Getting Metal in Lithgow with Ironfest 2013
For the last 14 years an eccentric called MacGregor Ross has been hosting a festival called Ironfest, and each year it’s steadily increased in scale. Imagine Game of Thrones meets Australian rural fair, but with robots. I only heard about it this year after my friend Katy told me she’d be selling her Adventure Pants there. After having a look at their shambolic website, I was pretty curious. But mostly confused.
It takes place in the show-grounds of the economically depressed Blue Mountains township of Lithgow, around two-and-a-half-hours outside of Sydney. Annually, over two days, this old coal-mining and iron-working town draws in around 14,000 visitors to dress-up, fight, buy knitted medieval beanies, and generally get pretty metal. It’s charming, it’s strange and it seems a lot of people don’t know about it, despite the NSW Government recognising it as an event of State Significance in 2007.
When we arrived it was raining in an annoyingly persistent way, but the car park was full. We parked on the outskirts and changed into our hastily put together outfits: me in a full Scottish outfit I’d picked up in Nowra and my companion in a kilt and some barbarian-esque furs. We didn’t really know what to expect, the website promised historical re-enactments, blacksmiths, gypsy dancing, jousting, a traditional French game called Tip-Cat
and an annual recreation of a faux-historical skirmish called The Battle of Lithgow. The trailer involved a lot of screaming and a pretty convincing David Tennant-era Dr Who look-a-like.
We got off to a good start when we met these two in the parking lot, waiting for their friend to finish getting changed next to the car.
But still, was this nerdy reenactment medieval thingy really for me? I’m a pretty cool guy who can’t make it through an entire episode of the inanities of Dr Who. So it was with some trepidation we entered the large iron festival gates, passing a T.A.R.D.I.S. (the theme this year being time travel) and a friendly colonial man in a top-hat playing Dr Who dance remixes.
I was surprised at what happened next: I had one of the best festival experiences of my life. Ironfest charms you. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly and everywhere you look you see oddities, curios and curious oddities. People of all ages were marvelously dressed: soldiers from every era (fictional and nonfictional), gypsies, barbarians, comic book characters, mummies, Jedis, romans, and bards. It’s an inclusive, non-judgmental, open-house and I felt comfortable almost straight away.
We found Katy and her stall in the vendors area, being circled by three R2D2’s, one of which was blaring 'Staying Alive' while some cute kids danced alongside, clapping their hands. She was talking to an ashen-faced man in a Borg outfit and an inability to smile. Nearby stalls were many and varied: everything from baked goods to fetishistic leather, mobiles (the decorative kind) made out of silver spoons, medieval helmets in beanie form knitted by peruvian vendors and a cat lady selling cat art. The Sydney Robot Workshop were there inviting people to sign up to a robot building course. Alongside this room, was the steampunk dining hall where a couple of Jedis were eating hot dogs. They looked delicious. The hot dogs looked nice too.
Spread over eleven sites, it’s impossible to see everything at Ironfest, so haphazard strolling around was the only solution I could come up with. There were so many glorious little moments: a shrine to Julian Assange placed on an easel next to the toilets, a child spinning in circles pretending his new wooden shield was the Millenium Falcon, a teenager being beaten mercilessly by a couple of children, a lady pole-dancing (clothes-on) while families looked on clapping, a knife vendor telling me about his worst customer (a man who came up to the stall, picked up a knife and sliced the end of his finger off). Here’s a video I put together of my highlights.
I bought a handcrafted blacksmith hammer brooch while I watched actual blacksmiths hammering glowing metal into something larger than a brooch. Later, I learnt that bikie gangs are called the “1 percenters”. They used to attend the festival in large numbers, before organisers were forced to axe the stunt show that was attracting them. The bikes also scared the horses, apparently, though this didn’t seem to apply to the cannons and guns which you constantly hear combusting. Throughout the day a man driving a monocycle kept passing us; it’s an absurd yet brilliant and graceful vehicle I never dreamed could exist. I got it on film (see video above), the rider is called Roland Zopf, look at him go!
Historical reenactments happen incessantly at Ironfest, often popping-up unexpectedly across the site as well as more formally scheduled in the main arena. It was in the main arena where, between the jousting, I saw a rockmelon stuck on a medieval peasants helmet, and then sliced in half by a passing rider on horseback (this is also in the video above, you really should watch it). The large scale battles involving hundreds, while loud cannons explode and white smoke billows across the country town’s oval. It's quite the spectacle. There are around 700 official participants in the festival each year.
I took a lot of photos, be sure to check out the gallery at the top of this article.
See you at Ironfest 2014, it’ll be held over 3 days for the first time ever, and the theme is ‘Life on Mars’. Which is fitting because sometimes you find life in unexpected places, like Lithgow.