A valley in Northumberland will reverberate to the sounds of fiddles, pipes and drums this weekend, as Rothbury Traditional Music Festival stages its 30th gathering. Robert Brooks talks to its chairman and accordionist extraordinaire Alistair Anderson about its past and future.
ITS stars may not be on the same scale as Live Earth or the Concert for Diana – but there’s another reason this year’s Rothbury Traditional Music Festival is just as eagerly anticipated by its fans.
The showcase occasion for Northumbrian music, poetry and performance will celebrate its 30th anniversary this weekend, a milestone for an event which now draws in some of the best players of the local folk world.
It’s a major step for the festival, which was born out of the simple desire to stage a musical gathering after three locals visited a similar event across the Scottish border. The result was such a success that a repeat performance was demanded, and year-upon-year its popularity has grown.
Past players include the great folk pioneer Aly Bain and Irish fiddle supremo Sean Maguire, as well as countless local characters whose musical talents have long been the preserve of front rooms, country show ceilidhs and pub sessions.
But it’s never been about attracting big names, says chairman Alistair Anderson, himself one of the leading masters of the English accordion, and nothing short of a musical legend in his own land. He says: “It’s much more important than that. It’s always been about getting musicians to come to one of the most lovely places in Britain but also to maintain and develop a tradition of folk music across generations.
“Considering there is now a whole generation who have grown up and never known life without the Rothbury festival, that’s quite an achievement. And it’s the strength of the players who have developed their skills to perform on our stage which is really satisfying.”
There is, however, one name which stands out in a truly global sense – Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell, whose albums and stage performances have since been seen the world over.
Alistair remembers her festival debut: “One of the most memorable occasions of the last 30 years was Kathryn Tickell, who must have been no older that 11 or 12. There she was, on stage, with true veterans of Northumbrian folk music.”
Among them were Will Taylor, the great fiddle player from Wooler; Bob Hopkirk, Watty Robson and Tom Hughes – three generations of musicians working together in harmony: “It was fantastic, magical.”
Another success has been the festival’s growing reputation on the international folk scene, with performers across Europe travelling to Coquetdale. “We’ve had folk from the Czech Republic, Norway, Sweden – it’s grown that far,” says Alistair. “No-one would have ever imagined people would come so far to play in the Coquet Valley.”
The festival has certainly travelled far since 1977, when Rothbury residents Tony Sandford, John Hennessy and John MacKay came up with the idea to stage an event in the village. They spent a year researching and visiting music festivals, including Newcastleton, over the Scottish Border from Kielder. And they were so impressed, they used it as their model.
Alistair and wife Liz came onboard, with John Ashley, a teacher, and Thomson Bathgate. Ian Murray, a drummer, finally made up the inaugural committee.
The second festival saw things truly take shape, with children’s competitions introduced for schools, and adult competitions increased. And that, says Alistair, has been the format ever since.
“We encourage children to learn to play, sing and compose poetry, and we run classes throughout the year and work closely with the local schools. Children have grown up with music, song, dance and poetry as a natural part of their lives which will stay with them and provide a rich heritage for future generations.”
For the past two years, Kathryn Tickell has been passing on her skills with fiddle and ceilidh band classes and her young band, The Rothbury Ranters.
Alistair adds: “As we enter our fourth decade we’re looking forward to the future with a special festival packed with some of the finest performers around today.
“The free outdoor concert on Saturday afternoon will bring great music, song and dance into the heart of the village.”
But there’s not even standing room left at the traditional Saturday Night at the Mart, featuring Finlay MacDonald, award-winning singer/songwriter Katie Doherty and, of course, the Kathryn Tickell Band.
Alistair says: “We just want people to come and have a great time. Rothbury and the Coquet Valley is a wonderful setting and there is a real mix of musical talent, from old masters to young blood.”