It might not be surfing, but we like it. From wild swimming and performance poetry to ukuleles, Clare Howdle goes in search of Cornwall’s cultural side at the Port Eliot Festival 2009.
With mist hanging low over the land and dawn’s light not yet capable of warming my skin, I wade out into the water, its chill toying with my toes and threatening to make me shiver as I contemplate submerging. I look around and nod knowingly at the other dedicated individuals venturing out to get a taste of the water before the day takes hold.
My early morning dip might sound like your average dawn session, but in fact last Saturday, in south east Cornwall, surf was the last thing on my mind. I was wild swimming at Port Eliot Festival 2009, wallowing in the refreshing pleasure of a dawn dip in the river before hopping into the hot tub, then wandering the stately home’s grounds in search of entertainment.
As you might have guessed, Port Eliot is far from your average UK festival. The latest evolution of the famed 80’s The Elephant Fayre, it boasts an eclectic programme of music, comedy, literature, theatre, dance and fashion – with a healthy dose of eccentricity thrown in. Organised by Lord and Lady St Germans it draws culture vultures from across the country, and I was one of them.
The festival site stretches out across the entire Port Eliot estate, from the well kept lawn in front of the imposing ancestral seat of the St Germans to the boathouse down by the river. Every available building becomes a stage and tents are erected wherever the land lies flat, which means that it takes some exploration to find your bearings, but of course that adds to the fun.
First stop was the Telltales tent, where, alongside other Cornwall based writers, Dan Crockett – more commonly known to Drift readers for his surf writing – shared his adventures in creative fiction to a jam-packed audience. After enjoying the best of what Cornwall’s writing scene had to offer we hotfooted it up to the Bowling Green stage to hear from Jung Chang, international bestselling author of Wild Swans and one of the key players in raising the veil on Communist China. Her frank discussion of the incredible experiences that have informed her writing over the years had us mesmerised.
Staying put, a change of key followed as the tent flooded with fans of The Wire all desperate to spend an hour with Dominic West, aka Jimmy McNulty, aka the coolest detective on earth. And he didn’t disappoint. His honest wit and mischievous nature had the whole audience captivated as he told tales of how he never quite got the hang of the Baltimore accent, how ‘Bunk’ really is great’ and how the city’s police put themselves at the show’s disposal – boats, cars, helicopters and all. On top of that he spilt the beans on how he really felt about being in 300 and the scrapes not playing the fame game has got him into.
So after a delightful dose of McNulty, we headed down the hill for a slice of tongue pie courtesy of Byron Vincent. Poetry with bite, Byron’s cutting insight, raw talent and fresh delivery had us in stitches as we supped down Cornish cider and lay about in the sun – the key components of any festival day. Then it was back up to the Walled Garden stage to hear Jamie Brisick talk waves, cocktails and travel before heading to the cabaret tent to cackle at some of the funniest comedians on the touring circuit including Brian Gittins – tipped for the top at this year’s Edinburgh festival.
As dusk fell, words turned to music with Evan Dando warming up the crowd before The Magic Numbers got the whole festival dancing with their upbeat tunes, inclusive harmonies and big grinning faces. Fired up and ready to dance away the last few hours of Saturday Gaz Mayall followed by The Queens of Noize had us waving our limbs wildly. And finally as we ventured back down to our tent we came across two strangers, one in a fluffy hat, the other bright pink, skintight trousers, carrying a beaten up old record player, aptly labelled The Shitty Little Disco which they promptly switched on and got us dancing to. Eccentric? You bet.
With help from an egg and soysage roll, Sunday morning saw us struggling back up the hill once again to the Walled Garden stage where Ross Sutherland made us forget about the rain with his ingenious poetry. Amongst the wordplay was his unusual take on Little Red Riding Hood, where he replaced all the nouns with the 23rd noun below it in the dictionary, the result a warped yet wickedly accurate modern fairytale.
After some hair of the dog and lazy jazz from the Louise Parker Trio we checked out Allegra Huston – Angelica’s sister – as she read from her book Love Child and talked of her life growing up in Hollywood. A smile inducing Dulwich Ukulele club performance and a hog roast later and we were back with Ross Sutherland, Tim Clare and Joe Dunthorne for Found in Translation – an adventure into the world of the OULIPO which had us rolling in the aisles.
As the sun set on the weekend we left exhausted but smug in the knowledge that we could surely now count Jimmy McNulty as one of our closest friends, that we knew how many ukuleles it took to have a good time and that we understood the inner workings of one of the most exclusive literary societies on earth.
We arrived at Port Eliot in search of a spot of cultured eccentricity and we got it. Then some. Job done.