Last year saw the inaugural Autumn Fest at Blenheim Palace and, as the Palace’s website states, “Harvest is the perfect time to come together with our community and share the enterprising projects at Blenheim and across the region, including initiatives to support declining bee and insect populations, woodland renewal and clean waterways alongside many others that look to an exciting, sustainable future.”
This year’s ‘Fest’ takes place over the first weekend in October. Organiser Charlotte Lloyd-Webber spoke to B4’s Richard Rosser about the successes from year one, plans for this year and the long-term future of the event.
“Last year was incredible given it was planned in the thick of COVID, but now, a year on with even more challenges facing all of us, Autumn Fest is a great opportunity to get back to basics and celebrate nature. Blenheim is such a landmark and is so significant to so many for so many reasons that it’s the perfect location for an event like this which brings the community together and reinforce the bonds which are going to be so important for all of us as we face a difficult future.
“The idea for the event was originally taken from the ancient tradition of harvest festival which celebrated food, which is clearly a big issue for the world right now.
We’re all beginning to understand that we need to import less food and we need to grow more, we need to be more self-sustaining, and genuinely sustaining. So, it’s an opportunity to create an environment that’s really welcoming and entertaining, but at the same time, it’s educational.
“But, rather than it being a lesson in anxiety, it’s more about hand-holding and helping everyone to understand that there are things we can all do, no matter what age or background.”
As a society, we are having to face up to so many issues all at once and we’re in a period of discovery which, as Charlotte points out, we are better off facing collectively.
“We have to look out for each other and we have to think responsibly, about how we live and what we consume. But there’s a way we can do this and enjoy ourselves and that’s the heart of Autumn Fest.
“There are some great ecological and environmental projects which are highlighted in a light touch way. For example we have some wonderful colonies of wild bees, a population which is in decline which highlights declining insect populations generally, in this country and all across the world which is devastating. Many people don’t realise that this miniature kingdom supports our own, without which we don’t have any food. We’re delighted to have the pleasure of Blenheim’s resident bee expert, Filipe Salbany, who will telling more.
“We have to look at ways to bring the natural part of our ecosystem back and the walled garden, which used to be the ‘food larder’ of the Palace which fed the community, is the ideal place to start.
“We’re working with a lovely organisation called ‘Worthy Earth and they have created what’s called a ‘no dig plot’, which is a form of regenerative farming, which is very different to the much more destructive, intensive farming that we’ve all become so used to. They’re already growing loads of wonderful vegetables and there’s also the orchard there. Jericho Kitchen is a local cookery school and they’re taking produce straight from the garden, and celebrity chef Ursula Ferrigno will be creating wonderful dishes with it and serving it up over the course of the two day festival with some other great local food providers including Fallow & Field, Fink Street, White Horse Pizza, Flying Cows, Platinum Pancakes, Desi Food and Nutmeg & Thyme, all of whom are interested in sourcing their products locally, and just going about their business in a much more sustainable kind of way.
“Oxford social enterprise brewery Tap Social will be running the bar with a focus on unusual non-alcoholic beverages as well as delicious local beers, ciders and the Blenheim gin created by local distillery Sky Wave and fresh apple juice pressing and tasting from Tiddly Pommes.
“There will be a host of super fun games, local music, theatre from the WhatNot Theatre, the fabulous Vegetable Nannies from Plunge Boom and the incredible Chivaree Circus will perform Saturday’s finale alongside many further entertainments and activities for all ages. There are also lots of author talks organised by Abingdon based Mostly Books.”
Fiona Stafford, author of ‘The Long, Long Life of Trees’ commented.
“I’m delighted to be part of the Autumn Festival at Blenheim. It’s a time of year when trees are bursting with bright berries and fruit, when their crowns are glowing in rich colours, when the bees are glutting themselves in the later summer sun. No wonder it’s a favourite season for writers – and where better to be immersed in autumn richness than among the trees at Blenheim.”
Although Autumn Fest is open to the public over the weekend, the Thursday and Friday see exclusive access to local schools, explains Charlotte. “There are lots of workshops for the children including a theatre workshop called the “Insect Game Show”, insect mask making, opportunities for the children to understand how vegetables are grown, how we eat them, how best to consume them and what to do with waste. There are also lots of games lined up like climbing the giant hale bale pyramid, hobby horse racing and loads of other fun things to do.”
Allyson Austin from Sunningwell School of Art explains more about what the School will be doing at Blenheim.
“It will be Sunningwell School of Art’s second year at the Blenheim Autumn Festival. We are running our colourful and creative workshops for school children and families at this year’s event which are all centred around the wonderful wildlife at the Palace. We will be looking at spring water and water systems, the Blenheim rare bee colonies, bugs, Barbastelle and Lesser Horseshoe bats and other animals that call the grounds of the Palace their home. We’re making mobiles, headbands, and lanterns from recycled materials …. and we are hoping for lots of sunshine to make some shadow drawings outside! Autumn Fest gives us a chance to learn about the environment in the environment.”
So what were Charlotte’s big successes from year one?
“Community spirit, without doubt. It is an opportunity for families and friends across all generations to get stuck in and really explore and participate directly. That was a real eye-opener for me, wandering around the site you didn’t see anyone, including teenagers, on mobile phones because they were bored, it was fantastic. Everybody was doing something, engaging and absorbing really useful information.”
What are the long-term ambitions for Autumn Fest?
“In terms of numbers, we were really pleased to attract around 4,000 people a day and even though it’s an outdoor event and we pray for good weather, we’re confident the weather won’t deter too many. Our ambition has to be to grow the event year on year and we’re hardy souls us Brits so we’re confident we can at least match last year’s numbers. In future years I see events like this being increasingly important for all of the reasons we have already discussed. We have to change our habits and events like this are going to be crucial as a way to educate, inform and influence the way we live our lives while crucially still coming together in a vibrant and celebratory atmosphere”.
Dominic Hare, Chief Executive of Blenheim Palace added.
“We’re very proud to host Autumn Fest for the second year. It’s not only a fun event for all but it’s crucial that everyone, no matter what age or background, understands how we can help each other and the planet we live in to recover and thrive. Autumn Fest strikes that balance of enjoyment and education brilliantly. We look forward to seeing you.”
You can view and book on to the exciting talks and workshops at the link below. Blenheim Annual Pass holders gain free access to Autumn Fest.
Sunningwell Art School. Tap Social Bar. “No-dig” regenerative garden from Worthy Earth with Good Food Oxfordhsire. The Fairie Orchard with Cider bar and Tiddly Pommes Apple Juice Tastings & Pressing. WhatNot Theatre, The Wonderful World of Insects Game Show. Circus walk about performers and family circus skills workshops. Saturday finale with Chivaree Circus. Plunge Boom’s super fun Vegetable Nannies. Expert talks including Professor Dave Goulson, Rob Cowen, Leisa Stewart-Sharpe, Charlie P. Brooks, Jen Gale, Fiona Stafford and Kate Hughes, weaving & bead workshops, honey, gin and chocolate tastings. Michaelmas Independent Market – 50 traders supporting best sustainable local produce, Blenheim Emporium, Delicious artisan food stalls. Hook Norton shire horse wild foraging. Family games & entertainments. Harvest Sports Arena. Giant Hay Bale Pyramid. Sculpture Trail from the Oxford Sculptor Group. Pop-ups from Blenheim forestry partner Nicholsons, Animalltea, Sustainable Woodstock & Good Food Oxfordshire, Proudfoot & Co. Scarecrow Competition & Wishing Bugs. Photography & Mindfulness Walks. Live Music. Late opening to 19.30 Saturday.
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