There’s a lot to be said for small things. Where would we be without atoms, for instance? How could I get through a day’s teaching without a shot or two of espresso in the morning? Damn it, even my Lilliputian wife is awesome. However, when it comes to festivals, most seem intent on pursuing a path of ever expansion. Not content until they have transformed themselves into gigantic monolithic behemoths, they surge forward with ever greater commercialisation, often to the detriment of us, the fans. There is, however, another way.
In leafy, unassuming Hawarden, north Wales, The Good Life Experience proudly rejects this modern notion of a large scale commercial enterprise festival. Here, celebrated rock stars don’t fly in 30 minutes before their set and depart even quicker after it. Here, the artists, performers, speakers and poets stick around, mingling with the crowd, enjoying the unique collection of music and cultural offerings. To highlight this, the festival has no backstage area or VIP tent so you can be sure that all of the performers are there because they want to be.
Ok, so it may not have the mass audience appeal that some of its bigger brothers and sisters have. There’s no Arcade Fire to headline and there’s no secret sets (or rumours of them) from the hottest indie band in town or a pair of French DJs in helmets. But, because of this, there are no queues (except for the helter skelter, of course!), the atmosphere is one of village friendliness and you get to listen to some great performers up close and personal. The Good life Experience is like your favourite acoustic performance, for just you and your friends, in the privacy and intimacy of your living room.
The performances themselves were a sophisticated cocktail of cultural ingredients. This year saw celebrated, pioneer DJ, Gilles Peterson, play two special sets, while Jonathon Donahue (one half of the brilliant Mercury Rev) was also in attendance to showcase his immense musical talents. But alongside these world renowned musical talents, lesser known and local performers from a wide array of musical genres were given their chance to shine, including the fantastic Flint male voice choir, who were joined on stage by co-organiser Cerys Matthews of Catatonia and BBC 6 Music fame.
Literary luminaries like Dr John Cooper Clarke and Mike Garry were on the bill to provide the passion, humour and wit of the spoken word. Dr John Cooper Clarke was true to his punk poet roots delivering a brilliantly irreverent set of thought provoking, sharp-tongued verse, but it was Mike Garry that stole Friday evening for us. The Manchester poet, who writes about the plights and lives of the working class, had Nat, my wife, in tears as he read and performed his brilliant pieces detailing teachers, social workers, drug addicts and children battling to grow up in inner cities. Seriously, if you’ve never heard of him, check out his ‘Ode to Anthony H Wilson’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cYNI8s_vo4), written and dedicated to the memory of Tony Wilson, a true pioneer of the Manchester music scene who died in 2007.
Elsewhere on site, figures such as Jeremy Vine and Ben Fogle were among the speakers delighting audiences with their anecdotes and humour. However, unlike a lot of major festivals, it was the attractions beyond the main stages that really caught our eye. In fact, all told, we probably spent most of our time away from the main stage taking in the many and varied organised activities that were on offer. The vast majority of these sessions and classes are open to adults and children alike with children of all ages being actively encouraged to sign up for them. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority are free of charge.
A few sessions did incur a cost but they all involved making or crafting something significant (like a paddle…no really!) that you then took away with you, so the price reflected the end product. The odd session was also adult only. Axe work, for instance, was only open to those over 18 and those who were not inebriated! Completely understandable, I’m sure you’ll agree. As great as it looked, we couldn’t resist sampling the gin cocktails that were on offer close by so unfortunately we had to pass on this activity.
Of the many free sessions on offer at The Good Life Experience, we particularly liked the ukulele lessons, the tree climbing and the swing dance lesson. To watch parents alongside their kids, all sat on haystacks, learning the basics of a ukulele, while strumming and singing along was amazing. The tree climbing was equally impressive. Using a combination of ropes and harnesses, children were taught the art of climbing one of the biggest trees on the estate. And, well, what can we say about the swing dance lessons? We went there to watch (honestly!) but, thanks to our smooth hipped toddler, found ourselves in the middle of the action. He had a great time and so did we.
Elsewhere on site, there were sessions and demos on campfire cooking and lessons on how to light a fire with flint and steel. At one point I remember discussing with Nat just how engaged the kids were doing these activities. It really was a great spectacle. Another wonderful spectacle, that further enhanced the festival’s child friendly status, was that the organisers had also managed to add kids to the line-up. The two young Meek sisters gave a brilliant talk on their quest to reduce the number of disposable plastic bottles in the UK. They showed confidence and maturity beyond their years and presented us with facts, statistics and disturbing images of the impact that bottles have on wildlife. If you haven’t already, check out their campaign and website: http://www.dotrythisathome.com/category/clear-plastic/
Food and drink at The Good Life Experience was also suitably boutique. The gin bar, the Black Cow vodka bar and the TinCup whiskey shack all offered premium products that we were simply too weak to resist. Each one offered a real bar-like feel with seating areas and deckchairs to soak up the festival atmosphere. In terms of food, as well as offering the usual burger and fries combinations, here you could tuck into some crab at the crab shack, gorge yourself on tasty Indian cuisine or sample the award winning delights from the onsite farm shop.
Overall, the festival was a huge triumph. The range of musical performances, poetry, speakers, and outdoor lifestyle and culture sessions make The Good Life Experience truly unique. The fact that it is set on a beautiful estate, and children are not only encouraged to come, but are also expected to participate in activities that they wouldn’t do ordinarily at home, school or at other family friendly festivals, makes this our current favourite small festival. We can’t wait to join them again next year!