Saint Chartier est Mort, Vive Château d'Ars!

In the summer of 1996, when I footloose and fancy free, I cycled to central France. I was headed for the Rencontres des Luthiers et Maitres Sonneurs, the annual festival of instrument makers and master pipers at St Chartier. It took me three weeks to get there, but mainly because I was busking through Brittany as I went.

I look back at the journey fondly though it was tough at the time. I was unfit and had way too much stuff. I obsessed about timings and distances and my ever-dwindling supply of money. I never quite got the hang of busking in France - to be fair my piping wasn't up to much back then - and by the time I got back to Roscoff I had a pound in my pocket, though that's another story.

But cycling made getting there so rewarding. As I approached the village I heard the sound of a rauschpfeife playing a medieval Spanish cantiga. I promptly welled up. Saint Chartier had that effect.

Despite my woeful french I fell in with a group of like-minded medieval-enthusiasts from Nancy. We had a fine time playing bagpipes together and singing lays and ballads under the stars. And yes, I had a rather beautiful holiday romance too.

I went back to St Chartier many times and each holds wonderful memories.

The festival was unique. It drew musicians from all over Europe who came to buy instruments, to listen and to play. There were unforgettable jams and all night dancing, to bagpipes and hurdy-gurdies of course, on streets baked hot by the sun. It was troubadour heaven.

At night things turned more carnivalesque, like a Bruegel painting or better a Bosch. There was a wildness, a kind of crackling magic in the air that left me spinning and uncertain of what century it was - the twelfth? the eighteenth? Time rippled. 

Imagine my sadness, then, when in 2008 I learned that the chateau was to be sold and that the new owner wanted nothing to do with the festival (he's turned it into a Catholic retreat centre of all things). It was all over. 

Not quite. The organisers persevered and found a new venue five miles down the road at another chateau, the Chateau d'Ars. They set about transplanting the whole thing. It's taken me four years to summon up the courage to go again. How could it ever be the same?

Well, of course it couldn't. It's something new built on old foundations. Undoubtedly it's tamer. Much of the wildness is gone. For one thing it all takes place in the chateau grounds and you have to pay to go in - at night it's dead outside and the campsite is quiet. There's no village scene, no bars heaving with musicians, no seething crowds on the streets.

I got very sad on the first night and took myself off for a walk. I needed to let Saint Chartier go. But once I'd done so I started to enjoy the new festival for what it is.

At its heart it's the same, a place for instrument-makers to exhibit their wares. Without them there would be no music, no tradition, no festival. 130 of them came this year . Their work is exquisite. The sound of all those instruments being tried at once is something you have to hear!

Here's an organistrum, the earliest type of hurdy-gurdy, reconstructed from Spanish medieval church carvings.

And here's the latest hurdy-gurdy, a steampunk creation that could be straight from from one of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's films.

These German bagpipes were positively teutonic...

...while this struck me as the lamest instrument I'd ever seen, a three-holed pipe with a fiddle on it (or vice versa). I'm not sure the 'whiddle' will catch on.


Everywhere you looked you found the beautiful, the unexpected and the kitsch.

There were many familiar faces from the old Saint Chartier days.

(Old soul Luc Arbogast showed up but I was so transfixed by his singing that I failed to get a photo. If you've never seen him, here's why I was so transported...)

Some of the old French hippy vibe has survived the transplant. A beautifully chilled tea-tent served chai and mate twenty-four seven; a traveller's crepe stall did a roaring trade; while the honey stall served delicious, locally-made hydromel or mead. And this being France you could get your snails hot.

All the toilets were compost loos. To drink you had to buy your own eco-cup that you used for the duration. Consequently there was no broken glass anywhere and barely any litter. The French seem to have a very different attitude towards intoxication: there was no binge drinking, and the occasional sweet drifting smell of hashish seemed to be tolerated or simply ignored.

The weather wasn't too unkind though even in central France the roaming jet stream that has blighted our summer brought rain. The mud, however, was slight and bearable and people just carried on dancing in wellies and kagouls.

Sessions went on regardless.

There was a pretty-much permanent Irish session in one of the food areas. At one point it looked like they'd played all the tunes but an emergency supply was brought in from Limerick, and off they went again...

The sun did eventually come out and all was well with the world.

I saw some great bands. Watch out for Clica Drona, winners of the band competition (they appear at 5.50).

An evening of experimental bands mixing trad instruments with beats and samples was met with unbridled enthusiasm not the pursed-lipped tutting of folk police. Of these, my favourite was Breton group, Krennijenn. They so had the funk.

Imagine the scene. It's late, the dance floor is packed. We're dancing in concentric circles bound within a greater circle of trees. Young and old dance together. The vibe is sexy and cool. We grin at each other as we pass - the music is just too good! - and as it peaks in intensity a great wave of euphoria passes over us. People whoop and shout. This isn't rave. It's folk music, the original trance.

I look to the sky and see stars and I'm suddenly filled with that bittersweet joy that brought me back to Saint Chartier time and time again.

The feeling is there alright. Saint Chartier is dead, long live Chateau d'Ars! See you there next year.


  1. Wonderful, Transported there as I read/listened, Thanks Andy, Will (Stroud)

  2. Hi Andy, looking for your blog has been one of the first things I have done after getting back down to earth from the festival. Very much appreciated. You are right. It's a different festival. But a good one. The trees protecting the instrument makers' stands from the potential glare of the sun are a definite advantage. And for me the change of venue is a good reason to start going back. For reasons you will understand. The memories of St C. will remain memories now. It will never come back. With a tear in our eyes we can say we are proud and happy to have had the honour of being there in its heyday, this wonderful piece of the earth. Ars is different, but the original spirit of St. Chartier is returning. The atmosphere on that last night when about 20 under-20s were jamming together with gurdies, pipes and other accoustic instruments proved it for me. See you next year. Ian.

  3. Ian - we drove through St Chartier on the way home - sigh - but I was surprised to see that there were only three steps up to the church. I distinctly remember you guys playing there at night and towering over the crowd, ten or fifteen steps up. Has the village shrunk?

  4. I shall continue to go Arsabouts and it will always be a key event in my year, along with Anost and Sark.

    I remember St C. as it was in 1991, when people were aready saying that it wasn't as good as it had been in former years, but even in in 1991 it was phenomenal. By the time it ended in 2008 it had already become unmanageable and had been djembeed to death, to the point that I no longer found the festival a pleasure to attend. At that point the new festival at Arscastle could only be an improvement.

  5. Beautiful writing Andy! I wish I could have been there for more than a night :-( I was delighted to see the Lapin ragout avec orge had made the transition from the old farmer's market at St C. to Chat. D'Ars :-) Can't wait until next year.

  6. Marieclare - you're right. I'd forgotten about the ragoût de lapin. I want some. I WANT IT NOW!

  7. Hope to get there next year - have missed you all the past two. And the Blowout!

  8. That was a nice surprise - looking up St Chartiere on Google thinking of going next year - having persuaded some friends to start a European dance band with me - and came across your blog. I got evicted from a tree with you at Skyward - and a copper called John Small (little John) sent us up a hip flask of brandy or whisky - remember that? Don't think my memory is embellishing too much. Good to see you're still playing - Wod sound great - maybe see you at St Chartiere

    Sarah (fiddle, from Wales)

  9. Hey Sarah, of course I remember you! And I remember John Small and his brandy too (put it in a song) - whatever happened to him? Hope all is well with you and that you are still fiddling - anything on youtube? Lots of love xxx



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