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Tim Chipping

Ranting & Reeling

Tim Chipping’s monthly column

I retain only the vaguest of memories of my first visit to Sidmouth International Folk Festival Of Folk, as it was called in those days. I recall I was desperate to see the torchlit procession, even though I’d never been up that late before. My parents have since told me they didn’t think I would stay awake but somehow I kept my little eyes open, cradled in a blanket in my father’s arms. I was 28 years old.

This year’s Sidmouth FolkWeek Week Of Folk, as it’s now known, is a special one. It will be the first time the ancient marquee-based gathering has had a blue plaque. The blue plaque, for any foreign readers, is an honour usually bestowed on a building that formerly housed an eminent botanist, politician or one of the dead Doctor Whos. I’ve never heard of a festival being given one before, although I’ve done absolutely no research so there might be loads.

The unveiling ceremony was a mesmerising spectacle. As the Grand Plaque Wizard (better known as disc jockey and calypso singer Mike Read) began his solemn duty, a choir of floor singers emitted a low drone over which could be heard the faint but familiar strains of Wild Mountain Thyme drifting on the beer-scented breeze. Festival shaman Steve Knightley stripped to the waist and adorned his chest with Devonshire ice cream before stepping into the centre of a large EFDSS logo, daubed on the grass with the sacrificial blood of a chip-fed seagull.

You won’t read any of this in the mainstream media. Like the festival itself, much of what occurs in Sidmouth is secretive; known only to those in the know, or who happen to be walking past on their way to the toilet.

For example, you’ll find no mention in your tourist guides of the monkey sellers. But weave your way through the painters of faces and braiders of hair and you might just see them on the seafront, selling their puppet monkeys. “Monkeys!” they shout from a primitive stall. “They are five pounds!” No one knows when monkey selling started in Sidmouth. Some say it’s pagan but I’m not so sure. Historians think they’re a leftover from St Monkey’s Day, named after a canonised friar who had a vision of a monkey walking up Woolbrook Road by the post office.

And if you ask one of the festival footmen for directions to the moonlight dance they will deny all knowledge of such a thing and walk away slowly, shouting insults about your lineage. It’s not that a moonlight dance doesn’t happen; it has happened every Thursday since Sidmouth began. However the custom was banned by the Earl of Honiton when he visited the town one August and thought it looked a bit stupid. But if you’re lucky enough, when the moon is big and bright, you might still catch a glimpse of everybody dancing in the moonlight. It’s a fine and natural sight.

Some will say that none of this is true and that Sidmouth FolkWeek is a myth. Maybe they’re right. But if you can believe a man can mistake his own girlfriend for a swan then rely on her ghost as a key witness in the murder trial, is it really so hard to imagine people queuing in the rain to watch Mawkin?

Tim Chipping


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