Coniston Water Festival

From the late nineteenth-century until 1998 the South Lakeland village of Coniston held an annual Water Festival, a programme of events and activities centred around the lake with which the village shares its name. In 1999 the tradition was abandoned, local goodwill exhausted after years of running the event on a shoestring budget. As part of ‘Cumbriana Proof’, a series of projects examining rural regeneration and its fidgety bedfellow tourism, Grizedale Arts proposed the resurrection of the Water Festival, to be re-energised by the village, the local arts organisation and resident artists.

I arrived for the second weekend of the nine-day festival; sadly I missed the previous weekend’s duck race, stone xylophone performance by artist Brian Dewan, the char-fishing competition and the subsequent feast cooked by TV chef Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall. The festival’s emphasis on participation was clearly set out by Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie’s It’s a Lakeland Knockout, an adaptation of the (now traditional) game in which teams of locals battled tourists and members of the National Trust wearing specially made comedy costumes.

“Hoots Man, it’s 106.9 Brick FM!” The highland tones of Jesse Rae emerged from the car radio static as we approached the village. Rae, one-time pop-star and P-Funk collaborator and current resident artist at Grizedale, was the producer and DJ of a temporary open-submission radio station. Along with a newspaper that was distributed as an insert in the Westmoreland Gazette, it engaged an audience far beyond those attending individual events.

The boat dressing competition was traditionally the central pillar of the festival. For my money the finest boat this year was the entry from West London’s Avenues youth club, dressed in Jamaican colours and adorned with painted cardboard approximations of inner-city ‘bling’. The group, who were working with artist David Blandy in the local school, then performed a set of R‘n’B tracks in the magnificent Coniston Old Hall. In a brilliantly clunky gear change, as the Avenues dismantled their equipment a Ceilidh band tuned their instruments while encouraging the audience to do-si-do their partners.

On the following day a crowd gathered to witness Olivia Plender and director Ken Russell lead a band of ‘merrie campers’ in garish felt tunics stride through the fields before listening to a lecture on the history of the Kibbo Kift movement – an earlier (and stranger) incarnation of the Boy Scouts.

The question of who benefits most from such a project is an interesting one. Perhaps it is enough that the local community, so used to being the object of the tourist gaze, are allowed to goggle for once at the various forms of exotica delivered to their doorsteps by the peripatetic art world that Grizedale attracts.