Swalefest: The Yorkshire festival celebrating 50 years of entertainment in the Dales

Swaledale Festival is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Phil Penfold meets the man who has been behind the event in the Yorkshire Dales for the last 15 years.

Malcolm Creese doesn’t so much plan ahead as have a vision for the future. He is the artistic director of the world-renowned Swaledale Festival, which this year will celebrate half a century of bringing entertainment in its broadest and most accessible sense to the Yorkshire Dales.

The 2022 festival runs from May 28 to June 11 and tickets have been on sale since early March. Many of the events quickly sold out – although Malcolm is quick to point out that it is always worth checking for availability and possible cancellations. As soon as he has drawn breath in mid-June, he and his team will immediately start putting together the complicated jigsaw that will make up next year’s multi-faceted programme. There are already performers and events planned for 2024 and 2025 – and even beyond.

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“It’s a cyclical job that never ever stops,” he says. “It’s not just persuading some of the world’s great names to come and join us, but also booking the many venues, from places that can seat audiences of a good few hundred, to others that can accommodate only a dozen or so. It’s fitting artistes to place, and vice versa,and then making sure that there are all sorts of facilities in place and available – glamorous things like toilet facilities, parking, an electricity supply, catering and accommodation.

Morris Dancer at the Reeth Family Fun Day PICTURE: GUY CARPENTER.

“It’s all very well being generously offered one of this region’s glorious churches as a location for a concert but does it have a stage area? What are the acoustics like? Can we rig up extra lights? Is it miles away from anywhere and down a long muddy track?

“There’s nothing that can be left to chance, and in addition we must put in all sorts of applications for grants and sponsorships. Who is going to pay for what? That can mean hour upon hour of filling so many forms that it makes your head spin.”

It all sounds incredibly complicated – and it is. To the point where you’d think that someone would give their all to the festival for six or seven years, and then bow out gracefully, and hand over the task of pulling it all together to someone new. But Malcolm has been in charge for 15 years now, and is still loving every moment. He stepped in by invitation after a previous incumbent served for a year, and believes that he got the job, (as he recalls) “because I said something to the interview panel of the board of trustees, which they all found very funny. I have to be completely honest with you, I have totally forgotten what the joke, one-liner or remark was. But somehow it broke the ice, they liked me, and I very much liked them – and it has been a close and very warm relationship ever since. I thought that I might serve for three or four years, and here I am after 15, and I’ll keep going as long as I’m wanted, and the ideas keep on coming.”

One of those innovative ideas came out of the blue. A while back, Malcolm was pondering about having a guest who, every year, would deliver a keynote talk. “I had the ideal venue in Reeth, one of the old Methodist chapels, as the location and then it just hit me. We’d borrow from the BBC, and call it ‘the Reeth Lecture’, which is a terrible, but completely fitting, pun,” he says with a laugh.

Alexander Markov

Malcolm, 62, is so committed to the Swaledale Festival that he has almost completely put his “other” career on hold. He is one of the finest double bass players of his generation, and has been in the ranks of many of the most prestigious orchestras in the world.

He knows the musical world back to front, its foibles, its frustrations and its finest moments. However, he admits that – given the size of the instrument he chose – things like travelling with it are not getting any easier, and that airlines in particular are bringing in more and more restrictions.

“So many people over the years have said to me ‘Wouldn’t it have been easier to take up the piccolo, or the flute instead?’ And now, after many years, I have to concede that they might well have a point!”

Malcolm has a fund of stories about orchestral – and solo – playing, many of which were handed down from his father, also an eminent and much-respected musician.

He learned very quickly that Swalefest (as it is sometimes affectionately known) “is a vast balancing act. It must appeal to the very young right through to the older members or our audiences, who chiefly come from Wensleydale, Coverdale and Arkengarthdale but also from much, much, further afield. It has to offer a variety of events and performances, it has to please men, women and children. Each of the musical events must engage everyone who has bought tickets, giving them something that is familiar, a ‘lollipop’, in turn set alongside something that is new, and perhaps challenging.

“And I’ve learned, over the years, that everyone has an opinion, and that Dales folk are not afraid to express themselves. Believe me, if I lived full time in this wonderful part of the country, I’d never find the opportunities to get through all the necessary planning paperwork – because I’ve now become a familiar face, and I’m always being stopped by members of our loyal audiences, all of whom have feedback or observations to offer. They needn’t be walking past, either – I’ve had many a conversation with someone who has pulled up and rolled down the window of their car or tractor. I am genuinely very grateful for that but it can add hours to the day”.

He is quick to point out that Swalefest would not be “in the remotest way possible” without an army of around 100 volunteers who pitch in and help with everything from making sandwiches and cutting the grass to being stewards at the venues, lending a hand with transport, or providing accommodation for the many guests.

There are only a handful of professionals involved in pulling Swalefest together and keeping it running each year, and Malcolm praises them for their with enthusiastic efforts. “It is all down to teamwork,” he says. “No-one is the star of the behind-the scenes efforts. The stars are our guest performers.’’

And what a range the audiences are being offered this year. It all opens with Handel’s Messiah, with the Swaledale Festival and Chorus, and the venue, for the very first time, is stunning Ripon Cathedral. The next day and in total contrast – and this is what makes Swalefest so endearing – there’s a four-mile guided walk between Crackpot and Kisdon, which starts “outside the Farmer’s Arms in Muker”. Later the same day will be an evening with the world’s great Flamenco guitarist, Paco Pena. The 55 talented German youngsters of the Bammental School Orchestra are flying in to appear at St Andrew’s in Aysgarth, while the Leyburn Brass Band will follow them in the same venue a few hours later.

Then there’s the internationally acclaimed percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, the Brodsky Quartet, a talk on the legacy of the local Kearton brothers, nature photographers who inspired Sir David Attenborough as a boy, a singing workshop for all-comers, a family fun day, folk, the eight top cellists from the Halle Orchestra, a poetry open mic night and – the event that Malcolm promises will be “something very special, and then some!” – an appearance by violin supremo Alexander Markov, who will be crossing the Atlantic from his home in New York and also giving a masterclass to five lucky students. “He is utterly breath-taking,” says Malcolm, adding: “Everyone comes because they love the people, the friendliness, the response to their performances and talks, the atmosphere and the landscape.

“Someone said to me the other week that our Swalefest is ‘the little festival with the big heart, the one that punches well above its weight’, Well, that is very, very flattering, and we are all very deeply grateful for the comment. But – with all modesty – we think that it is true. It takes a mountain of effort to get it all up and running. But, do you know what? It is such a privilege to be part of this very special community”.

And is there anything that Malcolm won’t be putting on his wish list for future festival line-ups? The answer comes swiftly. “We will never, ever, ever, have any sort of tribute band. No way. Not on my watch. The Swaledale Festival is unique. If you want that sort of thing, well… there are plenty of other places in Yorkshire where you can find it. Swaledale is very different from the rest. And it will always stay that way.”

■ www.swalefest.org