Red Squirrels vs Rave Panda at Beautiful Days 2014

Beautiful Days is one of my favourite festivals, and I think a lot of my fellow Oxfam stewards agree with me. It’s organised by one of my favourite bands, the Levellers, and combines folk, punk, ska, reggae, dance music, and everything else you can imagine, with no sponsorship or  branding – just good fun!

We travelled down on the Wednesday again this year (thanks to Caroline for the lift, and Louise was also sharing the lift!), and although there were a few showers on the way, by the time we arrived at Escott Park near Exeter, it was a wonderfully golden summer afternoon. As soon as we arrived in the crew/artists camp site, we were surrounded by people we knew. It was impossible to know who to say hello to first, but the first priority was to set up camp and find out what shifts we’d been given. I was quite pleased with mine, as a “Response Supervisor”, which meant that I would be filling in wherever I was needed. I was working on Sunday evening though, clashing with the Levellers’ main performance, but I was optimistic that perhaps I might be needed most at the main stage at that time.

Over-excited arrival at Beautiful Days

Over-excited arrival at Beautiful Days

Fraser and Clare, who had come straight from working at Boardmasters and Boomtown, had saved places for our tents, and soon we were drinking ale to toast our arrival before heading to our briefing. I spent the rest of the evening catching up with newlyweds Graham and Gaelle, and lots of other people I hadn’t seen since Glastonbury or even longer. I shared one of my “mini kegs” of my local Bradfield Ale.

I woke on Thursday morning to heavy showers and I wasn’t feeling too perky myself due to the results of mixing ale with wine. After a couple of false starts, I finally ventured as far as the backstage area for a hot shower, and after a bowl of cereal, I joined my friends under the canopy of Lazyland – Graham and Gaelle’s event shelter for some rainy day activities. I’d volunteered to run a poetry workshop, but when I arrived, acrostic poems were already well under way, as was knitting and loom-band making. Graham led us in the arcane art of making ashtrays/candle holders out of old drinks cans, and there was even a rave workshop. To finish things off, we had a go at writing three line haiku poems, and here are some of them!

The Woodpigeon

“My toe hurts, Betty”,
Woodpigeon sings from the trees,
Warm after hard rain.

Lazyland

Pink loom band knitting:
Strand after strand of rubber
Sheltering from rain.

Silver Grass

The bird see-through cloud
Sky blue, silver grass floats by
Swoops up to sky.

Love in a field

Shiny smiley love
Tripping happiness, radiating
Within us forever.

After our poetry session, a large group of “Lazylanders” set off for a wander around the festival. It was still raining, but it soon dried out, and Graham was soon in his element, giving stewards new to Beautiful Days a guided tour of the festival. We stopped for a drink at the Bimble Inn, and once again, I sampled (just a half) the cider which had got me back on my feet on Sunday night at Glastonbury.

New fez friends at Dirty Davey's

New fez friends at Dirty Davey’s!

After a while, some of us went to the bar by the main stage, Dirty Daveys, to join the Beautiful Days Chat Facebook group’s Thursday night get together, with red fez hats as the theme. When we approached the bar, we were completely astounded by the sea of fezes, and we were soon chatting to fellow chat group members and having a great time. I felt under dressed, but I wasn’t sure whether I should join forces with the “anti-fez league”, who claim that everyone is an individual and shouldn’t conform by wearing a fez. I also met Jeremy Cunningham, the Levellers’ bass player, and gave him a flyer for my novel Outside Inside, which is named after a Levellers song. Jeremy was quick to spot this – and he promised that he would read the book. I hope he does!

Anyway, it was soon time to get to grips with reality and start my first shift, the Thursday night night shift. When I reached the Oxbox, Oxfam’s steward control, I was told that one of the supervisors was ill and that I had to replace him in the main campsite overnight, looking after the stewards on the fire towers and roaming around in the camp sites. We knew that we had to be vigilant: Thursday night is usually the worst night for thefts from tents at festivals, when people have relaxed and let their guards down. We did our best, but sadly, it was a large and mostly dark camp site, and there didn’t seem to be any security staff on the ground to back us up. We started to find tents that had been unzipped. It was an eerie feeling to find that perhaps you’d been just a minute or two too late on our rounds around the field. One lady reported that she’d been robbed while she’d been asleep in her tent. She was understandably very upset, and I called security to help us out and we reported the theft to the on-site police.

Later on, as dawn broke, quite a few campers near a fence line reported that they’d been robbed. I felt terrible that we’d been unable to stop the thefts. Reports came of four men, wearing black, lurking around between tents and running away when challenged. It seemed that they had broken in through a broken section of fence, and were going into tents, stealing bags and wallets from virtually under people’s noses. But the good news was that the police said they’d caught one of the suspects, and before the end of my shift, I managed to reunite a few people with their wallets – with the cards still intact. When my shift ended, I needed to wind down with friends, and gulp down some rum before I could sleep. I hoped that the thieves would all be caught and that the crime victims would be able to get on with enjoying the festival.

The most amazing camper van on site!

The most amazing camper van on site!

I didn’t get that much sleep on Friday morning. It wasn’t long before my friends woke up and started chatting. I almost joined in with their conversation, but I wanted to at least pretend to myself that I was sleeping. However, I felt reasonably refreshed as I headed to the Levellers’ acoustic gig in the Big Top to kick off the festival. Their set was brilliant – lots of obscure oldies thrown in, as well as big hits. Then we headed over to the main stage, where we enjoyed Skinny Lister. There was a bit of a disaster during their set when the PA system went down, but the band rose to the occasion with an epic drum solo and the other musicians disappearing into the crowd to continue playing, and then triumphantly returning onto the stage as the sound returned!

We had a group “date” to eat delicious woodfired pizza, and then went to watch Culture Shock. It was great to see them, as we’d been big fans of the anarcho/punk/ska band in my uni days, and I’ve got all of their albums on vinyl. Louise was new to them, but soon her “inner crusty” was fighting its way out and we were soon having a fantastic time. I was excited about the Undertones, as they are one of my favourite punk bands, with classic sing-along songs, including the rightly famous Teenage Kicks. They were brilliant, and I tried to start the most gentle mosh pit ever in their honour!

Watching the Undertones in the sunshine.

Watching the Undertones in the sunshine.

Then we had a crisis – our beloved Dreadzone clashed with the Bad Shepherds, featuring Adrian Edmonson. We’ve seen Dreadzone so many times that we stuck around for the first twenty minutes of their set before tearing themselves away heading over to the Big Top for the Bad Shepherds. It was worth it. The Bad Shepherds are the brainchild of comedian Adrian Edmonson, who decided to form a band to play 70s punk and new wave classics as traditional Celtic folk songs. It sounds like a crazy idea, but it works beautifully, and Adrian Edmonson now considers the Bad Shepherds to be his main career. The songs work perfectly on mandolin, haunting Uilleann pipes and double-bass, and you can really hear the lyrics when they’re not being shouted over a distorted guitar.

We stayed in the Big Top for the Carolina Chocolate Drops. I’d heard them play on the radio, and had listened to interviews with them, and they sounded interesting, playing bluegrass and American roots music from a black perspective. I really enjoyed their show – their music is entertaining, danceable – a good “hoe-down” as well as a history lesson. The 19th century banjo song was amazing – with a real African sound. They were playing a recreated banjo – the kind that slaves would have played, and it was a really haunting moment. Lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens really wowed the crowd, as she’s beautiful, amazingly talented and also funny, telling the story of how her luggage was lost in transit so she had to buy an emergency dress for the performance from Debenhams in Taunton. The dress was beautiful (I want one!) but I hope she was reunited with her suitcase. Definitely one of my Beautiful Days highlights.

We stayed around for a bit of the amazing Tinariwen, playing their desert blues from Mali, but I was feeling a bit sleepy after my night shift, and their music was putting me in a bit too much of a trance. We wandered past the main stage to check out Steve Earle, but it wasn’t really my sort of thing and it was a bit slow. I was in the mood for something a bit more lively, and we found what we were looking for in the Bimble Inn. Simeon Lenoir is a solo musician, strumming Latin rhythms on his guitar, spreading love and romance in his sparkly shirt, and calling up audience members to pretend to be various jungle creatures. Fantastic fun!

Bright and early on Saturday morning, I started my shift, after a rather epic shower where I lost all track of time. Luckily, there was no queue! The Oxbox were allowing me to take things gently after the stress and trauma of my Thursday night shift, and after chatting and making coffee in our marquee, I was dispatched to wander around in the kids’ field until the actual kids’ field supervisor started her shift. Then I found myself at a slight loose end for a while, awaiting further instructions, so I wandered between the arena, the band stand and the theatre field, finding time to chat to legendary alternative artist Pete Loveday, who had a stall at the festival, and also buy some 7″ singles from a charity stall! But I was soon back to work, helping out in the family camp site, and making sure that all the stewards up fire towers got their breaks. That meant that I missed most of Ferocious Dog’s set at the Big Top, but later on, I managed to patrol over to the stage – it was packed, but thankfully, my stewarding services weren’t needed, as everyone was having a brilliant time. If you’d like a full review of the gig, a fellow blogger has done an excellent job here. After the gig, I even met up with some of the organisers of Bearded Theory festival.

I was still actually on shift, so I was sent over to the main stage for a while (a terrible job, but someone’s got to do it!), and helped out while Tom Hickox was playing. It was very gentle music, so there wasn’t a massive mosh pit to supervise. I just had a pleasant time, wandering around and chatting to people.

After my shift, I decided to visit Escot Park’s most famous residents. No, not the Levellers, but the red squirrels, who have their own piece of woodland, safe from the competitive greys. Festival-goers are welcome to visit the squirrels, which are usually part of the country park at Escot (they also have beavers which have been introduced into the wild!)

Cheeky red squirrel!

Cheeky red squirrel at Escot Park!

I opened and shut the double gates carefully, and walked down the raised wooden walkway. The squirrels were quite active, digging in the undergrowth and running around, and I was instantly entranced. But it wasn’t until I was about to leave that I had my most magical encounter. As I leaned on the top of the fence surrounding the walkway, a squirrel shot up the fence post from the ground, looked me straight in the eye, then ran towards me to take an experimental nibble on my elbow, before shooting off. At first, I thought the cheeky chap/chapess might have tried to get into my backpack, as it contained flapjack in a Tupperware container, but it was no where to be seen. I was absolutely smitten. As I left the “squirrel encounter”, closing the door gently behind me, a squirrel (I’m not sure if it was the same one), ran up to the doorway and peered through the wire, demanding to be let out. But I knew that wouldn’t be a good idea, so I made sure it had scampered back down the walkway to safety. If it escaped, sadly it wouldn’t last very long in an area where grey squirrels thrive, as the greys carry a disease which is deadly to the reds.

I think this blurred picture of Seeed is really good, but you might disagree!

I think this blurred picture of Seeed is really good, but you might disagree!

Thrilled to bits, I returned to camp to fetch more ale and cider. It was going to be a big Beautiful Days night! We took it easy at first, drinking and chatting at the back while the Easy Star All-Stars played ‘Dub Side of the Moon’. Louise reached fever-pitch for Seeed,  a German reggae band. I was initially a little sceptical, but they were a lot of fun, with catchy songs, even though their choreographed dances were a little cheesy. And then out came the drummers – a whole row of guys with snare drums, dancing and twirling their glow-in-the-dark sticks with perfect timing. It was brilliant. A bit Kraftwerk, with their sharp suits and ties. Absolutely mesmerising.

The next part of the evening perfectly sums up Beautiful Days. Where else would you have to make the decision of what band to see: The Dead Kennedys (80s hardcore American punk band, famous for Holiday in Cambodia), or Steeleye Span (gentle 70s British Folk Rock Band, famous for All Around my Hat). I opted for the Dead Kennedys, but Fraser and Louise went to see Steeleye Span. The new singer of the Dead Kennedys annoyed a few people in the audience by thinking that he could win a British audience over by commenting on our politics, but when they played the well-known songs, the crowd went wild. I got chatting to some guys from Lancashire who’d been heckling the Dead Kennedy’s, so I’m afraid most of Seasick Steve’s set washed over me! It sounded pretty good, but I’ve seen him a few times now, and perhaps he’s a little too slick now, compared with his raw, charismatic performance at Green Man 2007.

After the main stage finished, I ended up in the main bar, where the DJ was playing funk and soul classics, and I bumped into my old school friend Mary, who now lives in Exeter and is a Beautiful Days stalwart. Then Fraser appeared, resplendent in his Rave Panda outfit, which was proving to be a big hit already. When we were “tatting” at Glastonbury, Fraser found a panda onesie, which was rather dirty and spray-painted with the slogan “Rave Panda”. I took the outfit home and washed it thoroughly, and Louise painstakingly sewed “Rave Panda” back onto the onesie. And a legend was born! It was certainly strange to introduce Fraser to my old friend as “hello, and this is Rave Panda!”. But luckily, Rave Panda went down well with Mary and everyone else he met.

We had a great time, raving in the Leviticus tent, and also the roaming “Village Disco”, until the wee small hours!

The official way to greet a  Rave Panda!

The official way to greet a Rave Panda!

Despite a late night on Saturday, I was awake bright and early on Sunday morning, ready to put on black and white fancy dress for the dressing up theme, and black and white nail varnish too!

But what I really wanted to do was to see the red squirrels again. So I managed to persuade Fraser to come with me. This time, we were lucky enough to coincide with the daily talk by one of the nature rangers – the lady talking to us about the squirrels brought nuts in her pocket and in a bag, and even though most of the squirrels seemed to be hiding (or maybe having a lie-in after a night of raving!), one cheeky squirrel was soon delving into the ranger’s pockets for her favourite nut, running off to bury it, and coming back to beg for more with a very dirty nose and paws from the digging. The squirrel kept doing this, and she even sniffed my newly-applied nail varnish and scampered over my hand! The ranger explained that red squirrels are actually really shy, and that if you picked one up, it would probably die of shock. They also have a very specialist diet, so bringing food for them into the enclosure is strictly forbidden and has actually killed squirrels in the past.

After our encounter, we had lunch at the Escot Park cafe in the old stable block, a brilliant haven at the festival, with sofas, and flushing toilets. Lovely! I must pay a visit to Escot Park when there’s no festival happening in it, to see all the wildlife.

Black Tar River - the winning fancy dress "outfit"!

Black Tar River – the winning fancy dress “outfit”!

We headed to the band stand, where the fancy dress competition was about to take place. Fraser had forgotten his Rave Panda outfit, so he felt very under-dressed, surrounded by hundreds of people in their black and white finery. Everyone who was in fancy dress had to parade in front of the stage, in front of the judging panel, which involved Jeremy Leveller himself. The winners were a whole family dressed as a road crossing, or a “black tar river”: named after a Levellers’ lyric, and a lady in a wheelchair dressed as a space rocket! We were also impressed by a chain gang of about twenty people, who really were chained together, and if any of them had to leave the chain gang (to visit the portaloo!) they had to do a forfeit.

Watching the Bar Stewards in appropriate knitwear.

Watching the Bar Stewards in appropriate knitwear.

And then it was time for the hotly anticipated set by the Bar Steward Sons of Val Doonican, a comedy folk band who have been gathering supporters in huge numbers (including Frank Turner and Simon Friend from the Levellers). The black and white crowd was absolutely huge. Luckily, we were quite near the front, but we had a whale of a time, singing along to the daft choruses. The Doonicans are really worth checking out, and if you’re from my neck of the woods, you’re lucky, as they’re all Barnsley lads and play regularly.

It was time to start work again, and Oxfam were being gentle with me again. I was working on a wrist-band check point behind the theatre stage, telling people not to walk up a vehicle-only route back towards the exit. I didn’t even have a radio, so I and the steward I was working with had a relaxed time. As I’ve been a supervisor for Oxfam for a long time now, it’s strange to work without a constant buzz of radio traffic in your ear. We weren’t very busy, so we took turns to patrol in the arena and take breaks to see our favourite bands. I caught another great South Yorkshire band, Reverend and the Makers, before patrolling into the main arena to catch a bit of Jimmy Cliff and the Levellers. I could also hear the music from my stewarding position, so it was a good night. I even managed to be in the arena when the fireworks went off, which was excellent.

Off-duty Oxfam stewards in fancy dress  be very afraid!

Off-duty Oxfam stewards in fancy dress be very afraid!

When I’d finished my shift, it was time to round off the festival with a good old boogie in the backstage bar. At Beautiful Days, all workers, crew and artists are warmly invited backstage, and the music is always great. At 4am, we were finally kicked out, and we reluctantly made our way to our tents, not wanting the festival to end.

The Levellers round off the Sunday night of a magical festival.

The Levellers round off the Sunday night of a magical festival.

We set off fairly early on Monday morning, surprising even ourselves with our ability to pack our belongings and tents away quickly, but Caroline, the lady giving us a lift, had to drive all the way to Newcastle.

Sadly, later that day, we heard the news that two workers had been seriously injured later on Monday morning when a telehandler (similar to a forklift truck) fell over onto its side with a man in cherrypicker basket. I hope that they both make a full recovery. There are plans next year to raise money to the Devon Air Ambulance Service by the Beautiful Days Chat group.

Beautiful Days is the festival where I feel most at home. I love the music, I love the people who go to the festival, and I love the fact that as a worker there, I can swan about backstage, and mingle with the artists in the camp site too! But now I think that my favourite celebrities there are the red squirrels…

Here’s Louder than War’s review of Beautiful Days…which doesn’t involve squirrels: http://louderthanwar.com/beautiful-days-festival-live-review-2/

 

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. The Sound of Summer
    Sep 01, 2014 @ 09:28:55

    Great review of Beautiful Days Anne. It sounds like the Oxfam team have a real sense of community. I could be tempted 🙂

    Reply

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