Ced Wells, front, right, with other members of the Solace team.
WIGHT LIVING THOUSANDS of revellers have just enjoyed a fantastic Bestival, non-stop sunshine and a stunning performance from the legendary Stevie Wonder. The IW Festival may have had its hitches this year but Bruce Springsteen put on what was said to be one of the great shows of all time.
Yes, festivals are fabulous but they are also frantic and very, very expensive. You can easily get sensory overload, be overwhelmed by the noise, the numbers of people and in need of a little time out, somewhere to relax and escape the crowd.
Well, the place to go, as many discover every year, is the Solace tent. It is a tent (these days, in fact, a yurt rather than a marquee) tucked away in (relatively) quiet corners of the IW Festival and Bestival sites, where you can chill out on giant cushions and enjoy a cup of tea in a china mug and a piece of freshly baked cake.
Then comes the big surprise. You are served up tea and cake and ask how much you owe. Nothing, comes the answer. The tea, the cake, or the early morning dish of porridge, they all come free.
Over the course of Bestival earlier this month, the Solace team made more than 6,000 cups of tea (and there are at least 15 varieties on offer), served more than 6,000 slices of home-made cake and made more than 600 bowls of porridge in the mornings to revive hungry and tired festival goers. And they didn’t charge a penny for it.
Even more cake and tea is served at the IW Festival, where an estimated 10,000 cups of tea and slices of cake are enjoyed over the course of the event.
Solace is a uniquely IW experience, no other festival in the world has an equivalent. The tent is manned by a team of volunteers and the cake is baked in kitchens around the Island.
It may sound homespun but it takes a huge amount of organisation to get it right every time. The cake has never run out, there is always enough milk, the rota has never been short of volunteers and the whole thing runs like clockwork.
There are a small core of volunteers who have been involved from the beginning who must take the credit for the year-round effort that goes into maintaining Solace, but they would say the real credit and the inspiration for the project is God.
Solace is the brainchild of a group of young Christians on the Island and and it is enthusiastically supported by the church community here.
It came about as the result of a chance meeting in a Brighstone teashop back in 2005 between IW Festival supremo John Giddings and a church member.
Asked if there was a role the church could play in the festival, Mr Giddings gave the idea an enthusiastic thumbs up and encouraged them to get on with it.
Methodist minister the Rev Malcolm Stinton was approached but although he was enthusiastic he felt a younger input was needed and so he talked to people at the Victorious Life Church, which meets in Newport and has a a solid core of younger members.
Among them was Ced Wells, a member of the Christian family that runs the A. J. Wells firm on the Island. Ced and a couple of friends were confirmed festival fans, and thought there was a role for the church at festivals on the Island.
Quickly the idea of offering tea and cake evolved.
"We love festivals, they are very creative places but we knew people can be overwhelmed by them, they need a place to take time out and relax. That’s what we wanted to create and offering tea and cake was a natural; everyone loves tea and cake," said Ced.
The first Solace tent was at the IW Festival in June 2005, followed by Bestival later that year after Rob and Josie da Bank were as enthusiastic about the concept as John Giddings.
Although many things have changed and improved since the first Solace, the basics remain the same. The tent is filled with comfy chairs, cushions and little graffiti tables, where people love to sit and scribble messages.
Sometimes, when there are enough volunteers available, they offer foot washing and there have been open mic sessions at various festivals.
Behind the scenes is a small prayer tent, open to anyone who wants to take some time out and share a prayer with one of the volunteers, but there is no attempt to push any Christian message onto those who come into the tent.
First-time visitors are always surprised when told they don’t have to pay.
"It is always interesting seeing people’s faces. Most accept it quite quickly, others seem more uncomfortable and ask what they can do in return. We say they can do someone a good turn sometime," said Ced.
There are always a couple of volunteers sited front of house, making sure everything is running smoothly and talking to visitors.
"Most people who come of Solace just want to relax a bit but for others it has been a real life-saver. People can have bad experiences at festivals, they lose their money, get separated from their friends, get exhausted or suffer from too much alcohol. A hot drink, something to eat and a rest or a chat can do wonders."
Asked if by providing free food and drink, the Solace team were simply allowing festival-goers to spend more money on alcohol, Ced said he and the volunteers were unconcerned about that.
"No-one is any different in God’s eyes, he loves everyone and we are open and available to everyone," he said.
"It is very difficult to gauge what kind of effect we have but once people have found us, they keep coming back, so they must enjoy the experience," he said.
"Some of those who get the most positive experience are those who had a childhood connection with the church but have moved away. They see what we are doing and think it makes the church relevant and connected to young people’s lives.
"We are just spreading a simple and practical Gospel message. The message that faith is about loving people and helping people."
It’s not just the people on the receiving end of Solace that get a lot out of the experience, the volunteers do as well.
There have been at least two marriages of couples who met while volunteering at Solace and there is a new generation of young people getting involved, some coming from far flung corners of the world. There was a young Australian at Bestival this year and volunteers from Ireland at other events, plus lots of Island-based students on holiday from university.
"One woman I collected cakes from told me how much it meant to her," said Ced. "She said she was too shy to take an active part in church services but she could bake, she could do something for others and get involved with the work of the church."
Before every festival, appeals are made around the Island church for people to supply cakes, the Wight Churches network playing a major role here. Generous cake bakers are the congregations of Shanklin URC, Newport Baptist, Victorious Life and Niton Methodist churches.
Collection points are set up and the cakes taken off to the festival and volunteers find piles of more cake tins left on their doorsteps every day to keep things going. Getting the cake tins back to the churches is a logistical nightmare, but it does happen eventually.
Ced estimates it costs less than £2,000 to run the whole thing for a festival, that money going on tea, milk and other supplies plus the cost of the yurt. Donations come from Island businesses and churches and in the early days a private benefactor made a contribution.
The reputation of Solace has spread and other festivals, including Reading, have indicated they would love to host the team but Ced says it would be impossible for the Island volunteers to find the time to take in other festivals as well.
One day he envisages writing a simple guide for others to follow so the idea can spread although he thinks it is an idea particularly well suited to the Island with its neat geographic boundaries and the goodwill towards the concept of festivals.
There have been no bad moments for the Solace team, he believes. At the wet events, their services are in more demand than ever, with a tent full of cold, wet and hungry festival-goers seeking solace from the elements.
The best moments, he believes, come when the tent has been packed all night long and they are still going when the sun comes up.
Perched on the top of the hill at Bestival, seeing the sun rise over the site, that’s solace for the soul.