IN 1965, when the Beatles released their album Help!, residents in Towersey realised their village hall was in desperate need of repair.

So they launched the Towersey Festival to raise funds for the hall, a building that commemorated 14 local men who had lost their lives in the First World War.

The first year’s festival was a one-day village fete, with Morris dancing and a folk singing session in the barn.

But the second year a three-day festival was staged, attended by a few hundred people, and has since spread over five days, with 10,000 people turning up at the village near Thame, which has a population of under 1,000.

This year’s festival runs from Thursday, August 21, to Monday, August 25, featuring performances from Richard Thompson, The Bootleg Beatles and Seth Lakeman.

The founders of the festival were Denis Manners MBE (1920-2009) and Louis Rushby (1916-1998).

Mr Manners concentrated on the folk music and dance, while Mr Rushby looked after the village activities.

Towersey’s Memorial Hall had opened in 1925 as a tribute to those who died in the Great War but it started out with buckets instead of toilets and one cold water tap.

The festival was suggested as a way of fundraising for proper toilets and a refurbishment, and the hall is still used today.

The first Towersey Festival was on August 30,1965, Bank Holiday Monday, and included a village parade, with decorated floats and tractors, a cricket match, an exhibition of children’s art, Morris dancing, a barbecue, and singing and dancing.

The Oxford Mail reported that the organisers had been “completely overwhelmed” by the festival’s success and that it would “probably be an annual event”.

Father-of-two Hugh Riley, 46, who lives in Manor Road with wife Louise and sons Harry, 10, and George, eight, is joint chairman of the festival committee.

He said: “The village enjoys letting people come from all over the country to use the facilities including the village hall, the church and The Three Horseshoes’ pub barn.”

Oxford Mail:

Derek Schofield, 63, above, went to his first Towersey Festival in 1977 and has been turning up every year since the early 1990s.

The former college manager has written the book Towersey Festival: 50 Years In The Making to mark the anniversary.

He said: “It was boom time for folk music in the mid-’60s and folk festivals blazed the trail for pop festivals that came in their wake. Towersey has always been based on British traditional folk music.

“Over the years the festival has got bigger and taken up more farmland on the edge of the village.

“After the village hall was refurbished, money from the festival helped to buy the village playing field.

“Over the years thousands of pounds have been raised by the festival for community groups and good causes including the church, the playing fields and children’s play area.

“Towersey doesn’t have the big-name band focus of [Fairport Convention’s North Oxfordshire festival] Cropredy – it’s very much a festival where people in the audience sing themselves and grandparents and their grandchildren dance together at the Ceilidh.

“Radio 2 presenter Ken Bruce lives in Towersey and is a great supporter of the festival – he has driven a festival bus into Thame.”

The book is published by Mrs Casey Music Ltd and costs £20.

Father-of-three Grant Wilson, 50, is landlord of The Three Horseshoes pub, and lives at the pub with partner Claire Croxford, 34, and their three children, Jack, six, Sophie, five, and Millie, three.

He said lots of people in the village take part in the festival and added: “I play guitar myself and prefer acoustic rock to folk but the festival weekend is good for the village and we host an event for the festival on the Friday night in our pub garden.”

“With 10,000 people coming to Towersey it’s a crazy weekend for the village and lots of villagers take part in different events.

“Lots of ale drinkers and folk fans come into the pub and bring their violins and accordions with them for sessions in the pub.”

  • For more information, visit An adult weekend without camping is £135 and £160 with camping.

A potted history of Towersey

TOWERSEY village is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, when it was known as Eie, the Saxon word for island, indicating that the surrounding area was marshy.

Towersey used to be in Buckinghamshire, but a boundary shift in 1933 nudged it into Oxfordshire.

St Catherine’s Church, which hosts several festival activities, has been on its current site since about 1150.

The festival’s original logo was a headless horseman.

Legend has it that during the English Civil War a wounded cavalier sought refuge in Towersey only to discover it was a parliamentarian stronghold, so the villagers decapitated him.

But the soldier, buried in an unmarked grave with his horse, apparently returns each midsummer evening to haunt the lanes.

Global influences have left their mark on festival

AFTER the 1966 festival was expanded to three days the line-up included The Ranters and The Yetties.

Folk duo Dave and Toni Arthur made their Towersey debut in 1967. Toni is best known as a children’s TV presenter, appearing on BBC pre-school series Play School and Play Away.

A live album, Festival At Towersey, was released to favourable reviews in 1969. 

Of the 1973 bash, English Dance and Song magazine declared: “Towersey Village Festival has a fame quite disproportionate to the size of the place.”

Denis Manners’ son-in-law Steve Heap took over the organisation of the music events in early 1970s. Steve Heap’s son, Joe, who took over as festival director last year, has toured the world in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar.

In 1969 and 1970, the festival included a night-time sound and light show called Cobweb Of Dreams.
A 1975 season ticket for the entire festival, with camping, cost £5.

Two marquees were introduced in 1980 — one for song, and one for dance. Both stages remain, with the dance tent now known as The Ceilidh and the song tent renamed The Big Club.

Eliza Carthy made her Towersey Festival debut in 1989 as part of  The Watersons and The Waterson Women. She made her first ever solo appearance anywhere at 1994’s Towersey, and has returned many times to the festival as part of Waterson: Carthy, Blue Murder, Imagined Village, The Ratcatchers, and with dad Martin Carthy. 

This year she is back as musical director of the one-off concert marking 75 years of folk music Topic Records.

Musician Roy Bailey has appeared at 35 of the 50 Towersey Festivals, including the first festival. In 2006, Bailey became the festival’s patron and will be back this year, on stage, to mark the 50th event.

He said: “People met here and got married here and generations of families return here every year.”

Towersey has welcomed performers from many different countries, including Bulgaria (Trio Bulgarka), Sweden (Filarfolket), Italy (Nidi d’Arac), France (Lo Jai), Mali (Ali Farka Touré), Gambia (Pa Jobarteh), and Tibet (Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts).

The festival has also featured acts from Ireland, USA, Senegal, Hungary, Spain, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Boliva, Ecuador, Austria, Australia, Belgium and France.

Fun for all the family

ACTIVITIES for children have always been part of the festival, but it was not until 1980 that a separate children’s programme was introduced, with a Minors Morris dancing workshop and drama activities.

By the mid-1980s, the children’s festival had expanded to include silly sports, football training, scarecrow building and a fun run.

Shooting Roots, the programme of events for teenagers and young people in their early twenties, was introduced to the festival in 2002.

The early arrival of music fans eager to get a good pitch for their tents and make the most of the long weekend resulted in the programming of Thursday night events.

The first Thursday night concert was in 1998.

Oxford Mail:

Later Thursday guests included Chas and Dave, The Commitments, Billy Bragg and this year The Bootleg Beatles, pictured.

Cartoons were first shown at the festival in 1981, continuing until 2005.
Audiences of up to 800 would watch Roadrunner, Tom and Jerry and other classics.


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