Osteopaths & Beer
Northgate go to Sidmouth '96

by Martin Hanley

So Northgate got an invitation to Sidmouth, largest by far of the folk festivals, renowned for its music, its dancing and of course the Late Night Extra ceilidh. But what is Sidmouth? Most of the time, Sidmouth is a charming little south coast resort, with impressive hotels, engaging views of the surrounding countryside and soft, rolling waves breaking gently on the beach. But for one week, early in August, hundreds of morris dancers and musicians descend upon this normally tranquil place to blatantly commit folk dancing, accompanied by about 60,000 paying punters, all out for a good time.

Would we accept the invitation? Yes. It'd be hard work though, are you sure? Yes. We can't pay you, OK? Um, still yes. S'pose. Just give us the tickets! So we packed our things and set off south at a sedate pace, except for Ashley who in his excitement managed to break the sound barrier - any faster and he'd have been there before he left. Ron, his passenger, was severely traumatised, and required counseling and medicine (several pints of it) to overcome the experience.

Tents up, we headed down to the café stage, where most of our dancing would be. Luckily there was time for a pint or two before we started. This set the pattern for the rest of the week: drink, then dance; an unwritten rule of rapper, which caused the hasty ending of one particular dance followed by a quick trip to an osteopath. Ouch. It still hurts to this day.

Over the next few days we danced for more and better audiences than ever before. Our dancing improved, too; it could hardly fail to given the sixty or so performances we gave that week. By the third day we were all totally knackered and footsore but after a pint of Old Restorative we would once again be raring to go, feet a-tapping and hand a-bleeding. By the end of the week we were tired but happy, surprised and saddened at how quickly the time had gone. It wasn't easy to re-adjust to a comfortable bed and trying to sleep whilst sober proved to be a bit of a challenge.

What of the festival? Well, the atmosphere when dancing on the cafe stage and, especially, in the market square was amazing - both were better for us than the main arena. The arena was supposed to have been the highlight of the week for us but it seemed too remote from the punters - perhaps pub dancing spoils you. The audiences (not just festival-goers but also locals and surprised-looking tourists) were appreciative and welcoming and the organisation was excellent, with the notable exception of the campsite toilets.

Festival staff were patient, helpful and actually knew what was going on, which was a relief, and the shows and concerts we had time to see were of a consistently high standard. The only real downer was that bloody drum group, who had the uncanny ability to drown out any other musicians from half a mile.

The real memories weren't necessarily from the dancing though and couldn't be put down in any sensible narrative (so making them uniquely suited to "The NUT").

They include waking up squashed against the bottom of a wet tent because the site is on a slope and it's raining again; walking through a dark campsite to the toilets to find they're locked, or have no lights or no water; meeting up with Sallyport and Thrales for a rapper extravaganza in the market square; pushing a lorry out of the way so we could dance; walking back from the Late Night Extra in the rain after they've turned off the lights on the footpath; getting a ride in an ice cream van; a sword breaking into three on the promenade, firing an inch-long bit of metal into the audience who thought it was part of the dance and cheered wildly (I think they were disappointed we couldn't do it again); Mike's tent, which is the size of a small bungalow and only slightly less well built; planning (for once) things for Betty to do other than look pretty; someone (Dave) not turning up to the last dance before our arena performance because he's chatting someone up; wearing the same socks for a week (these are not all good memories); the looks on people's faces as they realise that they've gone wrong in the middle of a dance; parties with bouncy castles and bouncier guests; trying to get an invitation to the restaurant owned by a morris dancer from the Channel Islands (the restaurant was in the Carribean); the collective stomachs of Northgate hanging out at an Arabian Nights party... the list is endless, and gets less tasteful from here on in.

The point is, it turned out, that Sidmouth isn't only about dancing. It's about having a good time, and damn anyone who says folk music and dancing isn't hip or trendy, because we're all going to go and bloody well enjoy it anyway.

Beer + music + dancing = a good time, and that is what Sidmouth is.