The West Country is full of folklore. The wild, rugged landscapes of Devon and Cornwall lend themselves to storytelling. The vistas of rolling, verdant hills suggest mystery; the brooks and creeks and rivers and beaches are full of naiads; bleak moorland and soaring cliffs are a natural setting for fables and myths. There isn’t a tree that doesn’t house some spirit or sprite. As in Ireland, Wales and Scotland, every stream and valley has its own tales and traditions. In Combe Martin each May bank holiday, the 600 villagers gather for the Hunting of the Earl of Rone. A four-day festival involving donkey processions and a Falstaffian fool, the custom dates back to medieval May Day games. Helston, in Cornwall, celebrates the incoming summer in a way fit for a Pre-Raphaelite painting. All the girls from the area wear floral frocks and headdresses, and the children don white smocks. Together they dance through the street, banishing darkness and welcoming the new season.
Now there are newer revels; a celebration of summer that draws on the unfettered eccentricity of the area and makes it fresh. The Port Eliot festival encapsulates the spirit of this beautiful, mad corner of England in a bonkers weekend-long celebration of the esoteric, the eclectic and the creative. Since 2003, when the 10th Earl of St Germans decided to throw open his gates, a merry band of movers, shakers and mischief-makers has been welcomed every summer. ‘It was a real moment of inspiration,’ says Cathy, the glamorous Countess of St Germans, the festival’s fairy godmother. A Worcestershire-bred writer, she came of age going to raves off the M25 and daydreaming while reading The Face. Lady St Germans is applauded for re-energ-ising not only the festival but also her husband Peregrine. Before they met in the early 2000s he had been divorced twice and was severely ill with emphysema.
A wander around the festival site is unlike any other experience in the English summer season. For one thing, it is held right in the lee of the house. Port Eliot has a history as long and as rich as Cornwall itself. Originally a priory and first mentioned in the 5th century, it is thought to be the oldest inhabited house in the country. It has served as a refuge for monks, was seized by Charles I’s Court of the Star Chamber; and Napoleon thought it the most beautiful place in England. It was remodelled in the 18th century by Sir John Soane; the resulting building marries imposing crenellations with elegance and grandeur. Parts of the festival even take place within this Grade I-listed pile: cookery demonstrations in the medieval kitchen and science experiments in the circular drawing room are particular highlights.
Outdoors, there is a century-old rhododendron garden, a jasmine-scented orangery and the wide, silty estuary, where swimming under the arched viaduct —preferably smeared in mud — is encouraged. The local church is the oldest in the county, its pews illuminated by light streaming through the Burne-Jones stained-glass windows.
No wonder people come back year after year. Lady St Germans says the best compliment she has ever received is: ‘When’s the next one?’ No one who has participated can fail to be enchanted by the festival’s allure. ‘It’s the best weekend of the year,’ says actor Dominic West, who runs the spelling bee. The writer and broadcaster Marcel Theroux, who organises the literary quiz, credits its appeal to ‘that sense of magical English wonder — a little bit Prospero’s island, a little bit Mad Hatter’s tea party’.
Various grand homes in the area act as satellites, hosting large house parties. The guests surge across for the talks and dancing before retreating to hot baths and feather quilts come Sunday afternoon.
‘There’s always fierce competition to come and stay for that weekend,’ says Tremayne Carew-Pole, a neighbour. It’s not unusual to see marquesses and earls wandering through the trees, alongside writers, artists and a higher-than-average quota of bookish poshos. The clientele is saved from Sloanedom by intellect and humour, but there’s still plenty of long limbs, dishevelled hair and battered Barbours on display.
Of course, the festival wouldn’t be a festival without a huge range of performances and activities. Port Eliot is so laissez-faire that it would be possible to spend an entire weekend not seeing a single talk, wandering from pop-up fashion show to impromptu theatre to off-the-cuff DJ set. En piste, though, the variety is astounding. This year’s line-up features literary stars such as Juliet Nicolson, Ali Smith and Nina Stibbe alongside quirkier names. Bruce Robinson, director of Withnail and I, will discuss his theory about Jack the Ripper; Biba’s Barbara Hulanicki will create ephemeral couture; comedian Noel Fielding presents his watercolour paintings. Food will come courtesy of Mark Hix, Nathan Outlaw and Honey & Co. There will be botanical illustration classes, vintage swimming cap design, herbal first aid and cider tasting.
This may all sound like a Cabbages-and-Roses-Alice-Temperley-Emma-Bridgewater version of English bohemia. But the origins of the festival aren’t quite as straightforward as they may seem. Like all legends, they are shrouded in misty half-truths, memories and battles. Lord St Germans held a festival at Port Eliot in the 1980s called the Elephant Fayre. It ran for five years until 1986 and drew a crowd of grand and intelligent hippies: the first Lady St Germans, Jacquetta, was a lover of Lucian Freud, and the poet Heathcote Williams lived on the estate. The Cure and Siouxie and the Banshees performed; the crowd grew to 30,000.
However, the relaxed spirit meant that all and sundry could party on the St Germans parkland, including New Age travellers. The so-called Peace Convoy descended on the Elephant Fayre, looting local businesses and burning down the oldest tree on the estate. ‘[They] were a nightmare,’ Lord St Germans told the Times in 2011. ‘[It] may have started with idealism but it got very nasty.’ It was the same gang whose raucous behaviour led to the commercialisation of Glastonbury in the late 1980s.
The family, too, has had its share of adversity. The Earl’s eldest son Jago died in his bath after an epileptic fit in 2006, aged 40. And like most large estates, Port Eliot is struggling to pay its way. In 2014 the Duchy of Cornwall purchased 800 acres of land and assorted farmhouses for £4.7 million. Last year the trust was in talks with the St Germans estate to make a bid on the house — the figure of £10 million was floated as an offer Lord St Germans might accept for his ancestral home. The negotiations came to nothing, however, and the good ship Port Eliot sails on.
And there are always new beginnings. Louis Eliot, Lord St Germans’s second son, lives on the estate with Murphy Williams, daughter of the poet Hugo Williams, and they have two small children, who are boon companions to the late Jago’s three nippers. Louis is a musician who performs at the festival; Murphy, who is also a writer, makes marshmallows under the name Cloud Nine, an apt moniker given the new mood of dreamy optimism.
These days, Port Eliot is cause for much local celebration. Lady St Germans admits that the villagers were wary at first — understandably, after the excess of the Elephant Fayre — but now are all very much on-side. ‘The festival is a force for good,’ says Tremayne Carew-Pole. ‘It creates awareness of the area [and] brings new people in. They make a conscious effort to support local businesses, from pubs to the cake-making talents of the local WI.’ Malcolm Bell, chief executive of Visit Cornwall, agrees: ‘It shines a bright, inspirational and awesome spotlight on this spectacular part of the country.’
This, then, is the modern summer pageant. A carnival where whimsy, wackiness and wisdom blend in equal parts to create myths and legends for generations to come.
Port Eliot Festival runs from 28-31 July 2016 at St Germans, south-east Cornwall.
TICKETS & FESTIVAL INFO
Weekend, day, child and family tickets all available. Childrenseven-and-under free.
Camping is available: pitch your own tent or alternatively book a teepee, bell tent, luxury yurt or vintage caravan.
Port Eliot, St Germans, Saltash, Cornwall, PL12 5ND