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FESTIVAL AT THE EDGE - Whitchurch, Shropshire - 28-30 July

Volume 2 - FatE Accompli!

I want to tell you a story of a summer weekend, of men and women, of animals and deities, of musicians and dancers and heroes and folk. Once upon a time? Not quite, but I’ll explain.

There is a field by a lake. The lake wasn’t always there, but a hole was dug to make a road, and the hole filled with water, and nature filled it with birds, fish, all kinds of wildlife. People called it Alderford Lake.

The road, meanwhile, brought travellers, and they brought with them tales from places near and afar, as is their way. They passed the lake, and some thought it a good place to gather by and share stories.

So, the venue for this typically damp British summer weekend is Alderford Lake, near Whitchurch in Shropshire. The event is FatE, which stands for Festival at the Edge - the Edge referring to Wenlock Edge in South Shropshire, the festival’s former home for 25 years - and this is a folk festival with a slightly different focus. Yes, there’s music, and morris, an area for children’s events, ale and session tent, and food and craft stalls. But this festival’s overriding theme is storytelling, where everyone can be a player, every player can have many voices, and every voice has a tale to tell.

Opening the festival, there was a ceremony by the lake at dusk: larger than life paper lantern puppets spoke their welcomes from an alleyway of flaming torchlight, while we were serenaded by the Swan Boat Band, from a small boat afloat on the lake. From there, the crowd dispersed to their venue of choice, mine being the music marquee, where Nick Hennessey was animatedly telling (anima-telling?) an epic tale of maiden-and-prince-tricks-hungry-troll, interwoven with atmospheric musical accompaniment and scanda-trollspeak from festival circuit stalwarts, Vicki Swan and Jonny Dyer.

There are four major venues in the festival: a green and a red marquee for storytelling, a silver one for music, and a big striped circus-style tent for more child-orientated pastimes. Most of the weekend’s activity was set around the Village Square field, which was free to enter, so visitors to the lake could get involved with arts and crafts, wandering performers, traders, and the dance area where local morris sides, Ironmen and Severn Gilders, performed over the weekend.

Performances in the marquees were quite varied, with storytellers from many corners of the world and, of course, too many to hope to catch them all. Of the voices heard several times over the weekend, notables include Glasgow’s Dougie Mackay with a varied selection of drum-accompanied tales from Celtic myth and history, Michael Harvey who was retelling some of Britain’s lesser known ancient epics, and Xanthe Gresham with her quirky tales of goddesses and heroes (and some incredible on-stage costume changes).

If this seems a little run-of-the-mill, FatE has more than a few surprises under its canvasses. Sarah Rundle and her Forest of Chance Encounters gave us a series of short but interwoven anecdotes from a societal cross-section of voices, whereas Belgian Tom Van Outryve somehow overcame any language barrier to tell a bizarre and hilarious tale of modern-day dating using gestures, air guitar and hardly any spoken words! One of the more delightful hidden moments was a late-night ‘candlelit’ session, where Ana Lines told stories of magic, statues and perfection, alternated with guests’ music, lit only by small bright globes of LEDs.

There was a warning of nudity with one event, booked for late on Saturday evening. I went along, warily. On stage, a strangely familiar kilted man, a plinth, a vase and a… hat? Tim Dalling? New Rope String Band? This was Tim’s Aye, Coyote project, a surreal chop-and-change tale of art college and brotherhood over several decades, and the creation of some artwork, to be recreated live on stage. No performer was injured for this art, but not for want of trying...

Over in the silver tent, music and storytelling overlap, along with the usual smattering of workshops. The variety of music is such that it should appeal to most folkie tastes. You could have caught single performances from Welsh trio ALAW, the Jim Causley Trio, Ninebarrow and the tent-packing collective, Coven. There were also multiple performances from weekend residents more in keeping with the storytelling theme, such as the haunting songs of Yorkshire countryside and maritime life from Anna Shannon, Green Diesel’s Kentish folk-rock fables, and a veritable smörgåsbord of offerings from Vicki Swan and Jonny Dyer.

One of the organisers of the festival is BBC Radio Shropshire’s folk music presenter, Genevieve Tudor, who was involved with FatE at the beginning, and for most of its existence. Given her connections, she nowadays focuses mostly on booking the musical artists. “We thought we’d like to run a storytelling festival because we didn’t know of any others, and we thought it might be fun,” she explains, about how the original idea came about 26 years ago. “I think we can say we were the first storytelling festival in Britain, but we were never going to be big. We’re a boutique festival, and there’s a niche for us. Who is there who doesn’t enjoy hearing a good story?”

To explain why music was included in the festival’s fibre, perhaps the idea echoes that seen advertised by a local man-crèche (better known as a pub), that partners may want to do different things. As Genevieve explains: “We like having folk music as well, because sometimes partners will come along and want to dance or listen to music, and it seems to work well together.”

At 26 years old, FatE is possibly the UK’s first and longest running annual storytelling festival, coming from a modest start in a barn with more storytellers than punters, and it grew with the help of enthusiastic supporters over the years. Despite moving to a new venue this year, and the inevitable teething troubles that brings, there seems to be sufficient momentum to continue, so expect to see another chapter in Volume 2 of the story of this uniquely sublime festival.

Andy Piper