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The art of enjoyment; It's one of the most accessible parts of Scotland from Newcastle, and also one of the most beautiful. KAREN WILSON explores Dumfries and Galloway ahead of the annual Arts Festival, which starts on Friday.

Byline: KAREN WILSON

WHEN hordes of artists move into an area, chances are it's going to be beautiful. And so it is with Dumfries and Galloway, a part of Scotland just north of Carlisle that I'm surprised to find, after a one-hour, 40-minute drive, is even closer than the Lake District.

It's a cultured place all right - Wigtown has been named Scotland's national book town while Kirkcudbright Artists Town is replete with easel-shaped signs and, unsurprisingly, a plethora of galleries and art shops. And, of course, it was the home of Robert Burns and Peter Pan author JM Barrie.

With the 12-day Dumfries and Galloway Arts Festival starting next weekend, it's the perfect time to visit.

It features a mix of home-grown talent alongside national and international acts, covering classic and contemporary music, theatre, literature and visual arts. There are more than 40 events in almost 20 towns, including a children's festival with story-telling, theatre, workshops and forest adventures.

Highlights include the Scottish Chamber Orchestra with soprano Lorna Anderson and harpist Savorna Stephenson, a rising Scottish talent whose music has been used on Sex and the City and Ugly Betty.

Music fans should look out for One Day in June featuring the Alastair Anderson Band in different venues around the rural parish of Kirkmahoe while contemporary and folk fans might want to look out for the Tim Kliphuis Trio, Rab Noakes and Michael Marra.

Meanwhile, literature fans can get their kicks at the Big Lit Day featuring authors like David Benedictus, Alan Bissett and Katrina Porteous, alongside street performers, guerrilla poetry installations, workshops and a country market in the town of Gatehouse of Fleet. There's even a fully staged opera - a first in the festival's 33-year history - with Opera A La Carte's staging of Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte at Scotland's oldest working theatre, the Theatre Royal in Dumfries. You might think we've already got the best cultural scene at home in the North East, so why bother? But the varied programme is so entwined with the local culture and landscape - taking place in quirky venues like cafes, churches, forests, galleries, a mill and a garden centre, as well as traditional theatres - that it brings the whole place to life. You can also expect to see giant fish and sea creatures walking through the streets of Dumfries. It's all about the characters you meet along the way too. At the cosy Brigend Theatre in Dumfries we're introduced to Dr John Cairey, a charming old-school thespian who has written 14 books, met Elizabeth Taylor and toured the world with his one-man show about Robert Burns. At 82, he still gets phone calls from gay Americans requesting signed photos of himself as Hylas in Hollywood blockbuster Jason and the Argonauts.

"I should send them one of myself now!" he laughs. He's currently there rehearsing Life, Love and Liberty, a pageant performance premiering in July which follows Burns and the cast around Dumfries. One of the key Burns landmarks is the Globe Inn, where we met Arts Festival chairwoman Dame Barbara Kelly for lunch. It's the oldest pub in Dumfries dating to 1610 and was a regular haunt of Robert Burns. "This area is much better than the Lake District," said Dame Barbara, with a hint of bias, but I let it pass. "It's just as beautiful but there are far less people around!" As nearby Galloway Forest Park is one of the best spots in Europe for stargazing without a telescope, she certainly has a point. After a very fine steak pie and chips in the same room that Scotland's most revered poet would make merry on his favourite fireside chair (pub tradition dictates you must recite one of his poems printed on a napkin if you sit there), we were whisked round the Burns bedroom where a scrawled verse to a mistress is etched on the windowpanes.

Another prized pane of ancient graffiti had been nabbed by a bigger boy in the playground who wouldn't give it back (the Burns Museum at Alloway), so one is a reproduction. Our base for the weekend is Mabie House Hotel, five miles from Dumfries on the edge of Mabie Forest. As cyclists whizz by on the tree-lined driveway and we later get chatting to a man at the hotel bar who's forgotten his belt and is holding up his trousers with a climbing rope, it soon becomes clear this place is very popular with mountain bikers and outdoor enthusiasts. A charming 17th Century manor house, it has the sort of fireside seating area that could make you spend hours just reading the papers in the lobby. Friendly staff along with a resident parrot and unbelievably cute pug dog add to the homely atmosphere. Our suite was huge and decorated in fine period style. All it needed was some plush drapes and pictures on the walls, and I'd happily move in. If you don't fancy dinner in the hotel (the chalkboard offered a selection of pub-style traditional dishes from around pounds 10) eateries abound in the surrounding area.

You can enjoy a bar supper overlooking the marina at nearby Kippford or head into Dumfries to Casa Mia or Hulabaloo. Next morning we enjoyed a cracking Scottish breakfast complete with delicious haggis and egg-topped pancake before visiting some of the towns and villages which will host arts festival events. As we drive about the region, map bobbing on my knee, I can't Dumfries and Galloway Arts Festival runs from May 25- June 5; www.dgartsfest.co.uk to find out more. Karen Wilson stayed at Mabie House Hotel, Dumfries, DG2 8HB Call 01387 263188 to book or visit the hotel website at www.mabiehousehotel.co.uk FACT BOX help but read out the delightfully weird and wonderful names that leap off the page - Bogue, Palnure, Haugh of Urr, Corsock, Auldgirth, Kirkbean, Mainsriddle and Clatteringshaws Loch (try saying those after a few whiskies). Our first stop is the National Museum of Costume at Shambellie House, New Abbey, which will be the venue for John Paul Jones - The Gairdner's Son by Alan Reid which mixes folk music, narration and drama.

It's not a huge collection but well worth seeing. Downstairs you'll see mostly Victorian costumes and shoes while upstairs currently has an exhibition of colourful 40s and 50s dresses by Horrockses, a nowdefunct label that was popular with Princess Margaret, as well as aspirational young women who would save up a week's wages to buy one of their dresses for a special occasion. I even spotted a few evening dresses with labels from Fenwicks of Newcastle. Afterwards we drove via New Abbey, which is famous for its 13th Century Sweetheart Abbey, towards Kirkcudbright where the extra-special light has attracted artists like moths to a flame. As we weave through backstreets to find our destination - Broughton House - I'm struck by the charming terraced houses painted in different colours much like the houses in Alnmouth. Broughton House was the home and studio of leading artist EA Hornel from 1864-1933. He had a passion for all things Japanese which inspired his paintings, many of which are displayed in the impressive gallery extension created by Glasgow architect John Keppie. His passion also led him to create a beautiful Japanese garden at the rear. It's the perfect setting for the Gilbert and Sullivan Gala Concert that will be held here during the Arts Festival.

We also popped in for coffee at CatStrand in New Galloway, a small but well-funded arts centre run by friendly volunteers which seems able to punch above its weight by attracting big names such as comedian Robin Ince. I imagine he may look bemused when he pulls up in such a rural backwater next Friday. Another one to catch is Chris Larner's An Instinct for Kindness on May 31, which chronicles his trip to Dignitas in Switzerland with a chronically ill ex-wife. Even if you're not a culture vulture, there isplenty to do in Dumfries and Galloway; watch curling at Lockerbie ice rink, go fishing at Moffat, walk the Southern Upland Way, catch a boat to Threave Castle, meditate at the first Tibetan Buddhist Centre in the West or even get married at Gretna Green.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 19, 2012
Words:1387
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