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A Bookish Christmas: The Hay Festival Winter Weekend 2016

Have you ever wanted to go to a place where everything revolves around books, where you can spend a whole weekend browsing tons of second-hand bookshops all without leaving the little town you’re staying in? Then the world’s first ‘book town’, Hay-on-Wye is definitely for you! Since Richard Booth (bookshop pictured below) opened his first bookshop in the little Welsh town near Hereford in the 1960s many other towns from all around the world have followed his example and joined the International Organisation of Book Towns.


I had been to the ‘big’ book festival in the summer of 2009 once before the year I started the blog and had had an absolutely fabulous time, but had never made it to the winter edition until this year. It was exactly what I needed a month before Christmas: a few days away from it all in a cosy B&B surrounded by books, taking in the beautiful scenery, munching mince pies and sipping mulled wine like it was an Olympic sport AND a book festival on top of all that – genius!

I had arrived in Hay on Friday night just in time for the big Christmas light switch-on with Ben Fogle in the centre of town. There was a little Christmas market in a sizeable tent by the Cheese Market and it was the first time this year I really felt like Christmas isn’t all that far off now. A little later that evening a lot of us gathered for music of a very different kind, the Ben Baddoo Afrobeat Band. It took place in the Castle, which is about to get an exciting makeover (more details below), one large room of which was nicely decorated with holly twigs, a real Christmas tree and a roaring fire in the corner. After a few minutes, the West African beats had everyone shedding their coats and dancing as if we were partying in much more sunny climes.


Saturday morning started out well with an intriguing talk by Gruffyd Aled Williams about the significance of Owain Glyndwr in Welsh history followed by braving the pretty chilly temperatures on an equally fascinating guided tour of the now obsolete Hay Railway, which was in fact a narrow gauge horse-drawn tramway and was in operation from 1864 to 1962. After having checked out the pop-up stalls of the food festival and warmed up with some spiced apple cake and latte at the Old Stables Tea Rooms in the centre of Hay, it was time for another event, this time in St. Mary’s church. Ben Rawlence talked about his book ‘City of Thorns’, which describes life in the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya and we also heard from Yohannes who made it to the UK from Ethiopia via the Libyan desert and Calais. Lots of food for thought about what home means to all of us, especially at this time of the year.

I ended the evening with a lovely carol singalong in Hay Castle with more mulled wine, homemade mince pies and in good company. It was strange being in a small community such as Hay where nearly everyone knows each other and it felt at times almost like gate-crashing some sort of private celebration. I did meet a few others though who had come from further afield, such as London, like myself, Manchester and even Belgium to attend the festival. We all agreed we wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else that weekend.


My Sunday began with an absolutely fabulous tour of Hay Castle (read up on its history and planned restoration on the Hay Castle Trust website) led by Mari Fforde. I’ve always loved how old houses preserve so much history over the centuries and was glad to see how passionate the local committee is about keeping their local history alive. It was a really dark, cold day, but thankfully the town centre was lit up by many beautiful lights, all the shop windows were lovingly decorated, there was a vintage festival on in town and many mugs of hot beverages waiting to be consumed by thirsty festival goers.

After finally having had enough time to do a really good bookshop crawl (yessss!), I attended my last talk of the weekend, ‘Browse: The World in Bookshops’, with the book’s editor Henry Hitchings who was interviewed by Hay Festival director Peter Florence (see picture below) in the Swan hotel, which was also the official festival HQ. The festival closing event at the Castle was another concert, this time with Australian born, Bristol based singer-songwriter Nuala Honan. Of course, there was more mulled wine and more lively conversation until it was time for the short walk back to my B&B and, alas, bye bye to Hay-on-Wye the following morning.


Judging by the many sold out events of the weekend, the smaller, more intimate sister of the bigger Hay Festival is definitely a successful addition to the already existing roster of literary events in Hay. For me, it was the perfect booklovers weekend getaway and now I’m looking forward to Christmas even more!

Hay also has a vibrant social media presence, if you’re into that kind of thing. Do check out the below twitter accounts for updates on events, foodie delights and more if you’re planning a visit: @hayfestival @HayHOWLs (to stop the closure of their local library!) @chefonrun @BoothsBookshop @childrnsbkshop @haycastle @HayMarketsLtd @4bruce7 @alanababycorner @marifromvalley @thestoryofbooks @haydoesvintage @broomfieldhse @haycheesemarket @Chris_the_Book @globeathay @Oxfam_at_Hay @thefudgeshop @OtherworldzHay @thefudgeshop and many more.




Americana Advent: A Musical Advent Calendar

It’s been another great year for fantastic, independent live music of the folk and Americana variety. As Christmas and the end of the year are fast approaching I decided to create a musical version of one of my favourite things in the world: the advent calendar. This special Lifeisafestival #AmericanaAdvent is filled with lots of delicious (and totally calorie-free!) goodies in the form of music videos of some of my favourite Americana artists who passed through London and the UK in 2014. I hope some of them bring back good memories of gigs and festivals you attended yourself or give you suggestions of whose mailing list to sign up for in order not to miss any future shows. And keep a close eye on this blog and the @lifeisafestival Twitter handle (hashtag #AmericanaAdvent) for your daily dose of fabulous Americana music from either side of the Atlantic!
< Click on the band names to view the videos >
1 December
January and February 2014 were pretty busy for me and I only managed to catch a few shows which included Hip Hatchet (Philippe Bronchtein) from Portland and The Stray Birds from Pennsylvania. A promising start and music is indeed the best medicine for the mid-winter blues.
2 December
In March I attended a great one-day Welsh festival at Cecil Sharp House organised by the Green Man Festival. It included some fab musicians performing in Welsh including The Gentle Good (Gareth Bonello) and 9Bach – ffantastig!
3 December
Three more excellent shows I saw in March were those of Nashville-based singer-songwriter Diana Jones at Twickfolk, Twickenham, as well as Newfoundland trio The Once at Green Note and Emily Smith from Scotland at Cecil Sharp House. I highly recommend you catch them on their next tour.
4 December
In April I ventured out of London and discovered two great live music venues in Birmingham, the Kitchen Garden Cafe and the Hare and Hounds – both well worth a visit. Also hailing from “Brum” are the always highly entertaining The Toy Hearts, their London gig was great, a little bit of Texas on this side of the Atlantic.
5 December
At the end of April it was time for Folk Weekend Oxford a fantastic smaller festival that also benefits from taking place in one of my favourite cities in the UK. Police Dog Hogan impressed with their usual, energy-packed, humorous live show while local duo Wednesday’s Wolves were my favourite new discovery. Oh and forgot to add US singer and fiddler Rayna Gellert in the March gig list earlier, it was a really lovely evening.
6 December
In May and June I was travelling a lot including a return visit to Copenhagen which I left very, very reluctantly. Luckily, there were some great concerts to soothe my insatiable wanderlust for the time being. Austin-based Eliza Gilkyson‘s show at the Old Queen’s Head was memorable and so was a lovely and lively gig by The Henry Girls from Donegal who I had first met at Guth Gafa Documentary Film Festival last year.
7 December
In July Maverick Festival was the first Americana highlight of the summer. Who would have thought we would get to hear the likes of Mary Gauthier from Nashville and Hannah Aldridge from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, on a farm in Suffolk? But we did and it was fabulous, of course.
8 December
Also rocking the Easton Farm Park stage during the Maverick weekend were Nashvillian Holly Williams (granddaughter of Hank Williams), sister duo Larkin Poe from Atlanta as well as fab London band Danny and the Champions – what an Americana party!
9 December
Two new US musicians I discovered at Maverick Festival were Don Gallardo, based in Nashville, and Thom Chacon from Colorado. I also caught separate gigs of theirs later in the year and they are both due back on these shores in 2015 along with various other Maverick artists, hurrah!
10 December
Also in July was my second time at Larmer Tree Festival at the beautiful Larmer Tree Gardens (including peacocks!). It is a true family festival and there was a lot of fun to be had and crafty things to be made. Musical entertainment included the quirky Truckstop Honeymoon from (most recently) Kansas and lots of other lively bands.
11 December
Dublin duo Hudson Taylor were also on the bill at Larmer Tree this year. So was another Irishman, Mark Boyle, also known as the “Moneyless Man” (no music, but a great manifesto!). A really inspiring summer weekend.
12 December
Other fun sets included the Perch Creek Family Jug Band, all the way from Melbourne, Australia, as well as Cardboard Fox, who both had the audiences toes tapping. And if you havent taken the festival quiz yet, to see what type of festival goer you are, try it now.
13 December
After some more travels in August I returned in time for one of the most well-organised folk festivals in the UK, Shrewsbury Folk Festival. It was another fantastic year with four days of great live music including Cara Luft and J.D. Edwards from Canada as well as UK folk singer Bella Hardy.
14 December
The Shrewsbury Folk Festival weekend also included Canadian duo Madison Violet as well as a surprise appearance by Phil Beer who joined Steve Knightley and a couple of thousand strong audience choir in singing Cousin Jack – one of my favourite moments of the festival!
15 December
There were lots of Canadian bands at the 2014 Shrewsbury Folk Festival. Among them were also Blackie and the Rodeo Kings from Ontario as well as JP Hoe from Winnipeg. It was a really special weekend again and Im already looking forward to next year.
16 December
August had even more in store, such as the End of the Road Festival near Salisbury in Dorset. While the focus of the festival is not exactly on Americana, I was very impressed by Andrew Combs from Nashville whose talented song writing was a true highlight this year. So was a very different performance by “the best band you’ve never heard of”, The Stewards. Judge for yourself.
17 December
Also at End of the Road Festival 2014: Nashville-based singer-songwriter Robert Ellis as well as sister duo Lily & Madeleine from Indianapolis. Ah yes, and New York’s Felice Brothers also put in an appearance, a fab energetic set.
18 December
In September a number of good local gigs helped beating the post festival summer blues. One of them was Berkshire-based Case Hardin, a great live band who I had only seen at relatively noisy festival before and whose quieter songs are well worth a listen too. So are Londoner Lotte Mullans intimate story telling songs.
19 December
In October it was finally time to catch a headline gig by The Barr Brothers from Montreal who also did an in-store performance at Rough Trade East. Their creative song writing and use of different instruments is just amazing and I cannot wait for future shows. I also enjoyed a lovely acoustic set by Sugar Magnolia upstairs at the Glad.
20 December
The music menu in October also included the cheerful Hallelujah Trails and renowned Irish trad veterans Altan, who made me miss Ireland quite a bit.
21 December
Another October highlight was a gig by the Red Molly trio from New York at the Jazz Cafe in Camden. Supporting them on the night were Brighton-based Hatful of Rain. Both fantastic live bands, go check them out!
22 December
Before my trip to Vancouver and Chicago I also caught two other gigs, one by Brigitte de Meyer from Nashville and the other by Austin-based Zoe Muth, both fab live shows. On my first night in Vancouver I paid a visit to the Rogue Folk Club, where I used to volunteer in 2011, for a gig by blues musician Ray Bonneville from Austin. It was really good to be back!
23 December
The day after I returned to London Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay from Austin were at the Green Note again. November also brought a lovely gig by The Lost Brothers from Ireland at St Pancras Old Church whose music I had come across during a visit to Dublin in September.
24 December
A great 2014 live music finale was provided by two of my favourite new discoveries this year: Adam Holmes and the Embers from Scotland as well as The Self Help Group from Brighton. Both bands have a really unique style and create a wonderful combination of beautiful melodies and thoughtful lyrics. What a fantastic way to finish off this exciting year of live music! For my part, I am already looking forward to a good few of my favourite musicians returning to London early in 2015. And then there is the next festival summer to look forward to, of course. See you out there!