A quality weekend music festival within easy reach from various points of the North East seemed too good to miss. Everything looked perfect – proximity combined with an excellent line-up on three stages over a three-day period was enticing. The re-location of Northern Kin to the stunning setting of Ushaw House (a former Catholic seminary) perched on a hill on the outskirts of Durham City a few years ago had catapulted the festival to new heights, both geographically and metaphorically.
Expectations were high.
Various camping options were on offer this year, but we decided to return home each night, travelling the few miles to a hot bath and warm bed. As it turned out we made the right decision.
Queues and stress
Driving the few miles to the festival site it soon became apparent that the best laid plans were hugely inadequate. Queues of vehicles through neighbouring villages created long tailbacks with traffic snarl-ups preventing local inhabitants from going about their business. We had a date with the Scottish folk band Shooglenifty and, like many others, parked up on one of the approach roads and walked the rest of the way only to encounter huge queues of fellow festival-goers waiting in a muddy field to enter the main area.
It was totally unclear which of the queues we should join with our ticket printouts. We could only see signs for the purchase of day-tickets but we needed wristbands and a bag check. People moved between queues as uncertain as we were, waiting to be let in. The first act appeared to have been cancelled but there was very little information about anything either in email communication or on site. We were eventually admitted just in time to see Shooglenifty play their first number.
Festivals are magical spaces inviting us to cross thresholds in space and time to a lighter, brighter world. No lighting lit our way and no lights warmed our boundary. The snarling of the hourly-paid security staff, unskilled in mediation and manners, upped the ante and antagonised rather than placated the punters, many of whom had travelled miles from other parts of the country.
Shooglenifty’s fast-paced set was followed by a mesmerising performance from the legendary Jethro Tull with front-man and flautist Ian Anderson displaying an extraordinary musical athleticism for someone even half his 75 years. On the second stage the current iteration of 70s glam-rock boy-band The Sweet ramped up the guitars playing anthemic old favourites like Ballroom Blitz. In-between numbers lead guitarist Andy Scott used his platform to rant about the disaster of Brexit for the music industry urging the audience to continue supporting live music.
Saturday’s programme was exceptional with a powerful set from Tom Robinson who led the crowd in glorious chanting of 2, 4, 6, 8 Motorway, Power to the People and his signature song, Glad To Be Gay which was banned by the BBC when it was first released in the late 1970s. There was a sweet irony in the fact that this spectacle was occurring in the grounds of a former training institution for priests. Meanwhile Robinson has become a regular host on BBC Radio 6 Music along with other LGBTIAQ+ musos such as Ezra Furman, Amy Lame, Christine and the Queens. and others.
Other notable performances came from Tanita Tikaram, Hot House Flowers, Ferocious Dog, Seth Lakeman, The Levellers, Turin Brakes and North East stalwarts Lindisfarne.
Multi-instrumentalist and comedian, Bill Bailey, played a too-short set. With gags drawn from heckled interaction with the crowd, his brilliant ragtime improvisations and previously unappreciated musical talents left us wanting so much more.
A beautiful set from Edwina Hayes in the Acoustic Tent opened with ‘Speed Of Loneliness’, a song covered so well by Nanci Griffith, who Edwina toured with in 2010. Gracious in her relationship with the small crowd for whom she sang requests, she noted her appreciation for the quality of the sound system and thanked by name individuals who worked behind the scenes to support the festival musicians.
Planning and health and safety
There were clearly fewer people on Sunday with many giving up on the mud to make an early getaway and others abandoning vehicles, to collect them when it’s all over. Others were later seen bartering with local farmers, bidding cash for tractor tows off the field. Contingency planning was sadly lacking. Rain can be prepped for and the one thing that would have made a huge difference this weekend would have been straw laid on the ground at frequent intervals.
Health and Safety was a major concern. There was no signage, not anywhere, of what’s on or where to go. There was no team of friendly stewards managing spaces, only a cut-price security outfit with limited social skills checking for liquids.
Saturday afternoon, between acts, a stage-hand asked for a doctor to attend an emergency and the music switched off leaving an eerie silence. On Sunday afternoon a man lay on the floor at the foot of the main stage whilst Turin Brakes played on. Where was St John’s Ambulance? It is possible that the organisers have failed to meet legal safety requirements.
Disability access was non-existent. Walking or wading through ankle-deep mud, tractor-rutted in places, to the entrance on the furthest corner from the road, was impossible for wheelchairs and a nightmare for people with mobility issues.
Our friend in stroke recovery, and a huge music lover, braced himself in determination and was supported by us to move around the site. No-one was monitoring the use of the accessible seating platform in the main arena and there were some people there, not carers, who clearly had no mobility issues.
An Accessibility Officer on the organising body with knowledge of disability, equality and anti-discrimination law, would ensure a separate entrance, allocated seating in all arenas and safe routes across the site.
Northern Kin was not a family festival – no children’s activities, no play area and only a half-hearted attempt to provide circus acts. The state of the ground was such it was impossible to run around and simply play. With such stringent rules on taking in drinks, not just alcohol, the cost was too much for parents.
‘Kin’ is family and extends to tribes and villages. Northern Kin has missed its USP – its Unique Selling Point – to bind familial and familiar in Reiver Border history, connecting with local communities.