Saying our final farewells to the Port Eliot Festival
We’ve recently returned from the Port Eliot Festival, which turned out to be a bittersweet event, as it looks like this will turn out to be the last one.
A brief history of Port Eliot
For those not in the know, Port Eliot is a cultural festival held on the banks of the River Tamar in Cornwall, on the 6,000-acre St Germans Estate. It started life in 1981 as the Elephant Fayre, which saw bands like The Cure playing to crowds of 30,000, but had to be closed several years later after anti-social elements caused trouble. It was revived in the 2000s as the Port Eliot Festival, initially as a literary festival, though its remit has extended somewhat since then. Unfortunately, the festival’s founder and owner of the St Germans Estate, Peregrine Eliot, Earl of St Germans, passed away in 2016, and it looks unlikely it will be able to continue.
Personally, we’ve always loved Cornwall and have been along to the festival a number of times over the years. There’s something truly unique about it.
It almost feels like it’s from another time – one before concerns about health and safety and regulations took over, when the most important thing was that everyone be given free rein to experience the festival the way they wanted to. The house is open, and you can wander in and out at will to enjoy talks and events.
Peregrine Eliot – the character behind the festival
We missed last year and it was noticeable this time round that a little of the magic had gone, knowing that the Earl was no longer to be spotted around the house. Perry had been at the centre of many of our memories from past years. Listening to him talk about his road trip from Cornwall to London and the festival’s ‘80’s incarnation when a mob of local bikers took it over. I can also remember that same year, sitting by the river and seeing him sitting quietly on his quad bike, unnoticed by anyone and just looking out across the early evening scene. I remember wondering what he was thinking, just gazing across his land, his festival and his creation. I wish he’d written a book.
Cathy St Germans and Michael Howells – embodying the spirit of the festival
Co-founder and director Cathy St Germans and her brilliant team have also decided it’s time to move on. One outstanding member of that team was production designer and art director Michael Howells, who we were very sad to hear passed away in 2018. His contribution to the festival had been immense, helped by his long experience in the worlds of fashion, theatre and film where he’d worked with the likes of Christian Dior, Mario Testino and Ballet Rambert. Among the many spectacular creations he’s remembered for are the dress made entirely from pages from the novel ‘Rebecca’ and the ‘Spring Flowers’ chandelier created from white feathers and blue hydrangeas for a party, which still hangs in the drawing room of the house to this day. A tremendous loss.
We’ve been lucky to keep in contact with Lucy Hyslop, who’s also been a key part of the creative team at Port Eliot for quite a while, and a friend of Breed and kept in touch with her at her new role at Heckfield Place.
Port Eliot House
The house itself is one of the stars of the festival, purported to be the oldest continually inhabited dwelling in the UK, with a history going back over 1,000 years. In its central room you’ll find a 360° mural by artist Robert Lenkiewicz, which is also a visual riddle, and elsewhere you may spot works by Joshua Reynolds and Van Dyck.
What we saw this year
Anyway, on to the festival itself – what did we see? Among our personal highlights was listening to Bruce Parry talk about living among non-hierarchical tribal peoples and what we could learn from them, comedian Joanna Neary, and new band Waiting For Smith playing in the Walled Garden. We also attended talks in the Blue Kitchen, and couldn’t help wondering what those big blue walls have witnessed over the years.
Sam Walton of Hole and Corner
Sam is the man behind the quarterly journal Hole & Corner, which describes itself as ‘celebrating craft, beauty, passion and skill’. For some years Hole & Corner ran a makers’ tent at Port Eliot, where you could enjoy talks and workshops hosted by some of the leading creative minds in the country.
What attracted you to the Port Eliot Festival?
I was introduced to the festival by a stylist friend eight or nine years ago. It took me a few more before I eventually made it down. I visited in 2014 for the day, not too far from my home in Dorset. I loved it, the creativity, location and diverse focus, with music for once playing second fiddle.
Did you attend as a punter before becoming more involved?
After I finished the first issue of Hole & Corner I bumped into a set designer friend Derek in Soho. He was one of Cathy’s festival planning team. He was on his way to Cornwall the following day and took a copy of the first issue down with him. So he planted the seed. I was there to recce in 2014 and in 2015 we started the collaboration.
Were you inspired by the vision of Peri and Cathy St Germans?
I was inspired by many aspects of the festival. It was lovely to be surrounded by so many talented creatives, relaxing and enjoying the stunning location. I was lucky enough to visit aspects of the house normally shut during the festival, Jake Curtis photographed the place for our fifth issue.
What do you think Hole & Corner have brought to the festival over the years?
We always wanted to present making and craft in a fresh way, accompanied by a great soundtrack. Courtesy of my brother and his Amateurism crew we offered a huge range of workshops from some of the industry’s leading figures. We’ve probably given over 2,500 people the opportunity to try their hand at something over the years. So, I think we certainly achieved our aim.
What have been some of the highlights of Port Eliot for you in the years you’ve been attending?
Some of our #myholeandcorner installations have been real highlights. Seeing Sebastian Cox’s woven landscape positioned with a view of the viaduct. This year Steph Buttle and Tim Gray buried a 1960s caravan in the turf in front of our tent – that was pretty special once completed.
The sight of 150 people queuing for workshop bookings at 8am at a festival was a bizarre highlight. You know you’ve found the audience in that moment. We did change the process a little the next year, more civilised for everyone!
How was this year for you?
It was a little strange. We had a fallow year in 2018 and wanted to return but the news it would be the last only landed a few weeks before the event, so it certainly changed things a little. It was wonderful to see the sunshine return after 2017. Saturday afternoon was a beautiful thing but we were exhausted for most of August!
Are there any similar festivals out there that may at least partly make up for its loss?
I think it was unique in many ways. We like The Good Life Experience in Hawarden, but that has its own vibe. Maybe Port Eliot will return!
James shouldn’t need an introduction, being one of the artists we represent. He’s been involved with Port Eliot via Hole and Corner in recent years.
How did you first become involved with Port Eliot?
I first went with family and friends in 2017, but became involved creatively this year when I was invited by Hole & Corner to create an installation within their area.
Had you heard of it before you first went?
Yes, friends of mine had been going for a couple of years previously and always said what a great festival it was, in beautiful grounds in Cornwall.
What did you do with Hole & Corner at the festival?
I created four images of flowers in different colour combinations, which were displayed on a large totem-like structure outside in the Hole and Corner area.
Did you also get to experience the festival for yourself?
Yes I did. I went with my wife and children, and lots of friends were there also.
What do you think made it different from other festivals?
The grounds are pretty special, comprising of a country estate with woodlands, a walled garden, the river and an estuary which all makes for amazing scenery. And It hasn’t expanded too much over the years like many other smaller festivals. It has a very tranquil and intimate feel by day, with performances, workshops and talks, but it comes alive at night thanks to parties with great DJ’s happening in the woods into the early hours.
What have been some of the highlights for you over the years?
Well, the Hole and Corner area has established itself as a sort of hub of the festival over the years and the programme of music by Amateurism is always exceptional. But aside from all of the entertainment, one of the best things is sitting down by the river in the sun, taking in the atmosphere and admiring the view.