Waddesdon Manor: Feast Festival
"People expect top quality, even if it’s served in a disposable box."
This month Waddesdon Manor’s Feast Festival will take place for a third year, boasting the layered cakes of Barefoot Kitchen, Dinton Wines’ sparkling produce, and smoked and flavoured goats cheese from Dockwoods – all served amidst an assortment of theatre, music, and dance.
Sam Bennett spoke to Simon Wales, Waddesdon General Manager, to find out more about the event that last year welcomed 11,000 visitors.
Where did the idea for Feast Festival come from?
Feast does reference Waddesdon’s beginnings and past. Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild (who had Waddesdon built) had these infamous ‘Saturday to Monday parties’; so this was a house that was built for hospitality and grand entertainment. Politicians, members of the Royal Family, the great and good of society, Queen Victoria – all these people came to Waddesdon, and they received lavish hospitality. So it has always been a place for food, wine, and entertainment.
Separate to that there is another thing that is well-known in the history of Waddesdon called the ‘Baron’s Treat’. This was something that Baron Ferdinand laid on for the local villagers. It was a day of fun and games, a bit like a village fete, held in the grounds of the manor. It was to invite the local community in for a wonderful party.
So we thought it would be nice to create a new contemporary summer event, but really tying it back to the past and some of Waddesdon’s original happenings.
Waddesdon Manor is always focused on food, as well as its art exhibitions. This can be seen in aspects such as the restaurant and the new Treaterie. Feast is like an extension of that focus.
It is. Of course the collections and the exhibitions are hugely important. But we are celebrated for food, and very well known for wine – the Rothschilds are hugely involved in the development of some of the best wines in the world. So it did seem right to have food and drink at the heart of one of our big events.
What about people’s attitudes to food generally, the way they talk about it, how much they know – has all that changed in recent times from your point of view?
I think people’s expectations have gone up, that’s for sure. If you think about the food on offer at a festival 15-20 years ago, it would have been burger vans and chips – maybe some noodles if you were lucky. Now there are whole festivals dedicated to food expertise – think of something like Alex James’ and Jamie Oliver’s Feastival, which was something we went to look at when we were thinking of doing Feast Festival (to look at what people would be drawn to). People expect top quality, even if it’s served in a disposable box, in a field. And people are more knowledgeable about food these days, they’ve got more personal experiences of different cultures.
So we want it to be good, we want there to be good options on offer. People’s expectations and knowledge will continue to increase, and that’s good because it means you’ve got an interested and inquisitive audience.
How do you choose what food and drink to have at the festival?
Within our team there are some of us who focus on the performance like me, and there are some who focus on the food and drink. I personally don’t get to go out to lots of other lovely events and sample everyone’s wares, and then invite them to come to Waddesdon. But our team who focus on the food (not only at Feast, but also at the Christmas Fair and the new Artisan Food Market) are out almost every weekend somewhere in the country, just looking for the one or two providers who they think would be right for Waddesdon.
I’m delighted that Feast has grown, we’ve got over 70 stalls this year. A lot goes into it and it’s really important we get the right mix. If we had lots of stalls all selling the same thing, they’d all be very unhappy because they wouldn’t sell. And our audience would be saying: “Where’s the variety? You promised us a banquet of experiences…”
What performances can we look forward to this year?
What we have done up to now is have an entirely new programme each year. We’ve had people say: “Oh, you must bring so-and-so back, they were fantastic.” Between years one and two, we very deliberately didn’t do that because we wanted the experiences to be new, and we wanted to try new things.
But there were a couple of performers last year who were so fantastic that we have invited them back. One of them is Bicycle Piano by Rimski. Rimski is a multi-tasker; he plays and sings, which is not unusual in itself – but he does it whilst cycling. He’s playing the upright piano and singing, on a bicycle. The piano is moving along, it’s very perplexing, quite alarming, and really extraordinary. There’s also Tea Club by Axial Dance. Trixie and Tilly are very eccentric tea ladies with massive tea cups on their heads. They’re wheeling this trolley around, talking to each other. But if you happen to be there watching them, suddenly they’ll start talking to you. Then they start singing, and then there’s dancing involved. It’s all a bit 1920s, Charleston, foxtrot style. They’re absolutely charming, and very funny.
Almost everyone else is new this year and there are some really extraordinary pieces, including a very spectacular dance piece right in front of the manor called Block (by Motionhouse and NoFit State Circus). If you think of giant Jenga tower, seven metres tall, that is what the dancers are dancing within and on top of – and then the whole thing collapses.
I didn’t realise Feast was such a spectacle…
This is a large event. If we’re going to do something, we want it to stand out, and have its own personality – and we want to grow audiences. For this third year of Feast we really hope people who might have heard about it, that it’s a good event, will come and really find out for themselves.
Feast Festival is at Waddesdon Manor 17-18 June.
Top Image – Photo by Kathy Chantler © National Trust, Waddesdon Manor
Below – Photo by ChenxiNi © National Trust, Waddesdon Manor
Bottom – Bicycle Piano by Rimski. Photo by Kathy Chantler © National Trust, Waddesdon Manor
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