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.

Things this blog is about…