Chimere is a little and very old wooden boat, so our cruises are less adventurous and exotic than those of many fellow GXSA members. But just occasionally we come across something that might be of interest to a wider audience even if it is only marginally "boaty". This year we discovered a marvellous but little known festival at the Thames side town of Wallingford.
BUNKFEST - WALLINGFORD'S BEST KEPT SECRET!
For sixteen years Wallingford has been host to a family festival - but few outside the immediate area seem to know of it. It is time to rectify that omission.
Held over three days of the first weekend in September, BunkFest is a truly town-wide festival of beer, food, dancing and music. And it is free!
Pauline and I heard of the event while on a cruise up the non tidal Thames and the people who had attended in the past were so enthusiastic we had to go and see. Mooring at Wallingford has always been a bit restricted but no problem if you are prepared to raft off. Almost everyone accepts this and just a week or so earlier we had invited a boat alongside that recognised our GXSA pennant!
Love it or hate it, Morris and clog dancing is something very British - where else would you find people willing to dress up with bells and wave sticks and hankies in the air? If you are a fan, BunkFest should keep you happy with dancing in the town square and the main festival site on both Saturday and Sunday. If your taste is for something slightly more exotic, there is belly dancing by the main stage too.
Like your beer? Well, a choice of 23 different brews should satisfy your taste buds for a few hours. All are from local craft and micro breweries and in case you do not know where to start, the comprehensive festival programme lists them all complete with strengths and tasting notes. You are encouraged to bring your own beer mug or buy a souvenir reusable one for a pound to help tackle a potential waste problem. Don't like beer? Not to worry - cider, lager, wine and spirits are available too.
Ah, food! If your experience of events and festivals is grossly overpriced and only-just-edible junk food, BunkFest should be a refreshing change. Yes, it is more street-type food than restaurant, but not bad for all that. You have a choice of French, Italian, Mexican, Philippine, Spanish, Thai and, if you really want it, British fish and chips. The local butcher has a barbecue and tea and cake is served (tea in a teapot of course) at the cafe tent.
Fun for all......
BunkFest is about entertaining the whole family throughout the day and evening. Younger children have their own area with Mr Alexander's Travelling Show, lantern making and a climbing wall. For early teens there is the silent disco - dancers wear radio headphones to listen - and not all have the same music piped to them which can lead to some interesting viewing.
For the slightly older there is of course the food, the drink, the music, the shopping and the chance to take part in a variety of workshops. If you fancy developing your musical skills there is everything from ukulele to song writing to singing to (believe it or not) playing the spoons!
Traders line the main site giving a slightly hippy air to it all - flowers in the hair and a "Save the Pixies" stall straight out of the flower power era. Everyone was so polite and happy - even those who were a little worse for wear.
Music on the main stage is the festival focal point. The groups are professional but not big names and the theme is folk and folk-rock. Acts we saw included Frog on a Bike (ceilidh), a particularly good Rusty Shackle (folk rock) and Le Vent Du Nord (French-Canadian folk band).
Equally good were the groups playing at the Boat House and the Town Arms (and probably at the six other pub stages but we never got to see them), all part of the festival "fringe" that takes in 15 venues in addition to the main site.
A Bunkfest guide is essential for getting the most out of the great variety on offer. Altogether some 100 groups and solo artistes perform in Wallingford over the three days. A bit of planning is needed to get to see even a fraction of them.
And to give you an idea of the event's popularity, on Saturday night there were 15,000 people in the main event field with hundreds more in the other venues.
If you have ever stopped at Wallingford you will know that the town has for years been battling to retain its independent shops. It is losing slowly as local businesses fold but it has so far resisted the big chains (the exception being Waitrose) that make most Thames towns into clones. But there are still enough purely local shops to make browsing and shopping that bit more interesting. (We particularly recommend the butcher which is one of the few places outside Norfolk where you can get that delicacy samphire).
Bunkfest brings a street market to the town square with a range of local produce and some less local Italian leather goods, olives, mediterranean and middle eastern food.
There were two exhibitions at the town square: the long standing Wallingford museum (with reduced entrance fees for Bunkfest) and a local photographic society display in St Mary-le-More church. Wallingford has some talented photographers.
Well, the story goes that Wallingford was once connected by rail to the main line at Cholsey. The branch became known as the Bunk Line from passengers sleeping in the compartments and luggage racks. The line was axed years ago but the name lives on as the link is now a heritage railway run by volunteers. During BunkFest the line runs a special service with a bar and folk singers to entertain passengers.
BunkFest is free (other than the train rides and musical boat trips) and is organised and run by volunteers. They ask for donations rather than an entrance fee and raise money though sponsorship and income from concessions. The organisers do an excellent job and long may they continue. BunkFest is well worth a visit.
Wallingford is one of a dwindling number of Thames towns that actually welcomes boats so if you are on the Thames it is by far the best way to enjoy the festival. At five pounds a night with free showers it is quite good value. Alternatively you can stay at one of the hotels or dig out that tent from the attic and book in at one of three festival camp sites, zoned to keep the kids away from the older folk.
By road, Wallingford is on the A329 and A4074 from Reading towards Oxford and the A4130 from Henley towards Oxford. There is car parking in the town but it seems a pity to drive there and back in a day with all that beer on offer.
Or you could take the main Reading - Oxford line train to Cholsey connecting with the hourly Bunk Line service to Wallingford. Okay for getting there but not so good for getting back as the Bunk Line only runs between 1100 and 1600hrs. GWR stations sell a special "Wally Rover" ticket for the journey.
For more information see www.bunkfest.co.uk and www.cholsey-wallingford-railway.com