The incredibly beautiful Langdale valley
I can be a bit fatalistic at times, especially when it feels like things are going just that bit too well. Therefore I have long suspected that one day I will go to Langdale Festival, and it won’t be as good. Each time the twice-yearly festival comes around I mentally prepare myself for this eventuality, dreading that this next festival will be the one where it all starts to go downhill. “It can’t be like this forever,” I tell myself. “All good things must come to an end.”
I’m always relieved to be proved wrong, and last weekend was no exception. The most recent Langdale Festival showed absolutely no signs of a slippery slope down into the doldrums. Instead, it’s like we rounded a corner to see yet another shining peak rise before us out of the mist, with the clear prospect of even more dizzy heights of fun to come. All of the usual suspects, it seems, just keep on keeping on, and the younger generation, who we old folkies must rely upon to carry the musical torch into the future, are very confidently and competently striding ahead on the path.
For the uninitiated Great Langdale, where the Langdale Festival is held, is a glacial valley north of Ambleside in the Lake District. Dramatic peaks rise almost vertically out of the flat valley floor, the mercurial weather and the stark, unspoilt scenery making it look and feel like a timeless oasis at the end of the world. At the head of the valley the only signs of habitation are the National Trust campsite, a farm, and the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, where the festival takes place.
The ODG Hikers Bar
The ODG or the ‘Old’ as many of its patrons call it (to distinguish it from the ‘New’ Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, further back down the valley), is a 300 year old coaching inn run, rather conveniently for we musical types, by fiddle player Neil Walmsley. It is famed the world over, particularly for its ‘Hikers Bar’ in the converted byre of the hotel, complete with preserved cow stalls transformed into seating. Such is its allure that the ODG has had its fair share of famous regular visitors over the years, including Chris Bonington, Jimmy Page, Roy Harper, Mike Harding, members of Fairport Convention and countless others, as well as the many thousands of less eminent walkers and climbers who have passed through its doors. One reason for its popularity is its unparalleled location; another is that the ODG has a decades-long reputation as a spontaneous venue for music of various kinds, often played by the very people who head off in the morning to walk and climb the fells roundabout.
Janice, still a bad influence after all these years!
I was introduced to Langdale at the tender age of 18, in the company of my (then) more worldly-wise friend Janice, a fellow folkie who was already an established Langdale-ite at that time. We travelled up in Janice’s campervan for the weekend, accompanied by her black labrador Bess, and proceeded to drink the valley dry of Youngers Number 3 ale, appropriately served up in pewter tankards. Tunes were played, songs were sung, lifelong friendships were forged, and my love affair with Langdale went careering through my life thereafter like a force ten gale down Mickleden Beck. I urged family and friends to come with me the next time, and almost immediately they were in love with it too. Thirty years later we’re all still going up there anytime we can, every bit as infatuated with Langdale now as we were all those years ago.
A very young me playing the flute with friends in the ODG in 1983
Twenty years ago, the Langdale Charity Folk Festival sprang out of the firmament of the like-minded souls who frequent the valley. Music was being played there anyway, so the reasoning went. Why not keep on playing, but make an effort to do some real, tangible good at the same time? And so charities were adopted, and the festival was born. Since its inception, the festival has raised thousands of pounds for the Search and Rescue Dogs Association, the Great North Air Ambulance and Fix the Fells, all causes close to the hearts of the walkers, climbers and (let’s not underestimate it) drinkers of Langdale.
The positive benefits of our fundraising were demonstrated in stark relief last weekend when, as we played and sang all cozy and warm in the ODG, a real-life rescue was taking place at that very moment on the cold, wet mountain behind the hotel. On this occasion, there was a happy ending as the stranded walker – afflicted with hyperthermia – was brought safely down off the fells.
An extremely heroic dog with collection buckets. If you’re ever passing through the Lakes, please put a few coins in the mountain rescue collection tins
Afterwards the mountain rescue team (all of whom are unpaid volunteers), accompanied by their rescue dogs, came to drink a well-earned pint in the ODG and listen to the music. The rescued walker, still in shock but very much alive thanks to their intervention, came to join us as well. The whole episode was a poignant reminder of the very real motivation behind our festival: a celebration of life at its most joyful, along with selfless compassion for it at its most vulnerable. I don’t think, in the current climate of austerity and blame, that you can get a more salient reminder of the innate goodness of humanity than that.
A consequence of so many years of association with Langdale Festival has been the bittersweet juxtaposition of a large group of friends all growing old together, so that we’ve long-since got to a point where no one is ever shocked by anyone’s behaviour, and we all accept each other without judgment, exactly as we are. There’s something very comforting about having one place in the world where you can be unashamedly yourself, safe in the knowledge that your friends still like you, warts and all.
A photo of Ethan Thomas, inserted into this part of the post where I talk about drinking for no particular reason whatsoever
The very first time I visited Langdale with Janice, was the very first time I fell asleep with my head down the Hikers Bar toilet. It’s a rite of passage in Langdale to get steaming drunk, and be looked after (and have the piss taken out of you) by your friends. Some of us might even (ahem) have done it more than once. It was encouraging to see this fine tradition being passed down to one of the younger performers at the most recent festival, and to see people being just as caring (and gently sarcastic) in the aftermath. For the young person in question, who shall remain nameless, don’t worry. One day that sense of crippling embarrassment will fade, and you will be just as blasé about earning your Langdale hangovers as the rest of us!
It’s not only the fine tradition of drinking and craic that is being passed down through the generations, but the music too, and this is very evident within my own family. Throughout the weekend my son Eoin wowed everyone with his harp and guitar playing, whilst my younger son Rowan, newly obsessed with his own burgeoning musical development, could be found at various times playing mandolin, Irish tenor banjo and guitar. Cue me being a very proud mother indeed, as these are children who have found their own way to music through love of it, and ultra-talented they are too. Meanwhile, my niece Katy and nephew Simon, who have been coming to Langdale since babyhood, were on the bill as a trio with Katy’s fiancé Chris Ainsworth. Katy has the most incredible voice, a true show-stopper, and I am not ashamed to say my heart was full listening to her sing in the Saturday afternoon concert in the ODG lounge.
My sons rocking out in the ODG residents bar: Rowan on the banjo, and Eoin on the mandolin
My heart was full for so many other reasons too. Singing ‘Pleasant and Delightful’ with my sister Christine. Playing endless Irish tunes with one of my favourite fiddlers, Mike Allen. Throwing together a band made up of ‘Bev and Friends’, and upsetting the soundman because I invited so many friends that there were not enough inputs in the P.A. system. Performing my usual reunion gig with Jim and Mike, who I played in a band with in the 1980s. Eclectic music sessions with Mike, Mik, Den, Dougie, Celia, Ross, Jim, Rod and so many more, and watching concerts by such excellent performers as Stanley Accrington, Bill Lloyd, Phil Simpson and Ethan Thomas, all of them giving their time and talent for free.
It’s a bit special, is Langdale Festival. One day it might not be as good, but today is not that day.