The Carmarthenshire town of Kidwelly has a go a putting it’s name on the cultural map with Gwen Gwen, it’s first festival of music, art and literature.
Even after several decades of going to festivals, the days leading up to a new festival can prompt nagging questions, no matter how much you try to put them to the back of your mind. In this case, it wasn’t helped by confusion over access to the campervan field. The website stated you had to arrive on Friday and couldn’t leave till Monday. With one of the gang needing to be in London on Monday morning, this was a deal breaker for us. But with a few days to go we got the response we wanted and it was game on.
As the gates opened and people started to arrive on site, comments started appearing on social media about there not being any toilets or water on the campervan field. Inconvenient (excuse the pun) but not the end of the world. We have a porta-potty in the boot of the campervan for just such ‘off grid’ occasions.
Then as I loaded our weekend supply of cider I to the boot and slammed the door, something did not seem right. I tried to open the door, but the handle just flapped loose. I looked at it and hoped my magic stare would fix it. It didn’t. Our weekend’s worth of cider was inaccessible, along with the deckchairs, camping table and – the porta-potty.
But hey, the sun was shining, and we were off on an adventure to a new festival, to town I don’t recall ever visiting before. We set a course that involved stopping off in a supermarket in Aberdare to replace our cider; much to the objection of the satnav, which kept telling me to drive up the A470 to join the A465.
When we got to Aberdare we discovered that the A4059 was closed, cutting off access to the A465. The old satnav is not as dull as it looks. A bit of local knowledge helped though, and we were soon westbound along the heads of the valleys.
Leaving the M4 at Llanelli, we soon find ourselves navigating narrow country roads and hump back bridges, through Trimsaren and eventually passing the ‘Welcome to Kidwelly’ sign. The directions said the entrance to the campervan field was ‘opposite the Co-Op’. As instructed, we took a right, directly opposite the Co-Op. First thought was ‘what was all the fuss over entering and leaving the site about?’ Second thought was ‘Well, no wonder there’s no toilets, they wouldn’t get through that gate”.
The field was spacious and reasonably flat, although the grass was quite ‘tufty’. With the recent weather it was dry as a bone, but it looked as if it wouldn’t take much rain to turn it into a marsh. A quick reckie identified an appropriate bush to park next to, we put on the handbrake, grabbed some ciders, said hello to our neighbours and headed into town. We would only be around for thirty six hours and had no intention wasting a minute.
With a population of three and a half thousand the town is ancient and is shrouded in the mystery of its founding, some claim it was founded by one of the sons of Gylwys a ruler of Glywysing despite the area of Kidwelly not being part of that kingdom, while others suggest it was founded by individuals in the Ystrad Tywi region.
It has a well-preserved Norman Castle, a church and Rugby Club. Oh, and a Deli. The Kidwelly Deli – obviously.
Our first port of call was the ‘box office’ at the entrance to the main festival. This was when the second of our nagging doubts kicked in. We had been promised guest passes by Dactyl Terra. Would the box office know this? Would we be biting the bullet and buying tickets? To be honest, at £57 for the weekend, it seemed reasonably priced to us and would have had no qualms shelling out. But as it turned out, the box office were super-efficient and we now had Gwen Gwen wristbands to add to our collection. (Thanks Eirin, you is a diamond).
In our keenness, we were all wristbanded up and ready to rock before the arena had even opened, so we headed for the Rugby Club to A) get out of the bloody sun and B) partake in cooling refreshments.
The Rugby club was one of the venues for the festival – although was free entry for anyone. It was a ‘Spoken Word’ stage. As we marvel at the £3.20 a pint we dodged the Creative Wiring Workshop and found a seat near the door with a cool breeze. I don’t have anything against creative writing, if I had attended this blog might read gooder than what it does, we just needed a breeze and refreshing drinks. Time and place and all that jazz.
We very quickly find ourselves in conversation with a very chatty half Asian lady and her son. We chat about movies, how some parts of the UK are multicultural and some are not, and the price of beer. Oh, and the fact that her son is playing on the main stage this afternoon – in a band called Foot Foot.
Soon we are joined by Des Manny, who is due to be reading some of his poetry later on. I have known des for thirty years and he is soon sat with us chatting. It isn’t long before his latest poetry book is out and our new friend browses through it. One particular poem, about the death of Mohamed Ali, brings her to tears. She had not heard her experiences at the wrong end of racism mirrored so clearly before. An impromptu group therapy session begins, hugs laughs and beers eventually wash away the tears. And Des flogs a few books.
Then another face walks into the rugby club. “This is one of my dearest friends from Cardiff” announces our new friend.
“Hello Clint”, declares the latest arrival.
We had been joined by the partner of one of my dearest friends – I hasten to add, I’m quite fond of her in her own right, not just cos she’s my mate’s partner.
It’s a small world. But I wouldn’t like to paint it.
More beer flows till we eventually have to head down to the main Stage to catch Foot Foot.
As soon as we set foot in the arena, Megan and I decided discretion is the better part of valour and head for one of the marquee/gazebo thingys that the organisers had thoughtfully put up to provide a little bit of shade from what it turning out to be an unbearably hot weekend to be out in the open.
A quick search using a popular internet search engine tells me that A) there is a band form Los Angeles called Foot Foot and B) The Foot Foot infront of us (Who I assume are not from Los Angeles) don’t update their social media very often. So I’ll have to go by my now slightly blurry memory. They were young, enthusiastic and played, what back in my youth, we would have called ‘indie’ music; they would have sat well on one of the old ‘indie City’ or ‘C86’ tapes put out be the NME. Despite having been told “My son looks like me”, I wrongly guess that our new friend’s son is playing bass. When I am corrected and realise her son is the drummer, I sheepishly go back and take photos of the drummer, who is not six foot tall, bald and has a beard.
As I type, just a few days after the event, I cannot remember the sequence of the next few thigs but I do recall watching ‘Steve the Shredder’ read poems about contemporary villains, such as Trump and Boris, punctuated by the shredding of photographs of said villains. Much to the delight of the rugby club crowd. He had been preceded by a video link to someone reading poetry live in Norway. In Norwegian. I also remember going back to the van to eat and get a hoodie ready for when it got cold later on. It never did get cold, and I carried it like a millstone all night.
Then time for Regime.
Regular readers of this blog or listeners to the radio show will know we love Regime here at Peppermint Iguana. But for the sake of everyone else, they are a hip-hop / reggae / metal outfit with roots just down the road, in Narberth, but links to the rest of the world. They lay socially conscious lyrics over the top of funky beats, to feed your heads, hearts and feets.
With the crowd barrier unexplainably 100m back from the stage, it’s difficult to get up close and personal, but much of the crowd stray out of the shade to get up and dance as close as they can.
Longtime fans like us smile as we recognise the opening of each song and singalong when appropriate. I’ve had enough to drink to lift me shirt to dance to ‘Fatman Skanking’.
No doubt many of the crowd will have made the short hop from Narberth and know their back catalogues well as we do. But the beauty of Regime is that even if you have never heard them before, if you have a pulse, you cannot help but dance. And the entire crowd, from kids to pensioners, have their groove on.
After Regime we went for a wander around the arena. I liked that, despite having a huge park to take up if they wanted, they had kept it to a sensible size, so it would retain an intimate feel. There was a decent selection of food vans (although not a great deal of veggie options) and an ice-cream van. As mentioned above, also tents erected purely to act as shade / cover from the rain which did not appear all weekend.
The bar was not excessively priced, at a £5 a pint, but with the rugby club doing £3.30 a pint, plus lots of fans, we opted to head back to the ‘vocal stage’. We had intended to head back down for Kosheen, but to be honest, we just got too comfortable in the rugby club (as comfortable as newts) and made do with listening from the beer garden.
Our new gang from the afternoon reconvened and we got to know some of the locals. Slowly but surely, we were falling in love with Kidwelly. Even when a robust discussion between two of the locals resulted in claret on the road, we still felt safe and welcome.
Eventually we felt it appropriate to head back to the van. We discovered that there were some facilities in the campervan field. Lighting. But with a bright full moon overhead, this makeshift pop-up campsite on a farmer’s field looked positively romantic.
In the morning nature was taking its course, as it does every morning. A bush to hide behind was not going to cut it, so I went for a fifteen minute walk up into the tent camping field. The gate leading into that field was a bit wider, so they had managed to have toilets delivered. They also had water; all be it ‘grey’ water in tanks. In fairness, the organisers had realised they really ought to be providing water, particularly in heat like this, so stewards were on hand in both fields with bottles of water.
After breakfast we decided that we ought to make the most of the day – we had to leave early – and headed out into civilisation. First stop was the Co-op to hang around in the freezer section to cool down. By 10am it was already scorchio. The campsite is on the other side of the town from the festival, but it is only a small town, so it was a pleasant ten-minute stroll. We paused for a selfie outside the ‘Kidwelly Deli’, contemplating what other businesses would be good in town. A TV shop called Kidwelly Telly? A restaurant called Kidwelly Belly? A minder service called Kidwelly Terry?
We slowly but surely made our way down to the castle. It is one of the best-preserved Norman Castles in the UK and was featured in the opening scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Kidwelly Castle began in the early 12th century as a Norman ‘ringwork’ castle made of wood and protected only by an earthen bank and ditch. Not surprisingly it was under constant attack by Welsh princes including the Lord Rhys, who captured it in 1159.
Four decades later the Normans were back in charge. By the 1280s the Chaworth brothers, powerful Marcher lords, had created the stone ‘castle within a castle’ that still stands today.
One of these days we will go back and have a proper look, because today we were struggling to find the energy to sit in the shade of the gateway on the other end of Castle Street.
Admission to this impressive castle is probably quite cheap and we might go inside one day, but it’s too hot to do any strenuous thinking or learning, so we take a selfie from outside and climb down some steps to get back to the river. The steps defy logic. We were at river level when we crossed the bridge some three hundred yards away. I don’t recall walking up any hills, but somehow we are now one hundred meters above the river. Perhaps the world is on a tilt. Or maybe my head was on tilt.
We have a pleasant shaded walk back down river and mosey into the Gwen Gwen stage. Another nicely sized arena but this time, instead of burger vans and ice-cream vendors, we have some classy art stalls selling a variety of wares, from hand crafted earrings chiseled out of the same prescelli blue rock as Stonehenge, to rainbow coloured hoodies for babies, knitted out of unicorn wool.
It was still early in the day, so the crowd was sparse. There were a handful of hardy individuals sat on the lawns, watching a lone folk singer on the stage, huddled underneath umbrellas as if it was pouring down with rain. The heat really was becoming a big part of the story.
As we walked back to town we briefly stopped at what appeared to be an unofficial fringe event. A court yard with a stage set up and ‘Black Betty’ by The Ram Jam Band drifting out of the PA. There was a big sign advertising ‘3 Beers for £10’, and a food van in the corner, but not much else to give a clue as to what was happening. It looked interesting, but all the shade was occupied so we continued onwards.
My plan had been the reliable safety of the rugby club. But we spotted a little café, disappointingly not called Kidwelly Belly, but ‘Time for Tea’, and popped in for cheese toasties, iced drinks and shade in their garden out back. The service was friendly and the food was just what we needed at that moment. For the first time in several hours, we were starting to feel human.
Re-energised and refreshed we set off for the main stage once more. And headed straight for the nearest bit of shade.
We wait patiently till Dactyl Terra hit the stage. This band are the source of much frustration at the moment. They seem to be playing loads of cool gigs at wicked venues, but always when we have something else already arranged. Missing this opportunity to catch them was not even considered.
I head up to the crowd barrier to get some photos and show support. I’m pretty much the only one not hiding from the shade.
To fully appreciate Dactyl Terra, you need to catch them in a small packed, dark venue, with decent psychedelic lighting. I’m both curious and apprehensive as to how they will go down in broad daylight in an arena with the audience hiding from them.
It wasn’t ideal, but they put their all into it and have everyone shouting support and applauding from the shade. It’s only a few weeks since we saw them last but I notice several new tunes in the set – and some psychedelic improvisation in the older tunes. Although I’m guessing most of today’s audience have never seen them before so wouldn’t notice.
I’m thinking that might change in the near future. These guys are getting better every time I see them and they were amazing to start with. They also seem to have their act together in terms of booking gigs. After years of witnessing the injustice of the music industry and seeing amazing bands fail to get the recognition they deserve, I’m long past making any predictions. But maybe, just maybe….. right here, right now, they seem to be on the verge of something special.
We hang around to say thanks to Dactyl Terra for the guest passes. In our brief conversation, inbeteeen discussions of the nearest beaches to cool off, we establish that once this tour is over they are going to concentrate on recording the new tunes and getting an album out. We can’t wait.
Whilst waiting for the band to come from backstage we had found ourselves sat next to a couple of seasoned campervanners that were our nearest neighbours when we arrived on Saturday. A pleasant middle aged couple, we chat about Regime and Gentleman’s Dub Club. We talk about how Dactyl Terra would fit in at Hawkfest and the heat. This is probably the story of the weekend. A chilled atmosphere, meeting old friends and making new ones, catching good live bands and avoiding the heat of the sun.
As if to emphasise this, we bump into Matt from Tangled Parrot Records on the way back to the van. We chat about his son’s hip hop outfit, how good Kosheen were (grrr), and his plans for selling records at Green Man next week. (Posh, but not too posh apparently. One day maybe.)
And then we head for home. After four decades of going to festivals (must have two hundred under my belt now) this will be only the third time I have left before the end. But hey, when shredding your leave card like no tomorrow, needs must. The idea of retirement is looking better with every week. From work that is, not festivals.
We will miss The Gentleman’s Dub Club and Millie Manders and the Shut Up. Which is frustrating. We have probably missed a lot of good stuff whilst dodging the heat. But we have seen two of the best bands ever to come out of wales, discovered an amazing little town and made new friends. Not a bad thirty six hours.
And now we are getting out of this bloody heat. So no tears as we leave.
But we will be back to watch this event grow.