Chris Harris reflects on his first encounter with Northampton’s Umbrella Festival…
The sound of silence was all there was to be heard on Northampton’s Racecourse at 11:30am.
To the untrained eye, there was just a smattering of fences, vehicles and tents sitting in a field. Look closer, however, and one of Northampton’s most inclusive, diverse, and creative festivals was slowly revealed.
The first thing one saw when entering the festival area was a circle of stalls surrounding the main entertainment. These really showed the level of community engagement that the Umbrella Fair Organisation (UFO) dedicates itself to, with stalls from the Daily Bread Factory, various independent sellers, as well as some local and national charities.
One stall paraded what it was selling as “cheap hippy stuff”; a phrase that is loosely what those uninitiated into the Umbrella Fair hype train think sums up the festival. However, “cheap hippy stuff” really is just a novelty factor of the festival, with the 1960’s culture of freedom being commodified rather than embraced and fully replicated.
It was not just the eccentrics of Northampton attending the Umbrella Fair, or those curious about “cheap hippy” culture, but those who genuinely care about the town, or just seeking a varied and entertaining weekend.
Most attention from festival-goers was focused around the acoustic and spoken word stages in the early afternoon. The acoustic tent, decorated with sponsored umbrellas, sporting advertisements for seemingly-random international businesses, and one large rubber duck, was host to a number of both signed and unsigned local artists. Organised by local musician Hannah Faulkner, the stage featured a range of abilities and styles, all proving popular with the revolving audience.
The spoken word tent, organised by local poets and story-tellers Justin Porter and Richard Frost, was draped in the style of “cheap hippy stuff”. Chairs were replaced with throw blankets and cushions, with drapes of all colours and funky symbols on the walls of the tent while words promoting freedom, love, and anti-establishment were blared from the mouths of story-tellers travelling in from as far as Manchester. Audiences seemed reluctant at first to enter, but upon watching, found it strangely captivating.
There were things for all the family. Albeit, one could dispute the “family-friendly” nature of the event when performers, particularly on the cabaret and spoken word stages, did not censor themselves for a younger, more vulnerable audience. However, face-painting, charity football games and a play park were on offer, as well as an area full of straw and hay for children to climb in. Child friendly? Probably. Child satisfaction? Possibly. After all, there’s nothing a kid wants more than a bale of hay to tear apart, right?
As sceptical as this review may seem, my attitude to the Umbrella Fair is largely positive. As much as the commodifying of “hippy” culture is a key factor, the love for the planet is clear. Charities such as the RSPCA and the Wildlife Trust dominated the stalls, and environmental campaigners were littered around with signs such as “Go Beyond Oil”. The “healing areas” focused on yoga, meditation and opening chakras. I have no idea what a chakra is, but the event has opened minds to “cheap hippy stuff”: the values of equality, love and freedom in the of Northampton.