I'm not a big festival go-er and as for folk music, well I can take it or leave it, but the Middlewich Boat and Folk Festival provided an excuse this year for Starcross to escape from the "Seventeen Mile Pound" where she has languished all winter for the first long trip of the year.
I'd not been before, so I didn't know what to expect. The official festival programme seemed a tad expensive at £70 for a weekend ticket, especially when I was unfamiliar with any of the artists, but there was an extensive fringe programme, which was free, and which I thought should provide sufficient entertainment especially as it was centered on the pubs of the town, some of which I know quite well.
So, if you are going for the first time, what can you expect?
The festival starts on Friday evening with both official and fringe events taking place throughout the town.
Saturday morning sees the grand parade of Morris Dancing "sides" through the streets.and then the music continues throughout the rest of the weekend.
The weather plays a major part. The fringe venues are either outdoor - in pub gardens or canalside - or indoor - in the pub bars. This year the outdoor venues suffered from cool and dull evenings and a damp and soggy Sunday. The indoor venues consequently were busy and full, sometimes unpleasantly so. Its evident that most of the folk music enthusiasts are visitors to the town and they are outnumbered by the locals who, having no interest in folk music, just want to enjoy their normal Saturday night out. On more than one occasion where we found a performer we actually wanted to listen to it was quite difficult due to the background chatter of the other drinkers, and this detracted enormously from the atmosphere, but I think I might have enjoyed it all more had the evenings been warm and sunny.
But what of the music? Well, maybe the definition of folk music is drawn rather wider these days, or maybe some of the bands adapted their repertoire to take account of the actual audience but three songs I didn't expect to hear (from three different performers) were "Shake, Rattle and Roll", "These Boots Were Made For Walking" and "Delilah"! More traditional folk music is to be had in the form of "sessions" where informal groups of musicians gather in pubs to play whatever comes into their heads. I found these more to my liking but the more musicians there are in the room the less space there is for an audience and, at their worst, they become exclusive and non-players like me can be made to feel that they are intruding.
There are also Morris Dancers, which usually I can take only in small doses. I must, however, mention the Newcastle Kingsmen a group of somewhat younger dancers, based around Newcastle University. We'd made some poor choices on Saturday night and hadn't found much that we'd enjoyed. When, late on in the Kinderton Hotel, a group we did like packed in just after we'd bought two very expensive glasses of Stella Tortoise we thought that we'd call it a night but just then, although it was by now nearly midnight, the Kingsmen burst into the room, cleared a space for themselves and performed some amazing sword dancing - truly guerrilla Morris - which made our night.
On the boating side, it was obvious that this isn't a major event on the boat rally calendar. There were a few ex-working boats, which its always good to see and a few trading boats including Ivor and Mel Bachelor's Mountbatten and Jellico and old festival favourites the Cheese Boat and the Fudge Boat.
There were some interesting displays about the history of the town and the salt mining firms of Seddon (which ran its own fleet of boats, one of which was tied up alongside) and Murgatroyd's. I learned that Middlewich was the home of Cerebos salt and Bisto and I also learned how Bisto got its name.
Obviously, mooring space in Middlewich is at a premium during the festival. Visiting boats arrive very early and fill up the 48-hour moorings for days before and after the event. The festival website suggests you can book a space but there is absolutely no point in doing so. Your booking will not be acknowledged, your requests for advice as to when to arrive and where best to find room will be ignored and no spaces are actually reserved for pre-booked boats anyway! Unfortunately, this is fairly typical of a somewhat laid-back approach by the organisers which affects the whole event and on the basis of one visit, unless you actually like Middlewich as a place in itself (which I actually do) I would sum the festival up as "Worth seeing, perhaps not worth going to see!"