A little bit of Wiltshire goes global every year, when Charlton Park near Malmesbury plays host to WOMAD, the World of Music and Dance festival
The thunder of beating drums and the whistling of strange otherworldly pipes wakes you from your slumber. You crawl out of your tent, blinded by the sunlight, and focus your eyes on tepees and flags flapping in every direction. No, this isn’t some encampment on the northern fringes of the Sahara - this is Charlton Park in Wiltshire, home to the annual World of Music and Dance festival.
WOMAD, as it is better known, celebrated its 25th birthday in 2007 and has attracted 20,000 people to the site close to the picturesque town of Malmesbury for the past two years. The festival itself is tantalising to all the senses. When you arrive you can smell the excitement and the food. There are more than 50 stalls selling authentic cuisine from all over the world, to rock your taste buds into submission.
The music tugs you between the seven stages. It’s not all hurdy gurdies and bongos – over the past couple of years Led Zep’s Robert Plant, Squeeze, Billy Bragg, Shane McGowan and Eddy Grant have joined forces with the finest artists from around the world and the best of British folkies. Then there are the colours – co-ordinated flags and normally reserved Middle Englanders dressing in multicoloured clothes for just one glorious weekend a year.
I arrive, pitch my tent, grab the first of many Goan fish curries and head off to organise my three-day music spree. I also check out the food stalls and the bars I will be using. Pick a country and you can guarantee there’ll be a stall to match up with some amazing grub.
Despite all the distractions, I will always find time to get into Malmesbury and the surrounding area – you can only take so much of precocious paint-spattered kids and hippy folk selling authentic African art! Seriously though, the area has much to offer visitors beyond the July weekend's festivities.
Malmesbury is a historic place offering a warm welcome. Head for the Market Cross in the shadow of the imposing abbey, originally built on this site in 676. At the height of its powers the abbey was three times the size of the present building but there is still plenty to see. It has some of the finest examples of Romanesque sculpture in England and is also home to the tomb of King Athelstan (grandson of Alfred the Great) and four fascinating mediaeval bibles.
I fled to the abbey to shelter from the sweltering heat, but I soaked up the atmosphere for quite a while, sticking my fingers in the holes believed to be from bullets fired as Malmesbury hopped from one side to another (about seven times) during the English Civil War. Before I leave the Abbey behind, I have to mention Eilmer of Malmesbury, who flew a home-made hang-glider from one of the towers in 1010. Eilmer is said to have flown some 200 metres before landing and breaking both his legs.
He would have missed out on landing in The Whole Hog, 50 metres away on the Market Cross, which serves great meals and a fine collection of real ales. But the most appealing thing about The Whole Hog is that it is a grand meeting place. If you are happy to join in the banter you can quite happily spend a couple of hours chatting about the town – and getting in on the local gossip!
I seemed to entertain the locals with my tale of how I had been rudely awakened in the early hours by someone kicking the side of my tent shouting, “Lie on your front and stop snoring!” Not a lot of hippy peace and love there then!
From the Market Cross you can wander down the High Street to The Smoking Dog. This has more of a gastro pub atmosphere, with a restaurant in the back, but at the front it has a more laidback pub vibe. After all the global cuisine I had been digesting, I had a yearning to eat cheese, so a ploughman’s it was and it was terrific. Cheddar, Stilton, Brie and Applewood supported by pickled onions, red onion chutney and bread – and a pint of Archer’s Best.
I checked my programme and I still had a couple of hours before Dengue Fever hit the stage with their Cambodian surf rock (they’re a bit like Blondie really), so it was back to Charlton Park, about 20 minutes away. Charlton Park estate covers 4,500 acres, including open fields and woodland, which provides shelter during festival time. It contains the impressive Charlton Park Mansion House, built around 1600 and home to the Earl of Suffolk. I wandered around the grounds of the house before returning festival-side to pick up presents from the 200-plus stalls selling clothes, jewellery, art, furniture and drums!
The festival ends on Sunday, so, with those rhythms still affecting me, I weaved my way along the M4 to nearby Bath to soak up the history of that wonderful city and to meet up with friends. I even persuaded one of them to accompany me to the festival this year. Roll on July 24!
WOMAD 2009 takes place at Charlton Park from Friday July 24 to Sunday July 26. Weekend tickets cost from around £122. General camping is free but if you don't want to pitch your own tent, lazier options available include yurts, tepees and a new luxury option for this year.
If you don’t fancy camping and want a little more comfort, you can stay at the The Old Bell Hotel, in Abbey Row, Malmesbury. Alternatively, there is the Neeld Arms in nearby Grittleton, where I once spent a pleasant weekend; it’s in the Good Beer Guide.