A new fair has sprung up in this great land of ours, and against all odds it shows every outward sign of being exceptionally good. Sherwood Forest Faire is running Saturday and Sunday through April 04 of this year. I attended the opening weekend (27, 28 Feb 2010), had a great time, and plan to go back at least one more weekend if schedule and weather permit went back on 20, 21 Mar 2010, and had an even better time despite cold weather.

More gushing praise, links and even a few pictures after the jump.

If you've been to a renaissance fair before, a lot of what you'll see at Sherwood will be familiar, even though Sherwood (set in 1189CE) is technically a medieval fair rather than renaissance. Like TRF and Scarborough, they aren't terribly strict about historical authenticity; there's a strong fantasy element present.

The biggest surprise about Sherwood is how many of the typical "new fair" mistakes they managed to avoid. To cases:

Music

Entertainment was a rousing success. They had a good mix of old favorites and new faces. The schedule was such that you could spend the whole day listening to music to the exclusion of all else, and still have to make a lot of choices. I didn't see any given performer condemned to consecutive shows on opposite sides of the grounds, though they did sentence poor Diane Linn to play one of her several shows at a pub full of loud, inattentive drunks -- her considerable talents[1] would be better showcased on any of the various quiet, intimate stages.

Not pictured: Roy Coon on clarinet, since he was running through the audience like a madman.

One outstanding new-to-me act was the Austin-based WinoVino. I'd never expected to see a Klezmer band at fair, but they were energetic, musically versatile and fantastic fun. While they may not be 100% period-appropriate[2], neither are all the performers out there passing off 18th C. minstrel-show songs as "renaissance".

Antonio Albarran (who I'd previously seen only at TRF, on drums) was there as a string player, and presented a wonderfully relaxing and meditative performance on the laouto.


Abby Green was someone I'd not heard before, and I'm glad I stopped to listen. She has a lovely voice. Buy her CD.

The paper next to "12:15" reads: "-ish"

Fronted by E Muzeki veteran Jenny O'Connor, Circa Paleo were there and, as always, a total pleasure for the ears. It didn't hurt that their first show of the day was on a stage right next to the place that had the good coffee and tea.

All things considered, the music on offer at Sherwood would have been impressive even for a big, established fair. For a new fair on a new site, it was just about miraculous.

Merchants

They're there. If you want shopping, Sherwood brings quality and quantity to the table. While you can easily shop the entire fair in a little over half a day, they've got an impressive vendor list.

Quality was surprisingly good, too, rated on the all-important scale of "stuff I personally was excited to see". Not every shop was a winner (according to my very subjective tastes) but the odds seemed a lot better than usual. Certainly moreso than TRF (my "home" fair). While TRF is huge, so very much of it is mass-produced drek, and Asian junk-shop imports and modern-day "country cute" crafts. It's a shopping mall with dust.

At Sherwood, I can only recall one instance where I said to myself, "Self, what does this possibly have to do with the middle ages / renaissance / fantasy? Why does this belong here?" I applaud what appears to be some careful selectivity on the part of the craft director, and hope to see the same continue into future seasons.

Site

This is mostly very good, but a bit of a mixed bag. They have a lovely wooded site with (what should be) plenty of shade, for when the weather gets hotter. There are lots of permanent structures (albeit mostly fairly basic, and lacking the character that accrues to buildings at older fairs): stages, pubs, food vendors and merchants. Actual buildings outnumber tents by a huge margin. Layout seems reasonably sensible. They're waiting to see where people actually walk before establishing paths, which strikes me as sensible.

One obvious problem area is privies. There aren't any purpose-built ones. They had a few trailers, which were quite spacious and luxurious (and had hand-washing facilities), but could only handle three people at a time. These were supplemented by porta-cans, which... well, if you've been in one, you know why that ellipsis is there. On opening Saturday, I saw lines develop -- even for the gents, which is unheard-of. By Sunday, more porta-cans had arrived and the crowds were smaller, so no lines. Still, having proper permanent accommodations would make for a nicer day out. Even a basic trough-style urinal for the gentlemen would help cut down the lines (for both genders) and would make answering nature's call a whole lot more pleasant. Adding some handwash stations and/or some alcohol-gel hand sanitizer seem like prudent improvements also. (On my second visit, both handwash stations and sanitizer were available and, except in one case, well-stocked.)

I can't find too much fault with the privy situation, since they'd expected a thousand people and got over 3500 on opening day. It also reflects credit on those involved that they'd made major efforts over Saturday night to add capacity. Full marks for recognizing there was a problem and acting decisively to fix it. Still, if I had to choose the single biggest problem with Sherwood: this was it.

Electricity, water and data seemed to mostly be getting to the places they were supposed to. (If you're wondering why this matters for an event set centuries in the past, I'll start by pointing out that most of the food isn't cooked over wood fires, and they're not pulling that ale out of a cask in the cellar using a hand pump.) The air fairies were acting quite balky. (Translation: credit card verification machines which depended on the cellular telephone networks did not seem to work reliably.) Ye Olde ATMs were also inoperative. Reasonable alternatives (old-fashioned credit-card imprint and voice authorization in one case, cash advance via front gate souvenir booth in the other) were put into action and appeared to work. On 20 March at opening time, they were unable to take credit cards at the front gate ticket booth -- the rain had gotten into the machine. Fortunately I had cash, and the problem was resolved by the next day.

Both the grounds proper and the parking lot seem like they'd become very muddy after a hard rain. (The parking lot and road leading thereunto, perhaps enough so that folks would get stuck.) Maybe I'm wrong; I can't speak from direct experience, as the weather was lovely and dry the whole first weekend. Update: Early on the morning of 20 March, a cold front moved through, bringing with it a line of brief but extremely intense rain. Both the fairground itself and the parking lot fared better than I expected, though I still have some concerns about what would come of a prolonged rain.

It would have been nice if there were a few more places to sit (just around the grounds, not necessarily at pubs and shows). There were a few times when finding a nearby trash receptacle took a bit of searching. By my second visit, lots of new seating had been installed, and there were plenty of trash cans.

All things considered, though, the site was lovely. The building and greens guys deserve a big huzzah. So do the folks keeping the trash picked up and the privies mucked out.

Food and Drink

There's no way we could sample all the food and beverage choices in the course of a single weekend, but there were some pleasant surprises among the things we did try.

center: pub; far left: Como Ristorante

The Como Ristorante Italiano (adjacent to Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem pub) was consistently good. Ask about the daily specials.  It isn't on the menu, but they'll cheerfully do whole pizzas. They also have a nice covered dining area upstairs; look for the entrance to the far right of the order window.

The hookah bar next to Elven Hill Stage is where you go to get good coffee and tea.

Where miniature horses always drink for free!

Bottled soft drinks and water were available for the only slightly ridiculous price of US$2.00 -- better than many other fairs I've visited recently. The vendors were, without exception, happy to give me a mug of ice at no charge with my soda. (Pro tip for counter staff: I have an extra dollar in my hand. You're getting it either way. If you don't demand it as payment for the ice, it goes in your tip jar. Amateur tip for counter staff: Have a tip jar.)

Beer choices seemed to be domestic fizzwater, plus Bass and Guiness. Not very exciting for yr. humble narrator, who prefers big Hertfordshire bitters but will risk an IPA in a pinch. Update: The Fagan's Froth pub near the falconry stage offers Long Hammer IPA, which wouldn't be my first choice, but isn't at all bad.

I'm not enough of a wine snob to tell you if the wine cellar was more exciting. Two meads were on offer: Chaucer's, and another (whose name I didn't catch) which the pub staff were warning folks had a cinnamon bite. I didn't sample any mead.

Media

Wow. The Sherwood guys get it.

Sherwood Forest Faire has a web site that actually works (if you're willing to turn on JavaScript). While it does use Comic Sans, and commits a handful of other design atrocities, the information you want is actually there, findable and legible, and you don't have to wade through a hellish sea of Flash and autoplaying music to get it. (In this, I hasten to add, they are entirely unlike the much-larger TRF, who commit every possible web site sin and then make up a bunch of horrible new ones in addition.)

Sherwood's advertising budget is clearly not bottomless, but they seem to have done a good job of getting the word out. An excellent job, considering that (from the secondhand information I have) total paid attendance for the first weekend exceeded 5000.

[Updated 22 Mar 2010 by dhenke to reflect my experience during my return trip.]


Full disclosure: I have no relationship to Sherwood Forest Faire or its officers, except as a satisfied customer. Nobody solicited this post. I received no compensation, nor was I offered any. I accepted no editorial input from any outside party. My words here are my own, posted because I felt like doing so and for no other reason.

[1]-- Full disclosure: Diane is a personal friend, and I have an "executive producer" credit on her Tales of the Trickster album. So, any comments from me about her musical genius may reflect a certain bias.

[2]-- I'm still not sure if they had Klezmer music in 1189CE. The best answer I've come up with so far is "probably, except nobody called it that yet, and it probably sounded a lot different." Comments from those in the know would be most welcome.