The ultimate sign of a good festival is that you want to go back and having made my first visit to Wimborne Minster Folk Festival in 2018 it wasn't a difficult decision to return again this year. Even in that short space of time I found changes that suggest the festival isn't willing to stand still or rest on its laurels, although there was enough of the familiar to make it feel like the start of a tradition.
I was pleased to see that the Minster, first used last year, remained the main venue. It's a wonderful building with beautiful acoustics and creates a space that works so well for music. The pews are actually quite comfortable, which makes a change from a lot of churches, and the lighting made for a glorious spectacle. The first plaudit of the review goes to Vince Sherry who was responsible for the lighting set up. Whilst on the subject RMV Sounds worked so hard and, as we'll see, had plenty of challenges over the weekend but did a great job.
The Minster Church of St Cuthburga, to give it its full title, is worth a visit in its own right and that's one of the things that makes this festival so worth attending, Being based within the town there are plenty of things to do away from the music, including parks and gardens for a bit of peace and quiet and the incredibly charming model village. You can even get out to walk the Stour valley, which is English countryside personified. Within the town every corner you turn is likely to reveal a dance group, a stage or music in a pub. Combined with the trader's stalls and a plant sale outside the Minster it had the feel of a town fête and many people came along just for the ambience of the day, to meet up with friends and generally have a good time.
As always though, the big draw to get people to attend a festival from any distance away is the music and this year the festival benefited from musical directors who really knew what they were doing. Jo Elkington and Leo Mackenzie not only got the right performers but put them on in the right order. This was something I hadn't really considered before but it seems so obvious now and one example demonstrates that perfectly. The main Saturday evening concert was big sounds and a charged atmosphere with Will Finn and Rosie Calvert opening the evening and giving the sound man his first challenge; how to mic up a steel drum. He made a great job of it. Heg and the Wolf Chorus have a huge theatrical sound that was the perfect warm-up to Falselights. Led by Jim Moray and Sam Carter, Falselights have completely rewritten the rulebook for folk rock in the 21st Century whilst still very clearly being a folk band. It was a stunning evening and made even more so by being at the right time.
Compare it to the Sunday headline concert which had music every bit as good but the the pace was more traditional, more suited towards the closing of the event. Opening with a stunning set by Iona Lane, one of the most talented young performers in the country, she showed that youth is no bar to an amazing songwriting ability and electrified the audience. Following Iona came another fast rising future star, Kim Lowings. Kim, with her band The Greenwood, lit up the stage and even her songs which tackle more serious subjects have a lift to them. To close the night, and the festival, local favourites Ninebarrow delighted the audience with a wit and sparkle that is hard to match and songs that are very firmly based in the local landscape.
Both concerts were excellent and will stay in the memory but had they been swapped the impact may not have been the same. On Saturday everyone was ready to party whereas Sunday was more contemplative as the festival drew to a very successful close.
There was plenty of other excellent music outside of these two big set pieces, with far too many artists and bands to list but the quality remained high throughout. Another innovation this year was to move the second stage to the Methodist church. This had the advantage of being just a couple of minutes walk from the Minster, so for the hard core music followers it was very easy to move between the two. The church threw open its doors to really welcome people in, with good coffee and some lovely cakes as a bonus. It was also the location for the FATEA showcase, curated by our own Neil King, with a line-up of quality musicianship and songwriting featuring Robert Lane, Greg Hancock and Matt Tighe & Tad Sargent
The other stand-out for me was the chance the festival gave to tomorrow's rising stars, so the Minster matinee concerts featured, amongst others, Roswell, Odette Michell and Thom Ashworth. There was also a set from Vicki Swan and Jonny Dyer with another challenge for sound; two cow horns and a cornu, which looked like the Romans had left it behind. Soundchecking for guitars and fiddles must have seemed quite mundane after that.
Away from the main stages, as mentioned, there was plenty of other activity. It's the sign of a good festival that you look at the programme and agonise over who you can and can't get to; there were plenty of those during the weekend. I did manage to see both Mitchell & Vincent and The Portraits in the Minster Arms, which is a friendly pub and just far enough away from the Minster itself to work up a thirst. Wimborne is a small town so all of the stages were in easy walking distance and the main through road is closed to traffic for the weekend, giving the dance groups plenty of space. That shows that the festival is highly regarded by the community, as it should be.
As before I stayed at the campsite and found it to be well maintained, with plentiful hot water in the showers all weekend. The rain had been fairly relentless the week before but the site drains easily and straw had already been brought in to make sure the entrance stayed passable. It's those little bits of foresight that make all the difference. There was limited food available however and, as lots of people leave on the Sunday, nothing on the final evening. Once again the stewards and security were a great bunch, always happy, smiling and helpful and it felt very secure with specific camping wristbands that were assiduously checked. A big improvement for 2019 was the installation of temporary traffic lights on the notorious Julian's Bridge which made crossing, especially at night, a far less adventurous experience than in the past. I hope that becomes a fixture for the future.
The overall impressions of this festival were very favourable and a couple of minor problems, such as a confusion over wristband meanings on Saturday morning, were swiftly and efficiently dealt with. I have no hesitation in recommending this festival if you haven't previously attended and next year's dates have already been confirmed as 12-14 June. It's certainly worth dropping those in to your diary now.
Words and pictures Tony Birch
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