Tag Archives: Cymru

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Myths, Music & Storytelling Magic in Wales: Beyond the Border Festival 2016

My first festival of the summer was Beyond the Border Wales International Storytelling Festival, which took place from 1-3 July 2016 in the grounds of Atlantic College and the medieval St. Donat’s Castle near Llantwit Major, in the Vale of Glamorgan. It’s a fairly small but well-established biannual festival, attracting between 2000 and 3000 visitors and many of the festival goers have been regulars for years, if not decades.

BTB programme

This year’s themes included Stories from the Celtic World, Myths of Gender/Gender in Myth, Myth and Music of India and Greece as well as Blacksmith Tales and Legends. For such a compact festival it had a whopping 9 festival areas, some in tents, some outdoors and one larger indoor venue at St. Donat’s Arts centre (which was sort of the festival hub for artists and attendees and had wifi and a café with sea views).

As it was my first storytelling festival, I had no idea who the big names were and what styles of stories I would enjoy most, so I tried a whole variety. Unlike at music festivals, where you can listen to partial sets of different bands and still get something out of it, I quickly learned that here it was best to catch the whole story from beginning to end.

Various people had recommended Ben Haggarty to me, a very accomplished storyteller who did an impressive performance of ‘The Blacksmith at The Bridge of Bones’ on Friday night. His style was a little too theatrical for me, but he seemed immensely popular and his performance was quite mesmerising and entertaining, here is a taster.

Right afterwards I caught a beautifully inventive story called ‘UniVerse’ by Irish-born and London-based storyteller Clare Murphy whose sense of humour I loved straight away (and made me a bit homesick for Ireland) and whose wonderfully original style had the audience spellbound. Read her blog post on what storytelling is and definitely check out some of her videos online (I dare you not to giggle!).

BTB Blue Garden

I started the Saturday with a yoga session in the Blue Garden led by Diana O’Reilly, with the morning sun shining down on us, which was a blessing in itself, as was the wonderful location overlooking the sea and the calm, welcoming atmosphere at the class.

As my volunteer shift happened to be in the Pavilion, I caught Jo Blake Cave and Laura Pocket (on double bass) with a reimagined version of her post-apocalyptic magical story ‘The Girl Who Became a Boy’. This was followed by travelling back in time to 14th century Venice by top Italian storyteller Paola Balbi.

I also greatly enjoyed listening to the Welsh-Indian band Tŷhai before it was time for some bilingual tales (partly in Welsh) by Dau Dafod (Jez Danks & Dafydd Davies Hughes). After grabbing a yummy veggie meal from The Parsnipship I decided to give ‘Beowulf’ a try, which was expertly and very humorously told by Jesper La Cour Andersen and Troels Kirk Ejsing. The Danes had the audience really engaged in the story (‘rowing’ a boat, being guests at a Viking party etc.) and it ended up being my favourite show of the festival, so much fun!

Later that night it was time for some music again and a very special collaboration by Mumbai singer Tauseef Akhtar and Welsh singer-songwriter Gwyneth Glyn. Ghazalaw is one of those projects which gets the balance exactly right by merging the music and song of two cultures in a very beautiful way including tabla, fiddle, harmonium, kora, harp and guitar. Their first album is fantastic and they also played some new songs for us.

BTB kids area

After another yoga morning session, which always helps to put me in a poised and happy mood for the day, I caught the first part of another brilliant Clare Murphy show, this time with Tim Ralphs and the (to a bunny person like myself) very enticing title ‘Tales of the Rabbit God’. Luckily my next volunteer shift was at the Pavilion again, so I managed to listen to Native American storyteller Dovie Thomason whose story was called ‘Buffalo Gals Won’t You Come Out Tonight?’. It was fantastic to learn so much about storytelling traditions of different parts of the world all in one weekend in rural Wales.

The finale of the festival on Sunday night was a wonderful parade with everyone and their handmade lanterns and costumes moving from the festival grounds to the Big Top led by the Rajasthan Heritage Brass Band. After the closing ceremony and the burning of a giant fire sculpture (created by Goffee) in a field overlooking the sea, it was time for the last act of the festival, a (mostly) Eastern-European dance party with The Turbans, which was the perfect end to a vibrant, story and music-filled weekend in Wales.

BTB fire sculpture

So if you like your festivals small and friendly where you get woken up by sheep bleating in the field next door, both old and young will have a good time and you can learn a thing or two in a relaxed atmosphere, do put Beyond the Border in your summer calendar. The nearby small town of Llantwit Major (hourly bus from near the festival grounds or a half hour walk away) is also worth exploring for an afternoon and has some very cosy cafes.

P.S. As a linguist, I’d like to give a special mention the the amazing sign language interpreters at the festival! I’ve never been at an event where they seemed more engaged and passionate than here at BTB. Find out more about sign language interpreters here.

World Wide Wales: Brecon Jazz Festival 2015

When I attend folk and Americana music festivals I usually have a good idea which artists I want to see. With jazz festivals it is a completely different story for me. This was only my third time volunteering with a jazz festival, ever. The first time was the excellent Nelson Jazz Festival in 2007 (before this blog was born) during a trip to New Zealand and then the Vancouver Jazz Festival in 2011. Having not been to Wales for way too long, I decided it was time to give my third jazz festival a try and Brecon Jazz (7-9 August 2015) had a diverse line-up as well as a beautiful location to boot.

I arrived at Brecon from Hay on Wye where I had spent a blissful three days camping in an apple orchard with a flock of beautiful chickens plus Guinness the dog for company. While there, I attended two excellent music sessions, one the weekly open mic at the Globe and the other an acoustic session at the Baskerville Court Hotel, where the atmosphere was so friendly that I spontaneously wrote and read a poem on the night with a fellow traveller (scary but fun). With its many bookshops and cafes, friendly locals and numerous dogs of all shapes and sizes, Hay was difficult to say goodbye to, but Brecon Jazz Festival was promising a weekend filled with even more live music.

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I was lucky again with the campsite I had picked for Brecon, an idyllic riverside location and more chickens, who came around in the mornings to inspect their breakfast options. It was interesting that the friendly Brecon Jazz volunteer crew was made up of quite a few people who, like me, were based in other places, mostly in Wales. As venue stewards we mainly helped out running the indoor concerts throughout the weekend. This way I ended up experiencing a number of different jazz styles, such as:

World Wide Wales: Wales Meets Brazil – a vibrant collaboration between Welsh artist in residence Huw Warren, bassist Dudley Phillips and Brazilian-born London-based Adriano Adewale on percussion (including a breathtaking tambourine solo).

GoGo Penguin – This was the concert I probably enjoyed most as this Manchester three-piece really had a very addictive distinctive sound fusing traditional jazz with classical music and electronica.

Adriano Adewale: Catapluf’s Musical Journey – A show primarily aimed at children, but what a great excuse for all the adults in the audience to have a bit of fun with sound too.

Jazz Service at Brecon Cathedral – What a beautiful historic building to spend the morning listening to various jazz fest and other local artists perform specially selected pieces and singing along to jazz hymns such as „When the Saints Go Marching in“.

Deirdre Cartwright Band & Friends – This fascinating tribute to American Jazz guitar greats Emily Remler and Wes Montgomery was part of the Jazz Guitar Day at the Guildhall and also featured guest guitarists Will Barnes and Tom Ollendorf.

Julia Biel – The Sunday night concert by innovative London-based jazz vocalist Julia Biel at Brecon Cathedral was the perfect way to wind down and get together with the other stewards after a music and fun filled weekend.

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Apart from the events in the main jazz festival programme I also caught quite a few smaller Brecon Fringe Festival sessions, including a bluegrass band and an Americana singer songwriter, which was a nice change and a great way of discovering some local musicians plus some lovely smaller venues, such as the cosy The Hours Cafe and Bookshop, the Castle Hotel terrace with mountain views, the quirky The Muse arts venue as well as Ardent Gallery.

All in all, I had a wonderfully relaxing time both in Hay and in Brecon, two perfect destinations for a few days, especially if you are a book or music lover or both.

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