Towersey Festival: 50 Years In The Making – What We Learnt…

Layout 1Things we learnt from Towersey Festival: 50 Years In The Making, by Derek Schofield, published by Mrs Casey Music and available to purchase from

  • Towersey village is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, when it was known as Eie, the Saxon word for island, indicating that the surrounding area was marshy. (It’s no longer marshy).
  • Towersey used to be in Buckinghamshire, but a boundary shift in 1933 nudged it into Oxfordshire.
  • St Catherine’s Church, which hosts several festival activities, has been on its current site since about 1150.
  • The festival’s original logo was a headless horseman. Legend has it that during the English Civil War a wounded cavalier sought refuge in Towersey only to discover it was a parlimentarian stronghold. So the villagers decapitated him. But the solider, buried in an unmarked grave with his horse, returns each midsummer evening to haunt the lanes…
  • The founders of the Towersey Village Festival were Denis Manners MBE (1920-2009) and Louis Rushby (1916-1998). Denis concentrated on the folk music and dance, while Louis looked after the village activities. Other key contributors were Sheila Manners, Jim Gleeson and John Higgins.
  • Towersey’s Memorial Hall was opened in 1925 as a war memorial to the 14 village men who had died in The Great War. The hall had buckets instead of toilets and one cold water tap. The festival was suggested as way to fund-raise for proper loos and a much-needed refurbishment.
  • The very first Towersey Festival was on 30 August 1965, Bank Holiday Monday, and included a village parade (with decorated floats and tractors), a cricket match, exhibition of children’s art, bowling, morris dancing, barbecue, and “singing and dancing”. The Oxford Mail reported that the organisers had been “completely overwhelmed” by the festival’s success and that it would “probably be annual event”.
  • 1966’s festival was expanded to three days and included The Ranters and The Yetties.
  • Folk duo Dave and Toni Arthur made their Towersey debut in 1967. In 1973, they gave a talk on witchcraft. Toni is best known by many of a certain age as a children’s TV presenter, appearing on BBC pre-school series Play School and Play Away.
  • A live album, Festival At Towersey, was released to favourable reviews in 1969.
  • The festival’s reputation rose rapidly. Of the 1973 bash, English Dance and Song magazine declared, “Towersey Village Festival has a fame quite disproportionate to the size of the place.”
  • Dennis Manners’ son-in-law, Steve Heap took over the organisation of the music events in early ’70s.
  • After playing cornet in a television programme, Spice Island, Farewell, Steve Heap performed in a band called Diana in the 1976 television series A Divorce. The lead actor was Polly James, star of hit comedy series The Liver Birds.
  • Steve Heap’s son, Joe – who took over as Festival Director in 2013 – toured the world in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar.
  • In 1969 and 1970, the festival included a son et lumière (night-time sound and light show) production entitled Cobweb Of Dreams.
  • A 1975 ‘Season Ticket’ for the entire festival, with camping, cost £5.
  • Two marquees were introduced in 1980: one for song, and one for dance! Both stages remain, with the Dance Tent now known as The Ceilidh and the Song Tent renamed The Big Club.
  • Eliza Carthy made her Towersey Festival debut in 1989 as part of The Watersons and The Waterson Women (aka The Waterdaughters). She made her first ever solo appearance anywhere at 1994’s Towersey, and has returned many times to the festival as part of Waterson: Carthy, Blue Murder, Imagined Village, The Ratcatchers, and with dad Martin Carthy. For 2014, she’s back as Musical Director of the one-off concert marking 75 years of Topic Records.
  • Musician Roy Bailey has appeared at 35 of the 50 Towersey Festivals, including the very first festival. In 2006, Roy became the Festival’s Patron. He’ll be back this year, on stage, to mark the 50th anniversary.
  • Cock and Bull have performed at the Towersey Festival over a longer period of time than any other ceilidh band. Their first appearance (as Hemlock) was in 1976, and they return to Towersey 2014 with their original line-up.
  • With a good ear for World Music, Towersey has welcomed performers from many different countries, including Bulgaria (Trio Bulgarka), Sweden (Filarfolket), Italy (Nidi d’Arac), France (Lo Jai), Mali (Ali Farka Touré), Gambia (Pa Jobarteh), and Tibet (Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts). The festival has also featured acts from Ireland, USA, Senegal, Hungary, Spain, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Boliva, Ecuador, Austria, Australia, Belgium, France…
  • Activities for children have always been part of the festival, but it wasn’t until 1980 that a separate Children’s Programme was produced, listing all the activities – from Morris Minors morris dancing workshop to drama activities. By the mid-80s, the Children’s Festival had expanded to include silly sports, football training, scarecrow building and a fun run.
  • Shooting Roots, the programme of events for teenagers and young people in their early twenties, was introduced to the Towersey Village Festival in 2002.
  • The early arrival of attendees eager to get a good pitch for their tents and make the most of the long weekend resulted in the programming of Thursday night events. The first Thursday night concert was in 1998 – Summer Night Jazz with The Jubilee Jazz Band. Later Thursday guests included Chas and Dave, The Commitments, Billy Bragg and (for 2014) The Bootleg Beatles.
  • Cartoons were first shown at the festival in 1981, continuing until 2005. Audiences of up to 800 would watch Roadrunner, Tom and Jerry and other classics.
  • The first time the main festival site was called The Showground was in 2006. The Showground is host to a variety of static and roaming performers, from storytellers and musicians, to jugglers, dancers and puppeteers.
  • The festival volunteers who are responsible for collecting the rubbish and keeping the site tidy are called The Towersey Wombles. They wear orange boiler suits.
  • Thame Youth Theatre’s 1996 festival production, The Prince, The Lady and The Travelling Players, featured music from local lad Rob Derring – now a famed stand up comedian.
  • In 1986, the festival was hit by Hurricane Charley, pulling tents from the ground and flinging them across the site.
  • In 1991 it was reported that the entire village was ablaze, prompting the swift arrival of the local fire service. It was in fact a purpose built ‘shanty town’ bonfire on the festival site, which was perfectly safe.
  • The after dark lantern procession through the village debuted in 1999.
  • The end of night sing-along of The Beatles’ Hey Jude became a feature in the late ‘90s, and is now a Towersey tradition! All together now: “La la la laa….”

About Towersey Festival 2014

Thursday 21 August to Monday 25 August 2014
Towersey Festival
Various venues, Towersey, Oxfordshire OX9 3QF

Headline acts include The Bootleg Beatles (Thu), Richard Thompson (Fri), Seth Lakeman, Lau and 75 Years of Topic Records with Eliza Carthy and guests (Sat), The Chipolatas Takeover Night and Urban Folk Quartet (Sun), Conservatoire Folk Ensemble and Nancy Kerr and James Fagan (Mon). Plus Real Ale and Cider Festival, Children’s Festival, food and local produce market, craft fair, theatre performances, spoken word, workshops, film screenings, dances and much more.

Day tickets from £30-£10, full festival from £135-£55, Showground-only tickets £8/£3. Selected discounts for Thame and Towersey residents. Car parking free.

Bookings: 023 8071 1818
Twitter: @towerseyfesti
Facebook: Towerseyfestival


Author Derek Schofield is available for interview.
Review copies of the book are also available upon request.

Read full press release: Towersey Festival: 50 Years In The Making.

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