Larmer Tree Festival – ploughing on through the mud

19 Jul

What Larmer Tree Festival lacks in big names (and firm ground) its makes up for in smiles, as Chronicler Pete discovered.

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I’ve been going to music festivals for twenty two years – exactly as long as Larmer Tree Festival has been in existence.

Yet until this year I’d never been to the five-day boutique festival, which is held practically on my doorstep in the grounds of a Victorian pleasure garden near Salisbury.

As a music lover, I’ve always been attracted to large festivals with big name draws: chasing the rare chance to catch a legend live, or seeing as many bands as I could over three or four days to justify the price of my ticket.

But as I’ve grown older, my taste in festivals – if not my passion for new and exciting music – has changed; the more so since I became a dad.

These days you’re more likely to find me at The Big Chill or Camp Bestival than Glastonbury or Reading.

Now I can add Larmer Tree to my list – and I’m really glad I have.

With a capacity of just 4,000 – around half the population of my home town of Marlborough, Larmer Tree has a village feel that other festivals struggle to create. You’ll keep bumping into the friends you made on day one throughout the event.

Family entertainment is a keystone of the festival. There was so much for six-year-old Milo to do that we didn’t have to invent activities or adapt adult events to suit him.

So, he made a hat, he made a mask, he made a flag for the carnival procession, and he wreaked havoc in the mud (more of which later).

Then there was the musical lineup. There was no-one on the bill I absolutely, positively wanted to see and, incredibly, I loved it that way. Here’s why:

  • There was no sense of urgency getting to the main stage, which meant I could actually chill out.
  • I wasn’t kicking myself when I missed things because I was putting up a tent, looking after a small one, sheltering from one of the frequent downpours, or asleep.
  • I really enjoyed the music I wouldn’t have considered seeing otherwise: Paloma Faith was an entertaining revelation, I rediscovered my love of the Dub Pistols, I enjoyed listening to a World Music set from Mali band Amadou & Mariam, and I stumbled across a set of sea shanties by Cornish fishermen… and ended up staying for the whole performance.
  • I went to a vintage tea dance, and attended a swing dance workshop where I ended up being official event videographer, while at least 100 adults and children rehearsed and performed a choreographed dance to The Five Du-Tones’ 1963 hit Shake a Tail Feather. It was hilarious.
  • I watched a movie I didn’t think I’d like at Mark Kermode’s Film Club, and ended up really enjoying it.

And because it was a small, family-orientated festival there were some more advantages, including:

  • There were no bare-chested, sweaty rugby lads pushing their way through the audience to get to the front (and then immediately turning round and heading back again, which, inexplicably, is what they tend to do).
  • The food stalls were great, and of the highest quality, both in terms of fare and service. There were no £5 limp gristle burgers at Larmer Tree.
  • It was delightfully non-corporate, especially important at the bar, where the keg beer was from the local Ringwood Brewery, and not from the ubiquitous, and frankly awful, festival “favourite” Tuborg.
  • Despite the great beer, it was the least boozy festival I’ve ever been to. Some people were merrily tiddly, but no-one was steaming drunk. It was also the most drug-free festival I’ve attended: not once were my nostrils filled with the fragrant aroma of cannabis – a festival first.

And all of this needs to be seen in the context of the weather. The almost constant rain was the one thing the organisers could do nothing about.

The thoroughfares of the pleasure gardens – once described by Wessex novelist Thomas Hardy as “quite the prettiest sight I ever saw in my life” – soon turned into a scene resembling The Somme. Getting from one side of the small festival site to the other became an endurance test.

Despite all this, people cheerfully got on with the business of having festival fun. And nowhere was this more evident than during Sunday’s carnival parade, when hundreds of festival goers armed themselves with flags, banners and props constructed at various arts workshops around the site and followed samba drummers, a Moroccan gnawa band or a troupe of ukulele players in a procession across the site, the ground of which had turned from sloshy sluch to gloopy goo as the sun finally appeared and began to dry things out.

So, my final thought on Larmer Tree: not the festival I would have pictured myself at, certainly not the weather I would have hoped for, but definitely a festival I’ll be going to again.

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