Ahead of this weekend’s Kendal Mountain Festival (KMF) now in its 22nd year, we spoke to the team behind the hugely popular three-day event which has grown from small beginnings as a group of climbers sharing a few films, to become the UK’s largest gathering of the outdoor community, attracting some 14,000 visitors to the South Lakeland town each year.
At its helm is Chief Executive Jacqui Scott, who together with Directors Steve Scott and Clive Allen is responsible for a core team of 12 to produce the enormous annual programme of film, speaker and literature events that combine to make up the festival. As numbers of visitors travelling from across the UK and abroad to attend the festival has increased, the team has seized upon the opportunity to develop a national and international tour, taking the Kendal Mountain Festival brand and its content to audiences across the UK, Ireland, Mexico and China.
Steve, who is responsible for strategic partnerships and brand development, describes how the festival’s growth has been propelled by the team’s openness to collaborate: “Over the last decade, we have really embraced partnership working as a way to do more without spreading ourselves too thin. We work with brands and organisations who share our sense of adventure, community and commitment to raising awareness of important environmental issues. These partnerships have enabled us to diversify the content of our programme, reach a wider audience and pool resources.”
Jacqui adds: “While we like to embrace new developments and trends within the outdoor environment, I am very keen to keep the idea of community at the heart of what we do. People feel that they belong at Kendal regardless of what they are interested in. This is because it is a real celebration of the outdoors and the adventures to be had, be it a first ascent of a mountain peak or the solitude of a swim in an isolated tarn. It also allows communities to get together, new ones to form and gives space to cherish the ones that are at the heart of what we have always been about.”
Clive explains how, as the festival has evolved, the team has sought to retain its core characteristics: “Kendal is a real social occasion, as well as getting the opportunity to hear inspiring talks and watch the latest films, the festival’s informal atmosphere and intimate setting allow for more incidental encounters to occur. We can’t promise it, but it’s possible that audiences could find themselves sharing a pint with one of our speakers or bumping into one of their heroes at our Basecamp Village. And for those who are willing to gamble, for the small cost of a fiver, our Secret Sessions bring together a surprise speaker in an undisclosed location.
“Every festival has its own identity, generated by a diverse mix of its location, history, audience, timing and content. It’s like an event DNA I guess. Because it’s been going for so many years, Kendal’s vibe is well established and people know what to expect, but by the same token, you need to respect and understand the heritage and culture of the event.”
Steve recalls: “There are always surprises lying in wait every year at KMF. I’ve witnessed some of the most hilarious, craziest and often very moving goings-on at the event. Bike Night is legendary for the entertainment value with barmy japes taking place on the stage!”
So how do the team set about programming a festival of this scale? Clive explains: “It’s a year-round thing, and we need to be constantly aware of what’s going on. The projects that filmmakers are working on, and their plans for premieres and launches; the trips that climbers and adventurers are planning for the year; are there any significant anniversaries; books being published; proposals and campaigns from our sponsors and partners; what’s in the news. In parallel, we’ll be working on a theme for the year which will drive the direction of much of the content. By September we’ll have over 300 films submitted for the Film Competition which we have to pre-screen and rate, to bring down to a shortlist of around 90 to be put forward to the judging panel. We’ll be talking with schools and youth organisations about content to inspire new generations. Working with venues and suppliers on the nuts and bolts of delivering the event on the ground. And of course, we’ll be discussing with our sponsors and partners how their objectives are aligned. Then it’s just a question of pulling it all together, and we have a great team…”
When it comes to deciding the programme, every member contributes; including Jacqui’s youngest daughter Sisi, who has proven to be an insightful litmus test for the children’s literature events.
Joining the festival in 2014, graphic designer Jenny Rice moved from London to pursue her passion for design and her love of the outdoors. As a committed outdoor swimmer and fell runner, it was only a matter of time before Jenny introduced her networks and knowledge of the sport to the festival lineup. In 2016 the Outdoor Swimming Session was born.
“Outdoor swimming has been enjoying a real boom over the last few years, and I was finding out about a range of hugely creative projects inspired by swimmers and swimming outdoors; covering art, photography, poetry and film. Plus, friends in the outdoor swimming community were asking if there could be an outdoor swimming session at Kendal. So it just felt natural to create the Outdoor Swimming Session to bring a platform to these projects, and hear stories from some incredible athletes,” says Jenny.
Festival Manager and operational wizkid Paul Scully, much like the rest of this resourceful team, also wears a programming hat. As curator of the burgeoning Literature Festival which has quickly garnered praise from the British literati, he describes the literature festival as ‘a chance to explore and celebrate our relationship and connection with landscape, nature, people, and place. We want to bring all that imagination and experience; whether embodied or virtual, to provoke, inspire, and ensure the survival of wilderness and creativity’.
Henry Iddon, Kendal’s Arts and Culture Officer, recalls that the evolution of a literature programme had historical root: “Content-wise I think KMF is closer to what it was originally in some respects, in the early days there was ‘leftfield’ content with arts and nature writing etc – like John Dugger showing his ‘Expeditionary Mountain Banners’ and writer Richard Mabey.”
Film, however, remains at the beating heart of the festival and an important vehicle for inspiring and encouraging participation among viewers. Artistic Director, Claire Carter, describes what the festival look for in their selection of film submissions: “We look for quality of storytelling, innovation, fun, authenticity, careful decision making… And of course diversity, this is so important. Imagery can be so inspiring, it can encourage people to feel entitled to something they might not have previously if they feel represented in the programme. So for me, this is an ongoing focus. In curation we create collections and programmes that bring the films together like a music album; we want the cinema experience to be a bit of a journey, and for the films to enhance each other.
“I feel we have a huge opportunity as a platform to introduce audiences to new ideas, new sports, new places. When Katie, one of the most recent additions to the team joined, she said that she felt the festival was a place of discovery, and this makes so much sense to me. As advocates of an adventure festival, we hope our audiences trust us to step outside their comfort zones when they enter the cinema, to have a bit of an adventure… Last year we had a film about a prisoner John McCoy who, while incarcerated, took up indoor rowing. This could be said to be the antithesis of a mountain film, but the depiction of an individual finding freedom and redemption through physical flow, escaping his physical and mental boundaries… It was a wonderful metaphor, and we think films like this encourage our audience to literally think outside the box and relate to unexpected ’summits’ and ‘adventurers’.”
Kendal Mountain Festival takes place from 15-18 November, for tickets and more information visit www.mountainfest.co.uk