Our Travel blog
An added bonus of staying with our friends in Shallowford is that they possess a space-age shower. Its a cylinder shaped white cubicle with glass doors and an array of hoses, water jets and shiny chrome attachments inside. It looks like something Professor Frink from The Simpsons would invent, or Jeff Goldblum would step out of as half fly, half man. It even has twin seats for the steam setting, maybe so that you can get saucy. If you do I'd advise being wary of leaning against any buttons while in the throws of passion lest you unleash a jet of water somewhere surprising. Perhaps there's a button that makes a mirror ball appear and a cocktail cabinet pop up. I'll leave it to you to experiment. It was all I could do today in my hungover state to switch it on and stand under the stream of hot water. I did press a button on the bewildering control panel thinking FM might be a foot massage but it turned out to be Radio 4.
I exited the shower after a brief tussle with the magnetically sealed doors and was relieved to find myself still in Shallowford and not beamed up to the Starship Enterprise. To celebrate surviving the shower we fixed a security door handle to Mavis before heading an hour up the road to Uttoxeter for The Acoustic Festival of Great Britain.
The Acoustic Festival is the one that really started me on the road we are now on. Many moons ago I took my eldest to a small festival near where we lived and a chap called Guy Maile came on. He's a singer, songwriter and guitarist of extraordinary ability, so afterwards I found him online. As is the way of these things I surfed and found the Acoustic Festival website which was run by the people Guy was signed to. They were looking for volunteers so later that year - 2008 I believe - I found myself on the M6 at 7am nervously heading towards the festival.
I was made extraordinarily welcome, saw lots of great bands, might have been responsible (in a non litigatious way you understand) for accidentally tripping up Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull fame's mum, and generally had a great time. I left on the Sunday afternoon to get back for work, leaving behind a certain amount of chaos as the wind swept over the site and took the back of the stage off.
I've returned every year since and consider the regular crew and stewards as friends. In my second year there I fell into litter picking and generally keeping the site tidy. I'm not sure why but I think it might have been that as an early riser I could be relied upon to get up and clear last nights litter before the punters came onto site. Once I'd got it clean of course I'd want to keep it that way and so discovered the mindless joy of picking up other people's rubbish. Really. I do take great pride in the site and the reviews that mention how clean it is. I should add that the Acoustic Festival crowd are adorably tidy anyway and so long as we regularly empty the bins its quite painless. It's long hours though and for the site set up and in general throughout the festival, it's also about turning your hand to any job that needs doing, from erecting fencing to putting up signs, car parking and helping the public, traders and bands to enjoy their time at the festival.
We've made friends with brilliant musicians too, like Adrian Nation who I first saw at the festival and who has since gone on to be a finalist on Sky Arts 'Guitar Star', touring the UK and Canada, as well as playing at our wedding. We've also met travellers and others who do exactly what we are doing now and have given us help, invaluable advice and encouragement. Working at this festival really has lead us to the path we're now on and we are eternally grateful to our extended Acoustic Festival family for showing us just what is possible.
This year is Alison's third time at the festival and her duties this time were in the box office, where her administrative and customer service skills were welcomed and well used. I turned my hand to doing lots of different things with varying degrees of success, but did put up the flags along the entrance road in such a way that even with a good wind they stayed upright and fluttery. So successful was my flagging that on Monday when I came to take them down I privately swore about each one as I risked life and limb to cut away my expertly applied cable ties.
After doing all we could on Thursday afternoon we traipsed into Uttoxeter in the evening to meet up with some friends who manage the main stage and their friends for a meal and some light pre-festival drinking at the Uttoxeter Wetherspoons. In his book 'The Road to Little Dribbling' Bill Bryson points out that Wetherspoons could be put in charge of running the country as they seem to manage their pubs well. Which appears to be a fair point, they restore and re-purpose old buildings sensitively, serve an impressive range of ales at keen prices and although the food may be unremarkable its cheap and plentiful. Tonight however the Old Swan was having an off day. Quite a few dishes were sold out by 8pm and one of our party had a side salad consisting of precisely one small wilted lettuce leaf.
Still, we ate with gusto and enjoyed ourselves immensely. A couple of pints and whiskey's later we wobbled merrily back to Mavis and fell into a blissful deep sleep. For 15 minutes. Then my bladder decided that the 10 minutes I had spent propped up ladder-like, forehead against the wall in the toilet draining every last millilitre of fluid wasn't sufficient, and now apparently I was holding back the North Sea. A further 10 minutes later when I had all but wrung myself out and was again horizontal, I lay listening to the sound of Doom Bar ale being turned into 14 more gallons of wee. Why does this happen? How can I drink 2 pints and manufacture so much more, so quickly?
Eventually I fell into a fitful sleep and awoke in a mercifully dry bed ready for the first full day of The Acoustic Festival 2016.
Sad though we were to leave Hay we were travelling to Shallowford, a village near Stafford, to stay overnight with friends. We followed the broad river Wye for a while, passed the oddly ornate Weobley Church with its Thunderbird 1 spire, looking as if it was about to take off towards heaven. We took a scenic route towards Worcester, passing signs for charmingly named places that read like birth announcements in the Telegraph: "To Sir Timothy and Lady Evesbatch a son Lulsley Alfrick Suckley. A brother to Tedstone Bromyard Leominster. A 2nd Grandchild for Sandy and Corby Bedfordshire."
We rolled along passed lush green meadows, gently rising and falling with the road, passed a ruined castle on a hill, silently watching over pastures of golden buttercups, sparse woodlands and carefully tended fields where cows grazed lazily. The Malvern Hills loomed in the background, their shape changing against the Wedgewood blue skyline as we followed the road on its twisting course.
We were entranced by the scenary and after unsuccesfully seeking out a suitable parking spot for lunch we eventually settled on a spot hard up against a stone wall where we could look at the road, some tress or the wall. On a road with few stopping places we realised that this would have to do and enjoyed our lunch. Setting off we pulled back onto the road, rounded the corner and the view opened out before us, a chocolate box picture of perfect English countryside. Fields divided by neat hedges, willow trees weeping into a river, cows and sheep in meadows of shimmering green, a thatched cottage with a counrty garden of wild flowers next to a bloody great big empty parking and picnicing space. We drove on, grumbling and decided the view was far too twee and probably a painted backdrop to disguise some chemical plant or nuclear weapons facility. And so we came to Worcester and joined its ugly bypass. We passed the site of the Battle of Worcester where in 1651 Cromwell's New Model Army fought a desisive victory over Royalist forces in the civil war. If you must fight I suppose its sensible to do so close to the motorway network and the shops of Worcester. There was even a Morrisons just down the road if they fancied stocking up on groceries post battle.
The M5 and M6 were mercifully uneventful; fortunately Alison takes potential hazards like Birmingham's notorious Spagetti Junction in her stride. I try to, but a bit of my father's fretfulness occassionally surfaces and I worry about ending up in the wrong lane and having to detour around Dublin to rejoin the M6 somewhere further away than where I joined it.
My early family holidays were usually in Norfolk or Suffolk, a fair drive from Hertfordshire pre A12 duel carriaegway and the Orwell Bridge. The route took us through the centre of Ipswich where there was a rare (for then) double roundabout which my father considered was built specifically to spite him. He regarded it as a personal duel.
He'd fret about it from the end of our road in Sawbridgeworth and by the time we entered Ipswich he had been through cross, annoyed, blaming the council, telling himself it was fine he'd done it before, threatening to turn around and then asking my mother to find an alternative route, getting hopelessly lost, finding the A12 again by accident but now heading the wrong way, and eventually reaching a plateau of icy calmness. He'd point the family Mazda at the roundabout and pull up about a foot from the white line. My mother, forever little miss helpfulness, would be pointing out how easily other cars were navigating it, using a voice guaranteed to raise the tension. I'd hunker down in a nest of comics and sweet wrappers beneith a blanket on the back seat where I'd use the opportunity to try and find the stack of paper sheets so I could casually drop them out of the car window while they were distracted up front. (See the entry for Sunday 15 May if this requires further explanation).
With grim fortitude we would edge closer to the junction. The atmosphere inside the car was electric; the noise from outside subsided, vultures circuled overhead, somewhere in the distance a wolf howled and we'd inch forward. A car on the horizon crested the hill and bore down on us from a mile away. We'd sit and let it pass. Quietly brooding, engine ticking, he would sense his chance, as the nearest car was either 20 miles away or in the increasing queue behind us stretching back to Chelmsford. Easing off the clutch he'd look both ways, admonish my mother for having a head because it was in the way, look both ways again and in a flurry of excitement he'd stall the car and have to start again. Eventually we'd just bolt across with scant regard for other traffic, pedestrians or the juggernaught screaming past millimetres from our rear bumper and we'd settle down full of cheerful holiday spirit. I'm sure the reason we moved to Suffolk was to avoid that roundabout.
Back to the present and we met our friends, spending a most convivial evening with them. They live in and manage a retreat and conference centre and the party they had in were the most wounderful group who included people with a learning disability among their number. A gathering in the bar turned into a riotous impromptu sing-a-long. Alison immediately joined in with gusto and by my 2nd pint of IPA I was doing the same, reaching hitherto undiscovered notes in my redition of The Eagles 'Hotel California'. In fact it may come as a surprise to those present to know that this was what I was singing.
In the late 70's I volunteered at a social club for people who have learning disabilities. I was a spotty teenaged heavy metal fan in triple denim (denim waistcoat included - easy ladies) and here I found a group of people who were completely non judgemental and who appreciated company regardless of race, creed, colour or religion; who saw you as a person before all else, and you just couldn't help but respond in kind. I also found people who were de-valued, ignored and pushed to the fringes just because they were different and didn't conform to the narrow boundaries of 'acceptable' society. It is these qualities of non judgmental acceptance, as well as being pushed to the fringes, that we find now in the traveller and festival communities we meet up with, and why we find ourselves so drawn to them.
I went on to build a career working alongside and supporting people who have learning disabilities until political interference and other pressures drove me out. Tonight was a great boost to us both in the most welcoming of company. To top it all, for the first time since the end of March, we got to sleep in a real bed in a real house.
The first second-hand bookshop in Hay opened in 1962 (some sources say 61) and the town hasn't looked back since. It presently boasts around 30 second-hand bookshops as well as all the cafés and other businesses that cannot seem to resist selling them as a by-line.
The first Hay Festival took place in 1988 and from an audience of fewer than 1,000 people it now attracts up to 250,000 visitors. Although still firmly anchored in literature the line-up is varied; authors mingling with comedians and singers/bands in an eclectic mix. It’s a bit like Radio 4 brought to life.
Incidentally, for absolutely no reason other than I found it mildly diverting, the town of Hay is twinned with Timbuktu.
Our Hay Festival experience started closer to home on the impressive festival site, a brisk 10 minute walk from the town centre, with a stewards induction and tour of the site. It gave us a chance to meet some of our fellow stewards, a mixture of festival veterans and novices like us. The site is arranged in a grid with a variety of stages, plenty of meeting and milling around areas, a big food court and some traders, not least of which is the very large festival bookshop - which we were delighted (certainly more excited than our bank managers) to find offered a 20% discount for stewards.
The first couple of days were partly set aside for school children. Thursday's junior school kids were a delight and really got involved. It helped that some authors delivered exciting and energetic talks that kept the young crowd engaged. Friday was the turn of the senior school children, who ranged from those who looked younger than the junior school crowd to those who were indistinguishable from their teachers.
One of our duties was to take the roving microphones around the audience for people who wanted to ask questions of the authors. We found the children’s enquiries incisive, relevant and brief; three terms not always true of the adult audiences. Quite how some authors keep their cool when faced with banal and irrelevant queries is beyond me. Alison witnessed one very well-known author patiently explain that the way to become an author is to start writing, a thought that hitherto hadn’t occurred to the questioner since they freely, and without apparent embarrassment, admitted that although they wanted to be an author they had never actually written anything. Surely the correct response to such inanity is to beat the questioner to a pulp with your latest book? But apparently that’s frowned upon.
Our principal duty during our 6 day stint was crowd control at the main stage, a 1700 seat venue with a queuing system of varying success. Generally the team of stewards managed to hold up to 1700 people outside, clear out the previous house, collect rubbish and then sit the next house in a 30 - 40 minute time-slot. All this while answering queries, directing people, explaining venue changes, collecting lost property, grabbing a crafty coffee and generally being the smiley helpful face of the festival, overseen by the calm and knowledgeable venue heads and their deputies.
We also stewarded a tour of the castle, which was really interesting at the time, but now we cannot recall much detail except that part of the castle gate is a circa 13thC original. Lastly we escorted a farm visit where we learned just how complicated growing apples for cider can be and how important and complex keeping bees is. The bee keeping bit particularly fascinated me because I've fancied keeping a hive or two for a while. It came as a bit of a shock to learn that they don't deliver jars of the stuff fresh to your breakfast table each morning as payment for letting them park their hives on your lawn. In fact it’s a wonder we have any bees left with the array of interesting but deadly viruses, pests, predators and pesticides they are vulnerable to. Hats off to the earnest folk who keep them and have the patience to milk the stripy little buggers every morning so that we can enjoy honey on our toast and polish on our tables.
It's not really in the spirit of this blog to review the appearances and shows we saw; particularly as some we caught only snippets of between general duties and grabbing food and drink. Nevertheless what follows is a precis of those we witnessed in more than passing, just to give a flavour of the variety of the Hay Festival:
Step back from the hubbub, ignore the organic asparagus stall, pass by the food court serving lobster, skirt the Daily Telegraph newspaper booth and find the families enjoying each other’s company, serious bibliophiles balancing coffee and an open book, older men wearing mustard trousers and a twinkle in their eye exchanging views with young women in inadvisable footwear, earnest bespectacled students furiously annotating well-thumbed works with broken spines, women of a certain age and girth gliding down the aisles like galleons under sail, and excited children clutching treasured signed editions by favourite authors to their chests. All were alive to the world of imagination, discovery and the simple pleasure of a good book.
If literature gives us the opportunity to grow, to learn, to imagine and to experience the world through others eyes, then maybe the Hay Festival provides a gateway to a more civilised world. Long may it run.
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