Mote Park has seen it all. During the War of the Roses, the park’s landholder, Lord Rivers of Mote, gave his daughter’s hand to the Yorkist King Edward IV. This incurred the wrath of the King’s mortal enemy, the Earl of Warwick, and Warwick’s friends subsequently attacked the park and ransacked Mote House.
It’s not the park’s only brush with royalty. In 1799, King George III, The Queen and Prime Minister William Pitt entertained 5,228 yeoman volunteers – a militia formed to defend England from Napoleon – at a sumptuous, candle-lit banquet held under canvas.
Several decades later, in 1868, a team of Aboriginal Australians – the first Aussie cricket side to tour abroad – arrived in the park to play a match against Maidstone. Greeted by a typically English mix of curiosity and suspicion, the tourists struggled to 119 for 4 in answer to the local side’s 151 all out, although all-rounder Johnny Mullagh – traditional name Unaarrimin – was a success, taking three wickets in four balls. Eventually, as tradition continues to dictate, rain stopped play, and after tea the tourists entertained the crowd with a series of athletic feats. Fast bowler Dick-a-Dick (born Jumgumjenanuke) dodged a series of balls thrown at him from close range, while Charley Dumas (Pripumuarraman) – inadvertantly killed a squirrel with his boomerang.
It doesn’t stop there, and as recently as 2011 the book Haunted Maidstone was reporting ghostly apparitions popping up in the area, but today things are a little more sedate, with a pitch and putt course, a BMX track, a miniature railway and some decent angling. Oh yeah, and a rock festival.
Rambling’ Man Fair is the latest addition to the burgeoning boutique festival calendar, part of an annual scramble to attract weekending crowds of music lovers whose enjoyment of events is directly proportional to the amount of work involved in attending them. Comfort and convenience are key. And Ramblin’ Man – brought to you by the makers of the much-missed High Voltage Festival – succeeds on all counts.
Located a short walk from Maidstone town centre and handily placed for the Eurostar terminal at Ashford, the festival checks all the boxes. The food is excellent, the three stages all sit within a few minutes’ walk of each other, and the going underfoot, even after a Friday evening that sees torrential rain fall on the site, is firm.
The main stage, adorned with Classic Rock’s logo, is at the top of a gentle slope. There’s a VIP facility, where those who’ve paid almost twice the regular price are able to follow events from padded leather luxury, while the likes of Vic Reeves and Cleo Rocos prop up the bar. Upstairs is the Founders Club, where people who’ve committed to support the festival for its first three years get to enjoy the view from a setting so palatial we can only begin to imagine what it might actually look like.
On the opposite side of the arena (a testing three-minute walk away), the Prog stage plays host to a series of names both old and new, while the Country Outlaw arena, which magically transforms overnight into the Blues tent, sits an equally short distance away. There are merch stalls, cash machines and booths where helpful attendants will charge your mobile phone, and a cinema, storage lockers and a petting zoo, and secluded cubicles where highly trained practitioners offer a variety of relaxing massage techniques. Those last two aren’t actually true, but you get the drift, and there’s always next year.
Things start slowly on the Classic Rock stage. Re-formed Irish rockers No Hot Ashes are largely anonymous, while Toseland look great but fail to create any amount of appreciative froth among the early attendees. It seems that FM might initially head in the same direction, but I Belong To The Night suddenly punches through the atmosphere like a giant shiny silver fist, and we’re up and running.
Blue Öyster Cult are a little rough around the edges, but when it comes together – on a thumping version of Godzilla and the ever-lovely Burnin’ For You – they’re little short of triumphant, and there’s a nice touch as Eric Bloom dedicates (Don’t Fear) The Reaper to Amy Winehouse. They’re followed by Saxon, who play a set of 30-year-old anthems so powerful you’re reminded they form part of the very bedrock of modern metal. Biff points out Wheels Of Steel’s historical significance, comparing it to Motörhead’s Ace Of Spades and Maiden’s Running Free, before doing something distinctly 2015 and filming the audience for the band’s Facebook page. “This is the Ramblin’ Man festival in Kent, fucking England,” he screams. “Go crazy!”
Dream Theater suffer from being sandwiched between Saxon and the Scorpions. While their performance is strident, powerful, it lacks the anthemic festival magic to provide a bridge between these two veterans. A shame, because in isolation, they’re comfortably on form.
The Scorpions arrive on stage 30 minutes later than advertised, and briefly it’s anti-climactic. All that build-up, and that dramatic sweep of the curtain away from the stage, and they kick off with a song from their new album. But a long, lasting victory is achieved after the merest hint of early defeat. The Zoo, officially the greatest slow head-bang in the entire history of rock, arrives as early as three songs in, and there’s a great 70s section, where Top Of The Bill, Steamrock Fever and Speedy’s Coming give the audience the chance to relive the days of Tokyo Tapes as if it were Sun Plaza Hall in 1978. Klaus Meine still hits all the notes he used to, and although he doesn’t hold onto them as long as he once did, Scorpions are still a fearsomely well-drilled, enormously hard-working machine. A spectacular show, and a spectacular finish to day one.
The rains come on day two, but spirits are barely dampened. Blues Pills, with a summer of festival dates behind them, are better than they were a month ago. Iceland’s Solstafir are playing their first outdoor UK show, and suit the elements, building a wall of swelling menace against a backdrop of grey clouds. “We feel right at home here”, says frontman Aðalbjörn Tryggvason, as the rain comes in sideways.
Quireboys frontman Spike looks a little less comfortable, is concerned about the greasy stage, and jokes about being electrocuted. “I might sell a few records,” he muses. “Or get in Classic Rock.” But Here She Goes Again and Mona Lisa Smiled burst gleefully through the murk, as the crowd sings along and Spike kicks and spins and tosses the mic stand with little regard for personal health and safety.
The Temperance Movement’s Phil Campbell swaggers on like Liam Gallagher but moves like David Brent, dancing with rare, loose-limbed inhibition, but his raspy voice is an absolute gift, and the bluesy Only Friend is a tour de force. Rival Sons - introduced by friend, comedian and local man Reeves - now process rock-star swagger by the bucketload, and Jay Buchanan’s churchy charisma grows with every passing show.
The rain finally stops as the band plays, which may account for Seasick Steve drawing what may be the biggest crowd of the day as he generates a frankly extraordinary amount of noise from a single-strung guitar made from a broken washboard, a banjo back and a Mississippi licence plate.
It finishes up with an exquisitely played set of southern-fried blues, funk’n’roll from Gregg Allman, allowing the evening to drift gently towards its conclusion before Love Like Kerosene and Whipping Post bring the event to a fiery climax. History made in Mote Park. Again.
Same time, same place next year? You betcha.
Gallery, from left: Blue Öyster Cult, Dream Theater, FM, No Hot Ashes, Toseland, The Temperence Movement, Seasick Steve, Scorpions, Rival Sons, Quireboys, Vic Reeves, Blues Pills.