Highbridge Podcast Episode 4-The Highbridge Festival
If you're like me, you have heard about the Highbridge festival, and like me maybe you've always wondered, what's it all about? So we'll be finding out more from Mary Lawrence in this edition.
You're listening to the Highbridge podcast celebrating the people, places and history of the Highbridge area in such small
Mell T 0:18
this season is funded by seed which is a consortium of community organizations in sedgemoor comprising of Bridgewater senior citizens forum Bridgewater Town Council, Community Council for Somerset homes in central Somerset film, and young Somerset, which is funded and supported by Arts Council England, creative people in places lottery funding, and the Arts Council. Once again, welcome along to another edition of the hybrid podcast. We'll be talking to Mary Lawrence, who's one of the secretaries at the Highbridge festival. If you're like me, you hear about the Highbridge festival. And maybe you've always wondered, what's it all about? So we'll be find out more from Mary Lawrence in this edition.
Joining me now is Mary Lawrence. Now, Mary Lawrence is one of the group that put together the Highbridge Festival, which I keep hearing about. So I need to find out more and I'm sure the listeners want to know, what is the Highbridge festival?
Well, the Highbridge festival is not the Glastonbury Festival. They've borrowed the word from us really, because we were here long before the Glastonbury Festival. It's an event where people of all ages, from tiny tots to oh 80 or 90 year old sometimes come to saying recite poems play instruments, act in a play. Do all manner of Performing Arts. Think of it as an equivalent to a Welsh eisteddfod. But with with more aspects, I suppose more areas of expertise. So it includes anything performance related, let's say it is competitive, although the music section is very much less so now. I'll say a bit more about that later on. But there is an adjudicator who comes.
When I used to take part as a child, the adjudicator was quite strict, and it was terribly formal. Whereas now, all the adjudicators are very kind, they will say very positive things and they'll give they will give marks, but much more they will praise you say how brave you are for getting on the stage. give you advice about what you did. There are certificates for everybody who takes part. And metals for most people in the Music Section. The dance don't quite get so many medals, because there are more people in the class but lots of medals and we usually give out stickers and sweets and things to the younger people as well. So it's it's really a lot of fun. Now, it used to be, I suppose more educational, more competitive, but now we provide a platform so that people can come and display their wares show off their talents. So you mentioned you used to enter yourself when you were younger. Well, everybody did.
It was quite, quite new. And I was young because I'm old now. All the schools used to get involved. I think I was entered first when I was four when I was first at school and I did a little recitation. But loads of us did. It wasn't we weren't anything special. All the schools used to send people to perform. They used to be school choirs. Individuals that music teachers used to send all their pupils. Everything used to happen. And the audiences were huge. They were full to capacity, I suppose friends and relations of the people who took part, but also the locals were all very supportive. And I expect in those days there was probably a little less entertainment generally than there is now so yes, it was always very, very well attended very popular.
Mell T 4:26
So why was it chosen to be in Highbridge, because Highbridge was so big and busy?
Well Highbridge was a real hub. Of course it had the the cattle market, and it was the best cattle market in the west country. People would come from all the counties around to come to Highbridge every Monday it was no good phoning a farmer on a Monday because they wouldn't be there. They would all be at the market. And we had quite a big town hall and the town hall was buzzing during the festival. And there were lots of banks and shops
and places to go and pubs, of course, loads of pubs for the farmers. And yeah, it was a real buzzing town, come up pick up on the actual capital market.
Mell T 5:13
What was it like? Did you you used to go?
oh, I would be there. I can't say every week because a lot of the time I'd be at school, but certainly, during the holidays, I'd come to the cattle cattle market with my dad. Very, very busy. If you would be walking along the A38. Even two or three miles away, you would hear animals baaing and mooing and braying. Because they'd all be in their, in their trailers and their cattle lorries on their way to Highbridge market. As a small child, I would only see lots of people's knees, I suppose. And I'd have to be lifted up and sat on the rails to watch the auctioneer and listen to the auctioneer doing his thing. And the smell I mean, you can imagine it was a real strong farm smell. And all the farmers smoked. Then when I went in later years, none of the farmers smoked. It was quite change really
Mell T 6:13
Taking us back to the festival. So how did it all come about? What was it was it a group of local musicians or artists or
Well, this is slightly before my time, not a huge a lot before my time, I have to say. It started in 1948 as the Highbridge festival. It was held at the town hall, as I mentioned just now. And it was just one afternoon of music. And gradually it developed and grew. were affiliated to a thing called Biff, which is British International Federation of Festivals, the patron of which is Her Majesty the Queen.And that evolved, Biff evolved from an association which emerged in the late 1800s.
People like Elgar and Holst, Adrienne bolt, people would have heard of Armstrong, Gibbs the composer, they all got together and decided there should be something where all these budding musicians could, could gather and, and do something in a big way. So that's how it all started. And then Biff developed and gradually got better known throughout the country. I suppose some of our more musical people in Highbridge got to know about it and formed the Highbridge festival. And we have the people that we have to judge, they are all kind of affiliated with this federation of festivals. So we have to have the proper people to do it. You know, we can't just get Joe Bloggs down the road saying well, that was a nice one, wasn't it? We must be one of the longest-running festivals I should think in the country.
Because we haven't had a gap at all since 1948, when it started, except last year, which was COVID. And that was really sad. Because there are people in the area who have been involved with it from the very beginning having taken part when they were little and gone on to enter pupils and children and grandchildren of their own. So I think they were terribly sad that we had to miss last year, but there was no way nobody did anything last year. So how did it all run?
Mell T 8:40
How did how did people enter? Or is there a sort of a sort of is there a process that they go through?
Yes, it's quite a complicated process let me try to explain what happens. We're all volunteers, all of us. We have a management committee. So there's a chair and a general secretary. And there's a secretary for each of the disciplines. So I'm the music secretary. We have a dance secretary, we have a drama secretary.
And we put together a program what we put together first of all, a syllabus, which we try to get out to everybody, everybody who could do anything. It's open to absolutely everybody. So we send it out to schools. Well, actually we email it out now with for the last few years we've gone online. We send it to music teachers, dance schools, amateur dramatics societies, obviously people that we've had in the past friends of ours who have budding somethings as children, dancers, musicians, whatever. We just send it out to absolutely everybody. And then there's an entry form and it costs something to enter depending on the age group and what you're entering, but it's something like,
So like £3 for a little one to enter a solo, going up to about £10 for a group or something. I'm thinking of music now I'm not quite sure about the dance entries, and drama but that's the sort of scheme of things. So it's not huge amounts to enter. Although of course, some people like to enter 2, 3, 4, 5 classes, they can enter in, you know, modern class or a classical or all sorts of different things they can enter and then we, we get all the entries back in. And then we, we set to work and program it, which is sounds very easy, but it's quite a long process. So that's, that's our job as sort of Secretary of each discipline. However, we do have a much wider committee, again, all are volunteers. Sure, there are probably about 50 of us. And we need all those people because they come along, during the two weeks of the festival, there are loads and loads of jobs to do, from ushering people backstage, if you've got a lot of dancers or something, they've got to know the order and where they're supposed to be and what where they're supposed to change and everything.
Dealing with backing tracks for them to dance to announcing we need an announcer to tell the audience what's going on. We need people sitting at the door to stop people barging in and out when they shouldn't and showing people where they should be going next. We've got First Aiders. We've got people selling tickets at the door checking wristbands, people making teas providing lovely cakes, we have lovely cakes at the festival, people keeping records of everything that goes on. And it's it's a really very busy two weeks. But actually people see that what they don't see is the very busy year, it never stops. By the end of the two weeks, we're already booking our adjudicator for two years in advance, sometimes three years in advance. Because they're in great demand. They're not only adjudicators they do ABRSM examinations for music and dance and things like that they you know, so they're always very, and the good ones, of course, are always in much more demand, and we want the good ones.
So then, after the festival, we have a post festival meeting to assess what went well and what perhaps not so well.And all of that is taken on board, so that we know how to improve next year. So since 1948, hopefully, we've been improving all the way through, I don't know that we have actually but we do try to improve as we go along. So then after the festival, and we've done all the washing up, so to speak, we book the venues for next year, stock up on the medales, track down all the owners of the lost property that's been left behind countless little jobs. And we're trying to think about innovation all the time. So for example,
The dance classes a few years ago, introduced things like hip hop, which I know okay is old hat. Now I'm sure they've got new things that I haven't heard about yet. But always the new things are coming along. We want to keep up with what what the teachers are doing and trying to keep the interest of everybody. We're really lucky to have a brilliant general secretary. She keeps her eye on the ball. And she reminds us throughout the year, when there are things to do because they're generally are every couple of months, there are more things to do. We have a brilliant treasurer who doubles up as our tech man and puts us right when we mess up our spreadsheets.
It's a lot of work organising some two and a half thousand classes, which is what we what we have in the festival. But it's really very rewarding. And I think if you ask any of our volunteers, they will say, Wow, by the end of it, we're pretty knackered, but should I say that? But it's great fun. They all enjoy watching the performances. You know, you see these tiny little tops on the stage and you think are and then you see grown ups and you think oh, because they're all They're all just as appealing that there's something about every performance that you think oh, wow, look at that.
Mell T 14:47
So you mentioned the festival originally was just one day.
Mell T 14:51
one afternoon so what is it now?
It's 13 days,
Mell T 14:57
Thats some organisation
It is. It's not 13 days this year, sadly, because a lot of our participants that we would have had last year have gone off to university or moved away. I mean, each year we're building up, we're losing people, and we're building up new ones. Whereas last year, we lost them. But obviously no opportunity to build up the new ones.
One or two of our teachers sadly have moved away. And so we've lost their pupils, some of their pupils, quite a few of the pupils now will be total beginners, or slightly older, like 15, 16 year olds, because we kind of missed out that middle group somehow, by missing out that year of festival. But we'll get back there, we will get back there.
Mell T 15:48
So you're talking about them as pupils. So do you look at them as as it's a learning experience?
Yes, I've got I've got too many hats, I suppose. Because some of the time I'm speaking as a teacher. So I'm thinking of them as my pupils.
So yes, I mean, you can enter yourself. I have another friend who comes along and she writes little poems and plays and things like that. And she comes along and performs those. So anybody, absolutely anybody can enter. But yes, it is educational. It's entertaining. There is something for everybody. Can I say something about how the well, how the classes have developed a bit more, because we've had to evolve a lot in the 21st century, things have moved along very rapidly as far as performing arts were concerned.
In the old days, I expect year after year after year, there would be a Beethoven sonata class, I know there was because I took part in one or two of them. So you get 20 or 30 participants in a Beethoven sonata class. And then you get a modern in inverted commas, which would be something like Debussy,
Which to us is not modern anymore. For music. The I've changed lots of the classes into classes that people want to enter. I asked for teachers, what are you doing? I asked the schools, what are the children doing? And then I put classes in hopefully that will that they will want to enter. So we've had rock groups. We've had brass bands, silver bands. We've had an African style drumming group. We've had orchestras, school orchestras, adult orchestras, orchestras made up from classroom instruments. We've had solos, obviously, lots of singers, lots of pianists, violin players, things like that. But we've had harps, we've had handbells, we've had harmonicas. And this year, we have our first bagpipes.
So you know, it's it's all sorts of things that we that we've introduced over the years, which way back then nobody would have thought of even providing a class Oh, no, this is not for us, you know, it would be much more or what if you can't play classical Sonata don't bother coming. But now it's, you know, yes. Come show us what you can do. It's just very exciting. And we were saying about being educational. It is very educational because we not only do we get the hints from the adjudicator, but people learn from each other. For the music, particularly, it's much more a celebration of music, where everybody can come use our stage as a platform for for their talents, show everybody what they can do. And they obviously learn from each other learn from the adjudicator. Learn from people in the audience who say, Well, I like that bit that you did so-on-so and so-and-so. There's, there's a lot of buzz about it now which you used to not have it. It was people sitting like in a doctor surgery listening politely. Whereas now there's, there's none of that. It's all very exciting, and very, very diverse. It's a great experience for all concerned. The children love it. They work really hard to get their pieces up to standard. They like the certificates. They like the stickers. They like the sweets, if I remember to get some, and they obviously like the medals. They like the fact that the adjudicator tells them how great they were.
But strangely, perhaps I see the best progress after the festival. And I found that strange at first but thinking about it, maybe, maybe, maybe not so much. I think it's inspiring for them. I think they listened to the others and think, I think I could do that. I think if I worked a bit harder, or Ha, I can do better than that, Oh, I did better than that, you know, there's all this, you know, tooing and froing. If they hear other people, they respond, and they certainly respond to praise. So we can really cash in on this spate of enthusiasm and determination, because they bounce in the lessons after the festival are so exciting. They bounce into their lessons, they talk about it. And they say, I heard so and so play that, can I learn that one? You know, so it is an inspiration.
So what about the future? Have you got ideas? Or are they already in preparation, and you're already ahead of the ball? We have to be ahead ahead of the game. Really, we have to think in advance. Although I suppose things come along unexpectedly. I do don't tell anybody. But I always take late entries in the Music Section.
Well, even as a teacher myself, I've had new pupils this term, who started like three weeks ago, and I say, Come on, let's do the festival. Well, I'm far too late to enter them. But I pencil them in and they go along and play something and and it's, it's a great start for them. And in the same way, new styles come along. And you think, Ah, I wish I had to put that in the festival this year. Nevermind, make a note for the for next year, we'll put it in next year. And say you're all in all through the year, you're thinking, Oh, perhaps we could do this, perhaps we could do that. Yeah, you have to be you have to be ahead of the game. Really,
Mell T 22:02
So if people want to find out more or want to even enter or into their friends or their family. What's the best way to actually make the application?
There's a website, which is Highbridgefestival.org.uk You can get or you can find out all about us, you can find out about the history as well, because I haven't said much about that. I could I could spout on for quite a long time about how it all developed. But it's all there. If you look it up, it's all there all look up the Biff and you can find out lots in fact, they've got a wonderful timeline going right back to the late 1800s, which they've just brought out. And that's definitely worth looking at.
You can't get an application form now I'm afraid because the entries have closed. But you can certainly find out all the results on the website, we put those on. Claire is brilliant. She puts them on every day. So you once you've won a class or something, you can go online and say look, there I am proof I got the gold medal, whatever it is.
Mell T 23:04
And what about people that want to come along and see the festival?
Oh, now they should you see it's, it's £2 for a whole day's entertainment. You can duck in and duck out you don't have to sit there all day, you can pop in and see that bits you want and go out for a walk around the lovely Highbridge. But for £2 for a day's live entertainment. I don't know what people are thinking or if they don't come. It's really fantastic. It's just so worth well, worthwhile coming, I always say is better than the telly because because
Mell T 23:42
it's not very difficult nowadays
I would rather sit there and watch that than sit there and watch the telly. I'd rather watch that than Strictly Come Dancing. You know, it's just fantastic. I'd like to give a shout out for a few people really no not named people. But for the for the people who take part. First of all, because it takes a lot of courage to get up onto a stage and do something. The children mostly cope with it. Because the teacher says you're going to do that and they say oh, Am I alright then. And they do it. And then they find they love doing it. And then next year they'll say am I going to do the festival this year.
However, ask any adult who has learned as an adult and then tries to perform at the festival, it or anywhere even in front of two friends. It is terrifying. And I can't tell you how terrifying. It might be the most confident public speaker or the most brilliant academic or sports person, the most outgoing the most intelligent person but put them on a stage to play a 90 second piece that they've been practicing for six months, and suddenly there are jelly, they will sweat, their palms will sweat, the knees will wobble. And the parents who watch their children play should try it for themselves, one or two of my parents have, and they will be able to tell you how terrifying it is. And if you've heard Ed Balls talk about his experience of learning the piano. He said, it's the most terrifying thing he's ever done to play in public. more terrifying than speaking in front of 2000 people, mountain climbing mountains are all these strange things that he seems to do. Now, he said, that was the most terrifying thing that he's ever done.
I'd also like to give a shout out to the brilliant parents who go the extra mile to encourage their children in the arts. It's not the school's fault. It's the government's fault. Schools are not providing nearly enough access, or support for music, dance drama. And these subjects do more for real education than all the academic subjects. All the research proves that music affects the synapses in the brain. And that improves the ability to reason to coordinate, it helps to link up all the various areas of the brain. And without exception, there's an improvement in mental and physical development, and also and academic development. And also in confidence, and sociability and cooperation with others. I think we should all be flying the flag for the Performing Arts. And the festival is a great annual meeting of minds, and a celebration of all the things that all the great things that people have done. And without the backup of the parents, this wouldn't be happening because the schools are becoming there are fewer and fewer schools coming now and a lot more independent groups and individuals that either enter themselves or the parents or the teachers, private teachers. enter. So I mean, good for them is what I say.
Mell T 27:19
Thank you very much, Mary, I should look forward to coming along. Do you want to squeeze something on the last thing that you want to mention?
We've got amazing talent here. And people come from all over the place. We've got people this year from Bristol, Gloucester, Wales, Devon, and even further afield. And so we get the chance to enjoy a huge range of really professional acts. As I said before, when I was small, the audience was full to capacity. And we are trying to improve our audience numbers, but unless people are involved in some way, they don't seem to think that it's something for them. On the contrary, there is something for everyone. Just come along, I mean, fork out the £2, just do it honestly. Just pop in and out during the day for your two pound wristband. You'll come again next year. It really is a fantastic experience. And as I said before, better than the telly.
Mell T 28:21
Thank you very much Mary.
You're very welcome. And it's an honor to be able to talk about it.
The Highbridge podcast available on many popular podcast directories distributed as the Hybridge podcast on Apple, iTunes, Spotify, podcast, Google, Amazon music, and tune in.com. He can also be found at sedgemoor media.com and he's hosted and found at Hybridge podcast.transistor.fm. Also available on your smart speakers. Just say the weight words and the speaker and say clearly, play the Highbridge podcast
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