A personal reflection
On the first weekend of October each year Tenterden erupts with the musical vibrancy and colourful vitality of its annual Tenterden Folk Festival. The streets are filled with dancing; the halls, church, clubs and pubs become concert and ceilidh venues; and the recreation ground houses marquees for music, dance and a craft fair.
The ancient, picturesque town of Tenterden sits on the edge of the Kentish Weald, overlooking the valley of the River Rother. Formerly a member of the Cinque Ports Confederation and a centre for the woollen industry, it is today part of the Borough of Ashford, with its own Town Council and a broad High Street that is home to many independent traders.
Begun by the Woodchurch Morris Men in 1992 as a Saturday “Day of Dance”, the Festival quickly grew to encompass the entire weekend, and now runs from Thursday evening through to Sunday evening, organised by a dedicated team of volunteers led by Festival Director, Alan Castle. A registered charity since May 1994, the festival aims to:
“Preserve and advance public education and appreciation of traditional and contemporary folk music, song, dance and other related traditions, crafts and folk arts, as part of the living heritage.”
There was, of course, a hiatus in 2020, as the Covid pandemic prevented all such events from taking place, so it was with even greater enthusiasm than usual that Morris dancers, musicians, and folk aficionados from all over the south east and beyond gathered for the 2021 festival.
I arrived on Friday evening, parked my little camper van on the festival campsite – just behind the Kent and East Sussex Railway (KESR) station – and walked up Station Road to find a music session in one of the several pubs along the High Street.
With more forward planning, I could have gone to the English Barn Dance at the Tenterden Club, with The Tonic and caller Fee Lock, or the Friday Evening Acoustic Concert at the Town Hall but, unfortunately, I missed out on both of those, listening to a marvellously spontaneous set of songs and tunes in a bar instead.
Back in my van later that evening, I was serenaded by a pipe player and the hushed voices of other campers – some still valiantly trying to erect their tents in the pitch-black darkness – as I drifted into sleep, gloriously conscious of how overwhelmingly relaxing and “normal” it all seemed.
On Saturday morning, suitably attired in my East Kent Morris kit, I enjoyed two and half hours of dancing before torrential rain and heavy winds forced everyone to find cover in one of the festival’s many indoor venues.
Dancing first outside the craft-ale house, This Ancient Boro, and then outside the Gateway centre at the opposite end of the High Street, I met, talked and danced alongside dancers from various other sides. These included Minden Rose Garland, Woodchurch Morris Men and Huggin & Munnin Border Morris. A full list of dance sides that attended the festival can be found on the festival website.
As the deluge that was to continue for the rest of the day descended, I initially took refuge in the somewhat crowded White Lion, where musicians quickly set up an impromptu music session. As the rain eased a little, I ventured along to the craft fair and music stage at the recreation ground. There I had the pleasure of hearing a great four-piece band from Hastings and the equally talented and entertaining Ashford Folk Community Band, among whom I recognised several old friends.
It rained off the parade
The foul weather meant that the Saturday afternoon parade, which is usually such a highlight of the Tenterden Folk Festival, had to be cancelled. Instead of processing along the High Street, dancers congregated in the craft fair marquee and performed in the wide central aisle between the stalls of local crafters and artists.
In St Mildred’s church, meanwhile, a Sea Shanty concert was underway, and I slipped in to listen for a couple of hours. St Mildred’s was also the venue for two Sunday afternoon concerts. And on Sunday morning its congregation entered into the Folk Festival spirit by incorporating a short performance by London-based a capella folk group Broomdasher into their Harvest Festival celebrations.
Broomdasher then stayed in the church to perform their highly acclaimed show The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady in Song, in which they celebrated in song the life of Country Diary author Edith Holden (1871–1920). I missed this treat, however, as I was performing with Seven Sisters – a Molly Dance side formed in October 2018 as a sister side to Kent’s widely renowned Seven Champions Molly Dancers.
The weather was much brighter and drier on Sunday, and we danced to a large audience outside The White Lion before processing in single-file to the KESR station, where passengers arriving or departing on the steam trains enjoyed the additional entertainment thus provided for them.
Our Sunday dancing companions included the Kitka Bulgarian Folk Dancers (based in Medway), the Morena Slovak Dancers (based in London), and innumerable Morris sides, performing traditional English Folk Dances, from all around the South East.
After lunch, dancing continued on the wide pavement outside the Town Hall, again attracting a large crowd, before a sudden and brief reprise of Saturday’s rainstorm, at about 3.30pm, persuaded us that it was time to stop.
I had actually slipped away a bit earlier in order to attend another concert in the church. This time it was the Yardarm Folk Orchestra, from Essex, playing a range of English folk tunes with their conductor, Malcolm, ably assisted by percussionist Gill in whipping up some audience participation.
Much enjoyed, much missed
The Tenterden Club, across the road from St Mildred’s church, had been my choice of venue for Saturday evening’s entertainment. Because it hosted a concert of songs and music from the wonderful Bob Kenward, Brian Peters, Peter and Barbara Snape, Scolds Bridle and Chris and Steve Wilson.
I’m glad I went to the events that I did. But, looking back through the programme now, I can see that I also missed a lot of excellent performances and workshops. However, that is the beauty of a Folk Festival – there is so much going on, and such a variety of events to choose from, that you can’t possibly do everything!
Now anticipating 2022
The 2021 Tenterden Folk Festival was a tremendous success, thanks to its fantastic team of organisers, the joyful enthusiasm of its participants and, despite the best efforts of our unpredictable British weather.
“The show must go on,” as the song says, and it did. Come rain or shine, Tenterden Folk Festival provides a magnificent final splash of summer colour as we segue inevitably, if somewhat reluctantly, into the autumn and winter months. I’ll be back there in 2022, and I hope you will too.