It?s Spring 2001. The Swaledale Festival, under a new director (me) and pursuing a new vision, relaunches with an exciting programme of chamber-scale music of all kinds. Interest is high. And then with six weeks to go, foot and mouth arrives in North Yorkshire, making many venues inaccessible, causing all walking to be prohibited and for the festival, the loss of over half the season, the relocation of many events, and attendance forecast to be 50% below expectations. Not the most auspicious of beginnings, notes Philip Parr.

What remained of the festival was deemed a great success, and in October of that year, when the immediate emergency was past, we presented a ?Festival plus? season. It was designed to bring back visitors, to make a contribution to the local economy, and very importantly, to keep faith with the artists ? while businesses may have had support funding, individual artists received little if anything.

The Swaledale Festival, situated in a beautiful and isolated area at the top of North Yorkshire, has been going for 25 years. In that time it has progressed from a weekend of music to a 17 day event with over 50 ticketed events and 30 free access events in around 40 venues. Our aim is to be a leading European chamber music festival. We are also a major arts provider to our local communities, which are up to 90 minutes? drive from the nearest regular performing spaces. Our work, in conjunction with Arts in Richmondshire, the new arts development agency for the area, is to tackle the question of access and local infrastructure. Participatory work for young people aged 12 to 21, work in schools, capacity building for community groups, and professional projects with real community involvement in their planning and execution are key. Mixing that priority with presenting national and international artists is the challenge ? and it?s one we relish.

And how do we do this? A week of string quartet performances in unusual public venues, from livestock markets to village greens and in the pub. Or a series of four choral concerts in each of the four Church of England churches in the dale, replicating the service music from their time of construction. In collaboration with the local communities, these became major community celebrations with not only the music but the whole event being themed ? from floral decoration to refreshments. And in the visual arts we?ve begun ?Art in the Pub?, where local artists show and sell their work in local pubs.

The aim is to develop what we call ?horizontal planning?, where artists are encouraged to develop a relationship with the local community, rather than arriving, giving a concert and leaving straightaway. A series of mixed chamber music concerts this year will be rehearsed and performed over a week, with artists able to visit schools and spend time in the area. We?re also in the middle of a series of four new commissions for the Fitzwilliam Quartet, one a year, which all have a Yorkshire theme and are designed to make a cycle of works.

Our venues are a limitation but also an opportunity. There?s no theatre or concert hall, and so performances happen in churches and chapels, village halls, pubs, youth hostels. Exhibitions go up on any available wall, from youth hostel corridors to the ice cream parlour. The story and history of the area adds to the experience. One of our great successes has been a 5.15pm series of one-hour solo instrument recitals in tiny spaces seating 50 to 60, such as St Matthew?s Church in Semerwater, a village which overlooks the lake and comprises eight or so houses, a church and a telephone box. The concerts are linked with an all-day walk, and for both audience and performer they become intimate, memorable events.

Isolation has its drawbacks. There are no major local businesses to approach for sponsorship. It?s difficult to attract other than local critics, and if travelling out is time-consuming for locals, it?s just as time-consuming to drive in. But the festival is building a loyal audience who enjoy the combination of culture and nature, and we look forward to many successful festivals to come.

Philip Parr is Director of the Swaledale Festival. t: 01748 880018;
e: info@swaledale-festival.org.uk