Returning readers of these pages will have gleaned that there are a lot of festivals taking place across Dorset and Southwest England this time of year. Reflective ones may be asking why I go to so many (Multiple choice: Taking advantage of my expat opportunities, FOMOtivated, Overcompensating for other failings, Escaping/avoiding work, Keeping my resolutions to change my ways) . Weary ones ask what’s left to say about yet another food / music / arts fest that makes it worth an essay.
All of these thoughts were fresh this morning as I loaded the car and headed west to Dorchester, seeking the Dorset Food and Arts Festival. The journey is the thing, observed Homer in the Odyssey (also the Taoist The journey is the reward). True: the drive through verdant hills, grazing sheep in green pastures, hay baled amidst golden stubble, summer wind in the windows, is calming and enlivening. I skim roundabouts that once grabbed me like whirlpools. I note the solution to koans left over from sleepless hours’ worry, darkness.
To arrive, finally, at Poundbury, an experimental new town (urban extension) rising from fields adjacent to historic Dorchester. Built according to architectural, social, and land-use principles that Prince Charles has been advocating, it is a cold example foreshadowing the Tory plan for dropping mass housing into greenbelts. The streets are wide, the buildings tall, a distant unbroken cliff twice human scale. Vaguely Georgian windows repeat across blank brick facades, receding into the distance:. There is little life or commerce at street level: it’s impossible to find a warm woody pub, convenient cashpoint, or friendly corner store. ‘not my thing, clearly.
The fair is held in Queen Mother Square, a construction site similarly devoid of grass or shade. People cluster on the steps by the Little Waitrose, shielding their eyes against the sun. Below, lines of food and craft stalls fill the plaza, narrow aisles clotted with people, dogs, and baby carriages. A music stage anchors one end of the venue, a trailer hosting cooking demos the other, both faced with arcs of hay bales for spectators.
That said, I stayed for five surprisingly comfortable hours, finding lots to like around the event and the people. I’d brought a notebook and tablet with the intention of slowing down and hanging about, and at that pace, there were small gems to be found. Palmer’s Ales, locally brewed in Bridport, were quite good (keeping with the Guidelines, I nursed two pints of 5% 200 Premium); Wynd Meadow Farm lamb-burgers were outstanding. Local artists offered paintings and sewings; there were lots of olives, baked goods, cheeses, sausages and preserves for sale (flanked by owners invariably dressed as antique shopkeepers).
The cooking demos were good: I took special fancy to the butcher who reduced a whole sheep carcass to chops and cutlets, filets and roasts, in about half an hour. ‘better than any diagram of the various cuts of meat that you might see in the stores, he had an almost balletic skill in wielding his knives and hacksaws.
I also enjoyed the music stage. Carissa (late of Dorset’s Got Talent), nervously off-key, warbled through plaintive standards. But Kipper (Chris Roberts) was quite relaxed and fun, and Ansell & Gretal delivered a workmanlike set that appealed to children dancing below. A marketing colleague, Any Price, moonlights as a concert photographer in Texas, posting wonderful portraits of singers and strummers pouring their hearts into their performances. I like her work a lot, so sat in the front row and worked at tying to capture each singer at their best.
Why attend these affairs each weekend? The multiple choice answer is likely All of the Above: I need a break from the week’s work, and I am trying to purposefully keep my life in better balance.
And How do I make the Old, New? By slowing, watching, and relaxing into the spirit of the venue. And keeping the camera holstered for at least the first hour.