Curiouser and Curiouser, an adventure in Wonderland

I know I’ve paraphrased Lewis Carroll, but I really could think of no more appropriate heading after spending the weekend at the gorgeous Pylewell Park near Lymington. And there was a man wearing white bunny ears so I rest my case. There was also enough of a whiff of the magical about it, but more of that later. Why here? It was the setting for the inaugural Curious Arts Festival, the home of the Roper-Curzons. A friend was lucky enough to win a pair of tickets through Whitefox and Clare Conville (thank you!). I was also fortunate enough to been the beneficiary of that friend’s generosity. Thank you Sarah.

20140719_155749Pretty nice setting, huh?

We arrived on a fabulous day, and chose to ignore the forecast of thunderstorms and rain, luckily we had booked a pod from Podpads, meaning  that we would be dry and secure. I could stand up inside (I’m 5 foot 3) and I banged my head a few times, but it was a small price to pay. I’m too old to sleep on the ground.

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 Our accommodation for the weekend, aka The Wendy House. See? All very fairytale!

The programme was amazing. The only difficulty was deciding what to do first. Hendrick’s Bar won.  A tent. Entirely devoted to GIN. Imagine the joy.

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I think there are worse places to be sipping this on a Friday afternoon. In the sunshine. Wouldn’t you agree? As well has laying on luscious drinks, there were a number of talks on, you’ve guessed it Gin. And literature…
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The Authors’ XI Cricket match  we missed, purely because we simply had no idea where the cricket pitch actually was, so we decided that the best course of action was to relax, kick back and enjoy the sunshine, whilst sipping gin and perusing the programme. Things may have become a little on the hazy side after that as we immersed ourselves fully in the spirit of the festival. Some might say quite literally! Suffice to say, bonhomie abounded and we met lots of very interesting and (probably) very important people, whilst dancing in the main tent to Eaves, Bear’s Den and Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit.   The rain only materialized once we were safely tucked up in bed and we could watch, it has to be said, spectacular, lightning flashing over the Solent.

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Rain? What rain?

The next day the festival geared up a level ie. we actually made it to some talks. Matt Haig was talking about his wonderful book, The Humans with his editor, Francis Bickmore, publishing director at Canongate and the editor/author relationship gave it that edge, well I think so.  His new book ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ is out in 2015 and Matt spoke frankly about his history of depression and anxiety and how books quite literally ‘saved him’.  For anyone who follows him on Twitter, I’m sad to announce that there are no plans for him to publish his insightful and prescient writing tips (mainly because they are all on Twitter), like this:

The only unfortunate thing about festivals is that you can’t go to everything, so so something’s got to give. At the same time as Matt was talking, we missed out on Nathan Filer, Costa-prizing winning author was in the main tent. You can’t win them all.  We also missed out on seeing Viv Albertine, ex-singer with The Slits, as the programme was altered, which it was wont to do – but schedules do change and that’s understandable. Note to self: keep an ear out for Paul Blezard’s dulcet tones giving witty and refreshing updates, via the medium of megaphone and check the blackboards outside the tent more frequently.

Curious Arts had the air of a big village fete, and I mean this in the best possible way.  Without gazillions of people, and a relatively small site, we kept bumping into those we’d met the night before and swapped notes on who we’d seen.  We got to chat to the authors and performers, make friends with  the charming bar staff and really appreciate our surroundings. It was so lovely and friendly. I was dying for a dog show to be announced at any moment. We also clearly didn’t receive the memo that dog ownership or at least having one with you were compulsory! Undoubtedly, one of the stars of whole festival was this fella:

20140720_123726Dougal. Top Dog.

The resident pooch at Pylewell Park, he made sure everyone knew about it. Strutting around with his tail in the air, at the sound of applause he rushed to the tent in question, with a flurry of barking, he would then do a lap of honour. I don’t believe there was a single guy rope on the whole site that he didn’t mark. Dougal, we salute you. You are Top Dog.

My ‘must see’ was John Niven and Emma Unsworth in conversation with Clare Conville, their agent and one of the masterminds behind Curious Arts Festival. The film of John’s book ‘Kill Your Friends’ is currently in post-production and ‘Straight White Male’, his latest novel has just come out in paperback. Emma’s novel ‘Animals’ is also just out in paperback (f0rgive me if my timings are out but you can buy it NOW).

Clare introduced them, saying that the recurring theme through all of these was ‘bad behaviour’. As Matt Haig had said to me earlier, this was going to be ‘entertaining’. Masturbation featured heavily and also a debate on whether any of the content of their books were suitable for their immediate family members (not really). Also copious swearing.  ‘Twas hilarious. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house (and possibly even seat). And I mean this in a good way.

Here they are being lovely and signing books:

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The wonderfully entertaining John Niven and Emma Jane Unsworth

Evening entertainment provided by Luke Sital-Singh, Ed Harcourt and Joan as Policewoman was phenomenal. Ed came into the audience to serenade us and Joan absolutely rocked the tent. Had a nice chat with Ed Harcourt, as you do, then retired to bed….

IMG_3274 Luke Sital-Singh

20140719_210208 Ed Harcourt

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Joan As Policewoman

Sunday, another even more beautiful day arrived….and if possible this was the most diverse by far, I managed to fit in:

A Gin Anthology talk (thanks Duncan!) which was fascinating. Gin has a lot to answer for.  Gin a spirit to have fun with, unless you were in the 17th Century apparently, which is where it got the name Mother’s Ruin. Fact fans.

A talk on his time-travelling books by Dominic Dibben (think fantasy that adults can enjoy – his reading was particularly gripping) and finally,

Fay Weldon and Roger Clarke in conversation with Rowan Pelling talking about ghosts and the supernatural. BOO!

How eclectic is that?

To round the weekend off, Rae Morris and Nick Mulvey got us all dancing in the main tent. Again.  As Rae commented on the setting, she said ‘I thought I was at Downton Abbey’. Sums it up really. But perhaps Downton Abbey with interesting speakers and great music. And no-one dying in a completely unbelievable fashion, obviously.

20140720_20002920140720_092042Locally-made sausage rolls and pork pies

20140719_145442A drink with a view

20140718_180425Everyone needs a cucumber pot. No? (sorry it’s a bit blurry)

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Some alternative interior design, er, outside

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20140720_094944It was a weekend with an air of fantasy about it. Hendrick’s staff ferried people in sedan chairs, and cycled round delivering the Curious Times.  Wearing tweed and flat caps. Natch. Life drawing took place under the trees. Both children and adults played with a giant chess board. All we needed was the Red Queen….

It  reminded me of the Port Eliot (this weekend!) and Wilderness Festivals, both of which are set in the grounds of beautiful houses and have a similar cultural foundation. However, this one was on a much more intimate scale, which I think you can see from the pictures. And that I loved.

It can only get bigger (and better), but I am very pleased to say I was here at the beginning. See you next year!

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