Boathouse 4 Summer Festival: A Ship That Already Sailed

Aiming to celebrate traditional and heritage crafts, Boathouse 4 welcomed the public into the Historic Dockyard, free of charge, for 3 days of family festivities between 4-6 August.

Featuring demonstrations from Groundlings Theatre and the Fort Cumberland Guard and activities including boat-building, wool-spinning and leather-working, it seemed too good to be true. I found the Boathouse 4’s page on Facebook and booked a ticket as they suggested.

I had missed Friday’s programme so decided to visit on Saturday instead. Lots of pictures and videos had been posted on the Facebook page of choir singers, a lady spinning wool and two men with a humongous saw cutting wood. It looked lively, unique and exciting. The first weekend of August seemed to be a weekend of cultural celebration in Portsmouth. Castle Road was promoting our thriving arts scene, while the Boathouse 4 Free Summer Festival travelled back in time to celebrate our artisan and industrial heritage.

It was around 2 pm when I arrived as it took longer than anticipated – about an hour – to find a parking space. Given the challenge to park, I expected the Summer Festival to be heaving but as I came up to the gate there were hardly any people. I went to the tills inside, got my day pass and then walked up to Boathouse 4.

I passed the Maritime Archaeology Trust and two women wearing Victorian dresses and bonnets. There were a few people dotted here and there but that was all. I went into Boathouse 4, where all the boats in progress are kept, and saw two demonstrations. At the first a man showed some children how to make traditional rope which I had never seen before. It was  surprisingly interesting, as was the second demonstration: two men chopping and carving wood. One hacked a huge log into pieces with an axe while the other and was carving smaller pieces into stool legs. In front of him was one he had made earlier.

Upstairs, children swarmed around the ‘climb the mast’ activity and a group of musicians were packing away their instruments. I was a little disappointed that I had missed them but instead, I watched two young men dressed as soldiers act out a comedy skit.

Going outside again, I met with my friend Meehalska with her steel Hapi drum. She added something special to the event and her calming, spiritual notes echoed through the dockyard. I said hello to her and then went onwards to visit a few stalls housing crafts displays. One man was demonstrating leather-craft, a woman twined wool, and another was carving wood using a contraption made of tree branches. I was fascinated to read that this last demonstration showed how people in Africa crafted stools and other items to sell. With one foot the woman pushed down a pedal that pulled a rope from a large branch, which was wrapped around a bit of wood. The movements of the large frame whittle it. Terrible description aside, I was genuinely impressed.

There were a few more stalls and the walkways were peppered with people dressed up in traditional clothes, but I didn’t find much more. A programme of demonstrations and workshops available in advance would have helped me to time my arrival better. Instead, I wandered around the Festival for a while longer, before ending up in Gunwharf for some shopping.

The offer of a free, open day at Boathouse 4 is brilliant but I didn’t think there was enough on offer. Perhaps it was the day I went, or the lateness of my arrival, but it seemed that I had missed a lot by the time I got there. Maybe the addition of some market stalls and more demonstrations would have livened it up and made it feel less empty by mid-afternoon.

When I returned home, I saw that the Boathouse’s Facebook page had videos and pictures of demonstrations and activities that bore little resemblance to the scenes I had just left. It felt I was looking at two different events.

I hope Boathouse 4 do another Summer Festival as heritage and crafts need to be celebrated and the Historic Dockyard provides the perfect backdrop – but next time, the inclusion of a programme will make sure nobody misses any of the fun.

Photography by Emily Priest.

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