Devon: The Festivals

The concept of a music festival is strange. Tribes of strangers gather in fields to stand around (usually in mud, frequently in puddles of stale beer), watch music which they’ve often never heard, and accumulate the sort of stench and sleep deprivation which would have them sent home from work. They’re wonderful.

Nothing brings people together quite like a festival. Be it for art, food or music, people who under normal civilised circumstances might never meet, are strung together through distinct shared interests. At Glastonbury a few years ago my obligatory welly became completely stuck in a mud patch. I couldn’t move. Luckily a group of friendly, headband clad investment bankers happened to be walking past and offered their services. They retrieved my welly and freed me from the mud puddle, putting me instead into a rather lovely chat with people I may normally have never met.

While Glastonbury might sadly belong to the next county over, we’re getting a taste of it on home turf. Chris Macmeikan, Music Director of award winning entertainment organisation Continental Drifts of Bestival and Glastonbury’s Shangri-La fame is bringing the big fest to small town this month with his team’s new concoction, Torquay’s Grinagog.


Named for “a mischievous Devonian devil who comes out of the sea and causes chaos”, Grinagog’s certainly turning the festival stereotype on its head. “It’s going to be multi-venue and multi-cultural, with Torquay as this amazing mud-less backdrop with great venues, hotels cheaper than a tent, and gorgeous beaches. We’re making Torquay the “frame” to grow the most incredible festival in”. That’s right; no mud. Utilising over 20 stages and 200 acts across the town from the 7th-9th April, Torquay native Chris and the team are looking to firmly break the festival mould and with it, a somewhat downtrend in successful Devonian live entertainment. In recent years we’ve seen venue closures left right and centre, but Chris has other plans. ”It’s about using really unusual venues to hopefully, over the years, present a side of culture never seen in Devon. I know that there’s no other similar event, but more than just being different structurally, it’s about uniting a town’s cultural people and letting them dream a bit”.

One innovative way that the Grinagog team set about doing this was through a social media campaign, in which people voted for their favourite local band to play on the main stage. It gained real momentum and led to a fantastic array of artists being shortlisted. For Chris, this plan was far more than a promo stunt. “I could easily programme this gig without anyone’s help, but that’s not the point” Chris divulged. “We use as many local promoters and culture fans as possible because we really want Torquay to “own” this gig. Local involvement is essential for the future and our town really needs this. Plus, of course, the local folk really know what will work!” Not wrong there, and the line-up proves it. The idea of major local artists such as Tourists, Moriaty, and Tiny Folds playing alongside major international stars like Akala, Rat Boy, Congo Natty and Folk Award winner Sam Lee to make the ultimate new music elixir without a splatter of mud in sight sounds pretty heavenly.

Grinagog isn’t alone in its manifesto to push the local and under-appreciated. There’s Cullompton’s Altitude Village Festival, Dartmouth’s Dart Music Festival, Glas-Denbury, Newton Abbot’s Lemonfest (this year extended to two full days after last year’s success) and amongst many others, Exeter’s Poltimore Festival. Nestled in the eerily wonderful setting of the scorched, dilapidated remains of former aristocratic seat and public hospital, Poltimore House, it’s now six years on from its humble beginnings as a theatre group. “We were just a group of people who were making and watching great theatre and stumbled across the ruins of the House, and had an idea to host shows there,” explains organiser Tristan Gatward. “It picked up a small audience, and then elements kept on being thrown at it and showcased: art, poetry, comedy, film, sculpture, photography, creative workshops… you name it. Then music joined the party, and Poltimore Festival was born!”

Unpaid and non-profit, they above perhaps all others epitomise the start-up festival ethos. All they want is to quiet the murmurs of “’nothing happens in Exeter’ one mind-blowing performance at a time! We want to bring the community together to share the best music and art in the South West. It’s a place to discover the best music and culture that’s happening right on your doorstep.” If that’s not the festival mentality epitomised, then I don’t know what is.


Article first published in Devon Life Magazine, April 2017. 

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