At the age of 23, I decided to take early retirement from festivals. I had LOVED going to festivals so it wasn’t a decision I took lightly, but I felt like my hand had been forced. It was Leeds Fest, 2009, and I’d just woken up after a less-than-successful night’s sleep in a mildew-ridden tent. But it wasn’t the smell of damp that woke me, or even an overpriced beer-induced hangover. It was our neighbours.
“So, what did you get in your GCSEs, then?” one male voice squeaked, followed by a cacophony of responses; some gloating, some ‘I’m-too-cool-to-care-about-exams’ nonchalant. GCSEs? What did that make them, FIFTEEN?! No. No, no no. Their chorus droned on and on until they were told to lower their voices by an older-sounding voice. Thank GOD. I peeked my head out of the tent door to see who it was, ready to shake their hand and offer them a beer, but I stopped myself. That older voice didn’t belong to a fellow disgruntled camper, it belonged to one of two chaperones accompanying a group that looked barely old enough to be in high school, let alone sitting GCSEs.
That was it. I was too old for this. Festivals, it seemed, were to be one of those activities that I’d have to admit defeat to, along with wearing crop tops and dancing until 3am. I would always look back at them with fond memories, but they were no longer for me. I was no longer for them.
But things change. Dancing until 3am has made a triumphant comeback in my life, thanks to the ingenious swapping of sticky-floored clubs for my best friend’s kitchen and a fully-stocked fridge of chablis and cava. The crop top has also crept back into my wardrobe, albeit styled more conservatively with a high-waisted, midi 50s-stye skirt and only a slither of midriff on show. And over the last few years, I’ve been forced to reconsider my blanket festival veto after realising that maybe, I’d just been going to the wrong festivals. As I’ve travelled through my 20s at startling speed, I’ve discovered that there are so many other festivals to choose from; festivals that, like my newly demure crop tops and chablis-fuelled 3am dancing, offer a different, varied and more fulfilling experience for my older self than the teen-filled hell that made me swear off festivals for life.
Festivals like Beacons.
A relative newcomer to the festival calendar, Beacons is a music and arts festival hosted in the glorious surrounds of the Yorkshire Dales. It’s a big deal in Leeds, causing a mass exodus each August and inciting a flood of Beacons-based euphoria on social media. I’ve watched from the sidelines and grown increasingly intrigued, but one thing or another has always got in the way. So when I was invited to come along to Beacons for a day this year to review the food, AND my diary was clear, I couldn’t resist.
I know what you’re probably thinking. Who goes to a music festival to review the food? If my past experiences of festival food were anything to go by, NOONE. When I wasn’t eating cold macaroni cheese (straight from the tin, I was classy like that), it was an artery-clogging mountain of greasy chow mein, or soggy chips tucked into a mayonnaise blanket. There was always a token vegetarian van selling sawdust-esque falafels that, in my warm beer-fuelled haze, were the best thing I had ever tasted. I know, don’t judge me. Let’s be honest; noone was there for the food, and the food offer reflected this.
Beacons was different. Laying down its foodie credentials like a gauntlet, the Beacons arena was lined with some of Leeds’ finest street food vendors, ready to prove that festival food doesn’t have to be crap. There was the ethereal fish and chip tapas served up by Fish&; succulent, bite-sized portions of fish encased in a trio of batters so light, well-seasoned and downright delicious, that surely they deserve the title of the BEST fish and chips in the world. There was Manjit’s Kitchen‘s tongue-tinglingly moreish samosa chaat, served out of their rather snazzy crowd-funded yellow horsebox. There were those magical mung beans from Bundobust, spiced with garam masala and served on a bed of perfectly-steamed rice. And there was a glorious reunion with Dorshi’s incredible veggie dumplings, this time fried and filled with a concoction of earthy, finely chopped mushrooms and rich, Dorset Red Cheddar.
There were also dalliances with street food traders that I hadn’t tried before; Mumma Schitznel and their late night saviours: crispy, skin-on triple-cooked chips, and Margot and Rita‘s nachos with ALL the toppings – sour cream, cheddar, salsa, jalapeno, coriander, with top-ups provided if you ask really nicely. (And, if you’re massively greedy.)
Sadly, fullness got the better of me, which meant I missed out on the South East Asian delights of Street Fodder, the North African mezze magic of Café Moor and the slices of pizza heaven served up by Dough Boys. There were also some intriguing new options that I shall be seeking out in the future, such as Ghandi’s Flip Flop; proud purveyor of ‘non violent’, vegetarian Indian curries. Next time.
The food got a massive tick, and amazingly, so did the drink. Sure, it was still expensive, but that expense bought you a much higher quality than the revolting warm pints I remember from previous festival experiences. A pop-up bar from Leeds’ Whitelocks presented a real ale menu to rival a beer festival, and a cocktail bar kept my thirst quenched with its enticing Piña Coladas, Mojitos and Bloody Marys. One of my favourite moments of the day was spent in that cocktail bar, sheltering from one of many biblical rain showers on bales of hay while sipping a Piña Colada (or three) with friends. Who said rain at festivals had to be miserable?
I didn’t just eat and drink the whole time, though. In between meals, I even managed to catch some music. I’ll confess, I devote nowhere near as much time to ‘keeping up’ with new music these days, so most of the Beacons line-up read like a confused set of adjectives, nouns and jumbles of letters. I saw this as an opportunity, relying on instinct and recommendations to discover new music. Guided by my disco-loving friend, Rachel, I flexed my dancing muscles in the Resident Advisor tent to sets from Daniel Avery and Daphni. I won’t pretend to know what I’m talking about, so I’ll just leave it at this: I liked it. I liked it a lot. And then, there was Melt Yourself Down; the band that everyone told me I had to see. How to describe Melt Yourself Down? Think of a bonkers, high-octane blend of jazz and funk that seems to travel from England through to Africa and Latin America to produce an undefinable, but utterly fabulous sound that makes you dance like nobody’s watching. I deeply apologise to anyone that was, but DAMN; those guys really know how to throw a party.
One band stole the show for me, though; a band I had heard of. British Sea Power. I was first introduced to them during my festival-going days, when I quickly fell for their infectious brand of soaring, optimistic indie-rock. They performed From the Sea to the Land Beyond, an original soundtrack produced for a BFI film of the same name that explored a century of life on Britain’s coastline. Facing away from the audience, they played the soundtrack in its entirety while the film played on a big screen. There were reworkings of familiar favourites such as Carrion, along with hauntingly-beautiful instrumental pieces that undulated in perfect synchronicity with pivotal coastline moments in the film. I’d not seen the film or heard the soundtrack before, so seeing it for the first time, live, was a very special experience.
At the risk of turning this review into a Beacons love-in, what I really loved was what was happening on the periphery of the music and food. Billing itself as a “platform for arts and ideas”, it felt like a festival that you needed to experience in its entirety; a festival to savour, rather than militantly march from stage to stage to cram in as many bands as possible. There was a Craftevan to cater for all your crafting desires, an Impossible Lecture Theatre that gave a stage to everything from art brothels to balloon parties, and Into the Woods; a space which hosted the almighty Bettakultcha amongst other things. I was particularly gutted to miss a morning Dru Yoga session from the incredible Lucy Yoga, performances from A Firm of Poets, and the intriguing “Cooking Cauliflower Cheese for Morrissey” that was billed in the Arts section of the programme, but there’s always next time, eh?
I may have only spent a day at Beacons, but it was enough to realise that I was far too hasty in swearing off festivals for life. A festival unlike any I’ve experienced before, Beacons is the antithesis to mainstream festivals attracting youngsters only interested in getting drunk on warm beer, watching terrible bands and adding to their faded, smelly set of wristbands. Because where else can you sit in a field with a Piña Colada, while listening to fantastic new music and watching Yorkshire Dales’ signature green hills ripple beyond a neon expression of love according to Bob Marley? Beacons, I’ll be back.
Disclaimer – I received a complimentary day ticket to Beacons Festival in exchange for an honest, unbiased review. I paid for all food and drink myself.