Abandon all your ideas of a festival. The only links Curious Arts Festival has to any other festival is the word itself.
Between the New Forest and the south coast there is a privately owned building called Pylewell Hall. In the gardens of this building is a phenomenally middle class three day event of literature, comedy, nature, yoga and music. It was overwhelmingly delightful, especially through the eyes of a midlands girl who usually associates the word “festival” with mud, alcohol and bad sound quality.
For most of the time I felt out of my depth and incredibly disorientated. I felt rather like a fraud, despite my bright red press wristband, a beacon saying “honestly, I am supposed to be here”. However, although it seemed like I wasn’t wanted there, I did want to be there, and the weekend was really something special.
First of all, I think it’s fair to say that any festival you can take your dog to is a good festival. This needs little elaboration: dogs were welcome everywhere in the event, and everyone loved dogs. There’s something pretty special about that.
The festival’s food was a real delight. There was little of the usual straightforward burger and chips or a burrito options. Every burger had a novel feature about it, and though there was a fish and chips stand, for the most part the food was a little more leftfield. Take halloumi fries, for example. Yes, that’s fries made out of halloumi, an idea I had never considered, despite being someone who loves halloumi. Or take Higgidy’s pies and quiches. You might think you know what a pie is, but a chicken, leek and ham pie with cheesy mash and onion gravy might change your view on the northern classic. I highly recommend the spinach and roasted red pepper quiche. It’s a wonderful mouthful in every sense.
As someone quite rightly pointed out, you know a festival is posh when it’s sponsored by tonic water. Curious Arts festival was. Fever Tree specialise in mixers. I have never thought about the quality of my mixer – I rarely think about the quality of my alcohol. But, for a £7 double, I drank some significantly better cocktails than I ever have before. So Fever Tree must have been doing something right. There were also a handful of cocktails available with a Shakespearean theme. Yes, they were as good as you’d expect.
At the Boisdale Bar I asked for a fruit cider and drank the most expensive yet best one I ever have. A whole bus seemed to be dedicated to Nyetimber’s sparkling wine. I can vouch for the fact that it’s lovely, due to drinking half a bottle before Billy Bragg on the Saturday night. Do you see how I didn’t quite fit in?
And for the Curious Arts themselves. Friday night’s main stage was presented by The Great Brain Robbery, interjecting curious verse in between the evening’s music. Willow Robinson through the evening into action, and his one man and an electric guitar act went down a treat despite feeling a bit too rock and roll for the setting. Jake Issac and his band followed with an enjoyable and lively set. Jake took to the floor to join the audience for emotive track ‘I’m A Man’, a touching moment that made the performance stand out. Lucy Rose’s typically brilliant show finished off Friday’s music with a flourish. The packed tent was keen to make her feel welcome, and the sound quality was far superior to any other festival I’ve been to.
A spa, hosted by Kanga, was on site round the corner from the bigger stages. The serenity of the “wellness area” was almost tangible, with yoga and meditation classes taking place throughout the day.
Both Saturday and Sunday morning featured the festival equivalent of the morning paper. Chaired by Paul Blezard, a selection of journalists discussed the day’s news. With a lack of WiFi and generally being preoccupied, there’s a tendency to feel out of the loop at festivals, so this was a nice addition.
Meg Rosoff began Saturday’s author events, discussing her “pre-genre” work and how she creates believable characters. With amusing honesty she chatted about her fifteen years of working in advertising, and how they came to form the basis of her latest novel, ‘Jonathan Unleashed’. I don’t believe the event was supposed to be either life affirming or funny, but it checked out as both.
In the wellness area, Laurence Shorter led an open conversation based around his book ‘The Lazy Guru’s Guide to Life’. This relaxed session was a guided crash course on how to make the most of life, which genuinely seemed to help those present.
Although SJ Watson, author of ‘Before I Go To Sleep’ was supposed to be “in conversation with” Renee Knight, author of ‘Disclaimer’, the pair’s domestic noir novels had enough similarities to keep them both talking. Watson’s admiration for Knight was clear, meaning the conversation flowed easily. Unfortunately it occasionally dipped into feeling like a private chat between the pair, leaving the audience lost.
The afternoon of comedy was one of Saturday’s many highlights. Opener Lloyd Griffith boasted being able to name a fact about every cathedral in the county (NB: my hometown’s was “the shittest”. All others had real facts), a piece which down bizarrely well. His other talents included being able to impersonate any time of tape. An unexpected, rather different type of humour, this was a brilliant way to open the set.
Simon Evans followed, with brutal criticism of daytime television and the “open greed” of Property Ladder. For the most part, Curious Arts took itself rather seriously. Chris Martin (not from Coldplay) was a welcome relief here, but he had a tough job. Halfway through his set, children began throwing shoes on the tent, marginally distracting from the show. He kept control of the show, though, and was the best act of the afternoon. Zoe Lyons headlined the afternoon with more audience and self mockery. Halloumi fries for them, boxes of wine for her.
With sea shanties and copious enthusiasm, Skinny Lister were another brilliant burst on Saturday. There a few things that compare to the energy of a Skinny Lister show. A friendliness that extends to every corner of the room and a spirit that sweeps up everyone makes each performance an experience. There’s nothing quite like their folk brilliance; they slotted perfectly into the Curious Arts line up.
Billy Bragg finished off the evening’s music, another artist whose shows are an experience. However, considering the current political climate, his speeches were less passionate than I expected and have previously seen. Nevertheless, the crowd loved him, replying with huge singalongs. He took a moment to say how we should be sceptical, but not cynical, an interesting thought to close the night on.
In comparison to Saturday, Sunday was something of a wind down. Stephen Moss, the original producer of Springwatch, came to Curious Arts to speak about the modern natural world. Whilst most farmed land is damaging to wildlife, places such as motorway edges are far better for wildlife. Moss raised interesting points that involved the audience, demonstrating the extent of his knowledge.
SJ Watson was joined by his agent and a non-fiction editor for an intensive workshop. Although it was sold as a creative writing workshop, it was in fact more of a question and answer session. This was a bit of a let down, but interesting nonetheless. The motto seemed to be that without a good book, the whole publishing process doesn’t matter.
The organisation slipped after midday. Danny Fields told interesting stories of his life in music to Barney Hoskins. Though he brushed of working with The Ramones, he had some very intriguing stories to tell. Zimbabwean novelist Petina Gappah was another person with stories to tell. Her interesting past is enough to encourage anyone to read her current novel, ‘The Book Of Memory’.
From the bunting to the handing umbrellas to the deckchairs and empty birdcages, Curious Arts was the Waitrose of festivals. It was a charming weekend full of pleasant surprises. Never before have I been woken at 7.30am by a sober woman yelling about brioche.