‘The greatest free show on Earth!
The 2020 Whit Friday band contest will be held on Friday 5th June 2020. Fingers crossed for good weather!
The Whit Friday band contest tradition dates back to 1884 and is actually a series of individual band contests held in eleven of the thirteen villages that make up Saddleworth: Delph, Denshwaw, Diggle, Dobcross, Friezland, Greenfield, Grotton, Lees & Springhead, Lydgate, Scouthead and Austerlands and Uppermill.
The contest is held in such high esteem that brass bands travel from all over the world to perform, and thousands of people come to the area to watch them do their thing. The competition is open to all – International bands, local bands, youth bands, military bands all are welcome and able to compete up against some of the most famous bands in the world such as Brighouse & Rastrick, Black Dyke, Grimethorpe Colliery Band and Lydgate Brass Band.
Each band plays two pieces, the first is performed as they march to the contest performance area, the second is the competition piece that they will be judged on. A volunteer marches ahead of each band holding a sign with the name of the band so that the crowd can see who is playing next, however, the name of the band is never verbally announced. The judges, (who like everyone else involved in the competition are also volunteers), spend all day hidden away in a caravan or tent (with only the occasional pint of beer for company) and score each band only on the quality of their performance, not on their prestige, fame, or fancy uniforms.
There is prize money up for grabs too, so as soon as each band has finished playing they race to their bus to get to the next competition (actually most don’t, they usually have a quick beer before being rounded up by a stressed band leader and hassled back onto the bus). In theory, each band tries to attend as many competitions as possible, though there is a lot of traffic between the villages, an orderly band queuing system to be negotiated, and beers to be drunk, so most only manage a few contests but still manage a fair few beers.
Some people try to chase the bands around and visit more than one contest, but personally, I prefer to take it easy. My advice is to find a good spot to listen to the bands and stick with it.
The contest runs from around 4 pm until around 10.30pm, during which time many of the roads in the villages are closed and parking is terrible. The local traffic wardens like to run their own competition to see how many tickets they can give out – Whit Friday is all their Christmas’s rolled into one – Bonus time! So park wisely, you have been warned.
At the 2019 contest, Brighouse and Rastrick won the lions share of trophies, as they usually do, winning at Delph, Dobcross, Greenfield, Grotton, Lees & Springhead and Lydgate, they came second at Denshaw. The pick of the local bands was Boarshurst Silver band who collected a handful of prizes. Grotton and Lydgate contests both beat their record number of bands this year with Delph hosting 81 bands, which was the most bands of the day. Prizes were awarded to bands from Germany, Sweden and Iceland, and bands from all over the globe travelled to Saddleworth to enjoy the day. The full results can be found here.
One band that received a lot of attention in 2019 was Chav Brass. This scratch band (who’ve actually been performing at the Whit Friday Band Contest since 2007) is made up of a collection of very talented musicians from all over the world who come together once a year to play at the Whit Friday Band Contest.
Don’t be put off by their appearance, or their unusual choice of music for marching, this band can play! They were placed 2nd overall in Uppermill and 3rd overall in Denshaw and Lydgate for their performance of the more traditional piece ‘Knight Templar’, click here to see a video of them performing it at Denshaw, it is fantastic. They perhaps don’t appeal to the more traditional Whit Friday aficionado, but since the video of them marching at Delph went viral they have undoubtedly introduced brass bands and the Whit Friday Band Contest to a whole new audience, and that is no mean feat.
Chav Brass perfectly encapsulates the ethos of the Whit Friday band contest, that of beer, brass and fun. As they only perform once a year, they eschew the expected norms, such as practising together, not getting drunk, and wearing a smart uniform, though they do wear their Burberry tracksuits with pride. Keep an eye out for them in 2020, I expect they’ll have a large following, and a contest first prize is definitely within their grasp!
This is their famous marching performance of DJ Sammy’s remix of Bryan Adams’ ‘Heaven’ in Delph.
If you are looking for information about performing at the band contest then head to the Official Saddleworth Whit Friday Band contest page.
Despite being known as the “Greatest Free Show on Earth’ it actually costs a lot of money to run the Whit Friday Band Contest, and it wouldn’t be possible without the hundreds of volunteers who work tirelessly before, during and after the event. The prize money alone for the bands amounts to £34,000, and that doesn’t include running costs. A Gofundme fundraiser has been set up to raise money to ensure that the contest can continue, you can donate here.
If you have never been to Saddleworth to experience the band contest before, then you are in for a treat, and the people of Saddleworth will warmly welcome you. To Saddleworthians the Whit Friday band contest is the greatest day of the year, and something they are very proud of and more than happy to share. Even as a ‘comer-inner’ myself (they never let you forget) I look forward to Whit Friday every year, I just wish I could be there.
My favourite place to watch the contest and soak up the atmosphere is up at the White Hart in Lydgate, its a lovely pub about 30 minutes walk from Pots & Pans Cottage, and the perfect spot to see the bands marching and performing. The food is great, the beer outstanding and the views over Saddleworth just amazing. This is a snippet of the Lydgate band contest to whet your appetite.
It doesn’t get much better than this – a pint of local beer and a bit of brass!
In Saddleworth, the morning of Whit Friday is dedicated to the Whit walks. The local schools and churches march a procession through the village holding banners and are often accompanied by bands – the roads are closed in many of the villages between 9 am and 12.30pm.
The roads open briefly after the Whit walks before closing again at around 3.30pm in preparation for the band contest.
The official Whit Friday Band Contest website has loads of information, and they have detailed plans about road closures in the different villages. The Oldham council website has comprehensive information on road closures too.
The 1996 British comedy-drama film ‘Brassed Off’ featured the Saddleworth Whit Friday Band Contest. If you haven’t seen it, it is a wonderful film. This fabulous clip featuring the ‘March of the Cobblers’ (which an iconic Whit Friday tune) from the movie filmed in Saddleworth manages to perfectly encapsulate what a glorious day the band contest is.
Pots & Pans Cottage in Uppermill has already been booked up for the 2020 Saddleworth Whit Friday Band contest weekend, however, there are still loads of other dates available in 2020 if you fancy a little holiday in beautiful Saddleworth. Click below to find out the prices and availability of Pots & Pans Cottage, and to make a booking.
There are plenty of other places available to stay at in the area if you are coming to the 2020 band contest, though they do get booked up quickly so you’ll have to be fast. Check out Air BnB and Trip Advisor to see them. There are some lovely log cabins and glamping pods available at Dovestones, and if you’re feeling adventurous then there is a fabulous campsite at Well-i-hole farm in Greenfield.
If you are heading to Saddleworth for the contest I hope you have a great time. Even if you aren’t a big fan of brass band music, it is a fabulous day, a wonderful community day, and a great reminder of how amazing Saddleworth can be, and how warm and welcoming Saddleworth people are.
Cheers and Beers and Brass Bands!
Click below to see a list of the events and festivals going on in Saddleworth and further afield.