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Country festivals: a good deal with no strings attached

Friday 21 September 2007

Taking a lighter look at the rural economy, our countryside commentator John Sheard praises the organisers of rural festivals for the cash they bring into the local economy - and the fun and games they provide

I CAME across an intriguing statistic this week from a very strange source. And despite Mark Twain's famous riposte - "There are lies, damned lies and statistics" - it is one that I choose to believe. Even If it's wrong, it still brings some fun to the rural social scene, and we can never have too much of that.

The statistic involved rural festivals, some very old, some brand new, and the income they bring into the rural economy from visitors. And it is quite impressive: although these small local celebrations take a lot of time and not a little funding to organise, they actually run at a substantial profit for the area as a whole.

Skipton Puppets
Strange creatures in Skipton

Ever since foot and mouth revealed the fragility of the rural, farming-based economy ( hit once again this weekend: See News, Tuesday) the Yorkshire Dales have blossomed with new festivals added to old ones, some going back years, others lost in the mists of time.

For this information I am indebted to Liz Lempen and her Swiss-borne husband Daniel who are responsible for Skipton being flooded this weekend with wolves and worms, dwarfs and dragons, and other creatures I cannot describe.

This if the 2nd International Puppet Festival which, the couple hope, will establish the Dales as the most important celebration of its type in England. Most European countries, including Scotland, have such celebrations of one of the world's oldest art forms but dear old England was, until two years ago, bereft of such an event.

Skipton-based Liz and Daniel run the Lempen Puppet Theatre and travel widely throughout Europe to perform at such festivals, which are often held in small country towns. So a couple of years ago, they had what they call a "Eureka-moment" and decided the Skipton would be an ideal location for an English puppet-fest.

The first, two years ago, was new an exciting. This weekend's is even bigger and better, with performers from across Europe, whose transport and accommodation costs have to be met. That costs a lot of cash and the Lempens have spent the last two years raising £50,000 from the Arts Council, local councils, and business sponsors in the district, to whom they are deeply grateful.

The puppets add to a growing list of local events that bring the tourists flooding in, like the age-old Maypole Dancing at Long Preston, the well-established Grassington Festival and the Victorian Weekend at Kirkby Lonsdale, which was combined this month with a large farmers' market to great success, and a balloon rally at Barnoldswick.

To these can be added the scarecrow celebration at Kettlewell, Skipton's hugely popular waterways gathering on the Leeds-Liverpool canal, a country music gathering at Broughton, and a whole list of events at the Yorkshire Dales Museum in Hawes. As Christmas-approaches, we can look forward to Skipton's Medieval Market and Grassington's Dickensian festival.

There are many more - my apologies to any I have left out - but all have one thing in common: they are all organised by hard-working locals who give their time and effort free of charge and, in many cases, much of the money raised goes to charity.

events like the Skipton puppet festival...inject into the local economy seven times the sum they cost to stage

Sadly, as the economy goes into a downturn with a banking crisis, rocketing food prices and soaring mortgage payments, raising the seed-corn capital to stage these events will get harder in the next few years.

The Skipton puppet festival, for instance, gets its biggest grant from the Arts Council and, alas, its funds are already being milked to pay for the 2012 London Olympics, from which the North of England will gain not a penny.

And that's where my statistic comes in. The financial Ins and Outs of events like the Skipton puppet festival have been examined by hard-nosed money men and they have come up with a comforting conclusion: they inject into the local economy seven times the sum they cost to stage.

So these strange creatures lurking in Skipton this weekend could raise £350,000 for local shops, pubs, restaurants and B & Bs, not to mention what is raised by the, some say extortionate, council car parking fees. That's good business, which is a good reason to attend. But there's a better one: it's fun!

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