Everything you need to know about Port Eliot Festival*

* if what you need to know is a jumbled collection of the things I did and thought while I was there, excluding all practical and objective details.

Once again, it’s been quite a while. This month’s excuse is that I was very very busy working onsite at Larmer Tree festival where I did Very Important Things like running around with a radio and explaining to large numbers of people how to use a website. It’s a pretty solid excuse for my absence as long as you ignore the fact that the festival only lasted a week…

I’m back from festival-land for now though, and I’ve been taking a well-earned break by going to another festival with Bonnie, my ex-flatmate and the co-star of most of my year abroad posts. The festival in question is Port Eliot, which I’ve mentioned on here before, and of which I was going to do a solid, all-corners-covered review. However, I’m still quite busy what with moving away from Salisbury to an uncertain future this weekend, so it’s going to be a review of the patchy and subjective variety. Enjoy! 


Reunited and fabulous as ever!


Since Port Eliot is located in Darkest Cornwall and many people (ME) don’t even bother looking up public transport options, driving is recommended. If you choose to drive, here are some pitfalls to beware of:

  • Getting lost numerous times and being sucked into the dreaded black hole that is the centre of Exeter
  • Running perilously low on fuel because you’re determined that there will be a cheaper petrol station soon, but then you don’t pass one at all for ages, so you end up freewheeling into a tiny village where Google promised you a garage, and almost crying with relief when said garage turns out to both exist and be open
  • Running out of windscreen washer because you’re too lazy for car maintenance
  • Running out of engine oil because you’re too lazy for car maintenance and don’t take the flashing lights seriously enough

There are, however, advantages to driving for hours along a desolate highway in the far reaches of the South of England. Not least among these is the choice selection of silly place names. A fun game can be had by playing opposites of these, for example…

  • Caton → Catoff
  • Lodiswell → Lodisnotwell
  • Notter Bridge → Tisabridge

Well, it entertained us for three hours anyway.


Camping is the best option unless you have more money than God, in which case you can glamp. If you arrive after dark with a tent you’ve never pitched before, expect it to be less than perfectly erected, no matter how hard you try to get all the corners in the right place.


Our tent. Even after a little tweaking it’s not something I’m proud of.


With numerous delicious options available to you on the festival site, how better to feed yourself than with slightly dodgy leftovers from home? Combined, of course, with occasional guilt-ridden purchases of expensive burgers and other such delicacies. I recommend fresh donuts as the perfect complement to an ambitiously esoteric breakfast of cereal bars and half a tired banana.


This is a festival for the pretentious middle classes, and as such it’s imperative that you perfectly toe the line between “God of Style” and “A Bit Of A Prat”. We achieved this by wearing a sparkly cape (mine) made by CapesCapesCapes, and a giant fur coat (Bonnie’s) known as the Itchy Itchy Bastard. The fur coat gets extra cool-points for attracting the attention of Mitch Benn, who made Bonnie almost die of happiness when he interrupted his performance to say that it “screamed King of the North.”


Port Eliot has an unfeasible number of venues, so there’s an almost frightening array of choice when it comes to shows. But never fear, here’s a carefully curated selection of the absolute best bits (limited, of course, to the small subset of shows I actually saw).


The Park tent hosts an excellent range of comedians who appeal perfectly to Radio-4-listening types such as myself. My highlights were Mitch Benn, Jeremy Hardy, Sara Pascoe and James Acaster; the lowlight was when we accidentally caught the last fifteen minutes of Kernow King, a man whose sole purpose seems to be to reuse the same Cornish in-jokes he made last year without actually making them funny.

Certain similarities cropped up in most of the comedy sets. Firstly, there were many slightly awkward references to the overwhelmingly monotonous demographic of the Port Eliot audience (at least 90% of whom are white, middle-class Guardian readers whose children bear names like Rupert and Andromeda) and secondly, many brief outbursts of rage about Brexit. My favourite of these Brexit condemnations was James Acaster’s mild-mannered comparison between the referendum and a cup of tea, which I won’t reproduce here because I wouldn’t do it justice. He was also my overall favourite of the comedians, with a well-constructed set, excellent delivery and lots of belly laughs.


Literature and so forth

There’s a dizzying array of authors on show, and the complexity of the timetable can make it hard to actually get to the things you want to see. This is especially the case if most of the acts you’ve heard of are on Thursday or Friday, just before you arrive. We did catch a couple of things though…

The guys behind the Ladybird Books for Adults series did a talk which both reassured and worried me by demonstrating that stupid ideas really can take off under the right circumstances. They were broadly likeable and quite entertaining, and succeeded admirably in making me want to buy their books. On the poetry side of things, we didn’t catch as much as I’d have liked, but Henry Normal was a wonderful mixture of niceness and wryness, with an excellent sideline in self-effacing banter.

More memorably, we went to see the ‘legendary’ Bruce Robinson in conversation with Noel Fielding. This might seem like a recipe for cult-classic success, but Bruce had unfortunately imbibed his own body weight in alcohol before the performance. I’ve never seen anyone be so drunk whilst remaining vertical – he was as pissed as a newt that had spent the last week swimming around in the runoff from a distillery whilst downing shots of tequila every five minutes.

IMG_0460.jpgNoel Fielding did an admirable job of trying to hammer a pig’s ear of an evening into something vaguely acceptable, but he really had very little to work with – attempting to draw anything but expletives and vague complaints out of his professed hero was like getting blood out of a stone. Still, it was a performance to remember, and when Robinson apologised in a second talk the next day, the audience generated a priceless combined tut-giggle sound which  I will fondly remember forever.


Some remarkably good music was on offer given that this is technically a literary festival. I didn’t make it to any of bigger names, but NZCA Lines were good, and Bonnie and I danced for many hours to the Black Kat Boppers and the excellent (and adorable) Manière Des Bohémiens. We also followed a very enjoyable roving swing band around, pictured below, and got various compliments on our lindy hop skills. These were entirely earned by Bonnie, who was leading and could actually remember the moves.


Quirky extras

The gardens and house are filled with delightful little extras, such as these TERRIFYING dolls, complete with eerie horror-film soundtrack:


Because nothing says “festival” like a pair of cold, dead glass eyes staring at you from the uncannily realistic depiction of a small naked boy.

Also on display was “Cassandra”, a creepy hologram-robot fortune teller who informed me that I’m about to make a huge decision which will either make or break both my own fortune and that of others around me. No pressure, then..

There was some genuinely lovely decor too, but for some reason this stuff stuck with me more persistently…


The overall picture

The difference between my attitude this year and last year probably says important things about just how much I’ve recovered from Oxforditis. Last year I enraged my companions by insisting on creating a detailed moment-by-moment itinerary and panicking whenever we deviated from it, whereas this year we had a very pleasant time wandering fairly aimlessly from one thing to the next. Despite such a shocking lack of efficiency and despite the fact that the festival is in many ways a caricature of itself, we had a pretty great time. Thanks, Port Eliot!

And now, I’m about to embark on various journeys and still haven’t packed, so rather than proofreading this post properly, I’m going to go and do that. I’ll try and make the gap between posts less than two months next time, so keep your eyes peeled for even more incisive and rounded commentary, delivered in various half-arsed pastiche styles. Bye for now!


One thought on “Everything you need to know about Port Eliot Festival*

  1. hello dear Rowan Great blog on Port Eliot…I was there only a day or 2 before you for the funeral…So sad, but I’m glad I went. Loved your photos and writing…particularly the opposites of names. I have a friend who has just moved to Lodisnotwell! Perhaps you could have done with a car pilot (me) round Exeter, with hindsight! Are you at home? Do give me a call if you have a moment. I’ve just got back from the hut, and 2 glorious swims today. Lots of love Grandma xx


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