Grassington Festival is a small village festival with a very big personality. Victoria Benn spoke to its director, Kate Beard.
Grassington Festival Director, Kate Beard, admits to having jokingly said during last year’s festival, “If Glastonbury can get the Rolling Stones, then surely we can get the Rolling Stones...” The funny thing is – she did just that. Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings, led by the ex-Stones bassist, are set to play at this year’s festival on Wednesday, June 25.
This anecdote sums up not only Kate’s drive and ambition, but also the essence of this Dales village music and arts festival, which has proven time and again, that nothing is impossible – not if you put your mind and a little bit of volunteer power to it.
Come June 13, Grassington, with its modest population of 1,100, will start to play host to a staggering 30,000 festival goers in search of the promised “music, magic and mayhem”. However, there isn’t any “festival field” or bespoke festival campsite – this is a festival played out in the heart of this idyllic village.
As has been the way for the last 34 years, the festival takes over the village square, town hall, church halls and local pubs.
For the last ten years The Yorkshire Dales National Park have kindly loaned a site close to the centre of the village upon which is erected a huge 1200-seat marquee, which has made it possible for acts such as Bill Wyman, The Boomtown Rats and Heather Small, who are all headlining this year, to perform.
“The festival began in 1980, when festivals were still a relatively new phenomenon”, explains Kate, “It was the brainchild of an ambitious local couple, Colin and Fleur Speakman, who wanted to bring some of the artistic and literary talent which the Dales has always inspired, back into the area.
“They ran it on a shoestring using local volunteers, and by encouraging local and emerging talent to get involved, as well as few bigger names... people like the Skipton based folk singer and song writer Mike Donald played, and a relatively early Fitzwilliam String Quartet. They were really great acts for the fledgling festival as it was then.”
After a few years Colin and Fleur handed the helm of the festival over to another artistically inclined local lady, Rowena ‘Bunty’ Leder, who remained as festival director for 18 years.
“Bunty cemented the winning formula which we still adhere to today, which is to get the commitment from the big artists first, and then build up the rest of the programme with developing and rising talent. In fact Bunty had a great eye for spotting new talent, and managed to secure people like Alison Balsom, who is now renowned for being one of best trumpet players in the world.”
The mantle of Festival Director passed in 2005 from Bunty to another local lady, Amelia Vyvyan, who was able to extend the marquee programme to secure acts like Alfie Boe and Katherine Jenkins.
“I took over from Amelia after the 2011 festival, which was a huge honour, but it was also hugely daunting to be following in such accomplished footsteps,” confides Kate.
“Having worked for many years at the Barbican in London and for Manchester International Festival, I knew I had the capability and credentials to take on such a role, but coming back home and doing something like this on your own doorstep did give me a few sleepless nights at first. However, Bunty and Amelia are incredibly supportive, which continues to help me enormously.”
Grassington Festival isn’t just about the big names it pulls in, at the heart of the festival is the aim of broadening people’s horizons and encouraging them to try something new.
Each year the festival works with local schools, community groups and even care homes, taking their talents and creating anything from temporary art installations to sell out concert performances.
“Last year we ran ‘A Band that Anyone Can Join’ project with the Leeds-based band Hope and Social. It was probably one of the most enriching things I’ve ever been part of,” laughs Kate. “Around 70 local children and adults developed as musicians to the point where they were able to play to a sell out house at Grassington Town Hall.
“It was amazing! This year we are taking the concept one step further with the ‘Tour of Infinite Possibility’, which is also part of the Yorkshire Festival taking place in the run up to the Grand Depart.”
This year’s programme has over 100 acts including everything from international stars, to free events, to a food festival, to a full programme of community projects. It certainly seems that for a small village, Grassington Festival packs an extremely big punch.
“The strength and diversity of the festival comes from the fact that it is firmly rooted in the local community,” says Kate with a smile.
“The whole thing is only made possible because of the ongoing generous local sponsorship, and our army of volunteers who do everything from manning the box office, to stewarding, to running the bars.”
“The fact that the festival is being run by the local people and is happening all around the village makes the buzz of it completely inescapable too – as does the chance of bumping into one or two of the artists who’ve come to perform.
“For two weeks every year boundaries between adults, children, locals, newcomers and even the artists themselves completely blur, and Grassington just becomes one big party!”