Tim Hughes grabs his tankard and Morris dancing bells and looks forward to the start of Folk Weekend Oxford
THEY come from across the land, clutching fiddles, guitars, sticks and bells – and all agree there is no better place to be in the spring.
Hundreds of folk musicians, dancers and music lovers are descending on Oxford for the first big festival of the summer – Folk Weekend Oxford.
What began as an excuse for some April fun has mushroomed into one of the best-respected folk festivals in the country. Few others have such an impressive line-up and none have such a beautiful backdrop – with sessions in iconic buildings and dancing in historic streets and outside old hostelries.
"This is our biggest weekend yet," says director Cat Kelly – a singer and fiddle player from Stanton Harcourt, near Witney.
"We have got more new venues and a much busier programme. Sunday in particular is much fuller."
More than 70 acts will play at venues across the city centre, and just beyond between now and Sunday.
They include the Wesley Memorial Church (the main venue), the Oxford Deaf & Hard of Hearing Centre in St Ebbe's, St Barnabas Church in Jericho (for ceilidhs), Blackwell's Bookshop (local stage), St Columba's Church in Alfred Street (European dance and tango), The Quaker Meeting House and the Pitt Rivers Museum (family activities).
There will also be sessions at the St Aldate's Tavern, Royal Blenheim and The Vaults Cafe in Radcliffe Square.
Then there is the Morris and folk dancing, which takes place in Broad Street, Cornmarket, Bonn Square and outside pubs, such as The Bear, in Alfred Street.
Local dancers brush shoulders, and clash sticks, with visiting sides from as far afield as Lancashire.
Musical highlights this year include Nancy Kerr and James Fagan, who play both as a duo and as part of the dynamic Melrose Quartet, balladeer Jim Moray, his sister – and festival patron – Jackie Oates, and Oxford singer-songwriter Megan Henwood.
Also up are Ange Hardy, banjo player Dan Walsh, Dipper Malkin, Jimmy Aldridge & Sid Goldsmith, The Emily Askew Band, The Discussion Topic, and, in something of a coup, melodeon virtuoso John Spiers.
'Squeezy' John is one of the founder members of 11-piece avant-folk supergroup Bellowhead, which was convened as a one-off project in 2004 for the very first Oxford Folk Festival – the predecessor of the Folk Weekend. The band went on to achieve huge success before calling it a day, after 12 years, at Oxford Town Hall last May Day.
Another former Bellowhead member Sam Sweeney also appears in his band Leveret, alongside Andy Cutting and Rob Habron.
So what is Cat most looking forward to? "It all looks amazing," she says.
"Melrose Quartet are fantastic instrumentalists and are one of my absolute favourite groups.
"Jim Moray is also amazing. He plays traditional material in a modern way. He has worked with rappers and electronic musicians and has now turned folk on its head by using a sampler – which is something the folk scene hasn't seen before. He is coming here for the first time.
"Nancy Kerr and James Fagan are wonderful and create a wall of sound. Their music is cleverly arranged with a mix of traditional material and Nancy's own songs. Their personalities shine through in whatever they do.
"Then there's Dan Walsh, who is one of the best banjo players in the country, and Leveret who don't tend to arrange anything beforehand and just feed off each other by responding and improvising. No two shows are ever the same. They will be closing the festival on Sunday, which is a really nice way to round it off."
She is also looking forward to seeing 'Squeezy' John Spiers. "It's the first year he won't be on tour with Bellowhead," she laughs. "It was good of him to have scrapped Bellowhead so he could come and play for us here!
"There is something captivating about his playing; it draws you in far more than you would expect from a man with a squeezebox."
She is also a fan of the dances, and urged everyone – experienced or novice – to come along and have fun. She says: "The ceilidhs are always fun and we have one on Sunday this year, which we have never done before.
"You don't even have to be a good dancer. A caller will talk you through all the moves beforehand – and, anyway, getting it wrong is all part of the fun.
"It's a social dance not a display dance and no one takes it too seriously."
She said attracting new audiences was a priority.
"We have tried to incorporate stuff suitable for people that don't necessarily come to these kind of events."
That includes those with disabilities or learning difficulties. Cat, a mother-of-two, draws on her experience of working in special schools to arrange events at which all children and their parents or carers, would enjoy. Family-friendly events take place in the majestic surroundings of the Pitt Rivers Museum.
"Accessibility is a big thing for me," she says. "A lot of what I do is with special needs schools, and I love the effect music has on children – and the enjoyment it brings. It's a unique way of engaging people. To some parents, the thought of going to a crowded noisy venue may be just too much. But everyone is welcome here. I feel really strongly about making the effort. It's not enough to simply say 'we are inclusive'; you have to make it a reality."
And, with the festival almost upon us, Cat admits to being calm and relaxed – the hard work behind her.
"Everything is now in place," she says, "Now I just have to press play and all will run smoothly."
She laughs as she recalls previous disasters – such as the Randolph Hotel fire, two years ago, which caused the evacuation of the festival's former HQ at the Old Fire Station, and a plumbing catastrophe two years earlier which flooded the building.
"We are probably due another disaster," she jokes, before laughing nervously.
"I have actually been hard at work on a 100 word document telling people how to run the festival without me, so I can just enjoy it now. It's important to get out, stick my head in each venue and engage with the festival rather than be stuck in an office.
"This is my favourite weekend of the year," she adds. "I wouldn't do it if I didn't love it!"
Folk Weekend Oxford runs until Sunday. For ticket details go to folkweekendoxford.co.uk. Many events are free of charge