“The next song was written the last time we were here on the island,” says the singer, raising her pint. “It’s called ‘When It All Gets Too Much, You’ll Find Me On Sark.’”
I arrived off the boat from Guernsey only two days ago, but it’s been ample time to relate to the song’s sentiment. Sark moves in slow motion. It’s an island with no cars, no streetlights and no cashpoints. In summer, wildflowers and greenery cover much of its 4.5 square miles. The beer’s cheap, the campsites are sleepy and the coastline hides all manner of pretty cliffs and coves; so as somewhere to go to forget about the daily grind, it’s got the right attributes.
I’m here for the Sark Folk Festival. Once a year, the island’s population trebles from 600 to 1,800 to accommodate three days of fiddles, ceilidhs and rootsy foot-stomping. For the locals, who rely on summer tourism for the bulk of their income, it’s as joyous an occasion as it is for the festival-goers. (Incidentally, it’s a non-profit event but sells out very quickly – this year’s tickets have long gone – so it’s worth staying abreast of 2015 updates on the official website).
There are informal or impromptu gigs around the island, mainly in Sark’s handful of pubs and restaurants, but the bulk of the entertainment takes place on the festival site itself, a meadow perched high above the sea on the southwest coast. It draws you in at midday, fills you with music, fresh seafood and Channel Islands cider, then sends you tottering back down dusty lanes in the moonlight, bicycle lights wobbling into the night as stars fill the sky.
The location alone makes it one of the more remarkable events on the summer festival calendar, but so too does the lack of pretension. The performers are well-known folk-scene musicians and the crowd’s young and thirsty, but it’s not hip in the Shoreditch sense, nor is it trying to be. This is Sark, after all. A visit here still feels like stepping into an Enid Blyton tale, not least when you spy the ‘castle’ that broods over the tiny neighbouring island of Brecqhou, home to the locally unloved Barclay Brothers.
From a field at the bottom of the festival site, there’s a far-reaching view over Guernsey, Jersey and Herm. I join the sunset-viewers on the last evening and watch as the waters of the English Channel slowly turn to flame. In the marquee behind us a ceilidh band is playing at full pelt, but out at sea all is calm. A couple of cormorants are heading home for the night, black shapes against the orange of the sunset. We’re closer to France here than we are to England – and not especially far from either – but for these few days at least, both seem worlds away.