The 25-year Larmer trek

Larmer Tree 2014. Photo: Paul Bevan
Larmer Tree 2014. Photo: Paul Bevan

There’s something unerringly primal about human beings gathering together in the open air to celebrate with like-minded people, but although many modern music festivals make much of this ethos, few manage not only to capture it, but to go on doing so. One such, the Larmer Tree Festival, has taken place in July just inside the Dorset border for the last 25 years.

The Larmer Tree Gardens, in which the festival is and if the organisers have their way will continue to be set, were created in 1880 as pleasure grounds for ‘public enlightenment and entertainment’ by Augustus Lane Fox Pitt Rivers after he inherited the Rushmore estate on Cranborne Chase. Named after a landmark tree that marked the border between Wiltshire and Dorset, they were the first private gardens in the country to be opened freely for public enjoyment. Thomas Hardy visited in 1895 for a sports day and night dance, but after Pitt Rivers’ death in 1900 the gardens closed and only opened occasionally until his great grandson Michael Pitt Rivers began their restoration in 1991 and after being Grade II listed by English Heritage finally reopened them in 1995.

But in 1990 it was hardly the obvious venue for a new music festival. Thankfully, reason has little place in the heart and mind of the pioneering music fan and certainly didn’t deter market stall trader James Shepard when he decided to throw a party for himself and as many friends and friends of friends he could convince to help cover the cost.

‘I can’t remember why I hit upon the Larmer Tree Gardens as a venue, there’s a couple of stories – one of which may be true,’ he says, almost apologetically enigmatic. ‘I played ping pong for Fontmell Magna B team and I know we played a match in the Pavilion in the gardens, which in those days was used as the Rushmore estate workers’ social club. The gardens were very overgrown, but you could see the potential. The other theory is that it was where my parents met at a hunt ball in the 1920s. Either way, both are good stories and you know what they say about the truth and a good story?’

That first festival ran from midday to midnight on a sultry Saturday in July. The audience of barely 150 souls enjoyed six bands on two stages headlined by the late, great jazz and blues saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith. It was slightly bigger the following year, but took a year off in 1992 before James formed a partnership with his co-director Julia Safe for the 1993 festival that remained unchanged until last year when they were joined by Rob Challice the hugely respected music promoter and agent.

‘We’ve always been sponsor-free and we’ve stayed small. That’s not going to change,’ says James. ‘The festival has grown but almost imperceptibly and because we stay within the gardens we’ll never be able to accommodate more than 5,000 people at any one time.’

This year, Larmer Tree is a six-day multi-arts festival and a fixture of the summer music calendar. Last year’s gathering attracted arguably the biggest mainstream name in its history – Sir Tom Jones – and the Welsh wizard returns for this year’s silver jubilee.

‘Because we’ve been able to grow organically, it hasn’t felt like there was suddenly one moment when we got bigger,’ says Julia, who continued in her role at Salisbury Arts Centre until 2000 when James sold his wholefoods market stall business and the pair of them went full time.

‘That felt like a serious move as suddenly, for both of us, it was our income,’ adds James.

The very first Larmer Tree Festival, 1990. Photo: Roger Elliott
The very first Larmer Tree Festival, 1990. Photo: Roger Elliott

One of the keys to the success of Larmer Tree is the sense of ownership it engenders in its audience. Significant numbers of tickets are sold long before any of the line up is announced, a clear indication that people identify with the event rather than what’s on. Aside from the big name attractions on the main stage, all sorts of things happen across a variety of performance areas, from literary discussions and circus skills workshops to a farmers’ market, comedy club and late night jam sessions. The site itself is decorated with art installations and sculptures, there’s live action in the trees and even an adult-free chill out zone for children.

‘You become part of a community,’ says Julia. ‘What I love about it is that you see people you recognise in different places during the course of the festival, much like you would if you lived in a small town. It has a sense of familiarity and continuity that you don’t get with bigger festivals – we’re small enough that you can move between stages and areas so you don’t have to miss something because you’ve started to watch someone else. It’s very rare that a tent will be so packed you can’t get anyone else in.’

Festival going in the early 21st century is an entirely different proposition from what it was in the late 20th century. From the mid-1960s until roughly the end of the century, popular music festivals were generally fairly rough and ready affairs, usually quite cheap, short on home comforts, but long on possibilities. Today though festivals in general are safer, better organised, cleaner and more widely attended than ever. It’s not just about upgraded toilet facilities; all aspects of customer care have improved immeasurably. In many ways the Larmer Tree has been the vanguard of this trend. It’s a model of modern festival going and with every justification calls itself the original boutique festival.

‘In the old days there were fewer people going to more festivals,’ says Julia, ‘but now people will decide to do just one festival each summer and we’re incredibly conscious that it’s a major decision for them to come to Larmer Tree so we work very hard to build and maintain that personal connection with our audience. What remains longest with you after a festival are not usually the things you set out to see, but the things you discovered by accident and judging by the comments we get Larmer Tree is very good at that.’

The change is due in no small part to the evolving nature of the wider music industry. Whereas traditionally artists used to play live to promote an album and would invariably expect to lose money on a tour, today sales of recorded music are on a gradual downward trajectory and artists now expect to make their money from live shows. The most popular acts play to bigger audiences than ever before and summer festivals have become a major part of that operation.

James and Julia have to deal with the consequences of that every year – the bigger names command ever-larger fees and Larmer Tree is steadfastly refusing to budge from its site within the gardens. And yet it has recently booked the biggest names in its history. It’s a dichotomy that lies at the very heart of the Larmer Tree’s success. While Julia is rightly proud of the minute organisation that makes it such a success – ‘I’m not as keen on dealing with crises as James,’ she quips – James is equally gratified that the festival remains a parade of possibilities.

Van Morrison 2013. Photo: Phil Sofer
Van Morrison 2013. Photo: Phil Sofer

‘Well, because things are so well organised we have the time to remain calm and deal with the unexpected,’ he says. ‘We had an instance last year where a main stage act, La Pegatina, had played in Malaga the night before and missed their flight so would be arriving too late for their slot. We got hold of a young band called CoCo & the Butterfields who were due to play the Garden Stage and asked if they could fill the gap. They’d only just left Canterbury but arrived here in a beaten up old van with eight minutes to spare, went straight on stage and stormed it. In the same spirit when the Bristol School of Samba got lost coming to the first festival they managed to find a phone box and called the backstage phone, which by some miracle was answered and I set off to find them and guide them here.’

But even those moments are surpassed by James’ best ever Larmer Tree Festival memory…    ‘Van Morrison in 2013, he was right on it, singing ‘Days Like This’ with his fist pumping, really giving it his all. The guy’s a genius and it’s fair to say he has a certain reputation, but that day he’d been in a great mood all day long, the sun was casting beautiful long shadows across the lawn in front of the stage, his daughter was stood next to him singing and he seemed to be exactly where he wanted to be.

‘You could sense everyone there, the band, the audience, even Van, all of us were willing nothing would happen to break the spell. It was just magical.’

Technology has made it possible to access most things from a computer screen, but there isn’t an app in the world that can simulate the wonderfully fragile unpredictability of shared collective experience – exactly the kind of thing that festivals such as Larmer Tree specialise in.

• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.

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