All the fun of the fair.
In anticipation of the final Port Eliot Festival (July 25 to 28, 2019), creative director Louis Eliot casts his mind back to the Elephant Fayre of his childhood.

Words by Kirstie Newton

Port Eliot Festival creative director Louis Eliot remembers the origins of the festival only too well. “We’d been to Polgooth Country Fair and it blew my mind as a child,” he recalls. “It was like walking into a magical wonderland of fun, and as a family, we loved it. My dad befriended the team, if you can call them that – they were a raggle-taggle group of enthusiastic hippies, making this thing happen – and brought them to Port.”

The result was the Elephant Fayre in 1981, fondly recalled by those who attended, and none more so than Louis, who still lives on the estate and divides his time between Cornwall and London. At its heart was a giant model elephant with a kids’ café inside. “It was made by people with more enthusiasm than qualifications, and we all climbed up it – no one fell off.” Needless to say, today’s festival is suited and booted when it comes to health and safety, but Louis is keen to ensure it retains the same aura of excitement, citing the likes of the riverside Black Cow Saloon with its swing doors, hay bales and honky-tonk atmosphere.

“Dad loved opening up the house and gardens and estate to people, and we still hold that dear as a family – that’s when the estate feels alive,” he adds. “It’s the perfect site for a festival – we often say the location is the star of the show. We have the church, the Round Room, the maze, the river and the viaduct – not many festivals can boast all that, and I like to think people feel welcome here.”

Time was called on the Elephant Fayre after only six years, thanks to a rowdy minority. “It was important to Dad that it had the support of the village, and when the behaviour of a very small number of people made a difference, he decided it couldn’t carry on.” Louis was instrumental in the festival’s revival in 2003, initially as a literary event. “It was the only way to persuade my dad to do it,” he laughs.

That event was later rebranded as Port Eliot Festival, offering plenty of author insights, alongside music, chefs, comedy and fashion. It was recently announced that this year’s festival would be the last, at least for the foreseeable future. It runs from July 25 to 28. Top acts include singer Lily Allen, in conversation with journalist Sophie Heawood as well as reading children’s stories in Wildlings Wood and DJ-ing after dark in the Boogie Round. In a marvellous circularity, it turns out Lily was conceived at the Elephant Fayre, so her appearance marks a great homecoming.

Today, Louis enjoys a career as a musician. He scored several top 40 hits with Rialto in the 1990s, and continues to write songs, with an album in the pipeline which refuses to be pigeon-holed, claiming elements of “1950s crooner ballads, Northern Soul and junkyard rockabilly”. He also plays in Grace Jones’ backing band, and has played several festivals with her. “At a lot of them, you feel like part of someone’s business plan. Port has never been about making lots of money, and I think you get a sense of that.”

Port Eliot Festival 2019:
Louis’ top picks 

  1. Charlotte Church’s Late-Night Pop Dungeon
    The Park, Friday
    – “Forgotten wedding bangers, disco smashes, soft rock – all delivered by the best party band you could ever hope for.” 
  2. Emily Maitlis The Bowling Green, Saturday – “A few years back, on holiday in Cuba, we rented a boat, only to find someone else on it when we got there. It was Emily, and her family. Fortunately, we all got on famously and she came to the festival a few years back to share anecdotes about life on the Trump campaign trail. She’s funny and warm, and went down a storm. We’re delighted to have her back, as Newsnight presenter, offering an insight into the news behind the news.”
  3. Bruce Parry, The Round Room – The documentary maker and former Royal Marines commando officer will be in conversation in The Round Room, discussing what it’s like to live with people who exist in a world without leaders, shamans or even competition. “He has a no-nonsense perspective of the world.”