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Bridport, cultural heart of the Jurassic Coast

— July 2012

Associated media

Locals celebrate the Spirit of Bridport

James Fenton reports on a current art festival in a picturesque part of England

Among the crop of south-west museums, galleries and cultural venues passing the blueprint stage in recent years, certain themes prevail: these new cathedrals of inspiration are often positioned as centres of local regeneration, tempting stampedes of art lovers, history buffs or families eager for something different, spending their pennies in towns or cities previously only seen from train windows or on signs above motorway tailbacks.

Others are more exercises in merited ebullience than redemption: cultural collections being dusted off for greater public exposure granted by a futuristic new venue, or galleries and projects devoted to underappreciated aspects of heritage.

Bridport needs neither rejuvenation nor hype. In fact, you can understand why some of its 13,500 residents have reacted a little wearily to the rather haphazard tag of Notting-Hill-by-the-sea occasionally afforded to descriptions of their Dorset domicile.

The town's most famous musical daughter, PJ Harvey, has a connection with the place strong enough to avoid any accusations of opportunistic name-checking: 'Let England Shake', the rurally attuned masterpiece with which the singer won the Mercury Music Prize last year, was recorded in a local church in five weeks during 2010, a favour from the owner which she repaid by returning for a gig at the end of that year, playing to 200 people in the snow on an evening which sounds like the sort of folklorically magical thing many of her songs resonate so atmospherically.

Bridport's centre is an energetic and thriving one, buzzing most noisily during a twice-weekly market originally set up under the Royal Charter of King Henry III, and overseen these days by a council determined to ensure prominence for local traders. The Saturday market is particularly noted for books, food, quirky antiques and a wide selection of stalls that draw sellers and visitors from across the south west.


It’s exactly this diversity that arts planners have been most intent on repeating this summer, when they launched the first Spirit of Bridport Festival of Culture, a 16-day celebration running from 11–27 August.

The Festival complements the Cultural Olympiad, the creative accompaniment to the Olympics, and any doubts over its potential are quickly soothed by the lineage of other successful festivals already established in the town. These range from the Bridport Literary Festival (grown from the revered Bridport Prize, originally created by the town’s Arts Centre almost 40 years ago) and the hugely popular Bridport Food Festival, to the annual film fest ‘From Page to Screen’, which makes the most of the town’s Electric Palace, a Grade II-listed art deco marvel with equally inimitable acoustics.

Hats meanwhile take over the town for three days a year in a deluge of nifty headwear which surely lays claim to being one of the country’s most singular festivals. In a nod to local industrial history, the £500 prizewinner of last year’s competition for the best 'bonce-fashion' was even made out of rope.

The programme for the Festival of Culture catches the eye with some pretty distinctive ideas of its own. Eype, the church where Harvey recorded that album, is one of the hosts in a sprawl of open studios and art through the streets, including a series of 'cutting-edge' creative shows in shops.

'Lectures on Everything' are being held in a barn, there are poetry nights on the beach, film nights take in Dr Who and the Olympics via France, Italy and India and there’s a big gig at the Palace and Arts Centre, headlining a music line-up with two main stages, a 'Vinyl Saturday' and live bands in Bridport's infamous Bucky Doo square.

Championing PJ Harvey's legacy will be the fiery salsa rhythms of Columbian legend, Roberto Pla, the evocative sound of Elijah and Ava Wolf and alt-rock riffs from Lucy9mm and a host of other global and home-grown music stars. Bridport's summer air and charismatic music venues will reverberate to an incredible line-up, while the town's streets are brought to captivating life by buskers, poets and street performers.


Marking Bridport's love affair with food that's attracted everyone from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and Matt Follas to Mark Hix to set-up in the region, a mouth-watering Food Festival takes place on the town's Millennium Green. Sponsored by award-winning Denhay Farms, produce from in and around Bridport that's been such a magnetic lure for visitors, townsfolk and rising chefs over the years will be widely celebrated. Looking to the future, Dorset's Michelin-starred chef, Russell Brown runs a 'pop-up kitchen challenge' inspiring fledgling chefs to create menus and innovative new kitchen and dining services. 

Bridport's energetic art scene meanwhile is thrust into the spotlight with a dramatic Open Studios programme interwoven throughout the 16 Festival days. This sees ground-breaking Bridport artists throw open their studio doors to reveal paintings, sculpture, ceramics, furniture, photography and illustrations.

Heritage-wise, an illuminating exhibition on ropes and nets adds to the sense of local emphasis. While skittles, cider and the spectacular Bridport Carnival, famous for its torchlight procession, look impossible to resist.

There will be far-reaching consequences for these cultural celebrations. Olympic Games events actually took place 12 miles away in Weymouth and Portland and the eyes of the world have swept the region, so the timing is perfect for Bridport to be recognized for its cheeky humour and downright sense of fun.

‘Notting Hill’ or not, Bridport sits at the cultural heart of the Jurassic Coast, the beautiful 95-mile expanse of coastline-hugging rocks it's part of. Despite the ability to instantly quicken the pulse with dramatic scenery, until now Bridport's art, heritage and culture has never been galvanized under one event. This year's Festival of Culture will shine the light on Bridport, drawing the community together and celebrating all that's great about Bridport life.

The town's charm and cultural successes have never been in doubt. Given an international stage, its noisy, creative, colourful response will make Bridport's appeal and wealth of talent, visible to a wider audience than ever before. Throughout the Festival a magical thread of excitement will unite individuals and the community; connecting the past and present, to inspire future possibilities.


James Fenton
Isle of Purbeck, UK

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