It’s often said the magic of Port Eliot evades categorisation, escapes description and is best experienced yourself. For those coming to do just that for the very first time – here’s an insider’s guide to the spots that make the festival so completely unique, as well as some useful tips, by long-time festival contributor Murphy Williams.
1. Roam Free
Festival-goers often stick to one area – be it in front of the house, on the bowling green or by the estuary – big mistake. If I hadn’t always made a point of keeping on the move, no matter how blissed-out I felt, I would have missed out on indelible memories: chatting to The KLF’s Bill Drummond while he built a wooden bed from scratch; witnessing Grayson Perry’s spectacular arrival on his souped-up pink motorbike when he revved around the Park tent four times; following the spellbinding Rimski and his ramshackle bicycle piano through the trees.
This year, there’ll be Emily Maitlis on the Bowling Green, a musical about Bessie Smith at the Ace of Clubs, Robyn Hitchcock in the Church, my father the poet Hugo Williams in the Round Room, Russell Norman in the Big Kitchen. You can’t see everything, so be sure to go everywhere.
2. Let your children show off
For a few unselfconscious years, my daughter Silver and a couple of sidekicks would rule the stage during her father’s festival gigs, dancing, lifting each other and once even forming a wobbly human pyramid to draw attention from the band.
Port Eliot encourages such antics, whether it be Gavin Turk’s House of Fairy Tales crew dressing children up as Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl to maraud the site with signs reading ‘The Apathy Band’ and ‘Nothing Changes Anything’; or the Hullabaloo team helping kids onto podiums to pin a bottle-top medal on their t-shirts.
Wildlings Wood and The Pulse are the places to let their exhibitionism fly this year, and no one is likely to mind if they storm a stage or two.
3 Upgrade and upcycle your look
Port’s wondrous Fashion Foundation is a hive of inspiring workshops, talks and shows that take place in the Walled Garden and are led by world renowned artists and usually remote style savants, among them this year Alice Temperley, Daphne Guinness, and Dame Zandra Rhodes. There’ll be fashion illustration classes, a chat with Basquiat’s muse and an interactive catwalk show hosted by Preen. I’ve come away in the past sporting a hydrangea headpiece, a badge stamped by Rockins and a silver foil skirt designed for me by Luella Bartley. Make-up artist Alex Box gave my son Jesse a hi-vis, polka-dotted guise that he slept and swum in for three days. There’s an inviting, intimate spirit of exchange loved by all ages and, around the site, you’ll find many Aladdin’s cave clothes stalls too. So no excuse not to look sharp.
4. Immerse yourselves
The actor Dominic West’s favourite Port Eliot festival moment was by the river Tiddy: “I went for a swim; it was absolutely beautiful. Then I was lying in the sun with my kids, who for once weren’t screaming, thinking ‘How could this get any better’ when two women dressed as nurses popped up and said ‘Bloody Mary?'”
For many, the weekend isn’t complete without becoming part of the Seurat-style riverbank scene by paddling, mud-larking, kayaking, paddle-yogaing, or just swimming as far as the majestic viaduct at high tide, followed by a half hour soak in one of Kernow Springs’ wood-fired hot tubs. For those with a hangover, it’s a lot more effective than paracetamol.
5. Gather a Team
Port Eliot’s Literary Pub Quiz is a keenly anticipated, very raucous event hosted with dry wit and cool authority by author/broadcaster Marcel Theroux on the Bowling Green on the Saturday evening of the festival.
I discovered it only a couple of years ago – it’s been going since 2006 – and dived into the intensely competitive spirit on rounds such as ‘Decode the Literary Emoji’. We were struggling badly against the 51 other teams, though, until wonderful Port Eliot regular John Mitchinson (above), who is head of research for the TV panel game QI, wandered in half way through, unaware of what was happening around him. ‘John!’ I called, ‘We need you!’ Thanks to him, we came second. A miracle.
6. Dance the night away
When the Boogie Round door was first built into a secret spot in a sound-proofing Laurel bush in 2011, its posters were so enticing that our daughter, then seven, insisted we wake her up at midnight for it. We carried the sleepy bundle towards the disco ball and treated her to a can of Coke. Her eyes opened wide, and we have loved it there ever since, even when Suggs had so much to say he almost forgot to play any records.
Dancing features large at Port. Some buy tickets just for a fix of whatever is going down at Caught by the River. This year the impeccable Paul Simonon of the Clash will be rocking the joint at The Black Cow Saloon, where you can loosen up with world-class vodka made with cow’s milk.
7. Sleep for five hours
I often wish the festival could be run on alternate days, so we could all have a day to recover before the next, but as it is, I’ve worked out that five hours’ sleep, 5am-10am, over the four days, is sustainable and adequate to make the most of it all.
An eye mask helps, but you could always copy The Lemonheads’ frontman Evan Dando, who was so exhausted after his gig in 2009 that he crawled head first into his sleeping bag. It worked: the next day, still breathing and reinvigorated, he wrote a piece for the festival magazine about his namesake, Dando the local ghost, and helped the Women’s Institute pack up their stall.
8. Banquets, picnics and snacks
There’s a truly tastebud-tingling array of local and international street food on offer against insta-worthy backdrops, from Cornish lobsters to Philippino cook-ups from Dragon’s Den winners Dream Barbecue. My annual festival fuel: oysters from Devon’s Oyster Shack with champagne from Le Vignoble, and, by the Park Stage, Woody’s classic Neapolitan pizzas.
9. Stay until Monday
The collective euphoria of having made it through makes Sunday nights at the festival very special. It’s the time to consolidate new friendships, swap tales of mischief and unwind with the festival crew.
Sunday’s acts often reflect the mood: Fishermans’ Friends with their rousing shanties and The London African Gospel Choir raising the roof of the oldest church in Cornwall have been sublime moments.
Festival projects reach completion on the Sunday too. Three years ago, children spent the weekend constructing a giant origami paper boat. It was launched into the estuary to rapturous applause and sailed away with its creator Frank Bolter standing proud within. Bolter will be back this year for a new launch.
On Monday morning, you can lie in at last, and if you have children, they can scavenge for giveaway food and stall bargains.
10. Start traditions
The joy of Port Eliot Festival is its abundance of riches. Many regulars swear by skimming the programme, instead of studying it with Sharpies as I do, for favourite acts and activities. Traditions include settling in on Thursday with Wurlitza’s latest silent movie live soundtrack; packing nippers off for an overnight Forest Campout; catching at least three of Mik Artistic’s appearances around the site; booking in for a mid-festival massage; and learning to Lindy Hop with the genial Mudflappers at the Idler Academy. Mine is collapsing into a heap of friends by the boathouse on Sunday afternoon before the last hurrah.