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Festival of St Chartier

It’s a festival that’s unique for the generosity of spirit with which it is offered and that so much of it is entirely free.

Arriving at the edge of a stone built ancient village, we drive into the first of a series of meadows prepared for our camping, bounded by a sluggish river. There are white rather space-age looking toilets, showers, washing spaces. All of it, a notice tells us, is generously presented for your enjoyment by the festival committee.

‘Can all this really be free?’ I ask a householder whose home overlooks the meadow.

‘It is,’ he replies, ‘and best to find a good place to camp now because by tomorrow it will be tout a fait complet. There will be thousands.’

The International Festival of Instrument Makers and Master Musicians at Saint Chartier takes place every August amid green fields where Charolais cattle graze in Berry province in central France.

We drive down to the edge of the river. Across it, a field away, the fairy tale medieval castle of Saint Chartier rises above trees.

But if we camp here it may be a long walk back across the meadow and then round through the town to the castle? Or maybe there’s a way across the river? There is; a concrete sluice across the murky tree fringed water.

On the other side, flanked by planes, is an ornate miniature pinnacled building like those little churches in the wild west surrounded by a moat. Later I learn it is a mausoleum containing famous members of an old royal dynasty and a bishop.

Across the meadow, through a grey stone ivy fringed archway, and the entrance to the castle is ahead.

Today, entrance to the castle too is free. We wander round the extensive grounds, passing eleventh century barns and climbing tall steps to the castle entrance, overlooked by pinnacled towers. Far above us there are dangerous looking cracks in the castle walls and holes in the pepper pot turret roof with little ornamental slates that look to be set to spin down at any gust and slice off our heads, or at any rate a finger or two.

Today, all that’s free as well, and down in the narrow streets of the town there is a juggler, a troubador and a band playing. The Café Des Maitres Sonneures is full of musicians and outside the castle walls are five huge wooden stages, each big enough for a couple of hundred dancers. Later each of these will have a band on it playing, and there will be thousands of participants in the nightly bal which begins in earnest at midnight, and all of it free.

What other festival would not have a notice saying, ‘Access to Festival’ across the bridge? Here, one is left to make the delicious discovery by oneself.

And in these reclaimed streets from which traffic has been banned, what other country would not have an intrusive police presence escalating the prospect of conflict by their own nervy vibe.

My companions play bagpipes and fiddle. One of them is a key member of Pibau Pencader, a traditional Welsh pipe band. On her way here she’s picked up a traditional keyless oboe from Jonathan, its maker, in Cardiff. Both are from Tipi Valley and are part of that tribe of tent-dwelling music-playing nomadic people.

We’re looking out to see what other British musicians may be travelling on the night boat with us. We’re in the departure lounge at Portsmouth. With the natural pride and dignity that seems to be a feature of tent-dwelling people, there is a heated discussion going on at the ticket office. We already have our tickets but it is being suggested that we buy a further ticket reservation for a reclining seat at £4 each. My companions refuse.

I get my accordion out and we strike up a tune and are pleased to note that they have turned the musak off, but then a messanger comes from the ticket office, ‘I’m a musican myself but can you tone it down, we can’t hear the telephone.’

Once on the boat we realise how absurd the request was for there are very few people on board and literally hundreds of empty reclining seats. Anyway, the comfiest place to sleep is undoubtedly the floor.

Perhaps unwisely we’d elected to leave our cars in Britain and hire a car on the other side. So we’re foot passengers, the foot soldiers of modern travel. And what a huge amount of luggage – including our instruments – now lies in a pile in the departure lounge. All of this we’ll soon have to carry up the gangplank into the boat.

We’d doubted whether our old cars would be sure to make it driving down through half of France. For the price of taking our cars across we could hire a newer one the other side and it would be a diesel which would be cheaper in fuel. It was a falacy because we underestimated how difficult driving in an unfamiliar country can be. When I drove, my companions were terrified. Mirrors colliding with other vehicles, hubs being dented off against the curb. But not when being driven by me. At one roundabout, one of my companions grabbed my arm in terror, causing a dangerous swerve.

There is a bagpipe player under the trees, a very fine looking black-haired Scotsman-type look. In fact he’s a German with a mustache playing in the glade.

On the terrace outside the castle now the mayor is giving a speech through a microphone to 12 onlookers.

Round the castle are over a hundred stalls, tomorrow to be filled with instruments. In the street now closed to traffic the troubador on his barrel in medieval outfit with a hurdy-gurdy. He climbs on to the barrel. ‘Here I go again,’ he sings a bit in a very low voice, then he is playing Irish reels on the beautifully painted hurdy-gurdy, hundreds of years old. His eyes shut, he seems to go into a trance, over him wash all the sorrows of all the world.

The Germans were in the castle during the war. We don’t talk about that.

On a wheelbarrow a man gives a puppet show. An ancient crone peasant woman, smiling, gnarled walnut face. Her husband, funny dog devil gets behind little girl to suck out sins (?). The little girl starts crying and is rescued by her mum.

At long tables in the pubs Irish music played at ferocious speed. People are dancing in the crowded aisles. There is a green space out at back.

Morning: huge bowl of café au lait and croissants.

It’s getting hotter. The Italians are putting up an awning. They have cut saplings from a wood. Now the four beautiful women in their party each stands with a tall sapling from which the tarpaulin is stretched and the guys discussing which rope goes where.

Jason was playing Israel Movement on tape and a German woman came and asked us to turn it down as it wasn’t traditional music. We’ll give them a blast on the pipes, that’ll show them.

German woman, flaming red hair, and perky lass, rebellious. Used to play music, says her mother, but she was too lazy.

I make my way past the now empty stalls to the vast open air auditorium. This is the glamorous end of the festival. Four days access to the instrument makers stalls and all the concerts in the castle costs forty pounds.

I liked the Bottine Souriant (smiling boat) Band from Quebec, announced in Quebec Patois. The two trombones and trumpet play their chords in a circular motion as if kissing. There is the squat figure of the melodion player, huge fat belly, floppy peaked cap, usually plays sitting, sometimes standing resting the melodion on his belly.

The Marc Savoy Cajun Band. Marc sits in the middle smiling approval at the two standing fiddles as they play their melodies or at his wife as she sings.

Concoroda a Clauneddas, very long pipes played in mouth, rich sound from Sardinia. Rather stiff dances in peasant outfits.

Overhead the bats, brightly lit in the spotlights, flyout of the castle towers.

Other Bands

The bands I enjoyed most were on other stages – the band of Stefje Stokowski from Czechoslovakia – what looked like a whole pig by way of a bagpipe bag.

The Vagabonds.

The Instrument Makers Stalls

The Hungarian Gabon, hit with a stick.

Hungarian bird whistle seller.

Violin with bell like old gramophone.

Cacophony of stalls.

Laurie climbs in, gets bramble covered.

Learning the Bourée

Here too, another dance floor under the trees where dances are taught.

Dances from ...

Children’s dances ...

Lesson in the Camp

We go down to where a number of English are camped.

Heathens All.

Police have told them to put out their fire.

Lessons from Maya with the liquid laugh.

Sexy movements back and forth.

Playing in the Street

Stefan gets constantly drunk, passes out.

Laurie: ‘I came out to see which of my two boyfriends I really wanted to be with, but now here Frazer, a third, has turned up and I’m very fond of him too.’

A discussion late at night, whether women should make themselves available to be groped or not.

Frazer has given her a crystal which she throws into the sea from the tall boat on the way home.


Under the walls of the castle, five stages each dancing 200 people. Thousands crowd in. All acoustic under single light, single accordion, hundreds of dancers. Some dances everyone turns while square seems to be in motion.

The An Dro. Arms interlocked and little fingers interlocked and slow shuffle, hundreds dance sideways.

The Bourée, that eternally fascinating dance. Unlike our traditional dancing has a place for rejection and flirtation. I had first seen it danced at Kinnersley Castle in Herefordshire.

Four times the revolving approach mirrors how we are thrown in each other’s paths and sometimes give the glance of warm appraisal and celebration or sometimes ‘can’t cope’, or ‘I’m tied up’, or ‘I’m busy’. Then the resolution as each revolves round each other. Different to our own traditional dancing which only allows for celebration.

On a church porch Gallician group two women arms held high, intricate steps. They are replaced by squat fat drunk whose legs pound as if thrashing the road.

The high pipes squeaky, smallest possible.

Dancing starts in earnest at midnight, the sombre castle walls overhead. A face at the castle window, Jason. He has heard us playing.

We’re playing outside the pub in the street. Huge crowds. And combining and uniting us all is music ...

Visit to Vique

I walk out to the next village along flower strewn paths. The frescoes: Last Supper, everyone has haloes except one - disconcerting, Christ upside down, a last picture. Some dragon like horses. Man with hat like wooden box. Man with pleated sticking-out accordion skirt.

On the way home in the departure lounge at Caen we play. The ticket staff send compliments on the music.

Back in Britain. In a Little Chef, the salad has dirty cucumber as if dropped on the floor, lettuce leaves floppy, two black hairs. Coffee weak as piss. Make a complaint. It is explained to us that the food is sent from central depot, all the staff do is serve it. Could that have happened in France? Some things we don’t do so well in England.


Showers discharging into river.

In bar: ‘Why the black valley?’ George Sand’s name for it, so many trees.

Ancient family descended from old kings still live in castle.

Peni’s collision with curb splitting two wheel hubs.

Instruments – diatounic accordion, Piercing high whistles, hurdy gurdies

Falling into river, Stefan on way back, and Laurie.

At the town’s spring, going to get water.

When dancing, I go hurtling off stage.

6 a.m. on 14th July, people still dancing.

Peni: ‘Guy picked me up, whirled me round, wouldn’t let me down.’


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