King Of The Mountains Festival: Muker, Swaledale

Yorkshire plays host this weekend to the world’s biggest cycling race, the Tour de France. The countryside has come alive, with bikes, bunting and even the odd yellow sheep!

Just down the hill from the notorious Buttertubs Pass, the sleepy town of Muker, Swaledale is sitting right in the heart of the action. King of the Mountains Festival offers visitors the best of both worlds, giving cycling fans a chance to catch the action alongside some great live music.

The line-up is distinctly local in flavour with appearances from Paul Thomas Saunders, Cottonwoolf and The Witch Hunt alongside headliners, Dry the River and a bar stocked to the rafters with Yorkshire Ales.

Friday the rains came and with his tales of fire and flood, you couldn’t get a much better opening act than Sam Airey. His mellow baritone soothes the weary travellers as the crowd slowly drifts in. Spirits lifted, as the last chord of ‘Station Approach’ rings out, we swear there’s a glimmer of sunshine in the sky. Sadly its short-lived and we retreat to the Arts Tent for Yarbo. Often found gigging around Leeds as a two piece, today, on a stage hemmed in by cardboard sunflowers, they are a proper gang of five. With the lyrical hooks of Noah and the Whale, the front pairing of Daniel Pye and Laura James weave some real magic into the gentle folk of ‘Mechanical’.

Dark clouds gather outside, and The Witch Hunt ramp up the tension, an army in black with a flash of red lipstick. With a voice that sears through the gloom like a knife Louisa Osborn howls into oblivion as the drums crash down around her. The energy continues to build as Hey Sholay take to the stage carried on a wave of buzzing guitars and synths. Dancing around the rain splattered stage they inspire us to do the same, ending with the heart thumping, pulse racing, ‘The Bears, The Clocks, The Bees’.

Back down to earth, a sterling performance from the Muker Silver Band adds a sense of occasion, while the Tour de Cinema offers a reminder of the reason for this gathering. Featuring clips from classic cycling races and a tribute to the late, great Beryl Burton.

As night descends we huddle by the warm glow of the stage for tonight’s headliners Dry the River. Bravely ignoring the swathes of midges, their glorious blend of Fleet Foxes harmonies and soaring choruses keeps the crowd enthralled. The soft hum of ‘No Ceremony’ makes way for the thrashing drums of ‘Lions Den’ as they lay their hearts bare and we fall under their spell for a while.

Tucked away in the back corner of the Arts Tent, its not quite time for bed as we enjoy a late night set from Eaves, aka Joe Lyons. His voice and gentle plucking guitar has hypnotic qualities echoing the late, great Nick Drake, none more so than on the striking ‘For Mannington Bowes (Alone in My Mind)’ and we drift in the night feeling inspire.

Today’s the day of the Tour de France and excitement is in the air. The sun beats down and we can finally see the festival site in all it’s glory, surrounded by hillsides, flower meadows and winding paths, it has a magical quality even the lairiest cycling fans can’t shake. Gathering at the side of the roads this ramshackle band of Beef-eaters, amateur racers and picnic stocked families hold their breath as the race whips past in a flurry of coloured shirts and glinting metal. But as quickly as it’s begun, it’s over and we saunter back to the camp site feeling a little lost.

Luckily a friendly ice-cream truck (double scoop, Mint Chocolate Chip) and the warm country sounds of Cottonwoolf soon set us at ease. Twisting through Afro-beat funky guitars and intricate prog-rock breakdowns, Grant Fennell’s powerful voice calls out the hills in a spine tingling performance of ‘On Dreaming’.

People lounge on the hay bales watching the rest of the race drifting the afternoon away. Leeds band Goodbye Chanel capture the mood with their glossy sun drenched guitars and dreamy echoes as we shuffle lazily around the field, feeling Summer has finally arrived.

Adding a jolt of rock and roll swagger, Post War Glamour Girls are snarling and controversial from the start. As singer James Anthony Smith grins ‘this song was written for Lance Armstrong from the perspective of the drug’ its clear they mean business. Howling over ‘Lightbulb’ as darkness descends and the days drinking kicks in we can feel the tone of the night start to shift.

Sets from local DJs Dead Young Records and BBC Radio’s Huw Stephens, who soon joins them on stage, set the crowd dancing. Huw urges them to ‘sing to the mountains’ with an truly offbeat medley that includes Biffy Clyro, Diana Ross and the Sound of Music as people pile into each-other’s arms and dance off into the night. Get Machine Destroy’s clashing electro beats keep the party going into the early hours, ending with a Daft Punk remix that lifts the roof off the Arts Tent.

Its a lazy start on Sunday, as the sunshine gives the hills a hazy glow as we lay back in the grass and let the sweet sounds of Alaska stir us from our tents. The classic garage pop hooks of ‘Baker Boy’ and tongue in cheek romp ‘Werewolf Women’ gently shake our braincells awake. After a quick trip into Muker to clear out the cobwebs we return just in time to the lyrical folk of Jasmine Kennedy. Her gentle guitar strum and self deprecating asides stir the hearts of the crowd over the interminable chatter of the big screen TV.

Glasgow’s Three Blind Wolves bring their warm hearted folk, with songs built for shouting across the fields. Blues guitars ebb and flow through ‘Honey Fire’ as they shift into Black Keys stomping territory. The tear stained sing along to ‘Farmer With a Pulse’ is the stuff festival legends are made of as they shoot cheeky grins at the crowd.

King of the Mountains still has a few surprises up it’s sleeve in the shape of the delightful story of Hazel Sazelby’s Lyric Quilt, made after attending hundreds of gigs and painstakingly stitching poignant lyrics, this is a true labour of love and a tribute to the power of music.

Back in the fields, To Kill a King see the crowd gather one last time. The half whispered tones of ‘Choices’ wash over our ears, with its poignant line ‘this is how the Summer ends’, as we echo back each delicate note. Hard-working festival staff leave their posts for a well earned beer and a dance as the sun sets over the hillside.

Final act Paul Thomas Saunders voice seems to shimmer against the landscape, as we take in our surroundings one last time. After the brutal lyrics of ‘Appointment in Samarra’ he abandons themes of desolation for the soaring ‘Starless State of the Moonless Barrow’. Seagulls wheel overhead as every last rustle of the trees seems magnified as the tribal drums build to a final epic swell. The perfect end to a glorious day and a great celebration of music, cycling and the creative spirit of Yorkshire.