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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.

Bellstone Marquee SFF 2017.jpg

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).

Eric Bibb SFF 2017.jpg

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).

Pig Dyke Molly SFF 2017.jpg

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.

Stone sign SFF 2017.jpg

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.

Festival Beach SFF 2017.jpg

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.

Bella and Ruby SFF 2017.jpg

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.

Tuba music SFF 2017.jpg

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 ;-).

Shuttle Bus SFF 2017.jpg

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.

Sunset flags SFF 2017.jpg

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Summer City Break Guide to Stockholm

Stockholm is one of my favourite cities in Europe and it’s easy to see why: beautiful architecture, a seaside location and stylish Nordic design. It was actually my second visit, but the first time was so long ago (12 years, unbelievably) that I decided to do two things, see the best summer sights with the help of Stockholm Pass and simply enjoy being by the sea in one of the most stunning cities of the world.

Stockholm Royal Canal Tour.jpg

Culture Festival & Walking Tour

I couldn’t have picked better weather or, indeed, a better time to visit as right when I arrived the Stockholm Culture Festival was on, which meant lots of free arts and music events around town. Perfect timing! I joined a Free Tour Stockholm walking tour of Gamla Stan (old town), one of which I try and catch in every city I visit, as the guides are usually enthusiastic, the crowd international and you often get lots of inofficial (read, more budget-friendly and authentic) tips for your visit. Our guide dropped us off near the Royal Palace and I heard some loud live music from a stage near the water. When I got closer, I realised it was one of the culture festival events and they had an India theme going, so I ended up eating the most delicious, freshly cooked masala dosa (pancakes) while watching the sun go down over the harbour.

Stockholm culture festival sunset.jpg

Getting the Most out of Your Stockholm Pass

The Stockholm Pass is really useful if, like me, you are trying to get a lot of sightseeing done in a short period of time. There are 24 hour (SEK 595), 48 hour (SEK 795) and 72 hour (SEK 995) options and they include many of the city’s top sights, but not public transport. A one-day travel pass can be added for SEK 120 and a three-day one is SEK 240 (each plus SEK 20 for the card itself). So it’s definitely not cheap, but simply add up what you’re planning on doing and see if it makes sense to get any of the above passes.

Just like in Gothenburg (see my travel guide), it makes sense to plan ahead, i.e. figure out what you most want to see and prioritise that. I opted for a Royal Canal Tour (normally SEK 190, there are also other canal tours, but this one is the one with the largest loop taking you all the way around Djurgarden). You can get your ticket at the ticket booth on Nybroplan (queue early, this is very popular in the summer!), but then walk the short distance over to Strömkajen to the first stop, so you get the best seats at the back of the boat. A must-see for Stockholm first-timers is the fascinating Vasa Museum (normally SEK 130), a restored warship, which sunk on its maiden voyage in 1628.

Stockholm Harbour View.jpg

Alas, I didn’t have time for photography museum Fotografiska (normally SEK 130), but it’s meant to be amazing, several people mentioned this to me as a highlight during their stay. The Sky View (normally SEK 150, free with the pass from 10am-12pm, SEK 30 afterwards) is something you can skip if necessary, as it’s outside the city centre and I wasn’t overly impressed with the views, but was fascinated how anyone can work at such a height (see pic below). Instead, opt for a Drottningholm Palace and Boat Tour (normally SEK 325), a visit to the Nobel Museum (normally SEK 100), Nordic Museum (normally SEK 100) or The Royal Palace (normally SEK 160).

Stockholm Sky View.jpg

Another thing I already loved last time around was visiting the world’s oldest open air museum Skansen (normally SEK 100-180), which opened in 1891, combined with a ‘fika’ (coffee and cake break) at one of my top happy places in the world, Rosendals Trädgard (see a pic of their beautiful flower gardens below)! Joining local families and visiting travellers at tables set up under the apple trees, it is a place that lets you forget you are in a buzzling Scandinavian capital. While it seems to have got even busier compared to when I was first here 12 years ago, it is still a place I love dearly and will return to again and again. Skansen is only a shortish walk or ride on tram 7 away and is so big, you could spend the whole day exploring the different areas, watching craftspeople at work, learning about Nordic animals or about domestic ones in the children’s area and seeing a variety of traditional Swedish houses and farm buildings.

Stockholm Rosendals Trädgard.jpg

As I was keen to repeat my lovely island experience from Gothenburg, I also took the boat to Stora Fjäderholmen island (normally SEK 145), a half hour boat trip from Nybroplan pier. There are thousands of islands in the Stockholm archipelago, but it would have taken way too long to get there, so I guess I’ll just have to return again. You can walk around the small island (see pic below) in no time and see glassblowers at work, look at wooden boats or watch the sailing boats go by from one of the cafes. Or, like me, share your lunch with Tyson, the island’s resident ginger tomcat (see Instagram for pictures).

Stockholm Stora Fjäderholmen Island.jpg

A great evening option included in the Stockholm Pass is the Grönalund amusement park (normally SEK 115-250 without rides). I was thrilled to see, after already having booked my flights, that the inspirational Patti Smith (I love her memoirs Just Kids and M Train), was going to play a gig on the last night of  my stay, plus, to top it all off, there was even a solar eclipse that night! To get in for free on a music night all you need to do is turn up before 6pm (I made it to the front row by arriving around 4pm, but just go when they open if the concert is important to you or join later if not). Needless to say, her gig was epic, such a lovely atmosphere and I met lots of other gig goers from different countries. It finished around 9.30pm and you can catch tram 7 to the city centre afterwards, they had plenty of extra buses, too.

Stockholm Gröna Lund Stage.jpg

Design Hotel or Quirky Hostel – Your Choice

I spent my three nights in Stockholm in three different places, all a few minutes walk from each other. I can recommend design hotels Tegnerlunden and Birger Jarl for a great night’s sleep (pictured below is the suite I stayed in at BJ, but the regular rooms are equally stylish, they are about a 15-20 minute walk or a short metro ride from the main train Station T Centralen) and both also had fantastic breakfast buffets. I only wish I’d had more time to enjoy them.

Stockholm Birger Jarl Suite.jpg

Alternatively, City Backpackers Hostel offers a central (10 minutes on foot from T Centralen) and friendly welcome to weary travellers on a budget. The four-bed dorm was comfy, they have great facilities and the breakfast (not included, neither are the sheets, probably the only downsides, but common in Scandinavia) was great, too.

Three More Tips

Make sure you don’t miss Kungsträdgarden metro station, as it has the most fascinating painted ceilings and walls, the below is just one section of it, google it, it looks amazing!

Stockholm Kungstradgarden Underground Station

Sweden is generally fairly expensive, but you can save your money and the environment by refilling your bottle with tap water, as it’s drinkable and there are water taps in public areas or just take it from any sink.

And, if you’re spending a whopping SEK 21 for a stamp on a postcard home, make sure your effort isn’t wasted by putting it in the bright yellow letterbox, not the blue one for local mail.

Stockholm letterboxes.jpg

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a 48 hour Stockholm Pass by the nice folks at Destination Stockholm. Prices are as of August 2017, please confirm them online before you go. Opinions expressed are those of the author. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.

 

Gothenburg Travel Guide – Using the City Card, Festivals & Island Hopping

The first time I went to Sweden I visited its capital Stockholm and absolutely loved it. But I’d also heard lots of good things about Sweden’s second city Gothenburg (or Göteborg in Swedish), so I decided to head there this time around. It has a lot of great museums and other attractions, many of which are included in the City Card, and lots of cultural and arts events all year round, such as the Göteborg Film Festival (January), popular music festival Way Out West (August), the Göteborg Book Fair (October) and also a large culture and arts festival, Kulturkalas, which happend to be on from 16-20 August 2017 when I was visiting.

Gothenburg Brännö Visit.jpg

The Kulturkalas Festival

Göteborg’s culture festival Kulturkalas has hundreds of free events for all ages happening around town every August and attracts huge numbers of visitors. As I was pretty lucky with the weather, it was a pleasure walking through the city’s parks, which were decorated for the festival and offered lots of things to try and lots of yummy pop-up food stalls. If you’re travelling with children, there are many craft workshops to try, even metalwork and I saw many small kids proudly pulling along little wooden carts, sometimes with a teddy bear in it, which they had made themselves. But there are also walking tours, a bus tour of all the churches of different religions around the city and non-stop live music on many stages and on some street corners. The main information tent is near Kungstorgsplatsen and the volunteers are happy to help you with finding events. Alas, most of the programme is in Swedish, with a smaller section in English, but they also have a great website, where you can search for individual types of events or by date. My favourite event was a contemporary dance performance at the Göteborg Opera, for which you just had to pick up a free ticket beforehand. I checked earlier that day and of course it was sold out, but decided to return just before it started and got a ticket without any problems as there are usually some returns. So never give up when someone tells you something is sold out (this applies to most events I go to in any city or country btw.).

Gothenburg Kulturkalas workshop.jpg

Is it Worth Getting the City Card?

I was lucky to have been given a 48 hour City Card to try, but would definitely buy one anyway, as it included many cool attractions as well as (unlike in Stockholm for instance) public transport (buses, trams AND ferries). The City Card starts at SEK 395 for 24 hours, SEK 545 for 48 hours and SEK 695 for 72 hours. This does sound like quite a lot if you’re on a budget, but a public transport ticket already sets you back SEK 90 for one day (a single trip is SEK 29) or SEK 180 for three days and you can easily do enough sightseeing in 1-3 days to get the best out of your card. All attractions mentioned below are included in the card, but don’t worry, you can also have a great time exploring the city on foot and for free if you like.

Gothenburg City Card.jpg

What Should I See? 

This is, of course, entirely up to your own travel preferences. As the weather was so good while I was visiting, I decided to spend two of my four days just exploring the islands (more below), but there are plenty of high-quality museums to keep you busy all day, such as the renowned Gothenburg Museum of Art, Maritiman (a collection of historic ships to explore in the harbour), Universeum (a science centre with a rainforest and ocean zone, open until 8pm on weekdays) and the Volvo Museum, if you’re a car lover. Sadly, the one I really wanted to see, the design museum Röhsska, is closed until June 2018. Next time. You can also get an amazing bird’s eye view of Gothenburg from Utkiken (86 meters high, stop Lilla Bommen near the Opera). Make sure you time your visits well, i.e. leave the attractions that are open longer until the evening, e.g. Liseberg Amusement Park (often free concerts, but be aware that rides are not included in the city card).

Gothenburg Utkiken View.jpg

Bus and Boat Tours

Seeing any harbour city from the water is always the best way to get great photos and Gothenburg was no different. I had time for a Paddan Canal Tour (normally SEK 175), a flat open-air boat with live commentary in Swedish and English by a tour guide. This was awesome as it had picture opportunities galore (e.g. of the Feskekorka, the city’s fish market) in just 50 minutes and even went into the harbour (don’t sit in the front and on the side if you’re afraid of the odd splash of sea water!). I also did a 2.5 hour Archipelago Tour with live commentary in Swedish and English (normally SEK 280) on a historic ship from 1881, which is perfect if you’re in need for a break from all the sightseeing (coffee, cake and lunch can be bought on board, card only, no outside food allowed), but can take a good chunk out of your visiting time, if you’re on a tight schedule. Instead I recommend a visit to Brännö island (20 minutes by tram to Saltholmen, 15 minutes on the ferry), where you can have lunch by the sea or go for a swim or a walk in the same time. I also did one of the short 50-minute Bus Tours (normally SEK 189, from Stora Teatern near Kungsportsplatsen) in the morning as it gives you a quick overview of the city’s history via a recorded commentary in a number of languages. There are also plenty of walking tours for a leisurely guided stroll through the city.

Gothenburg Paddan Boat Tour.jpg

Island Hopping on the Archipelago

The main reason I’d come to the West Coast was to be by the sea and to explore the archipelago just off the coast. The Southern Archipelago islands are car-free and can be reached by ferry in 15-30 minutes. Simply take a tram to Salholmen and any of the ferries from there (pick up a free booklet plus a map of the islands on board plus a timetable as some are more regular than others). The ferries are very comfy and generally have clean toilets, which can be useful when you’re out and about all day. My favourites were Brännö and Vrangö and I’ll post separately about how to plan a trip there. Make sure you bring a credit card, as many places in Sweden do not accept cash.

Archipelago Ferry.jpg

Fika Breaks, Shopping for Local Products & Dog-friendly Travel 

My only regret during my four-day visit to Gothenburg was how little time I had to check out the city’s many great music venues, street art, cafes and shops. I did have an evening stroll through the Haga district and made an effort to spend a morning walking around the city centre plus enjoying a ‘fika’ (Swedish for coffee break) in the lovely secluded courtyard of Da Matteo cafe on Vallgatan. There is a cluster of cool shops in the same block (Swedish design, clothes, second hand books, flowers) plus some food trucks for a great lunch option, so it’s fantastic if you’re short of time. I also happened to find lots of cute dog sculptures all around town and the Gothenburg tourist office website even has a dog-friendly guide to the city.

Da Matteo Courtyard Gothenburg.jpg

Meet the Locals

Swedish people are generally relaxed and friendly folks, but most of them tend to be on the reserved side. So in order to experience life like a Swede, West Sweden started a great initiative called Meet The Locals. You can browse a list of people and activities online (visiting a farm, meeting for coffee, going on a boat trip) and get put in touch with your chosen local. I tried this but due to a lack of time on my part as well as my local’s part, we didn’t actually manage to meet up. However, I still had lots of nice conversations with people on trams, in cafes mostly while visiting the islands and due to my dog project Cuddle a Dog a Day (so many cute Swedish dogs!). I also randomly met another translator at a bus stop who invited me to his home, what a lovely gesture, which also gave me an insight in Swedish everyday life.

Gothenburg Labrador Brännö.jpg

Of course, all of the above only scratches the surface of what there is to see and do in the West Swedish city of Gothenburg. I’m most definitely going to return for another visit as soon as I can! Feel free to leave a comment if you have additional tips or questions. You can also find more pictures and videos of my trip on Instagram and Twitter.

 

Gothenburg houses.jpg

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a 48 hour City Card by the lovely people at Goteborg.com. Prices are as of August 2017, please confirm them online before you go. Opinions expressed are those of the author. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.

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.

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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!

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.

WYF toilets.jpg

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).

WYF Tao Porchon Lynch.jpg

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!

WYF gong bath.jpg

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.