I once described the Ramsbottom Festival as a “real humdinger“. This came back to haunt me when I spotted the quote on this year’s marketing material. It’s not always a pleasure to have your words rehashed (I have long since drawn a veil over my appearance in Private Eye’s Pseuds’ Corner) but, in this instance, I couldn’t be happier.
As festivals go, you’d be hard pushed to find one in a more attractive setting. Nestled in the foothills of the West Pennines, Ramsbottom is a thriving Victorian market town, home to about 14,000 people. Over three days next weekend, the population will swell to 20,000.
Now in its third year, the Ramsbottom Festival has quickly established itself as a boutique event which attracts big names as well as showcasing local talent. On Friday evening, Manchester band and national favourites I Am Kloot will headline the main stage, followed by Sheffield-born Richard Hawley on Saturday and Ireland’s green goddess Sinead O’Connor on Sunday night. In between, a myriad of artists will be belting out songs old and new, not least folk supergroup The Unthanks, musical duo Public Service Broadcasting and Swedish band, Junip. All of this will take place in the lush surroundings of Ramsbottom Cricket Club, which lies adjacent to the heritage East Lancs Railway (you can arrive in style on a steam train – really).
I suppose I should issue a disclaimer at this juncture and point out that I live in Ramsbottom. When I bought a house here three years back after nearly 15 years in London, I thought I was moving to a sleepy hamlet whose only claim to fame was its incredibly Northern name. Au contraire my friend. Imagine my surprise when I woke to find I was living in a bustling town with a thriving local business group and more bars, cafes and independent shops than you could shake a stick at.
Then the festivals started: the Chocolate Festival, the Wild West Weekend, the Ramsbottom Beer Festival, the World Black Pudding Throwing Championships, the Ramsbottom Music Festival, the 1940s War Weekend and last, but certainly not least, the Ramsbottom Pie Festival. And that’s before you factor in all the wine tastings, Christmas markets, egg rolling, music nights and gastro evenings. God, no wonder I’ve put on a stone.
But I digress. Ahead of next weekend, I met up with the music festival’s organisers. David Agnew is director of The Met in Bury, a local arts charity which runs workshops and more than 200 events a year including theatre, music and comedy. For the past two years, The Met has been the brains behind the Ramsbottom Festival. This year, however, the organisation has joined forces with Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall and its chief executive, Nick Reed. The collaboration promises to ensure that this year’s festival is the best yet.
“We’ve known each other for a few years,” says Reed of Agnew. “Historically we’ve swapped notes and tried to support each other on events. Then David approached me and said, ‘would you like to get involved with the Ramsbottom Festival’? When you’re in a bricks and mortar building, that is very appealing.”
Both Reed and Agnew believe that The Met’s home-grown crowds and those people who visit the Bridgewater share a lot of common ground. “We hope that both audiences are musically adventurous, musically literate and musically intelligent,” says Reed.
Although the Ramsbottom Festival is a mere babe compared to the behemoths of Glastonbury, Latitude and Bestival, its attractive riverside town locale, family-friendly activities, local food stalls and specially-brewed beer have combined to make it a fully fledged member of the summer festival circuit. But there are no plans to mutate into the likes of V Festival in terms of scale.
“We are not trying to compete with other festivals for size,” says Reed. “But we can compete with the uniqueness of the location.”
Agnew adds: “The festival did expand last year and it is growing. We are allowing for around 2,000 people each day. The idea is that there is a mixed programme and people have new experiences and take risks and see new things.”
As a veteran of the Ramsbottom Festival, I can attest that its programme has been consistently inventive: a juxtaposition of crowd-pleasers, regional stars and up-and-comers. The only unwelcome guest is the rain.
Thankfully, the Ramsbottom cricket pitch is amazingly well-maintained and the festival organisers are poised and prepared for downpours (nothing, but nothing, can compare to the deluges at Green Man in the Brecon Beacons – I swear I had trench-foot in 2007). And, as Stuart Maconie once memorably advised: “Buy a cagoule.”
But the rain is really neither here nor there (and there’s always a handy tent, club house or local hostelry in which to take shelter). The very fact that a festival of this quality is taking place in a small Northern town is something to write home about.
“It’s really important to be at a festival and feel that you are in Ramsbottom and for it to be a Lancashire/Greater Manchester event,” says Agnew. “It’s important that we contribute economically as much as culturally to the area.
“People see it and see that this is a credible boutique festival. But it’s not just a festival for a festival’s sake. This is going to be amazing.”
There can’t be many festivals where the noise pollution consists of an occasional toot from a steam train. Nor a plethora of gigs where the bands’ backstage area is a green and white stripey clubhouse dating back to 1845.
“We are fortunate to have a wonderful setting that we don’t need to do a lot to,” reflects Agnew. “When you’re at the festival and you stand up, you can see Peel Tower and the trees are all backlit. It’s a beautiful place.”
By Helen Nugent
Main image by Andrew Allcock
What: Ramsbottom Festival
Where: Ramsbottom Cricket Club, Ramsbottom, Lancashire
When: September 13 – September 15, 2013
More info: www.ramsbottomfestival.com