Beaminster Festival – celebrating the arts in West Dorset

BEAMINSTER Festival, running this year from 23rd June to 1st July, is one of the West Country’s finest multi-arts festivals, a celebration of music, literature, theatre and comedy which brings top class national and international performers to one of West Dorset’s prettiest towns.

New artistic director Lois Pearson has broadened the range of events, particularly the music programme, and planned activities and concerts aimed at appealing to audiences of all ages.

Star attractions of the line-up include the Gabrieli Consort, BBC Young Musician pianist Martin James Bartlett, historian Daisy Goodwin, BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera, and a celebration of the great Mexican artist Frida Kahlo in words , music and art.

The festival has become one of the most eagerly anticipated annual events in the regional arts calendar. But it had distinctly  humble beginnings back in the mid-1990s, as co-founder and president Ron Emmett recalls. It began as an idea by Beaminster Chamber of Trade in early 1995 to bring more people into the town to spend their money at the shops. Ron was an artist and furniture designer and had a gallery and workshop in the town. An exhibition seemed like a good start, and he and David Barrett and Robin Samways were the founding festival committee.

“It took nearly another 18 months to organise, but on 5th July 1996, the first Beaminster Arts Festival became a reality. None of us had ever done anything like this before; we were all raw amateurs yet managed to get sponsorship, lots of publicity and it worked.”

The 2018 festival begins with the traditional street party in the town centre, with local bands, dancing, food stalls, the Pavilion Bar and children’s entertainments – and it ends with the community picnic in the Manor Gardens with a band, stilt walker, circus skills and entertainers.

Concerts at St Mary’s Church, with music by more than 70 composers, include the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, the Magnard Ensemble, BBC Young Musician cellist Laura van Heijden, the Scott Brothers Duo playing orchestral transcriptions on organ and piano, and a song recital The Lives and Loves of Women by Gemma Summerfield, soprano.

The tempestuous life of Frida Kahlo, the subject of a current Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition, is celebrated by Lizzie Ball, voice and violin and Morgan Szymanski, guitar. And Kahlo’s Tree of Hope is the inspiration for a workshop led by Frances Hatch, the festival artist in residence who has an exhibition Sheet Music for Summer at Bridge House.

Literary and spoken word events include  Gordon Corera, BBC security correspondent talking about his book Secret Pigeon Service, about the role of carrier pigeons in WWII; Daisy Goodwin, on her book and TV series, Victoria; Helen Rappaport whose book The Race to Save the Romanovs is hot off the press, and Tom Cox rambling though the countryside with 21st-Century Yokel.

For theatre lovers there is a rare treat with Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale in the magical gardens of Meerhay Manor. (Look out for the bear!)

The festival has raised funding to support an extensive programme of concerts and workshops for schools, special school, care homes and playgroup including a family show Revolting Rhymes and Marvellous Music.

Over the years, Beaminster Festival has grown and changed and developed, with some ups and downs, “mainly ups,” says Ron Emett, “and a lot of hard work. But along the way, it has been and still is, a lot of fun.”

Pictured: Pianist Martin Bartlett, the Magnard Ensemble and Tom Cox’s book 21st Century Yokel.