The Sidmouth Horse Trials, held in Port Royal, is one of the craziest events of the festival, so it was the perfect place to start our Sunday ride. The Trials began as a contest for the masked and skirted “Hobby Horses” who often accompany dance teams; however, the recent proliferation of species has led to a new collective term – “Beasts of Disguise”.
And indeed, there was a veritable menagerie competing for the coveted Aardman Award, sponsored by Aardman Animations. Along with the horses (including a clothes horse), there were sheep, a zebra, a seagull, an owl and even a dinosaur – hats off to eight-year-old Edward the Talkosaurus.
Participants had to follow a course that involved jumping over a broomstick, showing off their best dance moves and demonstrating their special skills: blowing a whistle, blowing bubbles and, in the case of the Talkosaurus…talking. ! But there could only be one winner, and in the end Betley The Wonder Horse took home the prize thanks to his secret weapon – his adorable Little Betley mini-me!
Next up in Port Royal was a performance by the ever-hilarious Sidmouth Mummers, always a staple on our festival checklist. In a new twist on the traditional tale, the cast list had expanded to include Nelson, King Charles (or was it King George?), Napoleon, Santa Claus, William of Orange and a Camel, as well as St George (fresh from last year’s victory over the Coronavirus monster) and the Turkish Knight.
The Doctor was also there to bandage the victims of the inevitable bloodshed. But where was he going to plant this giant hypodermic? You can probably guess… And another Rule Britannia chorus? Oh go ahead then…
By then the festival was in full swing and the Esplanade was overflowing with music from impromptu sessions in the waterfront bars and hotels, and colorful dance teams and choirs entertaining the crowds outside.
Despite the temptation to linger, we headed to Blackmore Gardens to attend one of the week’s top events: the 34th John Gasson Memorial Jig Competition. Unlike team dances, a jig is a solo or pair dance that allows dancers to showcase their individual skills, and the competition was started as a way to encourage excellence in Morris dancing. Competitors are judged on criteria such as control and precision of movement, regularity of steps and other elements, and the crowd was boisterous in their applause of the dancers’ elegant tricks and gravity-defying leaps.
We headed to the Ham Marquee for a moving performance by festival patrons and local folk heroes Show of Hands, backed by up-and-coming American duo Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage.
Since we first caught them last year – where they gave a promising set at Blackmore Gardens – Sanders and Savage have been spilling the beans. Now more assured and with friendly conversation with the audience between numbers, the guitar duo charmed the Ham crowd with their harmony vocals, performing a medley of original and Appalachian songs, including “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Maids’, ‘A Thousand New Moons’ and ‘Polly O Polly’. Ending with a triumphant ‘Deep Blue Sea’, they are clearly ones to watch.
Acoustic roots/folk duo Show of Hands – consisting of Steve Knightley (guitar, vocals) and Phil Beer (guitar, multiple instruments and vocals) – are always solid and reliable. Tonight we were in for a treat. Playing as a simple duo – without additional musicians, backup singers or pzazz – it was an opportunity to appreciate their fine, often politically charged work. Knightley was in fine form with a poignant “The Dive”, a “Dreckly”, an edgy “Country Life” and a remarkable “The Ride”. The beer also shone, especially on ‘Crow on the Cradle’, and the duo really worked the crowd, setting things straight with a searing ‘Cousin Jack’.
It was a fitting end to a brilliant day. Bring on the rest of the Festival, dreckly…