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A Shepley Spring Festival Walkabout 2015

Shepley Village, Shepley
Friday 15 - Sunday 17 May 2015

Friday 15 May

The sun was particularly kind to those arriving for the festival in Shepley on Friday afternoon and there was a fair bit of anticipation in the air. This may be due in part to the fact that there was no festival last year due to unforeseen problems, which resulted in a gaping absence of Shepley's name on the annual festival calendar. Friday's warm sunshine and mild weather was just the thing to put a smile on the faces of the organisers, volunteers, stall holders, performers and general festival goers each of whom had begun to congregate on the newly located site, which is situated just across the road from the original festival site on the grounds of the local cricket club.

I arrived in the village around mid-afternoon, approximately an hour before Steve Turner's opening set in the Village Hall just down the lane. After parking up the car at Cliffe House, my home for the weekend, I took a pleasant walk up to the main festival site and checked in at the artist's reception. A smiling Kate Atkinson was there to sort out my pass, one of those lanyard type passes with three capital A's boldly emblazoned on the front, my name printed quite correctly along the bottom. I also picked up a programme for the weekend, which actually describes me as the 'Festival Reporter'. So, with notebook and pen in hand, together with my camera and trusy recording device, I put my reporter's hat on once again and set out to record the feelings I have for one of the most enjoyable events of the season. Shepley worked out long ago that the person who undertakes the responsibility of 'Festival Reporter' has to have access to all areas in order to do their job properly. From this point on, I knew instinctively that my notebook would gradually be filled with scribbled reminders, artist's names, times, locations and details of possible interview rendezvous, one or two notable song titles and a record of the varying colours and styles of a multitude of dance tunics, each of which would whiz past me throughout the weekend. 

I soon familiarised myself with the main stage area, the green room to the rear of the stage, the public bar, which would come in useful at strategic points of the weekend, notably late into the night, one or two stalls and the main outdoor arena, where all the dancing would take place on both Saturday and Sunday. I then took a pleasant walk down to the Village Hall where the opening concert was due to start promptly at 3.30pm, passing a Shire horse clip-clopping up the lane in the opposite direction just outside the Farmer's Boy pub, where one or two had already started to gather for an afternoon pint. 

Down at the Village Hall, one or two people were seated on the old stone wall that divides the hall from the church yard, whilst Steve Turner sound checked on the stage inside. The mixture of the English concertina, the bells of St Paul's Church and the birds singing in the surrounding trees made for a delightful pastoral setting, just the thing to get a festival off to a good start. Even the apparent friendliness of the duty steward is worthy of a mention, as he politely spoke to those sitting along the wall and on the Village Hall steps, saying "you can all go inside now, just leave your things on one of the seats and then you can come back outside into the sun until the show starts." Civilised behaviour for sure. 

Steve Turner was a regular performer on the British folk circuit in the 1980s, traversing the UKs motorway system and arriving at clubs with a concertina under one arm and a mandolin case under the other, bringing traditional songs to the widespread network of folk fans up and down the country. After a long break from performing professionally, Steve returned to the scene a few years ago and these days sings and plays pretty much for the fun of it; when he gets a moment to leave his violin shop that is. On Friday afternoon the singer and musician played a couple of engaging sets, the first in the Village Hall and then again much later in the evening at the Coach House in the grounds of the nearby Cliffe House. 

Barry Goodman, one of my two rooming partners for the weekend - the other one being photographer Phil Carter, whose pictures can be seen to right of this scribbling - introduced each of the acts during the afternoon concert. After Steve Turner's well-received set, the stage was rearranged for a young band from Bath, who successfully blend their bluegrass, country and Americana influences with a distinctly English sensibility. Multi-instrumentalists Charlotte and Laura Carrivick, together with mandolin player Joe Tozer and double bassist John Breeze, otherwise known as Cardboard Fox, provided a contrasting set of songs with tight arrangements and dexterous playing, each of the members demonstrating their 'chops' for the first time of the weekend. The band closed their set with a couple of Bob Dylan songs, Don't Think Twice Its Alright and the lesser known Walking Down the Line.

Scottish band Salt House performed twice on Friday, firstly closing the afternoon concert in the Village Hall with a hugely enjoyable set and shortly afterwards opening the evening concert on the Main Stage. This excellent band was introduced by Sam Hindley, whose spirited and infectious love for folk music circulated around the marquee via the house PA system, a marquee that was soon filled to capacity. The festival organisers Mac McKinlay and Nikki Hampson decided during the planning stage of the festival that they would like Sam to introduce the acts from the Main Stage and insisted that the huge stage would not be an obstacle for them. A metal lift was installed right next to the stage and remained there for the duration of the festival. It was a lovely gesture by the festival and a proud moment, not only for Sam himself, but for his many friends who would not only hear the Sheffield Live presenter introduce the evening concert acts, but also see him up there wearing his familiar smile.

By late afternoon, my handy recorder had already been placed in front of all four members of Cardboard Fox, who spoke to me on the Church steps and then once again in front of Moore, Moss, Rutter, before their Main Stage set on Friday evening. The trio are no strangers to Shepley Spring Festival, in fact Jack Rutter is a Shepley native, raised at his home in throwing distance of the festival site. The trio, made up also of Tom Moore and Archie Churchill-Moss, has grown over the last few years both in physical stature, in confidence, but most importantly as a musical force to be reckoned with, not least due to their complex arrangements and exciting stage presence, which has changed slightly these days in as much as the boys now stand instead of sitting huddled in their once customary LAU-like stage composition.

Wandering away from the festival site just before Welsh band Calan took to the stage, a decision I now confess to regretting slightly, I headed back down the lane to the Coach House in order to catch some of the acoustic concert taking place. Having pre-arranged chats with one or two of the artists appearing on the bill, I missed Calan's entire set and most of Steeleye Span's, but it did free me up to see Steve Turner's second set of the day, together with the bold shanty singing tour-de-force of Kimber's Men, who between them wrapped up proceedings on Friday night at the Coach House. The five-piece band featuring Joe Stead, Michael Beeke, Neil Kimber, Gareth Scott and John Bromley, brought a flavour of the high seas to the very much inland Shepley with their now familiar full-throttle vocal prowess, whilst the audience hesitated little in singing along.

As the red lights climbed the imposing mast of the Emley Moor Transmitting Station, effectively illuminating the night sky above the village on Friday night, the sound of one of folk rock's most enduring bands Steeleye Span, lifted and carried itself along on the breeze, making it pretty difficult to determine from which direction the sound was coming, as I headed back up towards the main festival site for a night cap in the crowded bar; a night cap that would last well into the early hours.

Saturday 16 May

Come Saturday, the morning light filtered in through the skylight above my head, in an attic space on the second floor of Cliffe House. The light revealed a promising day ahead weather-wise, as this blurry-eyed festival reporter shook off the detritus of a very late night in the bar the previous night. The downstairs dining room was a little too far from the dormitory where I lie to actually smell the breakfast cooking below, but somehow I sensed it was there. A long day lie ahead and a hearty breakfast was the only thing that stood between me and it; best do something about it then.

After a brief flick through the festival programme, during which the snap crackle and pop of the Rice Crispies took an unexpected assault on my dizzy head, I noticed that Calan would be playing once again, this time in the Parish Church just down the lane, starting the day off with a 'meet the band' session. The five members of the band, hailed as the 'new ambassadors of cool', spread themselves out in a crescent shape in front of the altar, surrounded by their unusual instruments, and played a few songs and tunes whilst fielding some routine questions from the audience. The quintet came over as both warm and cheerful, as the morning got underway.

On the way to the main festival site just up the lane, I called in at the Coach House for a chat to singer/songwriter Fabian Holland. There's nowhere in Shepley quite as peaceful as the Coach House, especially in the daytime as the sunlight beams in through the glass roof onto the stone floor below. Fabian was just about to begin his set when I arrived and so I sat and enjoyed a moment of peaceful repose, whilst listening to his beautiful songs together with a small but equally relaxed bunch of people. It was difficult to actually ascertain whether the audience were just enjoying the music or rather taking advantage of the peace and tranquility of the setting, either way, there was a lot of relaxation going on and I was pleased to be a part of it. Fabian's totally acoustic set was actually one of the highlights of the festival thus far; a fine singer and guitarist performing well-crafted songs, peppered with memorable stories and anecdotes and finishing with a fine reading of Blind Willie Johnson's Nobody's Fault But Mine. Well, it doesn't get much better than that.

After his set, Fabian opened a small concessions outlet consisting of his two fine album releases and chatted with members of the audience. Whilst he busied himself with that and before we both sat down for a chat in the beer garden, I gently sneaked into the adjacent Cliffe House to catch a few moments of Catriona Price's Orcadian Fiddle workshop, which was taking place in one of the ground floor rooms. One half of the duo Twelfth Day, Catriona was already well into her workshop, going through the various bowing techniques and idiosyncratic fingering styles unique to the Orkney Islands with three attentive female fiddle students. It all seemed, to someone who could quite easily make a strangled cat sound infinitely more soothing on the ear than his fiddle playing, quite beautiful and enchanting. 

The steep dip in the road between Cliffe House and the main festival site provided some exercise for my ageing legs. It's not a walk I planned to do too often during the weekend and although a Big Red Bus service was in place to carry festival people about, I took the coward's way out and climbed into my car and drove up to the main site in order to catch the second set of the weekend by Cardboard Fox on the Main Stage. The lunchtime concert also saw the second set of the weekend by Fabian Holland, together with a nice set by the Dovetail Trio, featuring Rosie Hood, Jamie Roberts and Matt Quinn. 

With only a few minutes to spare I hot-footed it (okay, I confess, I got back into the Kia for the short drive) down to the Parish Church to see Festival Patron Roy Bailey entertain a full congregation. Roy has been the patron since day one of the festival back in 2007 and continues to support Shepley with his regular spot, An Hour with Roy Bailey, which is always amusing, thought provoking and most importantly fun. There's not many performers who can hold an audience with a children's song, but his daughter Kit's song, written for her daughter in turn, Molly's Garden, is simply a treat for young and old alike. Before heading back to the dorm for a freshen up, I spoke to Sam Hindley in the church, who had by this time finished his MC duties and was once again a free man. 

After recharging my proverbial batteries, I headed back up the hill to catch The Mae Trio, who were making their first ever appearance on a Yorkshire stage. The Melbourne-based trio made up of siblings Maggie and Elsie Rigby together with cellist Anita Hillman brought some delightfully harmonious singing to Shepley, wearing ill-advised sleeveless dresses as the breeze rattled the marquee around them. The evening concert also included sets by Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith, the wonderful Mischa Macpherson Trio and the extraordinarily nifty Gordie Mackeeman and His Rhythm Boys, the surprise hit of the festival. A song and dance man through and through, the Canadian fiddle player dominated the stage, whilst wearing out his fiddle bow, his tap shoes and probably parts of the stage as well. It all has to be seen to be believed. 

There was only one band who could follow that and Saturday night's headliners always feel very much at home at this particular festival. The Demon Barbers XL showcased just how far the band have come in the last few years, appearing now as a multifaceted, multi-dimensional song and dance spectacular. With a set that now incorporates Clog Dancing, Morris, Hip Hop, Street Dance and even aspects of Ballet, the collective concluded the Saturday night concert in a style that the audience have clearly come to expect and depend upon. The whole thing unraveled whilst I watched on from the side of the stage, interested not only in what the band were doing, but also the audience's reaction to it. A memorable show which could only be followed with one thing, another late night in the bar.

Sunday 17 May

On Sunday morning, the Frumptarn Guggenband woke the sleeping hoards from their slumber with their big brash brass and drum sound, which you could probably hear over in Huddersfield. It's become something of a Shepley institution over the years, whether the participants are donning their vivid red Beefeater costumes, their monochrome Holstein Friesian cattle outfits or their latest tartan and steampunk get up, the sound remains the same; a full-on, vibrant, thumping, oom-pah-driven, deliciously entertaining wake up call for the entire village. A short walk away, in the green room behind the main stage, musicians had started to arrive from all corners of the country, with James Delarre arriving from Canterbury to join Saul Rose for the duo's opening set on the Main Stage. The two outstanding musicians provided a tightly-crafted set, with each of the two musicians stamping their own distinctive mark on both traditional and contemporary music. 

Saul and James were followed by Scottish duo Twelfth Day making their Shepley debut. Orkney's Catriona Price and Scottish Borders-based Esther Swift provided an almost ethereal set of songs and complex instrumental arrangements on both fiddle and harp, during their opening set on the main stage, a set that included both traditional-inspired originals and pop songs, together with pieces with Classical elements, such as Schubert's Romanze. With their beautifully delicate music, slightly hindered by the Guggenband's thundering and domineering bass drum pounding in the distance (probably in Huddersfield!), the duo managed to take their audience on a restful journey, perfect for a pleasant Sunday afternoon.

With Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar doing what comes naturally to them, followed by the Celtic Fiddle Festival's multi-cultural approach to fiddle playing, I drove back down to the Coach House just in time to catch Lynne Edmondson's winning song The Pony's Tale, which the singer entered in the Shepley heat of the John Birmingham Cup Song Writing Competition. Although the competition failed to attract many entrants this year, it's still an important feature on the festival programme. The late afternoon concert in the Village Hall got underway shortly afterwards, featuring performances by Said the Maiden, Sarah Horn and James Cudworth, Twelfth Day and The Mae Trio, during which I magabed to catch a taste of Dave Eyre's onstage interview with Bob Fox in the Parish Church, another regular feature of this festival. 

Throughout the weekend, the stages, the local pubs and in particular the main festival site arena played host to a variety of dance displays, mummers plays and street entertainment, most notable the floral spectacle of Earlsdon Morris, the local White Rose Morris, the Sheffield Steel Rapper and the Bradshaw Mummers, all of whom attracted enthusiastic audiences throughout the weekend. At one point I even noticed a bulky Peppa Pig tustling with a four year-old over a teddy bear! Dance was also represented on the Main Stage, albeit a tongue-in-cheek look at our beloved traditional dances, especially the one man solo Rapper Dance.

As the inevitable end of the festival drew closer, most noticeable by the shutting up of shop by most of the concessions stalls and the on coming of evening, the final Main Stage concert was ready to begin as gentle splashes of rain began to fall upon the tarpaulin. I interviewed both Tim Dalling and Leila Cooper back to back just prior to The Tweed Project's set, which was essentially the teaming up of fellow Young Folk Award winners Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar and The Mischa Macpherson Trio. The collective, which apparently started as a bit of a joke between Mischa Macpherson and Ciaran Algar, became a reality as they made their debut appearance on the Main Stage on Sunday night.

Shortly afterwards, Bob Fox found his way from the Parish Church up to the Main Stage, fully intent on getting the audience to flex their tonsils, which he succeeded in doing so, followed by this year's closing act, The New Rope String Band making their Shepley debut. So appealing was the band's onstage antics, their hilarious slapstick humour and their often absurd behaviour, that at one point festival organiser Nikki Hampson leaned over and whispered to me side stage "why have we never had these here before now?" A good question and a timely one too as the band plan to call it a day later in the year.

As darkness fell upon the Main Stage marquee and most of the swords, bells, handkerchiefs, fiddles and melodeons were safely packed away for another weekend, there was only one fitting conclusion to the Shepley Spring Festival, a finale that has become something of a tradition over the past few years. Nikki Hampson nervously walked onto the stage with a head full of the names of people she wanted to thank, probably wondering not only where the last three days went, but more than likely where the last two years went. After the thank yous, only one thing remained and that was to ask local builder, drystone waller, stone mason and noted 'carrier of the songs' to lead the audience in a rousing chorus of The Holmfirth Anthem, which effectively marked the end of another great and successful Shepley Spring Festival. Until next year..

But I will take thee to yon green gardens,
Where those pratty flowers grow,
Where those pratty pratty flowers grow. 

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky