Nicola Ann Roberts strolls around a new look festival in Hawarden, North Wales.
I’m always dubious about ‘experience’ festivals, where you are expected to actually get involved and not merely recline in a meadow with a glass of elderflower cider and a book. I’m even more skeptical about festivals that promise to show you the so-called ‘good life’, a return to the halcyon days of pre-suburban, rural bliss a la Thomas Hardy in one of his more cheerful moments. I was, therefore, doubly doubtful about The Good Life Experience, since it seemingly combined the two things I tend to avoid. I expected Hunter wellies, pompous tweedsters and an impossible pastoral idyll. In short, I thought I’d seen it all before.
However, the annual festival is based in Hawarden, North Wales, and it’s frankly impossible not to be won over by the setting. It would be one of hundreds of picturesque villages scattered amongst constellations of towns and cities, were it not for the Gladstone family and their continued legacy. William Gladstone, Prime Minister, philanthropist and bibliophile, gave the village its magnificent library, a cloistered utopia of knowledge and learning, and the Gladstone Estate is still the axis on which Hawarden’s inhabitants, its businesses and its legion of dog walkers revolve. The festival is the brainchild of Charlie and Caroline Gladstone who, together with Cerys Matthews and Steve Abbot, have created an ‘experience’ that is sympathetic to the modern, post-austerity hunger for a back-to-nature, handmade existence.
So, armed with a mental list of what, in my opinion, constitutes the ‘good life’ and a battalion of pre-conceptions, my family of three joined forces with another family of six, if you count the dogs, and decided to put the festival to the test. I wanted literature, art, crafts and a return to innocence, good food, music and dogs. Lots of dogs.
Within an hour, I’d cast my list aside and after two days, I was loath to return to the humdrum of Monday morning. In brief, The Good Life Experience was exactly that, and there wasn’t a Hunter wellie in sight.
From the wonderful, wandering Dylan’s Mobile Bookstore to Cerys Matthews speaking passionately about her ‘unashamed love of literature, poetry and reading’, there was more than enough to satisfy the bookish. The Caught by the River tent, with the likes of Sophie McKeand and Martha Sparkland soothing a multitude of hangovers with their poetry, was a welcome addition to the festival. For young bookworms, there was Michael Morpurgo, equally soothing in between flurries of fun outside. That’s what made the festival so special, it catered for all ages. My son ran down hills, threw hay, climbed trees and made himself dizzy on the vintage carousel and helter skelter. There were art and cooking classes for children, tree swings, nearly every known breed of dog for him to stroke and healthy, scrumptious food to maintain his energy levels. The family feel of the festival did not infringe the experience of the adults; I was quite taken with the Black Cow Saloon, gin tents and the Honey Whiskey that kept us warm in the dim twilight. For the morning after there was folk music and yoga: it is hard to think of a more soul-nourishing way to begin the day.
The Good Life Experience was exactly what it promised to be, without the pretence I’ve encountered in other festivals that attempt to offer a similar wisdom. It is the wisdom to live closer to the land, to traverse life at a slower pace and to delight in the uncomplicated. It’s the life we hanker for, made possible once a year in the golden village of Hawarden.