Wondering about the ways in which a town’s spaces and the activities of its residents might be transformed by a festival inspired me to do some research last summer at Sidmouth Folk Week, down on the UK’s Devon coast. I was particularly interested in looking at the social value of the festival for the locals, including whether it encourages social bonding or social division and whether it helps to build local community spirit, all aspects of social capital.
Although Sidmouth does attract holidaying visitors throughout the year, the numbers are nothing like the tens of thousands who descend on the small town during its August folk week. Virtually every possible space within the town centre, including church halls, rugby and cricket club pitches and pavilions, and the theatre and arts centre, is taken over by the festival so that people can make music, dance and chat. Green spaces see the construction of marquees for concerts, ceilidhs and musical instrument sales; the promenade becomes a medley of craft stalls, buskers and dance displays; while in every pub there is a corner overflowing with fiddle and melodeon players playing tunes together. ‘Everywhere you go there’s music’, commented one interviewee.
I conducted 37 interviews with local people out and about during festival week, asking them how the festival affects their lives. The buzz created by the festival’s conversion of the town’s spaces is approved of by most, with many comparing festival week to the rest of the year: ‘the atmosphere’s lovely, you know it brings the place to life’. Another highlighted the positive ways that the festival changes the town: ‘everything is different, you walk into the hotel and you wouldn’t know it was the same place’. The public gardens, which are free to enter and include a performance stage and food stalls, were a particular gathering point for locals to relax on the grass with their family and friends. Pubs, too, took the opportunity to create stages in their courtyards in order to pull in the punters. These also provided spaces for social interaction, as a local interviewee explained: ‘it’s a good excuse to see people that we wouldn’t normally see from month to month’. Another, in his early thirties, commented: ‘me and most of my friends have moved away and everyone seems to come back at this time of year, so you’ll always bump into people you know who have come back for the same reason, which is really good’.
Not all of the locals are in favour of the festival’s effect on their town, of course, with reports that some who were not keen would go away for the week, perhaps even renting out their houses to the visitors. The problems of parking and crowds were mentioned by others, with one not being keen on the hippy style of some of the festival goers. Others like the increased diversity of the town during folk week, however. There seems to be little bonding between festival visitors and the locals, although some locals take the chance to invite friends from afar to stay so that they can all attend festival events together.
Another noticeable social effect of folk week is the way that it encourages local people to join together for the benefit of the festival and the town. Some become festival volunteers, offering their local knowledge and contacts and pre-festival on-the-spot availability to the festival team, or stewarding alongside the visiting volunteers during the week. Others volunteer for their local sports club or charity, on parking or bar duties for example, to enable the organisation to make the most of the visitors’ spending power. These boosts to finances are then used to maintain club facilities or to enhance charity funds and so provide further social benefit to local people.
The social value of a festival to a town can therefore be high, as I found at Sidmouth. Festivals are certainly about much more than the music and their effects on the locals linger long after the visitors have gone home.