Interview: celebrating Tenterden Folk Festival’s 23-year legacy

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Our look at the UK festival scene continues with the wonderful Tenterden Folk Festival, a celebrated event in the heart of Kent. Managed by folk enthusiast and long-time event organiser Alan Castle, the festival enters its 23rd year in 2015 – proof that both the local and broader folk community have strongly supported it year in, year out.

Taking place October 1-4, this is a multi-venue event that spans many local community hubs, such as Tenterden Town Hall, The White Lion Pub, St. Mildred’s Church and of course, The Tenterden Club itself. Key acts include folk singer-songwriter Jez Lowe, Hudson and Cutter, Mark Gibson, The Askew sisters, Dick Miles and Gordon Tyrrall.

What Alan and his co-organisers have really achieved with this festival is a broad range of activities, workshops and musical acts that are anything but niche. Sure, the festival has folk at its core, but revellers can also cut loose at the English Barn Dance, browse craft stalls in the nearby Recreation Ground, participate in sing-a-rounds, and take part in workshops that cover music, dance, craft and English tradition.

It’s refreshing to see a festival that offers so much more than the familiar notion of what music festivals should be, and putting community spirit at the fore. This means absolutely anyone – regardless of music tastes – can get involved in some way. There’s no exclusion here, just friendly faces, fun times and plenty to do.

Charitable origins

We spoke with Alan recently to learn more about the origins of Tenterden and to gain fresh insight into this year’s event. “I had no specific plans to start an annual folk festival but had been running folk clubs and one off folk events in and around Ashford since the early 1970s while training as an accountant,” he tells us. “In 1988 I organised a small folk day at Bodiam Castle, with about six Morris sides and a few singers, to raise funds for the National Trust to help replant trees after the major storms the previous October.”

From those charitable roots the Tenterden Folk Festival concept grew, and after a successful event at the titular club in 1992, Alan held the very first Tenterden Folk Day on Saturday, October 2, 1993. The event boasted ten musical guests and 12 Morris sides, a craft fair and 14 events throughout the day. Needless to say, it was a smash with attendees, thanks in part to the appearance of English folk singer-songwriter Jez Lowe, who returns to play in 2015.

From that first standalone event in 1993, things quickly snowballed from there. “We then started planning for the next year and I formed a registered charity to run the event,” Alan continues. “Over the next few years we slowly developed the festival with support from Ashford, Tenterden and Kent Councils, the Chamber of Commerce and local businesses and venues.

“Next we added an event on the Friday evening, a procession, a few events on Sunday and changed the name to Tenterden Folk Festival. Now 23 years on from that first Tenterden Folk Day the Festival starts on Thursday evening and runs through to late Sunday evening. We now have at least 10 venues hosting around 60 events with around 50 guests and up to 60 Morris sides, folk dance display teams, street entertainers, etc. and the town is full of colour and music for four days.”

Multi-venue collaboration

Tenterden is a true collaborative effort, thanks to a wide range of venues and people from the local community holding stalls and dedicating their time to making Alan’s festival go off without a hitch. Alan explains that licensing laws have loosened over the years to allow for much smoother planning, along with some help from key figures in the area.

“Two Councillors from [local council] Anne Thomas and John Link, supported what we were doing and joined the committee right from the start and that was a great help,” Alan recalls. “Pub landlords have come and gone, pubs have closed for refurbishment, so each year there is new challenge. We now work with the four town centre pubs and with Shepherd Neame who owns two of them, and are a material sponsor of the festival. Also, another local Councillor lets us have the use of a field for a temporary campsite.”

Alan mentions that it took about ten years for the collective to convince the town at large that they were responsible, and organised enough to keep the Tenterden festival rolling annually – and most importantly, without the same noise, drink or drug-related problems that are often associated with festivals.

“In recent years we have managed to get [local council] to let us make more use of The Recreation Ground,” Alan explains, “and now have a large marquee for the crafts and stalls, free music stage and dance stage set up there right at the end of the High Street in clear view of the town and traffic on the main A28. The key is networking with the Councils, Chamber of Commerce, businesses and getting local people involved in what is going on.”

With the backing of so many venues and Tenterden locals, it’s clear that the event is a true community effort, and this also extends to the festival’s green concerns. Liftshare always thinks green, so we ask Alan to shed light on how the organisers coordinate aspects like waste disposal and noise across all their different venues.

“We are a town centre festival so most of our venues deal with their own waste,” he replies, “but we do ensure that any festival litter is dealt with responsibly. The traders remove their own waste as do the campers. Parking in the town centre is reasonably good for a small town and there are bus services from the major towns such as Ashford, Hastings and Tunbridge Wells.

“Tenterden has its own heritage steam railway but that does not link to the mainline but does offer the chance to the Morris sides to go off and dance at the other stations. Tenterden also has its own brewery, Old Dairy Brewery, so the beer does not have to travel too far to get into the pubs. Car sharing through Liftshare has the advantage of reducing the number of car journeys and the need for more parking.”

A festival of tradition

We close our discussion with Alan by asking him about Tenterden Festival’s charitable and preservation aims. While the event is fun and brings out the best in its local community, its organisers also aim to educate people about British folk music and heritage to ensure it isn’t lost to the ages. Alan explains that the festival’s mission statement was defined in 1994 as, “to preserve and advance public education and appreciation of traditional and contemporary folk music, song, dance and other related traditions, crafts and folk arts as a part of the living heritage.”

Alan continues, “We wanted to promote a fun event but we also wanted to take folk music out to the public who would not normally go to a folk club. Hence a certain reliance on grant funding to enable ticket prices to be kept low and to include lots of free events. The Thursday evening concert is sponsored by “Around Kent Folk” magazine to raise funds for the festival.

“Over the years the Festival has been involved in a project about the folk songs of Kent which resulted in the recording of three albums of Kentish songs and tunes performed by musicians from Kent, we have run educational projects taking folk music and dance into schools across Kent, worked with Produced in Kent to run a music and dance stage at the Kent County Show, promoted various one of special events often in conjunction with local authorities or local organisations and generally acted as a local folk development organisation.”

It’s clear that Tenterden – while a yearly festival – is working to educate and enthuse not just music lovers, but people of all ages and backgrounds in all things British heritage. Alan and his team have worked wonders to keep this project alive and well for so long, and the 2015 event will push boundaries even further.

We’ll have more on Tenterden Folk Festival throuhgout the year, but if you want to pre-book cheap, green and social travel to the event, look no further than Liftshare. You can also download our new iOS and Android apps to make finding a life even easier. Thank you to Alan for his superb insight.

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