Totally Shambalic!

Less than 48 hours since I returned home from Beautiful Days, I was off again, to Shambala festival. It was less a case of unpacking than throwing the dirty clothes into the washing machine and adding more neon orange items for the fancy dress day. Stocking up in Morrisons, I discovered that they do their own boxes of vintage 7.2% cider actually made by Weston’s, the lovely Herefordshire cider makers. If you love cider, try this blog. The writer is on a mission to taste as many ciders as possible – and no, I don’t think it’s written by a tramp – that would be me at my current rate of sleeping under the stars and consuming alcohol!

Shambala is in an allegedly “secret” location in Northampton, but it’s made its home in the grounds of a beautiful country manor for several years now, using its beautiful lake, woodlands and views of the gently rolling countryside to create a magical wonderland. Shambala is a festival with much more than music to enjoy – and it combines a family-friendly atmosphere with all-nighter venues for the party animals. There’s something to suit everyone. It’s only a two-hour drive from Sheffield. I picked up a passenger in Loughborough and we arrived on a beautifully sunny afternoon.

We stayed in a new staff campsite which was in fields near the beautiful old farm. We’d turfed a herd of beautiful British White cattle off their field – they were confined into a barn for the weekend, but they had lots of company with stewards minding the farm gate all week and people coming to talk to the cows. They were lovely cows with black ears and noses, but if anyone upset them, they set up a choral “mooing” that went on for ages. Our new campsite undulated in ridges, typical of the medieval “ridge and furrow” field systems, and at the briefing, the Oxfam co-ordinators told us that we were sleeping on the remains of a deserted medieval village.

Setting up camp, it was strangely normal to be with many of the people I’d been camping with in Devon, just two days earlier. It felt as if we were part of a travelling circus! it was lovely to see my friend Fraser, who I’d not seen since Glastonbury, and he brought a giant hat made of carpet with him. It was far too heavy to wear, so it sat in the middle of our events shelter for the week and became a coffee table. The first night was the usual routine of drinking, talking to old friends, meeting new people, and attending stewarding briefings.

I wasn’t working on Thursday, so it was a good chance to explore the site and ease myself gently into Shambala. Fraser and I had a great wander. The only downside was the wasps, which were determined to buzz around everything: food, cider, people, bins, furniture. Even as a committed animal lover, they try my patience, but they do have their uses, as the RSPB explain here. Perhaps we should learn to be “at one” with the wasp after all. Maybe they’re just misunderstood (or maybe they’re little stripy stinging gits!)

On my Thursday wander, I discovered the Wide Awake Cafe, who do amazing foot-long veggie hotdogs, and even have a film made about their festival adventures. Veggie hotdogs have become my new favourite festival meal! We then wandered into the Meadow to enjoy the healing fields. It was so relaxing in there, that we fell asleep around the fire pit for an hour – and woke up in time to join in with a shamanic ceremony to bless the festival. I played a djembe drum while people made a procession around the fire. We made a parcel of leaves, feathers, berries and seeds called a despacho, to be burned in a closing ceremony at the end of the festival. Taking part in the ceremony was a lovely, gentle experience. Feeling all spiritual, I persuaded Fraser to join me in a yoga class – Forrest yoga, which is designed to help with the strains and stresses of modern living. I used to do yoga every week and I’m a little rusty, which would explain why my core stomach muscles took days to return! We also explored the amazing disco-themed main entrance to the festival (which goes to so much effort for its ticket-holders!), and some amazing sculptures including a dalek woven from willow.

Later on Thursday, we watched ska and reggae bands at Chai Wallah’s, which is a beautiful, souk-style covered music venue and bar, rather than a tea shop! Eventually, we ended up in one of Shambala’s many secret venues, the Swingamajig Speakeasy, a 1920s themed venue accessed via a time machine! I headed to bed fairly early, as I had a daytime stewarding shift on Friday.

My allotted area to supervise was the accessible campsite and the artists camping and car park. Not bad at all. My only hair-raising moment was when a disabled man was stung by a wasp and he didn’t know if he’d be violently allergic to the sting. Fortunately, all was well, but the medics sped into the campsite on a buggy with their emergency kit within a few minutes. They found the patient calmly eating a sausage sandwich, which was probably the best reaction. I had enough time to chat to the stewards, and we were also able to watch the comings and goings of walkabout performers, such as a brass band, who were  always in very bright fancy dress; a mechanical horse on wheels who played Klezmer music and breathed fire at night; and the Police Rave Unit!

After I finished my shift, I took part in the Car Boot Bingo Disco, where participants learned a disco move for every ball drawn out, which eventually became a dance routine. I also caught the sparkling cabaret of top act Trevi Fontayne with his inimitable crooning style. I headed back to the campsite to recharge my batteries, have a nice chat and stock up with alcohol. I’d discovered that the wine I’d brought with me was completely hideous, so I bought some fruits of the forest juice to mix with it. It tasted nice at first, but by the time I’d got to the bottom of the bottle, I’d still drunk a bottle of cheap wine, which didn’t leave me feeling too good eventually! But that was a long time away, and I joined Fraser at the main stage to watch Dr Meaker and Friends, Skip and Die and The Skatalites (for the second time in less than a week!) If I’ve got one criticism of Shambala, it’s that there are so many small venues and soundsystems, that it tends to drown out the sound of the main stage, so even if you stand relatively close, you can still hear the thump of something else going on nearby. It was very atmospheric though, and a beautiful evening. We explored some of the secret venues, but they felt a bit claustrophobic.

After the Skatalites, we discovered the most far-flung secret venue, Naughty Morty’s Secret Ska Bar, on the far side of the main campsite. It was in a lovely clearing in the woods, with straw-bale seats and fire woks to site around, and a very random music selection, from The Wurzels and to classic disco. The terrible red wine was catching up with me though, but we had time to explore the enchanted woods with its late night music and amazing art installations, before bedtime!

On Saturday, I had my daily shower, then headed out into the festival. I was feeling a bit washed-out but I was energised by a contemporary dance workshop which was very freeform, and I overheard a man say to his small son: “some of these people haven’t been to bed yet, and they’re still dancing, but some of them have had a nice sleep and are having a dance to wake themselves up”. There were certainly a few people looking a bit wild-eyed, covered it glitter – but we’re all covered in glitter at Shambala and it takes days to wash off! Feeling invigorated, I went for a sit-down and some random conversation in the healing meadow. I had a deluxe veggie hotdog from the Wide Awake Cafe – there was so much salad in it that I couldn’t pick up the bap, and had to eat it with a fork! I listened to a discussion on the theme: “Love Conquers Everything”. Surprisingly, the motion was defeated – although love is powerful, sadly it was decided that love couldn’t conquer everything! Then I met some friends and did some knitting to contribute to a special Shambala blanket.

The last activity before my shift was one of my favourite things ever at Shambala! It’s the Dreams and Whispers 90s Dance workout crew. A gang of crazy people dressed in shell-suits and giant afro wigs, or a glitter body stocking, talk a large crowd through a mass dance routine. We Vouged, did angry punching dancing, Irish dancing and hip-hop dancing, culminating in a very silly choreography to ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ by Bonnie Tyler, starting as seeds, growing into trees, crying and stroking each others’ faces. I think you have to be there to understand it! I didn’t take any photos as I was too busy laughing and dancing.

I put on my orange neon fancy dress – including tutu and pixie ears and went on shift. It was a shame to miss Saturday night’s excitement, but at least some of it came to us, with plenty of campers and artists in fancy dress. The shift went smoothly, even though it started to rain. I caught part of Amandou and Mariam’s set on my break, and we could hear it well from Accessible Camping. After my shift, I met Fraser, but he’d been drinking for hours so he was up for a dance, whereas I suddenly felt the need for a sit down and a chat. Luckily, I stumbled across the Permaculture area, and I had a lovely chat with some permaculture experts based in the beautiful Yorkshire town of Holmfirth for hours. It was also hammering with rain and I didn’t fancy moving from their cosy fire. I decided to have a solo wander when the rain died down a bit, and I rounded off my evening with a good dance to a mash-up of quality funk soul, hip-hop and big-beat tunes in the Social Club, one of my favourite venues at Shambala, with its cheery pink and blue striped marquee and proper wooden dance floor, having a great time boogying with strangers in fancy-dress to turntable trickster Jimi Needles.

I was determined to have a busy but gentle Sunday, as I had a night shift starting at midnight. We headed to the main stage for a mass meditation at midday. It was quite strange coming across hundreds of strangely-dressed people sitting cross-legged, but surprisingly relaxing. I had a bite to eat before another favourite activity at Shambala – the sea-shanty singing workshop! Sea shanties were work songs sung by sailors to entertain them and pace their work. The voice workshop yurt got a bit hot and stuffy, so we spilled out onto the meadow, and gathered an intrigued crowd of people. I love being part of a choir – some people were doing harmonies, but just the feeling and sound of a group of people singing heartily together always sends goosebumps down my spine – and it’s always better if the songs are about rum! Here’s a bizarre combination of sea shanties and anime I found on YouTube.

I had a final sit down around the fire in the meadow, before enjoying a camera obscura – and personal camera obscuras made from waste paper bins, which you put over your head, giving you an upside down, fish-eye view of everything! Very disorientating. Then Fraser and I took part in a mass wedding in another daft Dreams and Whispers dance workshop (shhhh – I haven’t told my other half yet!)

My musical highlight of the festival came next, with Dizraeli and the Small Gods (reviewed by me here), and there innovative mix of hip-hop and folk. It was the perfect music for a sunny afternoon. I then wandered over to the spoken word area The Wandering Word, where I should have spent far more time. It’s in an incredibly large yurt, with luxurious carpets and straw bales covered in material to lounge on. I thoroughly enjoyed the children’s poetry slam – young people had been doing poetry workshops all weekend, with amazing results. Hopefully next year, I’ll encourage more young writers in their own performance slot at Bearded Theory festival. It was very inspiring.

I enjoyed exploring the Enchanted Woodlands in daylight, with a gentle acoustic band playing, and families relaxing in the sunshine, before heading back to the campsite to gather everything I needed for my night shift. It wasn’t time to stop yet though. I enjoyed a reading of a play called “Spring Tide at Mablethorpe” by Julie Wilkinson – who is such a fantastic solo performer that I was completely sucked into her world. It’s about a not-too-distant future, when the effects of climate change are causing a massive flood on the Lincolnshire coastline. It was gripping and frighteningly real, but with a dark sense of humour.

I had a drink in the Wonky Cock pub with some Oxfam friends, and then we watched the “Big Burn” and the fireworks. The bonfire had been constructed in the shape of a magical castle and it made one of the biggest bonfires I’d ever seen. Our friends Graham and Gaelle had been looking after a honeydew melon with a face – Kevin the Melon – since Boomtown festival. He was now going a little soggy in the bottom and rather than face a slow, sad demise, they’d decided to sacrifice him to the flames so the organisers had agreed to put Kevin inside the house before the bonfire started.

I rounded my evening off by watching Tankus the Henge, a band who put on a brilliant stage show, combining ska, space-rock, gypsy punk – and a bit of Chas ‘n’ Dave, with a singer who plays a beaten-up piano and sometimes an accordion. They certainly got the crowd dancing enthusiastically.

My nightshift had finally arrived, which was very quiet. The main challenge was to stay alert and awake after all that excitement! We kept warm around the campfire in the accessible campfire and kept ourselves entertained by talking to increasingly “spangled” people as the night wore on. We were very tired by 8am, but very glad to get our Oxfam “Shambala Silliness” badges!

Shambala may be the end of the festival season for 2013 for me (although I’ve got my fingers crossed for a volunteer place at Festival Number 6 in Port Merion). It’s certainly been an epic summer, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my adventures. It feels like time to calm down, give my poor liver a rest and concentrate on my free-range career as a writer, editor (I can edit well, despite this rambling prose!), and creative writing tutor. I’ve already got some exciting things lined up for the autumn, and I can’t wait to tell you all about them!

All things bright and beautiful!

After WOMAD, I had a few weeks of catching up with “real” life – which thankfully isn’t as “real” as it used to be! Making fairies out of pipe-cleaners, talking to elderly people about fairgrounds and editing novels and getting paid for it is quite a lot more pleasant than sorting out someone’s flooded basement or clogged up shower. Early August is Lammas time, the ancient festival of the wheat harvest, and a good time to take stock of what I’ve achieved over the year! I’ve pleasantly surprised myself. Just before Beautiful Days last year, I’d reached the bottom of my overdraft – and I had a full-time job. This year, I’m keeping myself afloat, and I’ve completed one of my first novel editing projects. My networking and making links with people and organisations is working. I’m enjoying life a lot more than I used to, and I feel that I can be “me” all the time, even in a “work” situation.

It was time to travel to the next festival on my list, Beautiful Days. I was volunteering as a steward for Oxfam again. Luckily, I got a lift this time, with a lovely lady called Caroline, who was driving all the way from Newcastle! The drive went very smoothly, and by the late afternoon, we arrived at Escot Park near Exeter. We were welcomed warmly onto the site, and given our pink wristbands. The only problem was that it was tipping down with rain, so it was on with wellies and cagoules for the first trip to the campsite.

The Beautiful Days campsite is shared with other staff and artists. It’s the Levellers’ own festival, and as I’m easily impressed, it’s great to be sharing a field and its portaloos with celebrities! Not the sort of celebrities who miraculously have cellulite in Heat! magazine, but people who’ve entertained me at festivals and whose albums and books have influenced me. Famous people I’ve queued for a shower with at Beautiful Days this year include: Simon Friend from the Levellers, John Robb from Goldblade, who’s also a top music journalist. John Robb coined the term “Britpop” apparently! He also goes into the shower without a towel – very rock ‘n’ roll! I also saw the singer from 3 Daft Monkeys, who are on tour this autumn!

Away from the glamour and excitement of the crew field showers, I settled myself into Lazyland – my friends’ event shelter, which makes a lovely hub for stewards to camp and gather together. Many a pleasant hour was whiled away at Lazyland at Beautiful Days, drinking cider, painting my nails, waiting for henna tattoos to dry and chatting with friends new and old. There was also a small gathering of stewards after the briefing, and the vegan chocolate and banana cake went down very well. The first night was a great opportunity to relax and chat.

Thursday afternoon was spent having a pleasant wander around the site in the sunshine, taking photos, shopping and exploring. I was due to start work stewarding the kids’ field at 9pm, so I took it easy in Lazyland. The first shift went well – it was very quiet, but we made friends with the people running the welfare tent. They gave me a challenge – a lady in the welfare tent gave me a tea bag, and I’ve got to keep swapping it until I get something amazing. Apparently one bloke ended up with a piece of land eventually! Over the course of the festival, I upgraded to a pack of glow-sticks and I will keep you posted on what I end up with!

On Friday, I got to see the Levellers’ acoustic set, which always happens on Friday afternoon of every Beautiful Days. The big top was packed. I managed to meet up with one of my oldest school friends, Mary, who now lives in Exeter. It was brilliant to meet up. Before starting work again, I saw Sam Lee & Friends and really enjoyed it. It was quiet and atmospheric. I was lucky enough to be working at the theatre stage on Friday evening. I caught a bit of “An Evening of Trance and Rap”, which was a comedy performance about a Victorian seance! A stand-up night followed, starring Robin Ince. I had a little chat with Robin Ince before he started his show, and as we had a full house, I was able to watch a lot of his performance. It was very funny, but I did have to chase the buggy driver for a replacement radio battery! He thought I just wasn’t listening to the radio as I was engrossed in the show. After the theatre tent closed, we were sent over to the Big Top, where Clannad were just starting. It was beautiful, but a bit too ethereal and “wafty” for me, but it certainly beat wandering around between fire towers on the campsite, which was my job last year.

Saturday was my chance to see as much music as possible, as I was on the night-shift, starting at midnight. Unfortunately, the grey skies gave way to rain before I left the campsite. Despite the rain, Goldblade put on a cracking set of no-nonsense punk – and even made the rain stop for a few minutes. Unfortunately, it was pretty aquatic for The Bar Steward Sons of Val Doonican’s slot on the Band Stand, but they didn’t let the rain put them off their set of hilarious Barnsley-related songs. I particularly enjoyed the one about Sean Bean always dying before the end of a film. It’s true – he never makes it to the end! I met up with Mary and her friends after the gig and although it had stopped raining, John Robb’s scheduled interview with Miles Hunt from the Wonderstuff had been moved into the bar next door. We missed it, even though we were standing next to it!

After faffing around in the campsite for a while, it was time to see another South Yorkshire band, 65daysofstatic. Definitely not a comedy band this time, their post-rock soundscapes were perfect for the damp, overcast skies. I stayed at the main stage for the rest of the night. This is something that happens to me a lot at Beautiful Days – the music they programme is so good that I usually stay put, partying with my fellow Oxfam Stewards. I was really impressed with the next band, The Living End, an Australian band who combine a rockabilly double-bass with metal riffs ranging from AC/DC influences to Rage Against the Machine. They put on a really great live show.

The Wonderstuff are one of my favourite bands. I’ve loved them since the very early 90s – or possibly the late 80s, when they first emerged onto the “Grebo” scene. They’re often compared to the Levellers with their folky sound and fiddle-led riffs (the stunning Erica Nockalls has now replaced the original fiddle-player, Martin Bell), but their sound is much more indie, with wah-wah laden guitars. They play a great set and seem very much at home at Beautiful Days.

Main stage Headliners Primal Scream are a band who’ve constantly evolved, embracing electronica and Stones-referencing rock ‘n’ roll. I’ve seen them many times live, and the experience can be hit and miss. Their performance of the Screamadelica album at Glastonbury 2011 was akin to a religious experience, but at Glastonbury 2005, singer Bobby Gillespie was drunk, incoherent and abusive on stage and ended up getting escorted away by security guards! It was very entertaining though. So before Primal Scream get on stage at Beautiful Days, I hope and pray that Bobby’s on form this time. And he is. The band pull off an awesome set, with songs from the new album sounding great alongside old classics. Bobby has been complaining about the commercialisation of festivals recently, but he must have approved of the anti-corporate, DiY feel of Beautiful Days and gave us a show we deserved. I had to tear myself away after a mind-blowing version of Loaded and I made my way up to the Oxbox (the Oxfam stewarding office) to start my shift. Here’s a review of the gig by John Robb himself:

We were “response” stewards, so we were pleasantly surprised to be sent to the dance tent and in charge of the silent disco between 2-5am. It was great fun watching people sing and dance to music we couldn’t hear – with off-key singing and people in various interesting states! After 5am, we were sent to the deserted kids’ field again. The highlight of that part of the shift was chatting to a lady from folk band Moulettes, who were playing the next day. She was a bit worse for wear but we had an interesting conversation about creativity. The shift ended with me struggling to keep my eyes open in the Oxfam marquee, reading Grazia magazine to the stewards. Eventually, the shift came to an end and I stumbled into bed! That was my last shift and I took proud possession of my souvenir Oxfam badge.

Sunday dawned bright and sunny – but with annoying heavy showers, so I got soaked in the shower queue! At least it was refreshing. I put on my leopard-print finery for the “animals” fancy dress theme, in a tribute to the Manic Street Preachers! The feather boa was a bit hot though, and shed enough feathers on the grass that one bloke asked me if I’d eaten a crow. We kicked off the day with Citizen Fish, a classic ska punk band with radical politics. We stayed around for 90s festival favourites Dodgy, whose music matched the sunshine. I missed the amazing Babylon Circus to see Dudley Sutton again – a fantastic veteran actor and performer, most famous as Tinker in Lovejoy. He put on a fantastic show and got a standing ovation, but the heat and darkness of the theatre tent had me struggling to keep my eyes open as I’d not had too much sleep after my night shift. After Dudley’s performance, I headed to the Big Top and caught the last song by the Moulettes. I was really impressed – and the fiddle player I’d been chatting to at 6am was very talented and looked beautiful.

I joined my friends at the main stage again. They were watching Steve Harley and the Cockney Rebel. It was all a bit jazzy and one of my friends said that life was too short for all the noodling around – but eventually, they played Make me Smile, which got the audience dancing again. The Skatalites are one of the original Jamaican ska bands and they had the crowd skanking from the very start in the last warmth of the evening sun. It was the perfect summer set, with the band and audience bathed in a lovely golden glow. Imelda May was a pleasant surprise. She was far better than I thought she was going to be – there was a real rockabilly vibe, the songs were really catchy and she’s a sexy, engaging performer – definitely one of the highlights of the festival.

The Levellers‘ headline set on Sunday evening was excellent. The Levellers have come a long way since they formed 25 years ago. Their discography is as long as your arm and they’re one of the hardest-gigging bands in the business. I’ve seen them more than thirty times. I’ll work out how many times exactly one day. It made meeting up with Mary all the more poignant, as it’s twenty years since we first saw the Levellers, in Leicester. Not much has changed, certainly not the energy of the gigs, but the band are more rugged, although singer Mark Chadwick wasn’t wearing his hat, proving he’s not thin on top!

Apart from trivial details like hairlines, the Levellers have stayed at the forefront of protest culture, supporting the SchNews alternative newspaper for years and speaking out on issues close to their hearts. They’ve supported up and coming musicians at their studio, the Metway in Brighton. Setting up the Beautiful Days festival in 2003 was a brilliant move – its reputation for quality music, great atmosphere and a sponsorship free zone now attracts people who haven’t even heard of the Levellers – and they’re often blown away by their performances and the passion of their fans. The Levellers now have three generations of fans – there are people who’ve grown up listening to their music and embracing their free-spirited philosophies. Beautiful Days is a festival where tribes gather in harmony: punk, hippy, folk and indie, and become one family. How many other bands can claim such a legacy?

It was another classic gig, but the night-shift had caught up with me and even the spectacular fireworks couldn’t revive me. It was time for bed. I went to sleep with the sounds of the backstage bar in the background, wishing I had the energy to party, but happy to have experienced another great festival.

WOMAD Wonders and giant snails

As soon as the excitement of the wedding was over, it was onto the next festival of my season: WOMAD. I was stewarding for Oxfam again. My newly wedded friends were coming to the festival as part of their honeymoon, before flying to Canada for their second wedding and to start their married lives. I had lots to prepare and pack – two tents, extra wellies and waterproofs, as well as bunting and a flag to decorate their luxury honeymoon accommodation.

On Wednesday 24th July, I’d been doing some training at the Pop Up Story Shop in Rotherham, with children’s writer and illustrator Sarah McConnell (author of Don’t Mention Pirates!) I’d offered a space in my car on the Oxfam Stewards forum, and luckily, I ended up giving a lift to a girl who’d just been working around the corner at WH Smiths in Rotherham, who was working at WOMAD as an Oxfam Campaigner, raising awareness about Oxfam’s Syria campaign. We had a good chat on the way down to Wiltshire, and made brilliant time.

Despite some thunderstorms that week, the Charlton Park site was tinder-dry, and at our evening safety briefings, we were warned about the high risk of fire and other dangers – we were also treated to a special fire briefing, where the risks of gas picnic stoves were highlighted – we were shown a mangled stove which had exploded, causing bits of red-hot plastic and metal ricocheting off in all directions! A new electronic ticketing system had been introduced for this year, so we now had to scan tickets and wristbands. It sounded complicated, but after my team leader experience at Glastonbury, I was feeling confident. The rest of the evening was spent catching up with people I hadn’t seen too much of at Glastonbury and drinking some of the box of Farmer’s Blonde ale left over from the wedding! There was a torrential rainstorm that night, which took us totally by surprise.

Despite the rain in the night, by Thursday morning, the ground was bone dry as ever and it was very hot again. I put up Jaspal and Ricky’s tent in the best position for the posh WOMAD spa, and then had time for a wander around the site and a brilliant lunch from Oxfam’s onsite caterers, Nuts Café, whose meals are always top-notch vegetarian cuisine. Due to popular demand, they now cater for meat-eaters too. Their food is always filling – literally – you bring your own plate, and they fill it, no matter what size it is – one bloke always used to bring a huge wooden fruitbowl!

It was time for me to start my first shift. I was due to be the supervisor for the main wristband exchange, in charge of a large group of stewards. I got to the main wristband exchange early, to make sure I’d got the hang of the electronic scanner. The gate was absolutely rammed with festival-goers, and beyond the gate, the queue snaked around the carpark and looped around a grove of trees. This was going to be one of the busiest shifts I’d ever worked on. The scanning part wasn’t too bad – the main problem was that many people with printed e-tickets didn’t realise that they were supposed to pay an extra supplement to camp on Thursday night – especially because it said “Thursday” on their e-tickets. There were a few irate people, but we managed to sort everyone out in the end. I was so busy dealing with enquiries and problems that I didn’t manage to have any chats with my stewards. At times, I was slightly exasperated with the situation, so it was a relief when the queues started to die down and the main rush was over.

There was still no sign of my friends though. At about 10pm, My friend’s cousin and her friend arrived, and I met them and showed them where the “honeymoon suite” was. Just as I was walking back to the gate, my friend called me, and they eventually arrived, already wristbanded, which was slightly mysterious, and I took them to their tent! They had been delayed due to losing bank cards, getting lost and hold-ups on the M25, but now they were here. After returning to the gate to hand it over to Security for the night, my shift was finished and I was free to hang out with my friends. After spending hours blowing up their lilo, and laughing at the collapsed state of a friend’s pop-up tent, which had been damaged by her brother on a previous camping trip. We had a delicious cup of chai (spicy Indian tea) at the Lunched Out Lizards chai shop before bedtime. We’d all had exhausting days.

On Friday, I was free to enjoy myself with my friends. I had to make the most of our time together before they flew to Canada on Sunday. The first band we saw were Kissmet, one of my festival favourites, a Bhangra/rock fusion band, who play Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple songs, along with Punjabi wedding songs. They don’t take themselves seriously at all, but are amazing musicians, and they soon had the early afternoon main stage crowd Bhangra-dancing like crazy in the sunshine. We then wandered around, catching music from around the arena, and arranged to meet up later. I took part in a danceworkshop led by the two dancers from Seun Kuti’s band Egypt 80, which involved lots of pelvic thrusting and gyrating around. I caught most of Spoek Mathambo’s excellent set of South African electronica before heading back to the Oxfam campsite to get more layers for the evening.

I headed out with some Oxfam friends to see Lee Scratch Perry and Max Romeo. I was hoping to meet my friends again, but mobile phone signals were failing! It would have been so much easier to arrange to meet a landmark at a particular time, but we rely on modern technology so much these days! Max Romeo put on a great show, singing reggae classics, including ‘Police and Thieves’. Halfway through the set, the legendary eccentric Mr Perry still wasn’t on stage, but eventually, he appeared, resplendent in a bright orange beard and shiny purple tracksuit. I’ve seen him before, and loved it, but he was ranting incomprehensibly (I felt sorry for the poor sign-language lady who was on the stage, trying to make sense of what he was saying!) He seemed to be saying that Prince Charles was the devil. Lee Scratch Perry but on a wig to sing his well-known song “Curly Locks”, but then made up different words instead that weren’t even in tune! He’s 77 years old so we can cut him some slack, and he was entertaining, but we were rather bemused.

I managed to find the honeymoon party after Lee Scratch Perry. We watched part of Seun Kuti and Eygpt 80. The two dancers were shaking their stuff in the “traditional” Afrobeat dancer outfit of tiny skirts, bra-tops, tribal paint and beads and one of the ladies was obviously expecting a third generation of Afrobeat Royalty. We really wanted to see Craig Charles’ DJ set though, which clashed with Seun Kuti. So we headed to the Big Red Tent, where thousands of people were having a great time while the Red Dwarf star span a brilliant selection of discs. For people not in the know, Craig Charles’ funk and soul show on BBC 6 Music has become an institution – whether you’re staying in or going out on Saturday night, it’s a joyful showcase for great music – new and old – from old Motown to new Afrobeat fusion (which is why it was so annoying that Craig Charles clashed with Seun Kuti!) After a sing-along to Bob Marley, it was all over, and time for me to go to bed, as my next shift was due to start at 7am.

My Saturday daytime shift was a lot calmer than Thursday’s shift! I was able to brief my stewards calmly, have interesting conversations, and deal with customers without feeling the pressure of thousands of people behind them waiting to get in. We still had a few people with weekend tickets coming through, including a very “outdoorsy” looking man who said that he’d been supposed to arrive on Saturday, but had been “stuck up a glacier in the Alps” and couldn’t fly back until overnight on Friday. The only real problem was on this shift was the toilet saga – the toilets outside the gate in the car park had been moved inside the gate overnight. Then Security moved them so that they were close to a festival-goers tent and right next to the gate. Needless to say, the owner of the tent wasn’t too impressed to wake up to the sound of slamming portaloo doors, a long queue of people outside her tent, and an increasingly unpleasant smell. The worst bit was when the toilets were being pumped out – a necessary, but smelly – and noisy – aspect of festival life. During this time, our stewards’ Control, “Oxbox”, were trying to get hold of me on the radio, but I couldn’t hear anything apart from the loud drone of the pump, and I was trying to shield my nose from the smell. I felt like shutting my eyes too, as I could see the proverbial shooting up the pipe. Sorry, too much information! Eventually, I convinced the site crew that the toilets needed to be moved to their original position.

It had been a lovely morning and afternoon, but the first drops of rain fell as I walked back from my shift. It stayed dryish as I ate my Nuts lunch, but as I had a well-deserved shower, the rain sounded like bullets on the roof of the shower-block. The sky was charcoal grey and there was thunder in the air. It looked like the rain had definitely set in. So I put on my waterproofs and then ventured to the car for a bottle of red wine I’d left in there! The wine was still warm from the sun, so I warmed my wet hands on it when I’d decanted it into a plastic bottle and it tasted like mulled wine. On my way through the arboretum area, I heard some great ska music with a Gallic tinge to it, and stumbled across Babylon Circus. I know they were due on later in the Siam tent, but after watching them for a while onstage in the arboretum, I realised that there was steam coming from behind the accordion. Slowly, the penny dropped. They were doing a gig in the cookery demonstration area, and something was cooking in the background as they played. After that, I managed to find a dry, comfortable spot at the front of the Siam tent and I watched Mauritanian singer Malouma and chatted to a friendly group of blokes.

The wine was so tasty and warming, I’d virtually drunk the whole bottle before I met up with my friends, who were wearing matching kagoules and wedding  garlands! We tried to see Rokia Traore on the main stage, but it was raining so much, we hunched together under a friend’s umbrella and couldn’t actually see Rokia Traore without getting soaked. It was a bit different from her Glastonbury gig a few weeks ago in the glorious sunshine. We retreated into the Siam tent and waited to see Babylon Circus for real. They’re a French ska band with lots of energy, great songs and mesmerising performances. I forgot about the rain outside for the duration of their set. We then braved the great outdoors for Arrested Development – a great “conscious” hip-hop band, famous in the early nineties with their funky Afro-centric album 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of… We had a great time dancing around in the rain – and it was over far too soon. We then sampled the nightlife in Molly’s Bar and San Fran’s Disco bar. The rain was slowing, but the ground was getting boggy underfoot. Maybe it would be a WOMUD year after all. After a final cup of chai, it was time to say goodbye for the night. I felt rather woeful as I headed back to the Oxfam campsite – tomorrow morning would be the last time I saw my friend for a long time.

A text message awoke me at 8am on Sunday morning. My friends were packed up and almost ready to leave. I literally rolled out of bed and went straight to their campsite. I knew I didn’t look my best, wandering around in my pyjamas, but the most important thing was being there to say goodbye. I helped to carry their stuff to the car park. They thought they had parked in the Purple car park, but after a fruitless wander searching for the hire car and a chat to the car park steward, we remembered that the car was parked in the Red car park, following my instructions to meet them at the Red gate, and got their wristbands from a “table in the middle of nowhere”. I worked out that this was the Park and Camp wristband exchange in the Red carpark. The groom bravely volunteered to fetch the car while we waited with the bags, and it was good to have a final chat to my friend before they set off. I was determined not to wallow in sadness, but to make the most of the day before my final shift. I used my last meal voucher on a lovely cooked breakfast from Nuts in the Oxfam campsite.

The groom had given me his WOMAD spa wristband, which he’d managed to get off his wrist without breaking, so I had a lovely shower with posh shampoo and shower gel and a fluffy white towel. I couldn’t linger in the shower as I was heading for a talk by folk song collector Sam Lee, who’s recorded many Romany Singers in the UK. Many of the songs he’s collected are thought to go back hundreds of years, such as “The Jew’s Garden”. A lady queried the song, as it seemed racist. Sam explained that the lyrics of the song date back to the thirteenth century, when Jews in Lincoln were accused of murdering a young boy, leading to persecution and execution of many Jews in England and their expulsion from the UK. Not only that, but Sam Lee is actually Jewish. A whole hidden history in a song. Just one example of the riches that have been handed down orally in the fast-disappearing Romany song tradition: another ill-treated minority preserving the dark secrets of British history. I missed Sam Lee and Friends’ set later on Sunday as I was working, but they’re playing at Beautiful Days and I hope to catch them there.

I took some photos of Carter’s Steam fair for a reminiscence course I’m running. Carter’s steam fair is a wonderful institution – every ride and game is an antique, all restored beautifully in working order, and loved by festival-goers. I got caught up in the excitement of the “Wall of Death”. This is the only working Wall of Death in Europe and some of the motorbikes date back to the 1920s. I paid £4, climbed up the wooden steps and looked down the cylinder of planks, which was about 20 feet high. There was a man doing maintenance on the bikes while we were waiting, and the smell of diesel and kick-starting the ancient motorbike added to the tension. The only thing protecting us from the motorbikes was a small safety wire. When the motorbikes started up and actually started riding vertically around the cylinder, it was thrilling. The riders performed tricks – hanging off the saddles, and three riders speeding around the Wall of Death at once. It was over far too quickly.

And then it was time for my final shift! It was very quiet and uneventful – but the six stewards and I got to know each other well, and the time flew. When the shift finished, I had time to watch the fabulously entertaining Red Hot Chilli Pipers (yes, I spelled it right!), who do bagpipe cover versions, including ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ by Journey and Prodigy songs! The last band of the weekend was festival favourites Sheelanagig – a band who switch genres in the blink of an eye; from medieval folk to funk. They were great fun, and I headed towards the Oxfam campsite happy, and caught up with some friends before heading to bed.

Monday morning dawned very sunny and I packed Jaspal and Ricky’s tent away and into my car bone dry. But then there was a huge rumble of thunder and torrential rain started to fall. I packed my tent away sopping wet, and the drive from the site was more of a slide on the sodden ground. The sun was coming out by the time I parked my car at Chedworth Roman villa, owned by the National Trust. I knew the villa was famous for its beautiful Roman mosaics, preserved under the Cotswold soil for over a thousand years, but as I opened my car door, I was about to find something else.

‘Oh my god – a giant snail!’ I said, out loud. Maybe it was the after-effect of the festival, but there was definitely a giant snail – almost the size of a tennis ball – in the undergrowth. The lady in the visitors’ centre told me that they were edible snails, which had survived since the Romans introduced them, and now lived wild in the grounds. As well as the Roman ruins, I also saw lizards and myriads of butterflies. The warm, wet weather was perfect for the snails which were the highlight of my visit – real living archaeology – just like the songs collected by Sam Lee.

A wedding, some roundabouts and concrete cows

It’s been a few weeks since my last blog post, as things have just been so busy! A few months ago, just before I finished my full-time job, I wrote about my friend’s hen night in Sheffield. It feels like a very long time ago now, but the wedding was in July and my friend has now gone to Canada, to start her brand-new married life!

It was written in the Concrete Cows…

The morning after the Levellers gig last month in Graves Park, I and a few friends headed down to Milton Keynes for the Sangeet, which is an Indian “hen night”, where the bride gets covered in turmeric (we missed this bit as we’d been sent to Tesco for an errand!) and saucy songs are sung about in-laws and married life. Two aunties provided the singing – it was a special honour that they performed at the sangeet. They performed in a marquee in the back garden and people sat on cushions on the floor to listen to the singing. The bride-to-be looked beautiful in her Indian clothes and it was great to meet some of her extended family. A girl got up and did some amazing dancing and we stuffed ourselves with Indian food. It was so hot, it felt like we really were in India.

The next day, the group of us from Sheffield walked around Willen Lake and visited the Peace Pagoda and Buddhist Temple. which has been there since the late seventies. The pagoda was built as a symbol of peace so that people remembered the horrifying effects of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We took our shoes off and looked around the temple, where there was a very moving display about the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011, and how the damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plant is causing health problems amongst the survivors, as well as having to rebuild the entire infrastructure of their society. Notices around the temple read “Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō”, a Buddhist chant I learned last year at Shambala festival, when I decided to get up early for a Buddhist meditation class and had a wonderful spiritual experience. The chant means “I take refuge in (devote or submit myself to) the Wonderful Law of the Lotus Flower Sutra”: the Lotus Flower Sutra meaning, very basically, that everyone can seek and find enlightenment. Buddhists believe that repeating the chant can bring enlightenment. Visiting the temple certainly left me very quiet and thoughtful. Here’s an interesting BBC link about Nichiren Buddhism – did you know that Tina Turner is a Buddhist? Anyway, before I got too serious about things, we paddled around Willen Lake on a pedalo!

We only had a week to prepare ourselves for the big day. Lots of friends, including old Uni friends, had decided to go the whole hog and wear Indian clothes. Months ago, in the depths of winter, I’d had a fantastic afternoon with friends, trying on countless Shalwar Kameez until we found the ones we wanted, at surprisingly reasonable prices, considering all the gold braid and embroidery. As well as making sure I’d packed all the right clothes, I also had to fetch several boxes of ale from a local Sheffield brewery and hope that they stayed cool enough in the searing heat! The Friday evening when we drove down was absolutely roasting and my poor “other half” was melting. We popped in to see the bride and her family – she had the intricate henna designs on her hands and feet now, and bangles on both arms, almost up the elbow. It was quite strange to see one of my closest friends for the last eighteen years – more often seen wearing a Dinosaur Junior t-shirt and Doc Martens – start to be transformed into an elegant Indian bride.

At the hotel, we met up with lots of other friends. We were all excited about the wedding day, but also feeling a little sad that soon our friend would be on another continent – a long, expensive flight away. At least we’ve got modern technology to help us out, with Skype and email.

One of the main subjects of conversation was how weird Milton Keynes is. It’s a new town, mostly constructed in the 60s and 70s and all the roads are on a square grid system. It feels a bit American. There isn’t a proper town centre but a huge shopping mall – centered on Midsummer Boulevard. Jaspal told me years ago that the town planners centred the town on a ley line so that the shopping centre aligned with the sunrise on the summer solstice. It’s all true – have a read of this fascinating website I found, also mentioning the “Wych Tree” near the Peace Pagoda:

It was a little cooler on the wedding day, a relief for all of us, but especially the bride and groom, who were wearing heavy, elaborate costumes, We made our way to the Gurudwara in Milton Keynes, which is a modern, purpose-built Sikh temple. We waited outside, admiring each other’s outfits, until the groom arrived in a horse-drawn carriage, surrounded by Bhangra-dancing relatives and a car blasting out music. The groom, had traditional garlands in front of his face and had very oriental-looking shoes with curly toes! We took our shoes off to enter the Gurudwara and we were served Indian tea, samosas and sweets.

Upstairs, in the main room, men and women sat on separate sides. My other half was nervous but he seemed happy enough with friends’ husbands, sitting against the wall at the back of the room. The women’s outfits were very colourful but the men were mostly wearing dull-coloured suits. Everyone had to cover their head in the Gurudwara, but for women, a loose scarf was enough. The ceremony started, with singing and tabla playing, but it was ages before the bride appeared. She’d been inside the building for hours, for final preparations and she looked very nervous as she came through the double-doors wearing her heavy red-and-gold wedding costume.

The wedding ceremony very beautiful and solemn and a lady from the Gurudwara gave a translation in English to explain the proceedings.  This article explains it in more detail. Have you read it? Good – it does a much better job at explaining it than I ever could! By the way, the holy Karah Pasad pudding we were given at the end tasted a bit like hot Weetabix. Straight after the wedding was another meal, downstairs at the Gurudwara!

After a few of us had scrambled to the wedding reception venue, to sort out the seating plan, we headed to the bride’s parents’ house again for the Doli. The banter for the groom to get his shoes back and be allowed in to see his bride was very funny, but the ceremony was very emotional – it’s supposed to be – with relatives crying as the couple were seen off in the wedding car (it was a vintage Bentley!)

After a quick rest, we went to the wedding reception. We were on more familiar ground here, with friends and relations sitting together on beautifully decorated tables, a DJ and more amazing Indian food. One of our friends from Sheffield, Tanya, played the dohl as the bride and groom walked into the reception. My friend had changed into a beautiful purple outfit and her new husband was in a smart suit. The groom’s friends had made a slideshow, with photos of the bride and groom growing up – they had even used some of the photos that friends had collected for the hen-night. We all had a brilliant time dancing but the food and the heat meant that we were exhausted by the time we returned to the hotel – none of us were up for partying long into the night like old times!

On Sunday afternoon, a big group of friends met up at Willen Lake. It was an emotional time, as most people wouldn’t see our newly married friends for months. At least I had WOMAD festival, the week afterwards. Before WOMAD though, they were off to Rome. They were determined to pack as much in as possible!

And so were we. After another stop-off at the bride’s parents, we decided to search for the legendary Milton Keynes Concrete Cows, a sculpture created in the 1970s by a Canadian-born artist, Liz Leyh. So the Canadian connection was there from the very beginning in Milton Keynes, written into their destiny.  It took some detective work to track down the cows, and the ones we found are replicas of the originals. But it was the perfect setting – a field in the evening sun, and cows that almost looked real from a distance.

We left Milton Keynes with an odd mixture of feelings: happiness, indigestion, our senses whirling from all the colourful sights we’d seen, sadness that our friend would soon be a long way away from us, but relief to be back up north amongst some hills!

Things this blog is about…