This is the twentieth year this family-friendly – everyone-friendly in fact – festival has been running, organised by The Levellers in the grounds of Escot Park, Devon.
I was here last year and enjoyed it so much I decided to return, and, having discovered Oxfam provide the stewards for this and a number of other high-profile festivals during the year, thought I’d apply for their team.
Beautiful Days pulls in around 17,000 festival-goers and is traditionally both opened and closed with sets from The Levellers themselves (well, it is their festival!). Other headliners this year were Suede and Primal Scream, neither of which I had seen before.
Stewarding is a great new experience – but take it as it comes
The stewarding arrangement seems like a good deal for all concerned – Oxfam are paid to provide the staff and thereby raise millions in revenue and we volunteers are rewarded with a free pass (and in this case a backstage one to boot), a free meal per shift and a quiet, reserved camping area away from the madding crowds.
Despite the free meal tickets, it’s no free lunch – you must pay a deposit up front equivalent to the festival ticket price (returned if you complete your mission) and work three shifts of eight hours, each with just a 30-minute break. The twist is that you don’t get to hear your shift pattern until you register on site and as this is a 24-hour operation, you can be expected to stand atop a watchtower in the driving rain between midnight and 8am! You may also miss all the headline acts. Swaps are possible but obviously the midnight oil shifts are likely to be problematic.
Far from the madding crowd – briefly
I arrived by train on the Wednesday (a Wednesday arrival is also a mandatory requirement so you need to be able to take six days off from real life) at Feniton, the nearest station, which is just a mile from site and on the main Exeter line.
My fellow stewards were an eclectic bunch – a much older demographic than I had expected – and many of them steward at a number of festivals each year. As a result, many knew each other and it’s almost a holiday for most of them. Registration is simple, so was setting up my tiny tent, and I then had the chance to go and explore the under-construction site devoid of the masses which was a different perspective.
My shifts were pretty benign and with a free day before the doors opened, I decided to indulge my other passion and run to the coast at Sidmouth and back. By the time I returned, the site was completely transformed with the influx of thousands of punters.
Reality strikes when the music starts
My alarm goes off at 7am on Friday and having put away a pot noodle of indeterminate flavour and a terrible instant coffee am sent out to spend the first four hours up a watchtower and, later, a further four hours preventing customers from being run over by the constant stream of vehicles into the main site.
As a result I may never know what Afflecks Palace and Beans On Toast sound like and that’s a regret as this is part of the fun for me – discovering new acts. But if you like meeting people this is a great job – I spent most of it taking photos for already-tipsy people in front of the Beautiful Days sign in front of which I was stationed.
By evening the weather had fulfilled a terrible forecast, and I nearly didn’t bother leaving my tent but Johnny Marr was due on, followed by Suede and we had a shuttle bus down to the main stage so that swung it.
Johnny Marr – who sounds uncannily like Morrissey – mirrored the weather with catalogue of largely Smiths songs as the rain sheeted down. I watched from one of the bars (oiled with a few pints of Otter Brewery’s imaginatively-named Beautiful Days ale at a highly reasonable £4.50 each) so didn’t get the full effect of either the band or the rain. Suede followed and this time I went stage front as they absolutely killed it with Brett Anderson kicking off their set at a million miles an hour and not letting up. Highlight of the festival for me.
All along the watchtowers
Saturday passes more quickly with a shift of touring various watchtowers. The stewards’ Oxfam tabards proved a magnet for customers with questions – enjoyable but it does mean you have to clue yourself up beforehand. Yesterday’s rain has long gone and our on-off (mostly off) summer offers some warmth at last.
I caught most of Reef’s set and then returned to my position down the front for The Waterboys and Primal Scream. Fiddledroog Steve Wickham has left and now streaming white-haired Brother Paul, looking reminiscent of Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice, completely steals the show.
Primal Scream were an unknown quantity for me but I loved their set, full of dance, samba and gospel influences.
Sunset and I’m ready for next year
Sunday dawns with a small hangover and the contents of the tent in the usual disarray that forms minutes after unpacking and just gets worse. I’m on the late shift today so was able to get to the Doonicans Sunday Service – a firm fixture and a ridiculous 50 minutes of riotous nonsense featuring such classics as The Lady In Greggs (makes pasties for me, through the week) and a full body-length crowd-surf.
I just have time to catch The Joy Formidable but no chance for Skindred and the closing Levellers set because of the watchtower shift with the compensation of lovely views from there down the valley as the sun sets.
The show closes with the traditional fireworks – the watchtower is a great vantage point for these and at last midnight arrives, my shift is over, and I visit the crew bar for a last pint to wind down.
It was a wonderful experience overall and one I will go for again. You get to see the festival from a completely different perspective and it’s rewarding to be a part of it. The downside is that your viewing and listening pleasure is very likely to be compromised, as is your sense of humour if the weather doesn’t play ball.
Beautiful Days is a great festival – I saw absolutely no trouble, the music is excellent, the toilets are kept clean and the litter continually cleared. There is so much going on and something for all tastes. And for a festival, it doesn’t feel as though you are being gouged for either food or drink. I’m still smarting from being charged $11 for a can of Heineken at Coachella!