As Napoleon cocked an eye at the disappearing Cornish coast, an ancient estate caught his attention. “Enfin, ce beau pays”, he was overheard to say. It was 1815, he was sailing into exile after Waterloo and the ‘most beautiful place’ in England was Port Eliot.
By that time, people had already been living at Port Eliot for about 900 years (Augustinian monks were there from 937 AD). It is, it seems, the oldest continually inhabited home in the UK. Until the 18th century, the house was approached by water, before the estuary was re-routed and landscape gardener Humphrey Repton created the gardens and park.
Now, at the end of July, Port Eliot Festival settles into the St Germans estate in south east Cornwall. From the time it started as a literary festival in 2003, Port Eliot had its mind on other things too and is now equally obsessed by music, words, food, fashion, flowers, science, walking, water and wildlife, influencing plenty in the intervening thirteen years.
An array of stages and venues, some of which may only be found with a map and a torch, nestle naturally into the woodland gardens and undulating park land. The walled garden becomes the Wardrobe Department, the great Round Room becomes a science lab and a cove by the River Tiddy becomes a living outpost of Caught By The River, the online gathering place for all who treasure nature, writing, music and very good beer.
Artists stay on site for the whole weekend and pop up all over the place, doing things they don’t normally do; recent years have seen Dominic West hosting a spelling bee and discussing cricket with Miles Jupp; Game of Thrones star Gwendoline Christie chatting about fashion in the Wardrobe Department and handing out prizes at the Flower and Fodder Show. Martin Scorsese has been known to choose the films and Evan Dando to help the W.I. with the festival’s flower show. It’s eclectic; this year will see Kim Gordon, Dawn French, Gloria Steinem. Ryley Walker, Bo Ningen, Bruce Robinson, Michael Morpurgo, Imarhan, Sara Pascoe, Noel Fielding, Beth Orton, James Acaster, Helen Dunmore, Nina Stibbe, Ali Smith and Andrew Weatherall on the bill, among many others.
The owners’ home is a big part of everything. The audience is invited inside and there is no green room or exclusive VIP priority nonsense. And, if any businesses are involved it’s because they bring something special with them; Polpo will build an authentic Venetian bàcaro on the exterior of the house and turn the 800-year-old Still Room into a production kitchen; the orangery will become a Comins Tea House; fashion maison, Chloé, will bring installations and performances; Cornish clothiers Seasalt will host workshops, and laid-back clothing company, hush, will show films in the evening.
Devon’s Oyster Shack will meanwhile bring fresh-off-the-boat seafood and the likes of The Shellfish Pig, Sipsmith Gin, fine wine merchants Le Vignoble and Skinner’s Brewery will all be there, along with fine Hawaiian burger and sandwich grill Kua’aina – I can vouch for their halloumi burger. At the edge of the site, under Brunel’s viaduct, is the (south) western Black Cow Saloon, and back at the top of the hill, the rum bar, Dead Man’s Fingers.
As big a draw as anything is Cornwall itself, with beautiful beaches at Whitsand Bay and Downderry, along with the Rame Head Heritage Coast nearby. As good a plan as any is to forget the line-up and just take in the atmosphere. Mobile phone reception is really no good at Port Eliot, so ditch it, plan nothing and see where you end up.
Port Eliot Festival runs from 28-31 July 2016 at Port Eliot Estate, St Germans, Saltash PL12 5ND. Images by Michael Bowles. For further information visit the website.