garden does too (talks, storytelling, music workshops) and there is a healing area as well with Tai Chi, yoga (sadly missed both sessions this time), positive thinking, drawing and willow art. There is also a café there where you can refuel in between workshops. Plus you have a lot of fun stalls to explore in the main arena offering jewellery (like this very well designed one below), fancy dress, instruments, CDs and more.

Jewellery Stall CFF 2017.jpg

What do you eat at festivals as a vegetarian or vegan?

It is actually at festivals where quite a few pop-up stalls with inventive veggie and vegan food started out and there is no problem whatsoever at most UK festivals to eat meat-free all weekend (but do confirm this on the website of the festival you are planning on attending). At Cambridge I had a choice of curries, salads, smoothies, Indian street food, burritos, cakes, wood oven pizza and more and a veggie version of the ‘full English’ is pretty standard, too, nowadays. As a staff member, I was lucky to also get to eat at Red Radish backstage once a day, who had the yummiest veggie and vegan dishes every day, such as delicious curry with melons and vegan Bolognese pasta.

Veggie Food CFF 2017.jpg

While my first ever Cambridge Folk Festival in 2015 was still the best one so far for me, 2017 was definitely very enjoyable again. And the fact that Rhiannon Giddens (video snippet of her 2015 set) will be taking over from Jon Boden next year as a guest festival curator (besides Bev Burton who took over the main festival programmer job from Eddie Barcan this year) is already a great reason to attend next year, too!

Stage 1 Friday CFF 2017

P.S. This year there was an all-female line-up for stage 1, which should be a great example for other festivals to up their female musicians percentage. I personally think it would work even better if it wasn’t all condensed into one day and just spread throughout the weekend, but what’s important is that Bev and the team have obviously given it a thought and are helping to make positive change happen. Excellent!

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Where Tradition Meets Pop Culture: Hyper Japan Festival July 2017

If the aim of Hyper Japan, which took place from 14-16 July 2017 in London, is to get you excited about Japanese culture and about visiting Japan, it definitely did a top job! I’ve been to Japan twice, once as part of a twin town exchange staying with host families and exploring cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Nara and then nearly a decade later visiting my friends again during a round the world trip. It’s a fascinating country with stunning scenery, super friendly people, lots of cultural events and festivals to explore and the most yummy food you can imagine.

Hyper Japan Fuku Mariwo.jpg

So I was very intrigued what Hyper Japan would be like. Most of the people I met had been a few times and I could easily see why. There was just so much on offer. They had a large live music stage, Hyper Live, where I saw some Japanese bands like electronic music outfit REOL (really loved their energy and sound, even though I normally never listen to this kind of music) and Fuku Mariwo (see pic above, who plays the traditional nagauta string instrument, but has a modern sound and also had a fantastic dancer with her). After the concerts, you could line up for a ‘meet and greet’ with your favourite artist and get CDs and other merchandise signed.

Hyper Japan cosplay.jpg

There was also another spot where acts performed on the lower ground floor, including Tokyo Rickshaw (see pic below), a J-pop boy band outfit, who had the crowd clapping along in no time. It was really interesting getting an insight into the Japanese popular music scene and the band was a big hit with the mostly younger London festival goers. Lots of them were dressed in elaborate cosplay outfits (see pic above, a world I know nothing about, but which was fantastic to experience) and the atmosphere was generally lively, friendly and fun. I had a quick look around the gaming and anime centre as well, where you could try out lots of new games and consoles with your friends.

Hyper Japan Tokyo Rikshaw.jpg

A big part of Hyper Japan are the numerous stalls offering handmade or branded ‘kawaii’ (cute) products, which is a huge thing in Japan. Not having been exposed to so many pastel-coloured fluffy toys, buttons, bags, outfits and accessories of all types since my last trip there, it was great to browse the stalls and speak to some of the vendors, including Hideyuki Izumi (see pic below) who creates elaborate hand-painted resin necklaces and rings. Many of the stall holders are on Etsy and really loved their creativity and enthusiasm. There were also lots of stalls for traditional and pop-culture clothes and a Japanese pottery shop. Although I did quite well not buying a lot early on, resistance was pretty much futile once I saw a ceramic bowl with a rabbit motive and matching chopsticks and also ended up purchasing some unicorn festival earrings (a work-related expense, really!), animal stickers and other kawaii stationery.

Hyper Japan Hideyuki Izumi.jpg

It was definitely time to take a shopping break and I headed to the Hyper Theatre just in time for a fascinating talk with Japanese anime creators. Most of the people in the room knew all about the different series and films and were thrilled to be able to ask Michihiko Suwa (Detective Conan producer) and Atsushi Maekawa (screenwriter of Dragon Ball Z, Fresh Pretty Cure etc.) questions on their career and their latest releases. Afterwards I had a chat with the two interpreters, Chie Kutsuwada and Inko (see pic below), who are actually both manga artists and illustrators themselves, fantastic!

Hyper Japan interpreters.jpg

This session was followed by a talk by travel experts from Tokyo, Wakayama and the islands of Okinawa. While I’ve been to Tokyo during my past trips (but was surprised to learn the mega city also boasts beaches and forest trails), I had not heard much about the beauty of Wakayama prefecture before, which is centrally located near Osaka and Nara and offers lots of outdoor activities, onsen (hot springs) and opportunities to stay overnight at various Buddhist shinto temples. Sadly, it is also where an annual dolphin hunt still takes place in Taiji every September (as highlighted in The Cove documentary), which I’m sure even lots of Japanese people are not aware of, so do check out The Dolphin Project. Okinawa is a group of beautiful islands with lots of historic sights and stunning beaches in the Pacific Ocean which I’d love to explore in future. On the ground floor level were also stalls from different travel providers to help you put together the perfect trip to Japan or plan a language holiday.

Hyper Japan sake display.jpg

This was followed by a visit to the Sake Experience, which I got to try for free, but would have been well worth the £15 as you get to try 24 (!) sake from different regions of Japan and learn lots about them from the producers. We were moving around the nine stalls in small groups and in mine (see pic below) were a Glaswegian woman, an English guy living in Japan as well as two Nepalese girls. We had so much fun trying the very different flavours and talking with the sake experts. Most of the traditional ones were a bit too strong for me, but I absolutely adored all the sparkling sake (think Prosecco) and there was even a ‘jelly sake’ to try. We got to rate them all afterwards and vote for our favourites at the end of the tour. It was just as well there was so much delicious and authentic Japanese food on offer in the food court to balance out the sake experience, and these included cooked savoury dishes, sushi, desserts and ice cream and veggie options were available, too.

Hyper Japan Sake Experience group.jpg

Somehow the day went by in no time and I could totally see why people would spend the whole weekend here. The 3-day programme is really varied and there were lots of tables and chairs to sit in the courtyards if you needed a break from all the shopping and excitement plus the location (Tobacco Dock, near Shadwell Station in East London) is easily accessible. There were also some great Japanese craft workshops on offer (which could have probably done with a brighter and less tucked away space) and documentary screenings, both of which I would have loved to have done as well, but simply had no time for.

I was very impressed with my first visit to Hyper Japan and am hoping to also make it to the winter edition, which will take place from 24-26 November 2017.

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a press 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.

Music is for Everyone: Folk Weekend Oxford 2017

Folk Weekend Oxford (21-23 April 2017) is in its 6th year this year and although it is largely volunteer-run, it punches way above its weight with a packed three-day programme for all ages. I’ve been back stewarding this year and it was great seeing some familiar faces and meeting lots of other folk music enthusiasts of all ages. The festival, whose patrons are Jackie Oates and Bellowhead’s John Spiers, has a truly inclusive ethos, believes that the arts are for everyone and most of the venues are fully accessible. At the stewards briefing we also learned some basic Makaton signs to use, my favourite being the one for cake. Ready for a weekend of music and fun!

Oxford Canal fwo2017

After leaving my bags with my Airbnb hosts on Friday afternoon and a delicious wood-fired pizza at The Rusty Bicycle off Cowley Road, I did a tour of Oxford’s charity shops and then headed to Wesley Memorial Church for my first stewarding shift at the opening concert of the festival with melodeon player and singer Ollie King, acoustic folk band with a Russian twist, KARA, and Jim Moray, who reminded me again why folk music is so relevant in today’s complex world by helping us to reflect on and make sense of what’s happening around us.

Opening Ceremony fwo2017

Saturday was a packed day which started with a performance by the festival choir (picture above) led by director Cat Kelly (read an interview with her here) on the Ashmolean Museum forecourt. All day there were morris performances in the town squares and lots of opportunities to join in, be it in the many ceilidhs (you never need to bring a partner and can learn all dances on the spot) or Scandinavian ‘bals’ or by learning a new skill, like playing the spoons, or making folk-related crafts.

I was glad that I had opted for another concert on Saturday afternoon as I caught Jackie Oates and Megan Henwood (their new EP ‘Wings’ is beautiful) who performed a stunning set of songs and harmonised perfectly, accompanied by guitar (Megan) and fiddle (Jackie). Their performance was followed by well-known Sheffield-based Melrose Quartet (picture below) showcasing their latest album ‘Dominion’. I spent the evening at St Barnabas Church in the Jericho area of Oxford stewarding at a ceilidh with musical accompaniment ably provided by The Discussion Topic (including a full drumset!). It was a lovely, energetic crowd of all ages and we got to join in a bit as well in our breaks.

Melrose Quartet fwo2017

Somehow the time always goes by way too fast on festival weekends and I decided to do my best to slow it down by attending a song writing workshop with Somerset singer-songwriter Ange Hardy (picture below) on Sunday morning. We tried our hands at different ways of approaching song writing, first using nursery rhymes as a structural starting point, then letting ourselves be guided by the memories evoked by scent and finally working with a drawing or picture. The next talk by Mike Heaney was entitled ‘The Complete and Utter History of Morris (in 60 minutes)’ and it was fascinating to learn a bit more about its origins and different morris dancing traditions from around the country.

songwriting workshop fwo2017

In the afternoon I headed back to Jericho for another ceilidh and dropped into The Quaker Meeting House on the way back into town, which was also one of the festival venues and has a fabulous flower garden – a nice spot for a break in the sun. Just like at Grinagog two weeks ago, we were lucky with the weather all weekend and I do hope this trend continues in the next few months.

stewards fwo2017

If you live in Oxford or are planning a visit, make sure you check out and support Folk Arts Oxford, the non-profit behind the festival, as they put on community events all year round. I’m already looking forward to next year’s festival!

 

Sea, Sun & Fun: Grinagog Festival 2017

Officially billed as a ‘weekend of mudless mischief by the sea’, the brand new Grinagog Festival, which took place from 7-9 April 2017 in Torquay, Devon, had a pretty enviable start. Most summer festivals in the UK would have been thrilled with three days in a row of sunshine and temperatures of around 20 degrees, never mind a location right by the sea – and it was only the beginning of April. I travelled down to Torquay on the train (3 hr journey for less than £40 return and a direct connection from London) and combined my festival experience with exploring the nearby attractions.

Torre Abbey Grinagog

Most of the festival venues were located in and around historic Torre Abbey (originally founded as a monastery in 1196) and the Riviera Centre right next to it. With a family day taking place on Saturday (graffiti workshops, crazy golf, family rave, storytelling, the lot) and most headliners (Akala, Rat Boy, Congo Natty) having been scheduled for way after midnight for the younger party crowd, the event catered for distinct groups of festival goers while also allowing everyone to get a taster of music they might not have heard of, but might well enjoy. I also managed to catch the world premiere of a documentary on the rise and fall of ‘The Lost Vagueness’, a quirky part of Glastonbury for many years. On Saturday afternoon, everyone gathered on the lawn beside the RICC and followed the giant Grinagog paper mache puppet (lovingly made by Egg Shed Arts) and the Grinagog Carnival & Samba Band down to the sea.

Saturday was also my favourite day music-wise as the London-based The Nest Collective put on a great selection of well-known and up-and-coming folky acts in the chapel, the ballroom and the undercroft downstairs. These included Miranda Sykes & Rex Preston (who apparently won’t be together as a duo for that much longer, what a pity), The Carrivick Sisters (who play about five different instruments each), Cynefin (singing in Welsh), folk duo Phil & Hannah and The Ceilidh Liberation Front, who put on a great ceilidh in the Spanish Barn. There were also lots of opportunities for local music acts to show off their skills on the Soundlaunch Buskers Stage outside Torre Abbey and some of the other tents.

Grinagog Puppet

Fair play to the organisers (including DJ Chris Tofu of Contintental Drifts) for putting on such a huge variety of live music plus talks, films and lots of side activities, such as a roller disco, paddle boarding, trapeze workshops, swimming pool parties etc. Personally, I found the huge line-up a little overwhelming and due to the great weather a lot of the acts scheduled in the many indoor venues earlier in the day were playing mostly to only a handful of people. I trust, however, that once the festival has established itself on the event calendar, many of those details (maybe a few additional food vendors including more veggie options, more site art/themed decorations, less noise interruption by drop-in visitors at quieter gigs) will be ironed out eventually. The main question a new festival like Grinagog needs to ask itself is what kind of event it wants to be and what it wants to achieve. I’m a big fan of specialised festivals (one genre of music, documentaries etc.) as the attendees tend to just have more in common and it’s often still possible to make them accessible to a wider audience by offering a taster day/sessions. Having said that, more general, but uniquely branded festivals, such as End of the Road or Larmer Tree, which appeal to families as well as other groups of festival goers and attract repeat customers by offering an escape from everyday life with well-known music acts as well as quality arts and culture programming, can also be hugely popular. While the possibilities are endless, the financial aspects of running a festival successfully, especially in today’s economic climate and such a crowded market, cannot be overestimated, and are a big factor for survival.

The best part of the weekend, as always, were the passionate people making it happen and the friendly punters. I met a couple with a toddler who’d just returned to Devon after living in Japan, two visiting yoga teachers, a local financial advisor and part-time musician and lots of other locals, many of them with adorable dogs of all shapes and sizes. Especially the younger ones were thrilled to have this new kind of event in a traditional English seaside town where chippies, souvenir shops and bars putting on cover bands tend to dominate the main street. There is definitely a great potential for more collaborations with local businesses to further bridge the divide between traditional and new and creative in future. It will be exciting to see what a big smiling beast of a festival Grinagog develops into in the coming years. I, for one, was chuffed to have been invited to its first birthday bash and hope it will be with us for many more years to come!

Torquay harbour sunset

P.S. If you’re visiting Torquay or one of the nearby towns I can recommend a walk to Cockington Village with its thatched cottages, less than half an hour on foot from Torquay train station and a stop at The Blue Walnut Café along the way (it even boasts a tiny cinema). From Cockington take the path down to the sea, it’s idyllic. I also really enjoyed a return ferry trip (30 mins each way, £3 return) to Brixham, strolling along the fishing harbour and watching kids catching crabs as well as walks to Baddacombe beach and Anstey Cove, which has a basic but friendly café right by the sea, well worth the 15-minute detour on foot.

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a press 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.

A Bookish Weekend Up North: The Manchester Literature Festival 2016

manchester-literature-festival-2016-logoI really love discovering a city through its cultural venues and this October I spent a weekend in Manchester to attend a few of the Manchester Literature Festival events. Running from 7 to 23 October 2016 and in its 11th year, the city-wide festival offered over 80 readings and talks for book lovers. I managed to catch these great events:

An Evening with Jackie Kay Manchester-based writer Jackie Kay, is always a pleasure to listen to. The event at Halle St Peter’s was chaired by Rachel Cooke, who guided the conversation from Jackie’s childhood with her adoptive parents in Glasgow, to her early years as a young poet up to the present time becoming Scotland’s ‘makar’ (poet laureate) in March 2016 and planning a new project based on visiting all the Scottish islands (sounds fascinating!). There is always such an interesting contrast between Jackie’s bubbly, outgoing personality and her thoughtful, melodic poetry, often dealing with some serious subject matter. I was glad I picked up her memoir Red Dust Road, which chronicles the search for her birth parents in Scotland and Nigeria, after the reading. While the book is partly incredibly sad, it is a fascinating, multi-layered read, which is also extremely funny and honest.

Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi This event was held at the Central Library and featured one of Sudan’s best known poets who has been based in the UK since 2012. After a bilingual reading of his poetry in Arabic and English, the writer was interviewed by author Travis Elborough. I’m always interested to learn about cultures I don’t know much about and languages I don’t speak. As a translator, this often reminds me of the language barriers that need to be overcome in order for different cultures to understand each other and poetry is definitely one of the most beautiful ways to accomplish this.

ann-cleeves-event-manchester

Shetland with Ann Cleeves When I was visiting Glasgow for Celtic Connections last January someone recommended the TV series Shetland to me. Having never been a fan of crime dramas or novels, I reluctantly gave it a go, but was quickly hooked by it, like so many of us have been. So of course I jumped at the chance to see the author of the Shetland series, Ann Cleeves, in conversation with lead scriptwriter Gaby Chiappe and actor Alison O’Donnell, who plays Tosh in the series. The event (see image above) chaired by broadcaster Erica Wagner provided a fascinating insight into the writing and adaptation process and it was lovely to see how well the collaboration seems to have worked in this case.

As it was my first visit to Manchester I also tried to get a good bit of – mostly literary – sightseeing in over the weekend. Here are some of my highlights:

chethams-library-manchester-1

Literature-related museums and places: The John Rylands Library is part of the University of Manchester and the historic building dates back to 1824. I was even more impressed with a tour of Chetham’s Library (pictured above) the oldest free public reference library in the United Kingdom, which, together with the renowned school of music, was established as early as 1653. Not specifically literature-related, but well worth a visit is The People’s History Museum. It has some fascinating exhibits and brings the history of working people in Britain to life, right up to the present day. Second hand and comic bookshop Paramount Books, near the Shudehill bus station is a great place for stocking up on reading material about the city and further afield.

nexus-art-cafe-manchester

Cosy cafes & pubs (with lots of veggie options): I ate at quite a few places during the weekend, which included The Earth Café (great veggie curry and desserts) in the basement of the Manchester Buddhist Centre. Another favourite was the fairly well hidden Nexus Art Café (cakes, coffee, snacks, see their courtyard above) as well as Common (extremely yummy veggie chili cheese fries). For a coffee or tea break you can’t go wrong with a visit to North Tea Power or Home Sweet Home. On Sunday night I headed to Odd Bar for a few drinks and some (by chance excellent) live Americana with The Wicked Path. I didn’t have enough time to make it to HOME and The Deaf Institute (they apparently do a great vegan hangover all day brunch on Sundays) this time, but did take a look at The Pilcrow Pub (see below), one of Manchester’s newest community ventures, which was largely built by volunteers (how cool is that?!).

pilcrow-pub-manchester

Mind Over Matter: Soul Circus Yoga & Wellness Festival 2016

I started my yoga journey nearly a year ago and it must have been around the same time when the idea for Soul Circus (19 – 21 August 2016) was conceived by the festival founders, Matt, Ella and Roman. When Matt contacted me about the event earlier this year I was very impressed by their concept: a wellbeing-focused yoga festival with music and food thrown into the equation and thereby bridging the gap between the yoga, music, foodie and wellness communities. It was an experiment I was most happy to be part of.

yoga foto 3 main tent

YOGA: The top reason most of us gathered for Soul Circus in a rural part of Gloucestershire on a fairly rainy, windy weekend in August was the yoga classes with teachers from the UK and abroad. Three distinct yoga areas (Hot Tipi, Experience Tipi & Main Sail Tent) plus an arial yoga set-up offered plenty of options to choose from. As I had hurt my hand just two days before the festival and felt a bit under the weather in general, I soon realised that instead of energetically throwing myself into all sorts of exciting workshops, I’d have to adjust my expectations to match my physical and emotional state. How refreshing to then discover a class by the lovely Kate Lister whose positive energy was seriously infectious and we found ourselves giggling more than once while trying to balance in a particular pose. And there was even group singing, woohoo. Without the self-imposed pressure of having to try as many classes as possible, I opted for quite a few meditative and theory-focused sessions instead. This turned out to be an excellent choice as it not only helped me to keep my energy up throughout the weekend despite the partly adverse weather conditions, it also inspired me to focus more on the spiritual side of yoga. The mindfulness talk by Charlie Taylor Rugman in association with Warrior Wear (another inspiring yoga start-up story) in the Experience Tipi on Saturday as well as his pranayama class the next morning provided a lot of food for thought and motivated me to further improve my own home yoga and meditation practice. The only class I decided to go to despite my inclination to hang out on one of the cosy beanbags around the corner instead was a yin yoga class by Evelyn Cribbin. I know I need more yin to balance out the many yang aspects in my life, yet this has always been the most challenging part of my yoga practice. But hey, I got through it (Evelyn’s soothing voice and clear instructions were a great help) and, in time, I might even learn to enjoy it. The last session of the festival for me was a very interesting and down to earth yoga anatomy class with Emily Young. In the large Main Sail Tent we had 90 minutes to explore pretty much every muscle in our bodies, do some partner work and learn how this knowledge could benefit our posture and lives in general.

Ushti Baba Soul Circus

MUSIC: Being a big fan of quality live music I was very curious what The Fat Hat Collective from Bristol would come up with on their live music stage. Let me tell you, they didn’t disappoint! In fact, it was a great pity so many of the yoga classes overlapped with some excellent band slots, but I’ve noted all their details and they will most likely appear on another part of this blog at some stage. Their mix of dub, gypsy, folky, jazz and R&B sounds plus some spoken word and even a Mongolian acrobatics display were wonderfully eclectic and all excellent. In case you’d like a taste of the fab music we enjoyed for three days, make sure you give these guys and the rest of the collective members a listen: Lounge Cat Ideals, Mount Nakara, Snufkin, The Inexplicables (who I missed as I was already wrapped up in my sleeping bag by that time, but who come recommended), Ushti Baba & Solus. Kudos not only to the musicians but also to the stage crew who successfully battled wind and rain most of the weekend to provide us with quality sounds!

breakfast Soul Circus

FOOD: I admit I’m a big fan of burrito and wood-fired pizza stalls at festivals which would be a great addition next time around. However, the food on offer at Soul Circus was of some of the best quality I’ve ever had in a festival setting! Raw vegan chef Jay Halford and team as well as the always cheerful Asparagasm crew did a particularly good job of offering a yummy selection of breakfasts, mains and desserts all day long. In addition, there were also other options, such as a curry and salad stall, (vegan) ice cream and croquettes. Some of the festival partners, such as Plenish, Wholefoods Cheltenham (the knowledgeable local team did great wine & cheese tasting sessions), Positivitea and Rude Health also offered snacks, hot/cold drinks and breakfast items plus there was a daily gin happy hour provided by The Little Gin Company in the Kit and Ace lounge, so it is well worth upgrading to a VIP ticket. With their concept of working with select sponsors/partners who enhance the festival experience while helping to provide funding for the event, Soul Circus seems to have struck a positive balance. This might not work for every festival on the planet, but particularly in the high end sector, it can be a clever and sustainable strategy, if the partners are well-aligned with the values of the event.

Meet the Founders Talk Soul Circus

WELLNESS & LEARNING: With the weather being less than ideal, especially on the Saturday, many festival attendees took advantage of the onsite sauna, hot tubs and complimentary treatments by Liz Earle Spa, who also provided some luxurious toiletries in the showers and toilet block. I personally greatly enjoyed the ‘Food and Travel’ talk in the Kit and Ace lounge by Tom Perkins, author of ‘Spices & Spandex’, who told us of his –  sometimes very adventurous – travels, mostly by bike, around the world and the deeply inspiring encounters with locals he had had along the way. Another session hosted by Kit and Ace which proved very interesting, was the ‘Meet the Founders’ talk with Plenish founder Kara Rosen, and Soul Circus founders Matt Millar and Ella Guilding. As with so many things in life what really counts is having a good idea, finding business partners who complement your own skills, getting genuine target audience feedback, tweaking the product or service accordingly, getting influencers on board and keep working hard towards your envisaged goal.

tent village Soul Circus

All in all, a well-planned first edition of a growing event with a lot of future potential (not only) for the UK the yoga community in the years to come. I made some lovely new yogi friends (among them @76sunflowers, her own review here) from different areas of the UK and further afield and was genuinely impressed by the many friendly volunteer helpers who always seemed to have a smile on their faces. And even if you aren’t a yoga addict (just yet), with this much entertainment and pampering on offer, you could happily spend a day or too relaxing, eating nurturing food and enjoying the fantastic live music. If there is anything that could still be optimised it would probably be keeping the yoga tents and the music stage a bit further apart, so each can be enjoyed fully and separately. It would also be wonderful if bottled water used across the site could be switched to mostly tap water and the transport options for train users could be improved in order to further decrease the ecological footprint of the festival. Other than that, Ella, Roman, Matt and the rest of the team are definitely onto a successful festival format, which is bound to add greatly to the growing yoga festival circuit in the UK.

Read the Life is a Festival interview with Matt Millar, one of the Soul Circus founders, on how the inaugural festival came about here.

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a VIP pass for the 2016 festival in exchange for a personal review 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.

Folktastic: Warwick Folk Festival 2013

Morris Dancers Warwick
Another weekend, another festival. This time I headed to Warwick boasting an impressive medieval castle and, at the end of July, the Warwick Folk Festival (25 – 28 July 2013), which has been around for over three decades. It is one of the most trad-oriented festivals I’ve volunteered at so far and offers a diverse programme of concerts, ceilidhs, workshops of all kinds as well as children’s entertainment. While a large number of the events took place on the festival grounds beside the river Avon, there were also plenty of ‘fringe’ events happening in Warwick town centre. A handy shuttle bus ferried festival goers between the two locations. 
Jim Moray & band WarwickThe three evening concerts on the main stage included Jim Moray, O’Hooley & Tidow, Dervish, The Young’uns and an energetic performance by Le Vent du Nord, hailing from Quebec, on Sunday night. However, my favourite venue of the whole festival was the Co-op acoustic stage. Despite the noise of the espresso machine on the far side of the tent, it was the most atmospheric venue to me.
Nurse Roberts & Medicine Man WarwickFavourites were Sarah Horn & James Cudworth (also playing with Aelfen), Nurse Roberts & the Medicine Man and Brent Mason, a Canadian singer-songwriter, who we had a nice chat with on the train back to London.  O'Hooley & Tidow Warwick I also loved the sound of Salvation Jane, an Australian vocalist ensemble with beautiful harmonies, Niall Teague & the Fast Company, a dynamic Irish band, and folk septet The Old Dance SchoolThe Old Dance School Warwick Volunteering was fun. I had a couple of shifts at the main stage, one very uneventful afternoon one, while Saturday evening was as busy as it gets. There was a bit of a downpour for a few hours and everyone crowded into the huge and relatively dry and warm space. Was also happy with the spot we found for camping. Proper showers and toilets nearby and a bit hidden away from the main area, guaranteeing a few good nights of sleep (additionally improved by hot water supply for my hot water bottle from the first aid volunteers, thanks guys). All in all a very enjoyable musical weekend.
Tent view Warwick