Please welcome Mr Chagstock to the stage: the one and only Si Ford!
Si Ford has been running Chagstock – “The best little festival in the South West”, according to Adrian Edmondson – since its first fledgling outing in Si’s mother’s garden in 2003.
“It was really just a weekend party. I asked a few friends down, got a few musicians and my old school band back together and built a little stage in the back garden. It turned into a bit of a micro-fest and I did that for three years running and it got bigger and bigger, too big for the garden. I decided I quite enjoyed doing it, and thought how can I include more people, include the community more.
‘I’d never done anything like it before so it was quite a steep learning curve. I talked to all the relevant people, like the council about licensing, and managed to find a site, which is the one we’re still on. The first Chagstock was in 2007 with five or six hundred people, for one day only, and now twelve years later it’s two days and nearly five thousand people!”
The logistics to run the machine that is Chagstock must be enormous. “Yeah, you’d think after twelve years it would be all off pat but it does take most of the year to set it up. There’s a lot of admin, and health and safety work – our risk assessment and method documentation is about two inches thick.
‘During the year it’s mostly me working, and we’ve got a core committee who meet now and again and throw ideas around. During the set-up and the weekend of the festival and the take-down, there are 30 or 40 people. They’re volunteers setting up and on top of that are all the stewards; they’re volunteers too, so the 5,000 – technically, 4,999 is the license – that includes everybody, all the volunteers, stewards, the artists, all the caterers and traders, etc. We increased it to two days in the second year. We did try three days, I think in 2011, but it was too much – too much for us, too much for the audience…two days is enough.”
Chagstock must have one of the best views at any festival, with its 360 degree panoramic view from its site on a Dartmoor hill. “Yes, it’s stunning, whether it’s glorious sunshine or sometimes when you have storms to the north of us, storms to the south of us and it seems to pass us by, touch wood – we’ve been lucky. And stunning sunsets…yeah, it’s an amazing place.
‘My mother loved it, she performed at a couple of the earlier ones and she sang a song with my brother and his wife one year and then she wrote and read out a haiku poem, which had everybody in tears. She loved it; she came to every single one of them till she died last year.” Si’s mother was Sheila Monypenny, a lovely woman who worked at Bletchley Park with Alan Turing. With those credentials, she must surely have been the inspiration for the Miss Moneypenny character in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels.
Si’s daughter Jodie also plays at Chagstock. “I think she’s played every year – the first when she was nine, in the party in the garden. She’s got a trio now; she’ll be in the Live Lounge this year. Three or four years ago she came up and sang with New Crisis – she sang the end bit of Stairway to Heaven for me because it’s too high for me!
‘Chagstock was very hard work for the first few years and the turning point was the fifth year; we had Fun Loving Criminals and we sold out for the first time, so that was quite a feeling. Going right behind the crowd with them playing and just seeing the whole field going up and down, that was good, but there’s always something every year that stands out.
‘People when I started said, “You’ve got to pick your genre, pick your niche, your audience” and I said no, I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to be as inclusive as possible and have all sorts of different types of music, different age ranges of people. We have babies up to….as I said, my mother was coming until she was in her late eighties, ninety, so it’s very inclusive, very family-friendly, very safe and lots to do for everybody. The idea was to try and replicate the sort of feeling of the early parties in the garden, and a bunch of like-minded people getting together and enjoying music and a good atmosphere and I think we’ve achieved that.”
Chagstock fans may wonder if there have there been any bands that have particularly stood out for its founder. “I don’t get to see very much, to be honest, and there are too many to mention and if I mention some and not others….it’s a bit difficult! We’ve had some great acts, not just the headliners. We’ve had Seth Lakeman a couple of times, he’s always been good, and Show of Hands – they’re back again this year. The first headliner we had, 2007, was The Saw Doctors; they’re a big favourite of mine.
‘As I say, I’d never done it before and I didn’t really know how to go round getting acts. I made a lot of phone calls and badgered and it worked, and once you start to get a reputation, it gets easier. A lot of the smaller acts and stuff in the Live Lounge have been great too – Jodie, for one!”
Chris Durney (Freak Bruvvers) will be running the Live Lounge this year as Peter Shields, who usually runs the show with the able assistance of Chris and sound man ‘Big’ Dave Woolston, is unable to be there. “We’re having a slightly different take on things this year; I think it’ll be a little bit more bouncy!” With Chris at the helm, that can be guaranteed!
‘It’s nice to have three different areas (the Main Stage, the Marquee Stage and the Live Lounge). Not everything’s for everybody and people can pick and choose and hopefully there’s always something that people like. And we have the alternative therapy area, or Peaceville as we call it, and the kids’ area, and lots of caterers and traders, plenty of varied food.” The caterers, even for the staff alone, do an incredible job. “Yeah, we feed hundreds of people – staff, stewards, the bands, so it’s quite an operation. An amazing bunch of people really, it wouldn’t happen without them.
This year we’ve put a bit of extra thought into site décor. Our theme for 2018 is space and sci-fi and the décor team have been busy making some interesting installations so that will be good. Space and sci-fi is an enormous subject so hopefully we’ll see some good fancy dress costumes.”
Will he carry on for ever? “As long as I can. There are times when I think, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ but I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it. Yeah, it’s a different buzz.”
Last year they had a very unlucky start with the weather. “But we were like a rolling stone, we got up and started doing things and yes it was wet but we just carried on and eventually it cleared and we had a great weekend. It’s England, it’s Devon, it’s gonna be what it’s gonna be!” The sun came out and everything carried on. “Yeah, we don’t cancel! It just reinforced that thing about the team of people you’ve got, working so relentlessly – no complaints, they just got out in the rain, towing people out of the mud and making sure they got there and got camped, so they could carry on and have a brilliant time. Awesome.
“Local farmers, one family, Richard and Simon Knox, rent me the land every year.” The site is obviously cleared well after each Chagstock. “Yeah, that’s very important so we’ve got a good team for that. It’s a great site, not just because of the view – if it’s a bit wet, it dries out really quickly because it’s on the top of the hill and well drained and the breeze dries it out.”
What made him choose the site? “I suppose it was a bit of serendipity really; I was looking around and I didn’t really know that many people and I put a note up on the noticeboard in the Globe, saying something like, ‘Site for festival wanted’ and somebody wrote the Knoxs’ number on it, thinking that might be of use. I rang them, went up there and walked on site and it was a no-brainer. The first year I think we only used the one field, about 10 acres, and now it’s about 70 acres.
‘I was born and brought up in Surrey on the North Downs, in a place called Woldingham. My parents moved here in 1980 and then I moved down to South Zeal in 1989 I think, just after my father died, and lived there for about twelve years before moving to Chagford nearly sixteen years ago.” Coincidentally, he knew The Moorlander’s editor Stuart Clarke, who was a friend of his brother’s group. Would he go back to Surrey? “No! Not at all. I haven’t been back up for years. I used to go up and see one of the bands. When we first started most of them lived up in London so I used to drive up to London to rehearse with them every couple of weeks but I couldn’t do that now.” That would be tedious, and why would he want to leave? “Quite, though sometimes it’s worth it for the feeling when you get back…you come down the A30 and you see the sign for the moor – back in the shire!”
After years of working in offices, ultimately as a financial adviser, the paperwork increased and once he’d started the early Chagstock events, “I came to the decision that I couldn’t do both so I hung up the suit and cracked on with this. A big risk from all points of view really but I don’t regret that at all. I don’t think I’d do it if I didn’t enjoy it…and that’s the only way I get to play to 5,000 people!” Si’s band, New Crisis, is a perennial favourite with the crowd. “I have a very good backing group, very good indeed, so that’s my little bit of time out to enjoy.” So how much do you practice beforehand? “Oh loads”, he says, chuckling. Did his nose grow longer just then? “It might have done, but the rest of the band play quite a lot of the time so it’s just a case of me joining in and singing a few songs so yeah, it’s well-rehearsed…just not necessarily with me!”
You can hear Si’s band New Crisis, headliners Buzzcocks and Imelda May, plus The Correspondents, King King, Martin Harley, Show of Hands, and many, many more at this year’s Chagstock, 20th and 21st July. Visit www.chagstock.info for further information and to book tickets. Chagstock is a not for profit organisation and supports the Devon Air Ambulance Trust.