Festival of fun

Wherever you are in the world there is bound to be a festival going on. In the UK, summer is the festival season, and many smaller and independent ones can be little gems worthy of our attention and great to experience, especially those with an arts and cultural theme.

In Festival of fun (parts one and two) we headed for two festivals to discover what they offer and how you can capture their atmosphere in your photographs.

Part one: Festival season is a chance to have some fun, so Monty took us first to North Berwick on Scotland’s the East Lothian to experience Fringe by the Sea, a smallish festival on at the same time as the more famous Edinburgh Fringe.

Fringe by the Sea

The little coastal town of North Berwick, nestled near the entrance to the Firth of Forth, overlooks several small islands, including the seabird sanctuary of Bass Rock. It’s also home to the Scottish Seabird Centre, situated by the harbour where the fishing boats set off from and marine adventure tour boats depart for the islands.

Each year it hosts Fringe by the Sea, an arts and culture festival which combines talks, music, comedy, dance, food, drink and much more. The festival is relatively slow-paced and lasts about ten days, but there’s plenty of variety each day, with various activities to cater for all, including kids.

The festival’s focal point is the Lodge Grounds, a sizeable park less than a 5-minute walk from the harbour and the long sandy beach. Most events take place here, but there are others at locations spread throughout the town as well.

We visited for a couple of days. It was a long drive to get there, but not a difficult one, and it was all worth it when we parked up on the cliffs overlooking the beach, the town and the sea, with the Firth of Forth and the coastline to the north stretching into the distance. Looking to the southeast, Bass Rock stood like a white monolith in the ocean. What a spot!

The view of North Berwick and Bass rock from the cliffs

The walk along the seafront was about 15 minutes from the cliffs to the heart of town and the festival. Activities started before midday and ran right through into the evening. During this time, food and drinks stalls catered for all tastes and, with the town close by, a change of scene and different options were on hand and easily accessible.

Admission to the fringe is free, as are some of the events. The more significant headline events are ticketed, although prices are very reasonable. If you want to do something in particular, it is advisable to book, even for the free ones, as there are sometimes limited spaces and most sell out in advance.

It was interesting to see how environmentally conscious the festival was. Aside from plenty of recycling bins for every category of rubbish, there was an obvious awareness of the environment, mainly plastics and ocean plastics. But it was rather lovely to see all this visible as a matter of course rather than in a preachy way. The town’s position on the coast and the marine and bird life it experiences make it particularly important to have and act on this awareness.

The festival and town have strong focus on plastics, especially those retrieved from the sea, and recycling

Our visit started with an initial exploration of the town and discovery of what the Fringe had to offer. Then fate took a hand. Megan McCubbin, the zoologist, TV presenter – you’ll know her from BBC’s Spring Watch –  and a TPOTY judge, was one of the speakers at the event, so we’d ensured we were there for that. However, sitting in the Big Top about 15 minutes before this session started, we noticed a racing bike (pedal-powered) on the stage by the speakers’ seats. That seemed strange until we realised that Megan’s talk was the next day, and we were waiting for endurance cyclist Mark Beaumont to join us!

Chris’s stupidity was an accidental stroke of genius, not that he’s taking any credit for it. 

Listening to Mark talk about his adventures and motivations was a revelation, one of the most inspiring discussions we’ve heard in a very long time. As a result, Eye for the Light hopes to be doing more with Mark in the future.

The rest of the day, we focused on some smaller events and absorbed the atmosphere and some food and drink before taking in the town and the Scottish Seabird Centre. 

North Berwick is a friendly place. A small but beautiful wildflower bed is in the middle of the venue site. Whilst photographing it, we talked to a delightful local, a young woman called Isobel. She was born there but, until the last few months, had spent a lot of time away. Now she’s back to stay and told us about the town, its immediate environs and East Lothian.

The Scottish Seabird Centre

Our day two was much more action-packed. Megan’s talk was fascinating, as expected. After her book signing for her new book, The Atlas of Endangered Species, we met up at the Scottish Seabird Centre to chat about her work. We hope to review the book shortly. 

Whisky distiller Glenmorangie, although based a lot further north, was running some masterclasses. The one that particularly caught our eye was the whisky tasting with food pairing. For many people, you have whisky with ice or water, if not on its own, but whisky with food can be excellent.

For those who don’t know, Glenmorangie whiskies tend to be smooth, not heavy on the peat and have a smokey flavour, which can be a more acquired taste and puts many people off. Their standard 10-year-old original whisky sample is relatively mellow. It’s aged in oak barrels and worked well with an oat cracker, feta cheese, and orange. It is fascinating, though, to experience how the flavours change and intensify with food. 

This standard one is pleasant but by no means a favourite whisky. The second sample was Lasanta. After distillation, this whisky is aged 12 years in barrels that previously contained sherry. The difference in flavour is startling. It has much more depth, and the taste of the sherry has pleasant undertones. No whisky tasting in Scotland would be complete without haggis, so that was the treat, again on an oat cracker, waiting for us. It worked well, and even more, flavours burst through.

The art of whisky tasting and food pairing under the guidance of Glenmorangie

This comparison was a good illustration of how many different tastes whisky has. It always makes us smile when someone says ‘I don’t like whisky”. That’s like saying I don’t like cheese or fruit. There are so many different types and tastes, and that’s before you start making them into cocktails.

The final tasting whisky was the £200 a bottle Signet. By no means the most expensive in the Glenmorangie range but certainly one of the more exclusive. This was a very different beast. The barrels it aged in include ones previously used for bourbon and sherry, with chocolate and charred oak playing a vital role in production. The result is a sweeter whisky with a strong coffee smell and undertones of mocha in the taste. For this one, the food pairing of chocolate brownie. For anyone who likes chocolate with whisky, this was a delight.

Contemporary art dance performance on North Berwick beach by Dudendance

After the whiskies had hit the spot, we returned to the seafront for something very different, performance art on the beach by Dudendance. As the light waned, the spectacular setting and backdrop made it well worth attending. Everyone who’d signed up was issued an iPod and headphones to provide a musical context to the performance. There was a fair amount of cynicism pre-performance about how this would pan out, but it was enchanting.

It was great to see the kids intrigued by these strange figures and getting involved

With the evening’s other music and comedy events – and there were some top acts amongst them – having already started by the time this one finished, and a hunger erupting, the call of fish and chips was loud, so it was off to the North Berwick Fryer for a portion of haddock. To sate the hunger pangs, half of this was eaten on the sea wall by the beach. The rest ventured back to the cliff tops to be consumed in Monty with that spectacular view. Of course, the meal was completed with another wee dram – it would have been rude not to – and a lovely chat with the other wild campers enjoying a little piece of heaven.

So, was Fringe by the Sea worth the visit? So many festivals are all-consuming, but the beauty of this one was that it wasn’t. If you wanted to do back-to-back events at the heart of the festival, you could, but it was also lovely to pick and choose those of genuine interest and be surprised by others but still have time to enjoy what the town has to offer and the wonderful setting. Much like the waves on the beach, the festival had a rhythm, and once we’d tuned into it, it was an altogether enriching experience.

All images © Chris Coe


By Chris Coe

Chris is a professional photographer, and the founder of Travel Photographer of the Year. He has been working as a professional photographer since 1992, shooting both editorial and advertising photography, and has published over 50 books. He lectures on and teaches photography, mentors and is a competition judge.