The Exmouth festival is an event that has been held annually for the past 26 years. It launched at the dawn of summer this year. On the last weekend of July, taking up three days filled to the brim with fun activities to entertain the whole family. As the website promotes ‘music, theatre, art circus, dance, food and drinks, workshop walkabouts’, this event was jam packed with things to do, suiting the needs of any audience, young and old. This year, the festival took to Exmouth in a way that they never had before. There were stages and workshops spread out all across the town, making their annual comeback bigger and better than ever. Founded in 1997, the Exmouth festival is dubbed as one of the biggest free arts festivals in the whole of the South West, and this year especially, it held up to that name.
Dave French, fifth generation crab pot maker, attended as part of the event, displaying his craft of handmade willow pots. He has attended many shows over the years, such as Plymouth seafood festival, Sidmouth Sea Fest and Bovey Tracey craft festival. Exmouth being one that he has attended consecutively over the past five years, since he was first invited. first heard about the Exmouth festival a few years back, when the event was still run by Derek Brookes and his wife. Born and raised in Budleigh, Dave is not only familiar with the area, but also holds it dearly to his heart. Exmouth being the port town and seaside resort, most famous for its long sandy beach and beautiful coastline, Dave has stuck closely to its seaside roots.
This year they changed the festival once again. They expanded the event, exceeding its presence past the Strand, and all over Exmouth town. Dave recalls that the event grew over several years, turned into a seafood festival, referred to as ‘Exmouth Mussel Fest’, before hitting a relapse when covid struck. This year, the event bounced back tremendously.
Dave was located in the Strand, displaying how he makes his willow crab pots to the left of the main stage, where acts and performances were held throughout the day, There were Otter Morris dancing, clog dancing, shanty singers, and many, many more acts portraying the musical and theatrical arts of the past.
North west morris dancing is a form of English folk dancing, it’s usually performed in sets of 8 dancers, although it’s also quite common to see sets of 6 to 12. These dances were originally processional, moving through the streets of the local town or village.
Otter Morris dancers like to draw attention to more than just their movements, their unique costumes are created to resemble the colours, patterns and textures of oak trees.
Another art that took to the stage throughout the day, consisting of male and female groups, was shanty singing. A genre of traditional folk song that was once commonly sung as a work song to accompany rhythmical labour aboard large merchant sailing vessels. Though there is currently no active use of sea shanties, a vast repertoire of such sailor songs is collected and presented to the world by sea shanty enthusiasts. Derek Brookes, mentioned earlier as the past director of the event, was a part of the Shanty singing group known as The Exmouth Shanty Men. Derek is still a very prominent contributor to the event’s planning and organisation.
Dave French did not attend the whole three days of the festival, -his hands would’ve been very sore otherwise!- Dave’s involvement is totally revelevent to the craft side of the festival. Sunday’s theme was heritage craft. Growing up in Budleigh and being local to the area, Dave feels a true connection to it. He believes events like this as a whole are ‘detrimentally vital’.
This is not only because they’re beneficial to Dave’s craft and his work towards reviving it and educating people on its history. Small areas such as Exmouth, depend on tourism. Anything you can do to bring people into these areas is vital. The two work hand in hand. With Exmouth being a fishing town, the history of fishing is likely to spark attention, particularly for an older generation, who remember the way things used to be. Dave plays a part in this with his handmade willow pots, which he, as a young child, used to watch his grandfather mend and make in the back garden of his home. There’s a nostalgic essence to the craft, which not only intrigues old but young as well. People are now paying attention to the issue of plastic and how it’s damaging our planet and sea life. Willow crab pots are believed to be a great solution to this issue, seeing as they are almost completely carbon neutral and 100% plastic free, made from natural materials only. People want to see things that are handmade rather than machine made, things made locally rather than imported from giant factories across the globe. Dave states, ‘The way forward is to learn from the past.’
Events like Exmouth Festival are notorious for benefiting the local communities as a whole. They attract crowds and tourists, which benefit local local shops, cafes and pubs. As a whole, they bring communities together.
When asked about the feedback from these sorts of events, Dave recalls how he is often recognised from different shows from across the whole of the South-West. ‘The public’s interest is not dying, if anything, it's growing.’ which gives Dave hope for the future of this critically endangered craft. Throughout the day, Dave is approached by many, many people, with all sorts of questions.
As crowds pass through the events, venturing from workshop to stall to stage, they see the gradual building of the crab pot. There are plenty of instances and opportunities for people to approach Dave and ask him questions. During these events, Dave does just as much talking as he does crafting! There’s often a repetition of questions, such as what it is that he’s making, the strain this process has on his hands, and the lifetime of a pot. A common misconception is that Dave is making a basket, which in a sense, he sort of is- an underwater basket!- Other times the pots are complimented as ‘beautiful’, to which Dave can’t really understand. This is because he’s grown up only ever knowing these pots as nothing more than a functional item. ‘No different to a sewing machine or something like that.’
Dave is always happy to answer questions and eager to converse about the pots and their history. He gets approached by a vast range of people, from the very young to the very old. It is appreciated when a younger audience is interested in the making of these pots, because it is afterall, down to their generation to carry this tradition. However, the older generation are just as appreciated. Many people who have grown up locally often remember the use of the crab pots from their youth.
Despite the day being shadowed by grey clouds and showered with intervals of light rain, spirits stayed high and the communal atmosphere was far from dampened! For as long as Exmouth Fest runs and for as long as he is able to, Dave said that he will ‘always be willing to work alongside the festival’.
Written by: Milla James.