How to keep it real and escape from the screen this summer

Tea cosies and TV chefs on stage… this season offers up some of the perfect antidotes to our digital lives

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The Independent Online

It was when I found myself excited about visiting the exhibition of tea cosies that I realised I'd fallen under some kind of spell.

I was at the Port Eliot Festival in Cornwall, and Woodstock, or even Glastonbury, it is not. This is not a festival of rock gods, counter-culture, sex and drugs, and mud and madness. This is a festival, set in the grounds of a magnificent stately home, that's about reading, writing, eating, cooking, flora and fauna, the exchange of ideas, and, yes, tea cosys.

Port Eliot, now in its 11th year, in some ways defines the phenomenon that has swept the British countryside in recent years. Almost every weekend, there's a festival going on somewhere, from Suffolk to Cornwall via Oxfordshire.

Some have music at their heart, others are focused on literature, or food, or new age thinking. Many, like Port Eliot, have a little bit of everything, and, sandwiched between other, more populous, events like Cornbury and Wilderness, this small but perfectly formed Cornish extravaganza is a fixture in Britain's burgeoning festival calendar.

Cornbury, in Oxfordshire, is known as “Poshstock”, given that its attendees include the Prime Minister and his wife, and that the gathering is resolutely middle class and predominantly middle-aged. Port Eliot, however, makes Cornbury look like a Millwall football crowd. This is a seductively genteel event, where it's possible to get a Fortnum & Mason afternoon tea and a lesson in pebble painting, and where the children seem to be called either Imogen or Rufus.  

In a few weeks' time, in the Cotswolds, is Feastival, the brainchild of Blur's Alex James, and which presents his two main passions: food and rock'n'roll. There, Britain's top chefs appear on stage to packed audiences, are mobbed by adoring fans, and can send the crowd into a frenzy with one whirr of their blender.

Cooking is not the new rock'n'roll, it is rock'n'roll, and at Port Eliot, there was not a seat to be had when Rose Prince demonstrated baking techniques or when Mark Hix and Tom Parker-Bowles - the Simon and Garfunkel of British cooking - played some of their biggest hits together.

So what are we to make of this latter-day sensation? Why are these festivals becoming increasingly popular, while others are springing up in the English landscape like ragwort?

I think it may have something to do with the quest for authenticity. So much of our experience these days is mediated, so many of our day-to-day exchanges are remote, conducted by text and email, so much of our life is virtual. For many people, the opportunity to have a first-hand, live and genuine, often unplugged and always unmediated, encounter is simply irresistible.

The English countryside is not an inconsiderable factor, either. In the midst of a summer that has made our shires look and feel like Provence, each festival has a sense of place, and in the case of Port Eliot, where flower shows and jam competitions are conducted in the shadow of a 1000-year-old house, the connection to terroir is especially defined.

That's not to say it doesn't have tiny bit of edge. One of the most striking tea cosies was a leather S & M exhibit.