New home for Towersey will not change its heart

Nancy Keer and James Fagan on stage in 2012

Nancy Keer and James Fagan on stage in 2012

First published in News Oxford Mail: Photograph of the Author by

TOWERSEY is known throughout the country as “the little village with the big festival”.

For the past 50 years about 450 villagers would welcome over 10,000 people on the August Bank Holiday for a celebration of song and dance. This will be the last time they do that. Towersey Festival is moving out of Towersey.

Joe Heap, director of the festival and grandson of the founder, Dennis Manners, explained the move.

Oxford Mail:

  • Festival director Joe Heap

“Over 50 years the festival has changed venues several times. Now we are going to relocate to the Thame Showground. We’re not being forced out but circumstances have led us to it.

“The Thame Showground is a great venue. It has easy access with proper tarmac roads leading up to the multiple gates for cars. The land is well drained so there will be less mud. The ground is flat, but the biggest advantage is that the whole festival will be on one field, not split up around several sites in Towersey.”

So what exactly are the circumstances that led to the move?

It’s a combination – land problems, economic woes of the recession and bad weather two years running. Last year the festival made a loss of £33,000. For the last two and a half years the festival has been a limited company to give those running it protection against liability for losses.

The land problems stem from the success of the event. What started as a one-day festival in the village hall expanded gradually to take up more and more farm fields for parking, camping and new site venues for the big top tents. About 70 per cent of the festival takes place on the fields of Cotmore Well Farm, which has been run by local farmer David White and his family for about 130 years.

Much of this land is Glebe land and David White rents it from the diocese. He told the festival organisers he was not going to renew the lease about three years ago. Now there is a planning application lodged with South Oxfordshire District Council for commercial development covering about three quarters of an acre.

If the festival loses its camping and car parking facilities this poses a very serious problem.

The festival would have three options: change and split the car parking and camping to other farms further away in the village, close down the festival altogether or move it to the Thame Showground.

The economy also started to bite hard at the budget. The costs of security have gone up greatly. The artists’ fees are constantly rising and so are the expenses for the artists.

In the past, Towersey villagers would provide free accommodation for the singers and dancers, many who came from around the world – South Africa, France, Mali, Gambia and Tibet. Now with the continual change of villagers in Towersey, it’s slowly becoming a dormitory town for Oxford and London with fewer and fewer people offering to put up the artists. So the accommodation fees have escalated. The marquees are bigger and better but much more expensive.

Oxford Mail:

  • Brendan Power and Tim Edey at the 2011 festival 

People who buy tickets expect the latest technology so the lighting rigs and sound amplification have to be state-of-the-art.

Increases in expenses apply on a smaller scale to the rows and rows of traders who pitch their often exotic wares to festival-goers. This means there is a knock-on effect – last year there were only about 50 per cent of the usual traders which meant a loss of income for the festival.

Other, competing festivals also take place on the same August Bank Holiday weekend with the Shrewsbury Festival siphoning off a good chunk of the market.

The economic downturn meant last year that there were no grants and no village benefit except for a contribution of £1,750 for the playing fields where the main festival takes place.

But usually all that money goes toward restoration of the area from the four-wheel-drive tyre ruts and inevitable damage that comes with any festival.

The village saw some other benefits.

The social club and village hall both ran their own bars and the white elephant stalls raised considerable funds at festival time.

The church made money out of selling teas and cakes; and of course all villagers got a free annual festival pass.

This is in contrast to past years when the residents did rather better.

From the start of the festival in 1965, it always made a surplus and gave contributions to village organisations including funding a new cricket club shed and the village website. The grand total of Towersey Festival contributions to the village over the last 50 years has been an impressive £275,790.

The weather added a wet touch to the event last year. Rain bucketed down. But this is always a risk with a weather-dependent event.

I’ve seen some of the tents blown down in 1986 when a huge storm struck. We were all huddling in the main, unfortunately flimsy, tent, ignoring the howling wind and hoping we would survive unharmed until the end of the gig. That was all, dare I say it, part of the fun.

The Towersey Festival has always been fun and a great celebration – but this 50th year celebrates more than just one festival because Towersey represents something more; it is the oldest independent festival in the whole country.

This golden jubilee features over one hundred acts with headliners Seth Lakeman and Richard Thompson, both at the top of their game.

One of the biggest award winning bands, Lau, will also turn up to add to the atmosphere.

The question remains, what will the Towersey Festival lose when it finishes this year?

Ross Dike, long-time member of the Towersey Village Festival Committee, says “If it leaves Towersey, it can never have the same atmosphere.”

But festival director Joe Heap is optimistic. “The festival is going to get better and bigger,” he said.

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