Nowt so queer as a folk festival

In the distance, but somewhat closer than the entrance we originally used, was a large sign saying “EXIT”, which ought to get us out of the festival site much quicker than otherwise. We trekked across to this gate, tripping over the deckchairs people insist on bringing in, and generally getting in the way, only to be told that, despite what the sign might categorically state, it wasn’t an exit. It was reserved for pass-holders only, until some time that would remain unspecified as far as the staff on the gate, equally ignorant of almost everything else, are concerned.

Perhaps the word “EXIT” was intended to be post-modern, some sort of subtle Huis-Clos reference we didn’t get, but it was useless to speculate in the face of institutional stupidity: instead, we went back the way we came, back through the bottlenecked main entrance. Welcome to the Cornbury Festival.

It was clear this year that, apart from everything else, the planning infrastructure at the festival was still geared to support a far smaller crowd than the one Cornbury now attracts. The apparently plentiful toilets—their sheer number an excuse to throw anyone out for weeing behind a bush—often sported a queue some two or three times as long as their actual capacity. Demand for catering and beer were often as ridiculously high. People frequently spilled out of the areas reserved for the two smaller stages, as demand for floor space far outstripped supply, and those who staked their claim early on with whatever furniture they had smuggled in quickly squeezed everyone else far away from the acts.

But it was the little details that, over the course of the weekend, annoyed the most. None of the volunteers we met had been told where non-camping wristbands were to be exchanged, and we had to hazard a two- or three-kilometre round trip to see if the staff on the main entrance would deign to do that. Parking was free, but camping tickets cost extra, an incentive if ever there was one to tear holes in the Witney to Charlbury road (currently undergoing intensive resurfacing) and pollute the Cotswolds as much as possible as you rattle home of an evening: why not, after all, if you have a car already? The stand-pipes that, were you to read the programme, should have been as prevalent as the toilets were conspicuous only by their absence. Luckily, in that case, that there was no heatwave, as we never did find a medical tent.

The music (more on that later, once I’ve got this out of my system) seemed to happen in spite of the organizing rather than with its help. As with the informative labelling of the EXITs, the changes in schedules on the main and second stages seemed to be closely guarded secrets, the only hint of the latter being a piece of A4 paper that the sound technicians would flash if you already knew that Ronnie Spector had cancelled. The Riverside stage alone ran to time, despite the leeway that acts cancelling ought to have given the other two stages.

Nobody enforced any of the site rules: indeed, if you were considerate enough to obey such rules then you were a fool and could safely be trampled underfoot. Cans of beer were passed around; picnics were everywhere; fat people staked out their claims with more and more bizarre furniture self-assemblies—chairs, tables, tents and, in one case, a few wooden pallets covered in towels. You could imagine people at the Reading festival behaving like this—mind you, at Reading you wouldn’t get away with most of these anti-social tricks—but these are meant to be Radio-2-listening responsible parents, and it’s a surprise to find them more petulant and childish, and less charitable and community-spirited, than your average Slipknot fan. It seemed like, of the dozen or so rules, each person disobeyed perhaps a third to a half of them, and if you didn’t then you were put at such a disadvantage by everyone else.

Those who were willing (Mister Pallets) or able (every car owner) to take liberties profited handsomely by doing so. A potentially serious crowd-control problem was established by bad signage and ignorant volunteers, a problem that the organisers—with backstage passes and prior knowledge of where everything was—are probably still blissfully unaware of. Thousands and thousands of road miles took the place of public transport as people were incentivized to (in the first instance) not camp, and (in the second instance) not rely on trains or buses, because the last acts would be too late to catch a decent service and camping cost extra.

And so the privileged triumph; the underprivileged suffer. It’s good to see Cornbury Festival appreciating its historical roots. I’m not sure if a return to the Middle Ages is really what the Cotswolds needs, though.

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