In 1945 Bernard Lovell, a radio astronomer from Manchester University established the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics. In 1957 what is currently known as The Lovell Telescope at Jodrell bank was completed. On its completion it was the largest steerable dish radio Telescope in the world, today it is still the third largest. In 1957 the Lovell Telescope was the only telescope in the world capable of tracking the Russian probes Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2. Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s the Lovell telescope was used to track both Soviet space probes and the American pioneer probes  throughout their journeys in space. In 1966 the telescope tracked Luna 9, the first spacecraft to make a soft landing on the moon. In July 1969 the Jodrell bank Observatory took part in tracking Apollo 11 and its crew members Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong on their approach to the moon. On 20th July 1969 Neil Armstrong made “A giant leap for mankind” and became the first human to walk on the surface of the moon. On 7th July 2019 Jodrell bank was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site Status. On 18th to 21st July 2019, 50 years after mankind walked on the moon the Jodrell bank Centre for Astrophysics hosted the fifth bluedot Festival.

Bluedot 2019 celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landings with a four day festival of music, science lectures and all manner of cosmic culture. We celebrated with them…

Arrival on the Thursday was akin to driving into a BBC 1980’s sci-fi series as the stark white telescope pushed skyward impressively through the verdant greenery of the Cheshire countryside.  Sentinels with lanyards guided us toward our designated gate efficiently and once through we pitched our base camp and set out to explore.

Thursday night’s ‘Lift Off’ at bluedot is a nice gentle initiation into the more hectic proceedings of the next three days and the performances on the main Lovell stage started with a transfixing performance by Jazz musician Emma-Jean Thackray; who boldly stands equipped only with small electrical devices and a trumpet, and holds the attention of the gathered crowd with live jazz trumpeting accompanied by sampled arrangements of words and music.

After this performance and with the Lovell telescope presiding ominously over the main stage we were treated to all of our favourite sci-fi themes performed by Manchester’s magnificent Halle Orchestra. Rousing renditions of music from Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, E.T and others brought tears to our eyes and was the most appropriate way to launch the weekend ahead.

The ensuing weather conditions over the weekend had included all of the possibilities squashed into four 24 hour planetary cycles.  Thursday was perfect festival weather, and even suggested a decent temperature for the weekend ahead, the night however showed the promise was only fleeting.  There was constant heavy rain on the Friday, resulting in mud slides, in fact everyone who attended bluedot seemed to have grown in height due to the three inches of caked mud attached to the soles of their footwear.  The weather on Saturday brought a mixture of all Cheshire could provide; culminating in a hot and humid Sunday which left us with unexpected t-shirt tan lines upon our departure and the enduring memory that only at a festival can you wear three pieces of vibrant, clashing, patterned clothing and still seem under-dressed..   

On Friday, when we finally decided to brave the adverse conditions, we donned our wet weather gear and headed out to further explore the site. We trudged toward the Mission Control Marquee passing enthusiastic revellers clad in silver spacey costumes shining brightly in the wet.  With the intention to escape the rain and sit down upon a dry chair we entered Mission Control where we were rewarded by the energetic TV presenter Dallas Campbell enthusiastically introducing us to a replica of the Apollo 11 space suit and sharing humorous anecdotes of filming Tim Peake’s rocket trip to the International Space Station.  Also that day we enjoyed Tana Joseph‘s lecture: Accidental astronomical discoveries, which was funny, engaging, informative and thoroughly enjoyed.  Amongst many others we learnt about Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who as a PhD. student accidently recorded data, which helped discover a pulsar nebula, a discovery which later awarded her course lecturer the Nobel prize.

Later on the Friday on the Lovell Main stage the female trio Self Esteem brought a defiant message of positive empowerment against adversity and in fact, at one point interrupted the performance to berate audience members directing wolf whistles at them.

The smaller stages, being within tents, allowed some time to dry off the rain and enjoy the new project of one of our favourite radio broadcasters, Mark Radcliffe, who along with Paul Langley introduced us to their new electronica project, UNE, on the Orbit Stage.  In outfits highlighted with blue neon LED’s and with ‘UNE’ emblazoned across their t-shirts, only readable if they stood in the correct order!, they provided fist-pumping electro about subjects such as trees and provided the only tribute to Bowie we saw that weekend with a bouncy electro cover of Space Oddity, which ended with a screening Bowie’s face and Radcliffe exclaiming “well someone had to do it and it might as well be us!”.

We then headed over to the Nebula stage to watch Grace Lightman. In the official festival programme it describes her sound as Abba meets Twin Peaks meets Laurie Anderson, a perfect mixture of things we love.  Her music juxtaposes other-wordly electronica with eerie yet warm lyrics, propelled along by a live drummer.  A performer who could comfortably perform at The Roadhouse at the end of an episode of the second series of Twin Peaks.

The main stage on Friday has a stellar line up of strong impassioned women.  Les Amazones d’Afrique are an all-female west African collective who bring a message of gender equality delivered colourfully and infectiously while Kate Tempest brings emotion and an important message to her performance via a temporary but poignant standstill when members of Extinction Rebellion came onstage, as if on cue, during her track Holy Elixir.

We hit the Nebula Stage and caught one of our weekend highlights: Otim Alpha. The energy in the tent was wound up expertly by Otim and DJ Leo Palayeng, who got everyone in the tent dancing like they had not danced in years with the audience boosting off Otim’s sheer enthusiasm, broad smile and mega-energetic dance moves.  Acholitronix is the type of rave-dance-African beats he was playing, apparently a type of wedding music in Uganda.  Toward the end of the set Otim invited a few people from the audience to join him on stage, and after some hesitation some people did, until, of course they had to leave because they did not have the required artist’s wristbands or perhaps the same level of energy as Otim Alpha.  An awesome and exhausting experience. 

Saturday brought in greater levels of people and more churned up mud to wade through as we made our way to an area of the site called tranquillity base where drawn in by a disco mix of a track by The Smiths, we entered the Russian Standard Vodka Experience.  As one of a few small bar areas with comfortable seating we rested our aching legs and ordered our drinks.  To celebrate the golden anniversary of the moon landings an exclusive Vodka cocktail called Moon Rising had been developed by the folks at Russian Standard Vodka using input gathered via a competition on their Instagram account to challenge the public to suggest a suitable cocktail to celebrate the anniversary.  Another part of the Russian Standard vodka experience was a wooden barrow filled with herbs and fruits and even pickled gherkins!  This barrow is called The Mule market and invites us to challenge our taste buds by putting together our own Vodka cocktails.  We generally don’t really experiment with mixing cocktails at home so under the guidance of the Russian Standards ‘mixologist’ we were introduced to the use of herbs and how to create unique, delicious flavours.

With our shiny copper Russian Standard Vodka cup full of tasty beverage we arrived at the Lovell stage just as the interstellar travelling space rockers Henge appeared on stage. Henge are a total riot of anarchic fun for the whole family led by Zpor, a cosmic smiling jester with natty style and a plasma ball headdress. Zpor introduces us to his varied and colourful intergalactic band members including Goo, the last surviving Venusian on synths and Nom, some kind of amphibian who’s explosive drumming keeps the crowd bouncing energetically. Henge are the magnificent hybrid of Hawkwind and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. When they announced to us humans that they would be taking over the dance tent later that day we knew where we were going.

As much as bluedot offers to expand your mind with science and cosmic culture there is also plenty of opportunity to expand your waistline with a huge array of tempting treats lining the way on your journeys from one stage to the next.

Journeying between stages also gives you more time to admire some of the amazing costumes worn by the good folks. There are many astronauts, dayglow aliens, a Frank Sidebottom and all manner of others who would not look out of place in the Star Wars Cantina bar but the highlight was a whole family of Space Rabbits complete with giant white perky ears and outfits of white fluff and sparkling silver. At the Henge takeover this family of Space Rabbits appeared and were brought onto the stage by Zpor to dance along with the rest of the Henge ensemble for part of their three hour session of psychedelic dance and rave music on the Deep Space Disco stage.

Members of Henge came down into the audience on a few occasions during the dance session and chatted and had photos taken with the festival goers. This interaction and engagement with the audience from Henge and other performers at bluedot was a notable highlight for us but a feature that was not part of the performance by Kraftwerk on the Lovell stage.

In contrast to Henge who probably touched down at bluedot in a spacecraft resembling Starbug from Red Dwarf, Kraftwerk were altogether a more polished, unapproachable and dystopian futuristic vision. Earlier in the day we had joined a seemingly endless queue for our cardboard 3-D specs for viewing and had positioned ourselves early and central to the stage.  There were little surprises in the set as the robots performed as robots will, all set to an effective 3D 80’s-style vector art backdrop.  It was immersive and only occasionally did my mind wander to what I was missing on the Orbit stage with Sons of Kemet, my major performance clash disappointment.

We failed to rendezvous our friends post Kraftwerk due to the massed crowds of bewilderment so headed over to 808 State a little late finding the Orbit stage already bursting at the seams with raving.  We opted to listen outside but found the competing beats from the Deep Space Disco stage and David Attenborough’s Jungle Disco and 808 State was just too much so we wandered off and ended up sat in the quiet contemplative Star Fields beneath the Lovell telescope, which had a projection of the Apollo 11 footage playing upon it. Quietly and reverentially, we watched and listened.

The relaxed end to Saturday continued on Sunday with the sun shining and the site beginning to dry up.  We enjoyed She Drew The Gun on the Lovell stage from the comfort of deck chairs only moving to get a better view of Oshun, who came on next and continued to provide a message of inclusiveness and self-worth.  We had planned to watch Anna Calvi‘s performance but at the Notes tent we just couldn’t tear ourselves away from the words of the comedians and performing artists from Punk in Drublic, a Manchester-based collective of spoken word artists and poets who perform weekly at Deansgate locks in central Manchester. Edy Hurst had us crying with laughter with his take on life and it’s ups and downs; performing what he terms musical comedy, “so if you don’t get the jokes you can at least enjoy the singing.”  Patrick T Davies made us think about the seriousness of some of our cultural and political issues with his insightful poems.  Dave Viney made us cry and think with one of his emotionally rich poems, only to make us cry with laughter with his next poem about Stretford, a gentrification resistant suburb of Manchester.  Steph Lonsdale brought lovely focus to music fandom and shared the deep love a mother feels for her daughter.  Winding up a perfect two hours sat on a couch in the Notes tent, Rebecca Roy presented a poem about her favourite astronaut: Michael Collins, the third and often scarcely mentioned astronaut of the Apollo 11 mission, who when asked how he felt when out of view and radio contact with Earth, orbiting in total isolated emptiness on the dark side of the moon answered: “exuberant”. 

We managed to get very close to the front for John Grant on Sunday evening. A favourite of ours, with his cunningly hilarious yet poignantly emotional lyrics.  The set was too short for him to really get stuck in but he played more of his recent work, which is more upbeat and playful.  We have been fans of John Grant since his debut solo album and we have seen him become a more confident performer as he has performed at increasingly sized venues over the years.  We missed some of the more deeply feeling songs, Glacier would have been perfect but we were still belting out the lyrics to the all the songs nonetheless; noticing another member of audience, a teenage girl, who shyly refused when her dad tried to take her photo, was later unabashedly singing along at the top of her lungs, such is the transformational power of music.  Also amongst the audience was a young girl of primary school age, held aloft by a proud parent and holding up a homemade banner stating: “You are the greatest mother flipper.”  For those unfamiliar with JG’s work this is referring to the chorus of his song GMF where there’s a smattering of impassioned adult wording in the lyrics, which some would consider unsuitable for young ears.  Great experience, great atmosphere between artist and audience, great fun. 

We sadly couldn’t stay for the Sunday headliners New Order and all the other finales so we said a bittersweet farewell and journeyed homeward.

bluedot has a mission statement of scientific and ecological enlightenment through inspiring and exploratory culture but it also promotes inclusivity and kindness. bluedot is a festival where nerds can indulge their passions and we loved it for that. We extend our apologies to the UNESCO world heritage site of Jodrell Bank for stomping all over you and making you look and smell more like a farmyard than the centre for scientific excellence that you are.  But rest assured we took home so much more than your mud on our boots and on our clothes, we took home hearts full of love, new understanding and more hope for our uncertain futures.  Thanks so much.  How do we feel? : “Exuberant”.

Words by Ian and Kvetka Chadwick