Karen Phelps is a 41-year-old freelance journalist from Christchurch, New Zealand, who happened upon Alnwick International Music Festival while on a mission to the North East to discover more about her roots. Here she gives an account of her experiences in Alnwick.
I confess I’m a festival virgin. In New Zealand we don’t really have a time of the year where stalls, musicians, entertainers, flower crowns, hair-wrapping and face-painting descend on a country from top to bottom consuming everything from cities to towns to small villages.
And this past week, I’ve found myself caught up in the festival season in a town I’d never heard of before at something I never thought I’d be interested in – Alnwick International Music Festival.
But I confess what’s drawn me here is not a festival – that’s just been an unexpected bonus - what’s drawn me here is the past. My grandfather was born in Newcastle and worked in the coalmines before heading to New Zealand as a young man to start a new life.
He’d never returned to the motherland until he was in his 70s. He’d also never lost his Geordie accent.
Pop had passed away some years ago now and it’s his memory that’s drawn me to this part of the world. Perhaps by just being here I’ll be able to understand him a little better and feel closer to the fading memories I have of him. Part of this has involved meeting some family that I’ve never had the chance to meet before, family that also happened to be helping to organize the Alnwick International Music Festival.
So for the past week I’ve found myself camping out in a classroom at a local school along with all the other performers and alongside the locals and visitors have enjoyed watching the performances each day.
I’ve watched the Thai group with their gently smiling faces lovingly stroke instruments I’ve never seen before as if they were caressing a lover, the sound drifting out into the audience of plastic seats, the standing ovation and cheers each performance they gave elicited from the crowd.
I’ve watched the laughter and connections between the performers from Romania, Italy, Poland and America. I’ve seen them stomp, swing their skirts and skip around the stage.
But behind the scenes I’ve also seen the worry over blackening clouds ruining a performance, vans zooming costumes and performers to venues, witnessed lovers tiff under the pressure of daily performances and seen musicians and dancers drag their tired bodies to the stage each day after a night of festivities at the local working mens’ club.
The festival has been fun but it’s also been a lot of hard work. In between festival performances, I’ve explored the surrounding Northumberland countryside and discovered what I now consider one of the country’s best kept secrets: long expanses of farmland with grass greener than I’ve ever seen rolling into the distance, crystal clear water rich with curious grey seals popping their heads out of the waves and blinking coal dark eyes at passing boats; tiny islands a flurry with birdlife that rises like a squawking cloud into the sky and crumbling ruins standing proudly against dramatic skies.
I’d always heard that New Zealand was one of the most beautiful countries in the world and my travels in various continents so far had given me little reason to doubt this.
But England, and in particular Northumberland, is undoubtedly also on that same list.
The music festival is now over, the performers have all left and the school will soon be full of students again.
Now that I’ve seen all the hard work from a very small team that goes on behind the scenes to make the festival happen each year I can’t help but be thankful for their generosity.
I’m not sure exactly what prompts these people and the performers to give of their time so willingly each year but I suspect it has something to do with family.
Next year is the 40th anniversary of the festival and I’ve learned that generations of helpers work alongside each other behind the scenes, some having grown up going to the festival themselves as children.
For a week each year, the helpers and performers also find themselves an unlikely family as they come together to bring this event to fruition.
It’s been heartening to see these connections grow, some of which I suspect will last far after everyone goes home, perhaps even for a lifetime.
This past week, I’ve also found myself wondering why the performers – many of them young – have decided to dedicate their time with such passion to pursuing something from the past when their contemporaries are no doubt busier playing with their mobile phones.
I’ve been touched by the passion and emotion they have brought to every performance, which has helped me to gain a window into the past in different countries around the world, a past I had thought was forgotten but now see is very much alive.
I’ve been heartened to see that when many people are absorbed in their busy increasingly disconnected lives in the modern world a small group of dedicated enthusiasts at the Alnwick International Music Festival is seeking to remind us of what really matters – family, friends, connections both old and new and the past as it teaches us lessons for the future.