The Lake District’s number one music festival features Johnny Marr, Primal Scream, British Sea Power – and a rather spectacular setting.
Over the last few years, small-scale boutique festivals and local outdoor music events have been springing up like pop-up tents in the summer (although one would hope they are slightly easier to dismantle). Not all of them can boast the stunning scenery of Kendal Calling which, largely thanks to its location in Lowther Deer Park and commitment to “fun the old fashioned way” is celebrating its eighth event this July. “I grew up in Cumbria and got tired, as did a lot of my mates, of always having to travel to somewhere like Manchester to see gigs I wanted to see, or club nights that weren’t just cheesy rip-offs,” says Ben Robinson, one of the festival organisers. “It was a big event when The Bootleg Beatles came to play,” he ruefully observes. From 2003, Robinson and other like-minded souls worked to revitalise their local music scene by putting on a series of small shows but, as he remembers, “we began to wonder how to draw bigger acts when we had no big venue. Then it occurred to us that we did have a lot of fields, so why not take advantage of the wonderful scenery, put up some big tents and have an outdoor festival?”
In 2006, the year of the first Kendal Calling, “our knowledge of festivals was not huge, just as customers at Glastonbury,” he says. “But looking back, we started at the right time, before the explosion of little festivals.” That two-day music event in Abbot Hall Park in the centre of Kendal starred drum and bass trio Pendulum, fresh from playing at Global Gathering, and Kendal-born British Sea Power. The year after, capacity doubled as the festival moved out of town to Grate Farm and camping was introduced. Grooverider and over 100 other artists, including Dirty Pretty Things and Wild Beasts, performed on several stages.
This is the most fun you can have in the country
But the floodgates broke in 2008 as 4.000 revellers flocked to see Dizzee Rascal, and proved along the way that even some of the worst mud and rain ever recorded wasn’t enough to dampen their spirits. DJ Yoda, who returns for this year’s line-up, christened the newly-introduced Dance Tent with a set he considered “better than Glastonbury”. In 2009, the audience became too big to pack into Grate Farm and the festival controversially upped sticks and moved north to its current site of Lowther Deer Park, a former wildlife park filled with deer (originally a gift from King Henry VIII) and ancient trees.
In the years since, Kendal Calling has stuck to its award-winning formula of pioneering contemporary music and art alongside traditional rural entertainment, garnering not only critical acclaim but a loyal audience – two-thirds of whom hail from across the North West. “We have deliberately kept to a relatively small capacity so you won’t be herded around like cattle or spend hours in queues at the bar,” Robinson says. “People enjoy feeling the freedom of being able to move between the eight performance stages in a matter of minutes. We pride ourselves on being the most fun you can have in the countryside.”
This year’s bill features headliners Primal Scream, Basement Jaxx and The Charlatans, as well as special guests Public Enemy, Seasick Steve and Johnny Marr. Other confirmed acts include Warwickshire nu-folk songstress Lucy Rose and 808 State with a DJ set of classic acid house. Acts perform over fourteen stages, from the Chai Wallah folk tent to the blood-curdling Happy Slap Boutique stage. The Songsmith Solar stage will also be serving locally produced real ale and features a bill of acoustic music. So if you’re eager to don your wellies and head for the Lakes, be warned: last year tickets for Kendal Calling were snapped up seven weeks ahead, and the festival has sold out in each of its seven previous years. Small festivals may be becoming the norm but Kendal Calling is as popular as ever and, as Robinson happily points out, “Even if people seem to be getting bit fatigued with festivals, Kendal Calling’s uniqueness is the Lake District itself which people come from all over the world to experience.”