Books, beats and Pimms
Port Eliot Festival 2012

Port Eliot, the castellated pied-à-terre of Cornwall’s Earl of St Germans, has served as the site of a festival since the early eighties. This boutique event – which relaunched in 2003, after the end of the now legendary Elephant Fayre - boasts “the brains of a literary festival and the soul of a music festival.”

The grounds are epic, tumbling from the country house down to a river over which a Brunel viaduct carries the hourly train from Penzance to Paddington. The 5,000 attendees are a bizarre blend of Brighton hipsters, old Etonians and the chattering classes. They lap up cheffy tales from Angela Hartnett, actor Dominic West’s anecdotes of paragliding in India, the schoolboy enthusiasm of the Cloud Appreciation Society’s Gavin Pretor-Pinney and Jessica Hynes’ screenplay centred around the arrival of electrickery in an early twentieth century Women’s Institute. Yoga features on the schedule, as is an early morning, teeth chattering bout of wild swimming, but it’s the music stages we’re here for.

The smattering of venues are dominated by folk and polite indie with The Bees, Stornaway and hot Heavenly signing TOY all drawing the crowds. Elsewhere the HG2 Cocktail Bar and Boogie Round throw a late night musical bone to elderly ravers, who ditch their posh prams and leave the children with the nanny in order to get quietly wasted in the small hours with the equally aged Brandon Block.

It’s on the periphery, literary and figuratively, that the site comes to life. There’s plenty of room on the estate to discover secret spaces, the grounds littered with the out-of-the-ordinary – whether Jonny Trunk’s Sunday morning DJ Set or Dr. Bramwell’s Odditorium, reached through a door in a hedge, providing a genuinely bizarre wonderland away from the more contrived theatrics. Heavenly Records’ countryside pursuits division Caught by the River boasted talks from ex-Domino man Richard King, and a slew of great sets from Crybaby, Jonny Trunk and The Memory Band. A charming set of pastoral electronica from Ninja Tune’s Grasscut set the stage for Beth Orton, the busiest gig by far, where hundreds crammed in for new material from ‘Sugaring Season’, her first album for six years, due in October. Her voice faltered a little at first, before she caught a breath, sipped tea from a mug and explained that this first public outing of the songs was “nerve wracking.” Acoustic, personal and intimate, with no faff or fuss, Orton was mesmerizing; great songs in a magical location, representing the best of what boutique festivals can be.

As befits its aristocratic patronage, Port Eliot feels a little like an event out of time. The site itself may be all Enid Blyton with walled gardens populated by fashionistas and its rhododendron drizzled riverside, though the benefits of these gentrified classes frequenting the festival are legion. The food stalls are fantastic, the loos clean and there are few queues at the plentiful bars – for Sipsmith gin, Pimms and real ale, naturally. The campsite far exceeds Clash’s previous understanding of glamping with its parade of posh sharabangs; littered with Airstreams and an array of Gypsy caravans. Even those slumming it under regular canvas are lifted from an Aga saga. Ever seen a Le Creuset pot being used for festival breakfast? We have now.

Words by Kingsley Marshall
Photo by Michael Bowles

Click here for a photo gallery of the festival.

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