The Abbey’s gawky year
Review by NERISSA ROWAN
The Abbey Museum, Caboolture, Jul 7–8
Under a clear Caboolture sky on a chill July morning, the crowd trickles through the gates to watch brightly dressed dancers, shining knights and fine ladies parade in front of the façade of a castle. The atmosphere is pleasant and relaxed. This is what keeps me going back to the annual Abbey Medieval Festival in Caboolture.
Yes, I am a medieval hipster — I loved The Abbey before it was cool. Introduced to the event more than a decade ago, I’ve in turn introduced plenty of others, including my brother — now a re-enactor. Many friends and acquaintances have been involved as volunteers and performers, or simply make the annual pilgrimage to watch the blood sports.
Over the years the festival has grown — massive. With a great deal of support and sponsorship, and some well-earned tourism awards, The Abbey Tournament has become popular for people of all ages. According to official attendance figures, the crowd grew by more than 25% this year, bringing it to 37,302 people across the weekend.
If my visit on Saturday was anything to go by, this huge growth was unexpected. The Abbey’s growing pains took some of the shine of the experience for this die-hard fan.
In the lead-up to the 2012 festival I was — as always — spruiking the wonders of The Abbey to anyone who would listen. I bought tickets in advance, spent half the ticket price again on the Carnivale night event, and even dressed up in my finest. But this year, for the first time, I felt let down.
This is the third year the festival has taken place on purpose-built grounds, behind the original. Before 10am, almost an hour after the gates opened, the lines were enormous. The push to promote prepaid tickets has obviously paid off – both prepaid and purchase lines moving at a similar rate. Some people in the line yet to pay simply gave up and went home.
It’s fairly clear that if this growth continues, more volunteers will be needed on the gates — and a new way of thinking is required. A proposal through Facebook (suggested by a young boy – new blood brings innovation) suggested sending out wristbands before the event to avoid the queues. As it was, we missed the opening parade — our only chance to see all the re-enactors in the same place.
Seasoned visitors know to purchase their jousting tickets as soon as they walk in the gate, as the day’s three sessions rapidly sell out. At only $2 a seat, demand far outstrips supply. The jousting itself is great value for money — and even better this year as they doubled the number of passes per contest. However waiting in line for a half hour beforehand to ensure good seats cuts down what else can be enjoyed on the day, and many first-timers were disappointed to find they couldn’t experience the joust.
The festival continued to be plagued by issues of logistics. Vegetarian fare, for instance, disappeared quickly – ironic given the rarity of meat in the medieval diet. Though the Abbey can’t control the weather, we were left huddling under trees for shelter from intermittent downpours. Promises of 21st century communications – an iPhone app and social media engagement – didn’t come to pass, leaving Facebook and Twitter users in the Dark Ages.
There were still a lot of happy people around, even though the atmosphere was not as pleasant as I remembered. The fights were just as spectacular, the encampments as fascinating and the costumes as wonderful as ever. And had I left as the sun went down, I would have probably remembered it as fondly as any other year.
However, after paying $11 each for the evening’s hour-and-a-half Carnivale, my group felt compelled to stay — despite the rain, cold and lack of dinner. We shivered on the wet seats, peering into the semi-darkness. The gypsy wedding and exceptionally talented horse-vaulters were all but invisible once the sun went down. The highlight of my night was a flaming, fire-breathing dragon as part of the fire show. This would have made a great finale, but sadly it was wedged between vaulting sessions. A ten-minute transition was needed to put out the flames. By the time everyone was invited on to the field to dance, we were more than ready to leave.
The main festival, medieval banquets (of which there were two this year, to cater to demand) and kids’ day are all well organised and well attended. Perhaps it was the weather, or the fact that it was the first time the Carnivale had been held (though a popular evening event drew people in 2011 for a $2 entry), but this was the lowlight. Instead of the usual post-festival high, I left feeling poorer for having seen the show.
So what’s the verdict — will I go back? There’s no doubt of that. I know these problems can be worked through. The festival has faltered over steep growth, helped by a media push and increased sponsorship. It’s no longer a little fundraising event — it’s a huge drawcard for the region. The Abbey Festival has built up a good name over the years; it seems a shame for one year’s discontent to affect it. Perhaps the large amount of feedback directed to the organisers and discussed on social media will help improve the event for 2013.
I only hope there were not too many first-timers who were disillusioned by this year’s festival. They may be less forgiving of the growing pains than an Abbey addict like me.
As a poet, performer and writer, NERISSA ROWAN dabbles at the edges of Brisbane’s arts scene. She is on Queensland Poetry Festival’s Program Committee and reviews for Arts Hub.
NEMO THORX (photos) is a hybrid computer geek, circus performer, photographer and inventor. He hopes to add writer and various film making roles to this amalgam.