The third year for the Sark Folk Festival and the organisers have kept its winning formula. It's small, just 1000 tickets go on sale, yet the calibre of music they attract to the island is way above what you would expect of a festival this size.
The journey does become a kind of pilgrimage, last year's event left such an indelible mark in our minds that retracing our steps was far more significant than just a race to get there as quickly as possible.
The transition from rush hour traffic on the M25, passage through Gatwick airport and then to landing on Guernsey calms the mind. A good festival involves some level of suspension of reality, a feeling of stepping outside the normal day to day routine and boundaries. The Sark Festival is surely the ultimate expression of this.
So, forgive me if I talk first about the journey, but it is an important part of the experience.
Flying at 12,000 feet over the Isle of Wight in the small Aurigny Airlines turboprop plane feels like an adventure beginning. It is more visceral than the normal plane you go on holiday in, its got propellers for God's sake, it's loud and vibrates. Flying today has been reduced to the greyest average, passengers are just cargo to be shipped and make a profit from. This feels different.
The Channel Islands appear looking like the kind of thing that a child would draw floating in a jade sea. Patchwork fields resolve themselves into less familiar, smaller fields that are more reminiscent of England of the 1940's. The airport is small and easy to transit through and the air smells different. The sea, wild flowers, grass and trees are all in there, but also something else that you can't put your finger on - it smells like being on holiday.
Airport to harbour for the ferry necessitates a taxi across the island. Surprisingly busy narrow lanes lead into bustling St Peter Port, where we have a couple of hours before the ferry departs to grab some lunch - a crab salad and scallops that melt in the mouth washed down with a Guinness hit the spot nicely.
You could, and probably should, spend a day here to explore the lanes and beautiful harbour marina, but our time is up as the ferry awaits. As the passengers file on familiar faces appear, Phil Beer and The Shee amongst them. Sark lies a little to the east of Guernsey and the boat plies a course through rocky outcrops and larger islands dotted with gulls and cormorants. The sea sparkles as it is whipped into peaks by the boat, wind and the powerful currents ripping between the rocks. Is it jade, azure or emerald? All of them and more as Sark looms into view. Imagine a picturesque chunk of Cornwall snipped off and set between sea and blue sky, the first part that we get close to is the smaller island of Brecqhou, home to the Barclay brothers - business men who have invested heavily (and sometimes controversially) in the island. The festival site can also be glimpsed at the top of the cliffs, it's white marquee tops just standing out...
Cliffs and narrow defiles that link sea to pastures above circle the island, beautiful and dramatic, only given scale by the gulls whose cries echo across the water to us. Soon boats appear clustered in the small harbour, the ferry docks and we are here again.
This year we are staying in the Aval Du Creux hotel, conveniently located at the top of the path from the harbour, and even more conveniently opposite the Bel-Air Inn. Flowers are out all over, gunera leaves crowd the path big enough to make hats out of (in fact I can't resist and do so), and the air is alive with bird song.
The hotel is incredible, as are all of them on the island. Accommodation options for the festival go from camping, guest houses and up to five star hotels. If you plan to come next year book something quick!
From here it is a twenty minute walk to the festival site through tree shrouded lanes and vineyards. The festival site is more compact this year whilst keeping the same working layout from the past, the two main stages have alternating acts on so it is very easy to catch everything without moving far from the bar. The local beer is every bit as good as we remember, the Rocquette Cider is very very drinkable...
Highlights for us this afternoon were Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts, Lucy Ward and the brilliant Space Pirates of Rocquaine - Click on the tabs for Friday, Saturday and Sunday for reviews and pics.
The music from the festival can be heard as you travel the narrow tree fringed lanes close to the fest, in some they have joined overhead to make a tunnel . Be vigilant however, there may not be any cars or motorbikes here, but neither are there any pavements so pedestrians, cyclists, tractors, small children and horses share the lanes. We got bikes this year and I proved the point when I nearly crashed into Steve Knightley on one coming the other way, his hair streaming majestically behind him. Luckily he didn't twig it was me. I wouldn't want to have been responsible for him missing his Show of Hands gig whilst he had my camera tripod removed from his sternum.
Just a little rise and then it is all down hill to the site through a vineyard, getting there is one of those 'wow' moments. The site is at the top of the cliffs so your eyes are drawn to the ocean with Guernsey and Herm Island on the horizon.
Whilst the main acts perfom at the festival site there is a whole lot of sessions, dances and performances at many places around the island. Unfortunately this year the area where they had one small stage, through a hedge and perched right on the top of the cliffs, is out of bounds as it has been turned into a helipad. Didn't see any helicopters though.
Luckily the main field the festival is in is plenty large enough, you don't feel crammed in at any point. They have two main stages that are in an 'L' shaped arrangement with the bar in the middle, this and tables and chairs outside are the main focus for chilling out over the weekend. The excellent range of local, fresh food is here once again, everything from fresh lobster to home made vegetarian quiche, all at good prices and very tasty.
Blimey, they have music here as well...
One of our favourites is James Dumbleton, able to relax a bit more this year as he isn't on the organising committee. We'll have a separate interview with him soon, suffice to say he is up to some interesting musical projects on Guernsey.
Other Spiral faves are Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts, excellent as ever, with a new album in the works for the Autumn. Gadarene are one of the most interesting groups currently dissecting and recreating trad folk.
Then the epic Space Pirates of Rocquaine, who prove that Guernsey isn't at all twee or fluffy. It's a big juicy slice of folk/rock with a side order of country, perfect for a sunny afternoon.
Lucy Ward just keeps getting better, her assured stage presence belies the fact that she was in the Young Folk Awards just a few years ago. She'll have a long and fruitful career.
A downpour when The Shee take the stage means a big crowd for their rousing performance. And then it's all over for the first day, this rain is bad, hope it doesn't set in for the whole weekend...
With the unpredictable weather so far in 2012 finally getting a warm weekend is a huge relief. Yet the bad weather in the north of the UK has affected even this festival with the news that Emily Portman was stranded behind a swathe of flooding across the country - which is a great shame as we were really looking forward to seeing her perform new material from her latest album.
We take the opportunity of exploring Sark in the morning with a walk down to Dixcart Bay. We cycled as far as the lane would allow then left the bikes before following a narrow path down through the steep and narrow valley. It wound around a cottage where a session was underway, we passed unseen behind the garden wall and plunged down the steepening path. All at once we came upon this view, the whole beach was ours...
You need a week here to explore really, but the festival was calling...
First stop was at the Bel Air Inn to see some of the Morris sides dancing
Then up to the festival site for the main day of entertainment. It was to be a mix of styles, genres and traditions that make this such an inclusive festival.
The Guernsey shanty band answer to Port Isaac Fisherman's Friends are GU10
What a contrast their big chested salty songs were with Ewan McLennan, himself a study in intensity and power but from a completely different angle.
Bruise were another revelation, coming across brilliant artists is what makes festivals good.
Someone that we had been keenly anticipating was Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo, one of our favourite albums of last year - and they didn't disappoint with a sound that was truly more than the sum of its parts. Just the day before they had played at Maverick Festival up in Suffolk and they were one of the highlights for Dave Kushar covering that fest for Spiral.
Their songs are haunting and very atmospheric
It is always a pleasure to watch Martin Simpson and Andy Cutting, Martin has such a great repertoire and Andy is just amazing in the rapport he seems to have with everyone he plays with.
Show of Hands pulled a very big crowd, unsurprising really as they were pitch perfect for this festival. Being so used to seeing them with Miranda Sykes on double bass it was refreshing to be reminded just how good they are as a duo. The following day Martin and Andy would be recording some parts for the new SOH album on the island.
This is the kind of festival that artists like to hang out at too...
Les Dieses were another great find, not sure how you would describe them, high energy world/folk I guess, 3 Daft Monkeys certainly liked them and were talking collaboration - now that would be good.
3 Daft Monkeys finished the day up in grand monkey style - Around about this time we realised that we had been completely seduced by the festival (or maybe the cider and lager had some additional effect), we leapt about with Emily Barker and band down the front - hence I only seem to have very blurred pictures of 3DM actually performing. Needless to say they were the absolute perfect band for this festival, my lasting memory will be of all the shiny happy faces watching them.
Then it was off into the dark dark night, drunk on a bike with just a head torch to light our way home across the island. That's when the adventure really started....
We bumped into Sean Lakeman on our way who said how impressed he was with the island and the festival so far, it's not often artists get to perform in such unique and idyllic surroundings, and he and his wife and fellow performer Kathryn Roberts had also taken the opportunity to bring their twin daughters along with them, celebrating their 5th birthday that day too!
We arrived in time to witness James Findlay's impressive vocal ability drawing a large crowd on the Vermerette stage. Winner of BBC Young Folk Award 2010, it's no surprise to learn that the Dorset born singer comes from a family background of traditional singers, and wows festival goers with his distinctive guitar style and rich tones.
Just time for some freshly cooked fish and chips, then over to the Alligande stage where duo Sean Lakeman and Kathryn Roberts deliver a stunning set, Kathryn's earthy vocals merging with Sean's rousing guitar to provide the regretful yet perfect end to another sublime Sark Folk Festival.
Massive respect must be paid to the festival committee, who, spurred on by Simon Harvey's idea to create an island festival on par with one of the scottish island events, have managed to greatly exceed everyone's expectations, delivering a festival that in only its third year boasts a line up, audience and atmosphere more wide-ranging, unique and truly special than many of its more established competitors....
The Sark Folk Festival is back on 5, 6 and 7 July in 2013
Tickets go on sale in November 2012
Official site - www.sarkfolkfestival.com
Picture galleries - www.sarkfolkfestival-photos.com
Artists at Sark Folk festival 2012:
|3 Daft Monkeys
A Day Before Thursday
Alison Frosdick and Jack Burnaby
Blue Gypsy Revolution
Bryn Le Poidevin
Charlie & Roanne
Colette & Phil
Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo
Folk on 2
James Findlay Trio
Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman
Katriona Gilmore & Jamie Roberts
|Leon Hunt n-Tet
Martin Simpson & Andy Cutting
McGhee - Spoelstra
Mick Le Huray
Rachel & Lilias
Show of Hands
The Barley Dogs
The Id Shade
The John Wesley Stone
The Space Pirates of Rocquaine
Three Drunken Maidens
Tonight the Skies