After two years of virtual events Folk Weekend Oxford returns to its full and fabulous form in 2022, with a jam-packed line-up covering many different aspects of the contemporary folk music world. Worried about your budget? There are lots of events you can attend for free, including those in the Covered Market and the Ashmolean Museum, and many ticketed events offer concessions or 'pay less' options. We appreciate that although many people will be FWO regulars, the two year gap will mean plenty of others who are new to the festival - or perhaps took up their instrument during lockdown. With this in mind one of our resident folkies has put together our top five tips for a fantastic Folk Weekend:
1) A bit of planning goes a long way
Folk Weekend Oxford is made up of events held throughout the city and its surrounding areas, and although Oxford is fairly small in size, it pays to check where venues are and plan your journeys. If you're going to be travelling around the city a lot, you might want to hire a bike - Bainton Bikes offer lots of hire options (including tandems and dog trailers). E-scooters have popped up all over town in the last couple of years - but you'll need to be over 18 and hold a valid driving licence to use them (if possible, register with the app in advance - see Voi Scooters for details). Driving in and around the city is often a pretty slow and expensive way to travel, so if possible try to use Park and Ride services.
2) Get involved in dances and sessions
If your festival focus is gigs, it's easy to miss out on the more 'immersive' bits of FWO - or perhaps you don't consider yourself enough of dancer or musician to join in. But sessions and dances are an incredibly important part of Oxford's local folk scene - and the best place to meet like-minded people, learn new moves and tunes, and broaden your musical horizons. Saturday morning's family and SEN ceilidh provides a lovely, gentle introduction to social dances, and balfolk events, such as the Reading Balfolk's Shivelight Duo at St Barnabas, usually include an informal workshop at the start, to help newcomers learn some simple steps.
Sessions can feel pretty intimidating, particularly if you're starting out on a new instrument or are unfamiliar with the repertoire. But they are also one of the best environments for learning, and building confidence when it comes to playing in a social setting. A few things you can do to ease into session culture include: choose a back-row spot where you won't feel self conscious if you're listening more than playing; focus on finding a few of the notes at first, rather than feeling you need to busk an approximation of the whole tune; play along quietly if you're unsure of the tune (easier done on the fiddle than bagpipes, admittedly); record tunes/sessions with your phone so you can learn them later; don't put any pressure on yourself to lead a tune - there will be gaps in between tunes at times, but other musicians will always have other tunes to share; and if you do find you've suddenly started a tune, try to keep breathing, keep playing and don't forget to signal when you're ready to finish it! Session etiquette varies from session to session - it's important to 'read the room' - and to choose those that suit your own preferences. One of the most inclusive and open-minded in Oxford is the 'Bastard English Session' (on Friday night of FWO) - which mixes trad tunes with pop classics in a uniquely ramshackle and raucous way.
3) Plan your pitstops
A lot of the Folk Weekend action takes place in pubs - and in an ideal world, everything would run smoothly and you'd time your pub grub to suit your music schedule. But in our experience, what actually happens is you forget to order anything, then realise you've got to be half way across town in 30 minutes. So it pays to have a few street food options in mind. Top of this list are Oxford's Covered Market and Gloucester Green Market (closed Sundays). Other gems include Najar's Place (for amazing Lebanese wraps) in St Giles' and delicious buckwheat galettes from the Crepes O Mania van (usually found in Broad St). In a real rush? Since 2019 Oxford has gained a new branch of Greggs - in Cornmarket, and the Cornish Kitchen is now only on Queen St but offers pasties, pizza slices and hot drinks, ready to go. It's also good to know that there are public toilets around the back of the Covered Market (on Market St), which are free to use, and excellent loos on the upper and basement levels of the Westgate Shopping Centre (particularly helpful if you need baby changing facilities).
4) Places for impromptu outdoor jamming
One of the loveliest things about a folk festival is playing tunes with friends old and new - but whereas 'regular' festivals have lots of space around showgrounds, campsites and beer tents where you can do this, a festival in a city is a different beast. Many of the 'obvious' spots in the city centre will already be taken by local buskers (Bonn Square, for example), and it's good to respect the needs of the city's wider musical community. However, locals do have a few gathering spots for informal outdoor sessions. University Parks are gorgeous, and close to the city centre - particularly good if you fancy popping into the Natural History Museum or Pitt Rivers (also handy for snacks and coffee!). South Park is great if you're heading to/from the Port Mahon or the Half Moon - and has some secluded spots further up, if you'd rather not have an audience. Oxpens Meadow is a stone's throw from the back of the Westgate, and has some lovely riverside spots. It's worth noting that BBQs and amplified music systems are generally banned from Oxford parks, and on sunny weekends these can be very busy places.
5) Musical emergencies
Sometimes plans... don't go to plan. Instruments get broken/left behind, the spare strings you swear were in the bag have gone AWOL, you're fed up of cadging rosin off fellow session goers, or you've suddenly decided to try taking up the mandolin - RIGHT NOW. The most comprehensive port of call for these scenarios is the awkwardly named PMT on Cowley Road. A bit of a trek from the city centre, but well worth a visit if you need spares at short notice (or, indeed, an impulse buy!). The Music Box (Cowley Road) is tiny and rather guitar-centric (i.e. not for everyone), and Blackwell's Music Shop on Broad St is geared more towards CDs, sheet music and gifts, but does sell rosin and a few other accessories.