Lost in among the sleepy English countryside, something wonderful is happening. Green Wedge had front row tickets to Wiltshire’s greatest ever pub gig.
For one glorious day, The Barge Inn – a stately, neat 19th Century pile of a building, home to the local pub in one guise or another since 1810 – plays host to a byzantine collection of London city hipsters, local Honey Street families and the Inn’s regular barflies, all basking in the spring warmth while a succession of A-list pop stars take to the small stage to sing for the pub’s supper.
Headlined by Damien Rice, and featuring sets by Laura Marling and The Magic Numbers, the day-long arts and music festival also included folksters Dry the River, Mathas & Arthurs and Matthew Kilford, plus local battle-of-the-bands winners (judged by, among others, The Magic Numbers’ Romeo Stodart) Slagerij.
But first, why are we here…
In 2010, 25 local pubs per week closed their doors for good, with a loss of 13,000 jobs. Many of these pubs were the beating heart of local communities, the central organ that ebbed and flowed with the pulse of village life; that refreshed the town arteries with the blood of community cohesion.
Together with slow decline of the High Street, the rise and rise of Clonetown UK, and the systematic closure of rural Post Offices across Albion, the small, sleepy England of Constable and Wordsworth is gradually being thrown to the cruel profit-driven political consensus of the age – a consensus that knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.
The Barge Inn, which when a fire in 1858 largely destroyed the original building and preceded what the Devizes & Wiltshire Gazette referred to as a “disgraceful scene. Soon after the fire was extinguished …… the cellars were entered …. And there was nothing but drunkenness and confusion”, faced the same seemingly uncertain future.
However, the local Honeystreet community decided to take up arms and defend their creaking village heart. With a hoary cry of ‘There is Strength In Numbers’ ringing around the village, a handful of brave individuals set about making the Barge Inn a community run enterprise – the Barge Inn Community Project, thereby saving their local from extinction, but also providing an additional vital public service by keeping in one secure location the region’s crop circle enthusiasts (affectionately known as the ‘Croppies’)!
The aim of the Project is to ‘bring back the cooperative spirit of the people, and reenergise the area’. The Project has already hosted cross-genre music events, held said battle-of-the-bands competition with the support of BBC Introducing, started its own comedy club, a local library, and now also including a wonderful canal-side camp site.
Future ambitious plans for the BICP can be found here.
Last year the Project received almost £500,000 from the Big Lottery Fund’s Village SOS programme, securing the lease for the Inn and securing its then uncertain future.
The Village SOS programme also provided a ‘Village Champion’ to take forward the project.
Forward 12 months, and London music fans, Honeystreet villagers and Barge Inn regulars descend on this luscious corner of Wiltshire for the party to celebrate the completion of stage 1 of BICP, and also to launch stage 2, that will secure the future of the Inn at the heart of this vibrant community.
So, sat in the Spring warmth, surrounded by stalls selling locally made cake and jewellery, and making repeated unwise beelines to the launch tent of the suspicious green local beer Alien Abduction, local ska-punk ne-er-do-wells Slagerij kick the day off in suitably upbeat, crowd-pleasing style.
Fellow Wiltshire-dweller Matthew Kilford then rasps through a beguiling bluesy performance, perfectly distilled through a beseeching cover of the Hank Williams classic Calling You
The alt-folk brilliance of recent years, from Wilco to Devandra Banheart, appears to have utterly passed by folkier-than-though oddballs Marthas and Arthurs. So replete are they in their folk-tasticism that the band are accompanied onstage throughout by a bearded man whittling a spoon from a stick. Yes, whittling. It really was that kind of day.
First highlight of the day is Dry the River, a band that waltz the folk as good as any, but have an fine unsettling darkness coursing through their songs that gives their music earthly dimensions that lurk around unlit street corners. Definitely ones to watch.
The day’s second gorgeous moment arrives when, harmonising beautifully with the audience, The Magic Numbers, the perfect summer pop band, launch into the wonderful Neil Young classic Harvest Moon.
The Numbers’ jaunty, sundrenched pop and sunny onstage banter is tailor-made for occasions like this. As the crowd sang back ‘Because I’m still in love with you, I want to see you dance again’, for the first time in the day the sun broke through the clouds.
By contrast, Laura Marling’s equisitally dark tales of love and angst jar against the day’s mood, to the obvious delight of the devoted Marling hordes at the front, as she unveiled three new songs and even took a decent stab at the second Neil Young cover of the day, the haunting Needle and the Damage Done.
It’s left to Damien Rice to wrap things up with a blustery 45 minute set, culminating with a rousing encore that included most of the other bands on the bill, including a joyously worse for wear Dry the River.
Honeyfest may well return for 2012, and welcome plans are afoot to make it an annual event.
But don’t restrict your time here to just one day in April. I heartily suggest you join this writer in supporting the community project by planning a summer camping trip or two to this green part of old England, among the live music, organic local beer and canal-side rehabilitation.
Life here is good.