It’s where Rappers meet Mollies and Fools flirt with belly dancers. There are dancers in clogs performing step dances, but not clog dances, as Cotswold dancers from Dorset rub shoulders with traditional Slovak dancers before faces are painted, swords are drawn and sticks primed for a procession through town that ends with a set-to in the sea.
Not some bespoke bacchanale to herald the passing of the season – at least, it wasn’t conceived as such – but the gradual evolution
of Swanage Folk Festival, designed to extend the town’s tourist season and boost the local economy.
This year’s gathering marks the festival’s silver jubilee, although its roots go back a few years earlier to the formation of the Old Harry Morris side, which used to dance at a festival in Wareham every year.
‘When that stopped, it was decided to start a Day of Dance in Swanage, which slowly grew, first with an evening show, then with something on the night before, until Phil Williams, who had started Old Harry Morris, and his wife, the international harpist Sarah Deere-Jones, set up Swanage Folk Festival,’ explains its current organiser, Steve Parker, who has been involved for at least 23 of the festival’s 25 years, he reckons. ‘Phil and Sarah moved away but we’re thrilled they’re coming back to play for us this year. It will be a really special night.
‘We have a marquee on Sandpit Field for concerts, which holds about 300, and we use the new Swanage School hall for the ceilidh,’ Steve goes on. We also use the function room at the Conservative Club, upstairs at the Mowlem and the parish hall at St Mary’s, where there’s a service on the Sunday and the closing concert. Then the pubs do their own thing outside of the festival, but we work with them and include their sessions in the programme.’
Swanage Folk Festival has become a calendar fixture and makes a concerted effort to be of benefit to the town. Every year a percentage of proceeds is given to charity and last year £1000 was donated to Margaret Green Animal Rescue, Purbeck Citizens Advice, Besom in Purbeck and Swanage Pier. Steve Parker explains: ‘We’re part of the town and we like to think being in the town is very much part of the appeal. The whole idea was to extend the summer season so we’re always two weeks after August bank holiday, which is after the schools have gone back, but it can feel like a late summer.’
The overall sense of Swanage Folk Festival is that everything turns out fine, whatever the weather. Locals rarely complain, even when sections of the town are closed off for the Sunday procession. The march of dancers and bands is an essential part of the festival and gives participants a welcome chance to show off to each other and to the crowds that cheer them on their way from the Pier Approach to the lower High Street and along Institute Road to Shore Road. ‘The dance sides have been busy all weekend,’ says Steve, ‘but they like to save some of their best moves for the procession and you get a few showstoppers on Shore Road at the end. Then there’s a festival tradition to have a dance in the sea.
‘I think the real appeal of the festival is its simplicity,’ Steve goes on. ‘There are lots and lots of dancers, lots and lots of musicians and most of them play for free at different places all over the town – that’s the main part of the festival that the passing public sees and it’s great family entertainment. Those that want to explore the music a bit more or are looking for a wider experience of folk music can book tickets for the evening concerts and take part in the ceilidh, so there is some folk music and dance for everyone.’
Previous headline acts have included folk stars Kate Rusby, the perennially popular Show of Hands, Chris Leslie from Fairport Convention, the legendary Yorkshire family band The Watersons and folkpunk agit-proppers the Oysterband. This year’s line-up includes Canadian folk group Le Vent du Nord, whose blend of original material and traditional Québécois has won widespread admiration, acclaimed fiddle player and singer Nancy Kerr, young Radio 2 Folk Award nominee Hattie Briggs and Cornish bluegrass exponents Flats & Sharps.
‘Swanage Folk Festival is seen as a bastion of traditional English folk music, but I’m not sure that’s really the case,’ says Steve.
‘It’s true we welcome lots of dance sides that are very traditional, but there’s a broader sweep as well and the boundaries are blurred in any case – I always say that if it has been done for a year, then it’s a tradition!
‘We’ll always struggle to get the best-known artists because we don’t have the budget and our capacity is limited by the size of the marquee – but you never know, a big name might decide they want to play a tent by the seaside and we’ll be in luck.’
Sarah Deere-Jones and Phil Williams join singer songwriter Sophia Wright, fiddle player Steve Potter and actor Jeremy Curry in the group Wyvern (formerly Time and Tide) to perform Words Take Wing, a folk drama based on the ‘Facts’ notebooks of Thomas Hardy at Dorset County Museum on Friday 27 October.
The production relates the stories Hardy gleaned from the Dorset County Chronicle archive and reveals how he incorporated them into his published works with readings and dramatised extracts.
Each section also includes examples of folk songs collected by Henry and Robert Hammond on their bicycle journeys through Dorset between 1905 and 1907.
Swanage Folk Festival runs from 8 to 10 September.
Full details of the line up at www.swanagefolkfestival.com.
• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.