Fishguard, to most people, is somewhere that you have to go to if you want to catch the ferry to Ireland. If you want to split hairs, the Ferry terminal is actually in Goodwick rather than it's twin town but the Pembrokeshire port has a long history and was the site of the last invasion of Britain, when French troops landed near the town in 1797. The women of Fishguard, led by Jemima Nicholas and a force of local troops saw off that particular incursion but, for the last few years, the Whitsun bank holiday weekend has seen an altogether friendlier invasion when the annual Fishguard Folk Festival takes place.
Rather than settling on an out of town field site, the festival becomes part of Fishguard by using a range of venues within the town itself, ranging from the local theatre/cinema, Theatr Gwaun through to art galleries, pubs and bars, the local yacht club and the sea cadets hall.
Although the festival begins on the Friday night, work and other commitments meant that, as a family, we were unable to get the until Saturday afternoon, but we still had plenty of time to sample what the festival had to offer. Problems with TS Skirmisher, the local Sea Cadet Hall, that day meant that performances scheduled for that venue had to be moved at short notice to St Mary's parish church on the town square. Fortunately, the change was well publicised via social media, but anybody who made their way down the steep and winding hill to the lower town only to find the venue closed certainly had my sympathies. We only managed to catch the end of Andrew MacKay and Carole Etherton's set but I was impressed with their rendition of Polly Garter's song from Under Milkwood, as you only get to hear snippets in the play and it made a pleasant change to hear the song performed in it's entirety.
I'm not sure whether these concerts would have been "unplugged" had they taken place at their original venue or whether the absence of amplification was down to the late change of venue but natural acoustic properties of the church made such amplification technology for the two acts we did manage to catch. Winter Wilson were one of the names which attracted me to this year's festival and they did not disappoint, entertaining the congregation with songs from their back catalogue as well as stories of life on the road, the lesson of the day was not to trust your Sat Nav when driving the back roads on the French/Spanish border. I enjoyed Winter Wilson's performance immensely but if I had pick out highlights, I would have to choose their rendition of Amazing Grace and Storm Around Tumbledown.
The next act to take to the stage certainly had something to live up to but Scold's Bridle proved themselves to be more than up to the task. I must admit that I had not encountered this Fylde coast based duo before but left at the end very impressed with what I had heard. This duo's harmony singing, sometimes accompanied on guitar, sometimes a Capella, was ideally suited to the ecclesiastical venue we found ourselves in. Given that they come from an area historically known for it's fishing fleet, it was no surprise that songs of the sea featured prominently in the duo's set but, for me, the highlight was their beautiful rendition of Richard Farina's Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood with the words being given added resonance by the calm and reflective atmosphere of the venue.
All the artists we saw on the Saturday afternoon proved that you don't always need amplification to make yourself heard, some times it's just a case of matching the venue to the style of performance and on Saturday afternoon in Fishguard, these two elements came together perfectly. If the organisers of the festival are reading this, I would strongly urge them to consider using St Mary's Church again next year, it's acoustics and location made it the perfect auditorium.
With performances continuing all over Fishguard, our chosen venue for the Saturday evening was Theatr Gwaun for that night's headline concert. Blackwood's Allan Yn Y Fan have been taking Welsh music to the world for over 20 years and the current incarnation of the band's first visit to the festival was lapped up by an appreciative audience in the packed theatre.
The Saturday night headliner was a Devonian artist who I have been wanting to see for some time and Jim Causley's set most certainly did not disappoint. His performance showed just why he is in such demand, starting off with a version of Ralph McTell's Summer Girls before taking songs from his native Devon, his own adaptions of the works of Charles Causley, songs collected by the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould and Cecil Sharp, the former being as collected rather than as published, before finishing off with an encore of George Papavegris' Friends Like These. Jim's performance was, by turns moving, thought provoking and laugh out loud funny. For me, the highlights of Jim's set were The Man You Know from his Forgotten Kingdom album, his adaption of Charles Causley's Angel Hill and Jim's recital of the Cornish Poet's Colonel Fazackerley and The Jolly Hunter, the last two also getting our Son's vote. Both he and Allan Yn Y Fan were perfect choices for the Saturday night concert and I look forward to catching them both live again in the future.
Sunday dawned overcast and showery, not surprising given the severe weather warning in place for the Southern UK but by late morning the rain had stopped and the sun was starting to break through. Our first port of call for the day was to the lower town where my partner and daughter were due to take part in a harmony singing workshop led by Rapsquillion in the Sea Cadets hall. My partner, Sian, reports that the workshop was very enjoyable, using a natural voice approach singing a Capella with the participants choosing the part they felt most comfortable with, rather than being allocated a role.
Our first performance of the day was a short walk from TS Skirmisher at the Fishguard Yacht Club. Short Drag Roger are a shanty crew from that well known port of Oxford and they entertained the standing room only lunchtime audience with a selection of shanties and songs of the sea. The inclusion of Cyril Tawney's Chicken On A Raft followed on from Jim Causley's rendition of his ode to Beeching, In The Sidings, on the previous evening.
Sunday afternoon found us ensconced in what turned out to be my favourite venue of the festival. Ffwrn, which translates as Oven, is situated in the old parish church institute and is like no other venue I have ever visited. The dark and unprepossessing entrance corridor leads you into an airy and well lit hall with stage at the entrance end and a bar and built in pizza oven at the other. The style can only be described as eclectic with seating arranged round communal tables and strategically placed comfy armchairs and sofas. Anywhere that serves cake along with beer gets my vote every time and Ffrwn serves a range of high quality Welsh, British and Continental Ales, Beers and Lagers alongside an excellent range of food baked on the premises. A generous slice of Breton Far washed down with a glass of Grimbergen would have been an ideal way to spend a Sunday afternoon anyway but when the live music on offer is added in, I could have quite happily stayed there until closing time.
Our main reason for making our way to Ffrwn was to catch the Sunday afternoon performance by Rapsquillion, this Shropshire/Wales border based vocal group have been performed their predominantly a Capella music for twenty years and 2018 was their ninth appearance at Fishguard Folk Festival. Their set was a mix of the traditional with shanties such as New York Girls and the original such as Sydney Carter's John Ball and my highlight of their set, a version of John Kirkpatrick's Souling Day, based around the All Souls Day tradition which is still observed around Shropshire and Cheshire, the male and female responses giving this song the feel of a playground chant. A nice touch was the invitation extended to the participants of the morning's singing workshop to join the group on stage for a moving rendition of Alfred Lord Tennyson's Crossing The Bar.
In Between the afternoon and evening concerts at Ffwrn, there was a short open mic session giving performers, who may not otherwise have the opportunity, to showcase their talents at the festival. Amongst those taking to the stage on Sunday evening were Brenig, A Welsh Folk duo from Aberystwyth, Claudia Myatt, who had made the long trip to Fishguard from Suffolk and sang beautifully whilst accompanying herself on the Autoharp, and a duo from Lancashire by the name of Open To Suggestion. You would think that a Steve Earle/Beatles mashup wouldn't work but, for me, this pair's reworking of Copperhead Road and Paperback writer worked really well and was possibly my unexpected highlight of the festival.
Unfortunately, we were unable to stay for Bank Holiday Monday to catch Pilgrims Way at Theatr Gwaun, but Tom Kitching and Jon Loomes more than made up for that with a top notch performance at Ffwrn and I look forward to catching them with their full band in the future.
So good were Messrs Kitching and Loomes that we were late getting over to Theatr Gwaun for the main Sunday evening concert and arrived to find The Trials Of Cato already performing to a packed auditorium. This young Welsh/Yorkshire trio returned to the UK in 2016 after forming in The Lebanon in 2015 and have been turning heads with their energetic live performances ever since. I must admit that they have been on my must see list for some time, based purely on the quality of their debut EP and their Sunday night performance at Fishguard was quite simply one of the best it has been my pleasure to attend. Their musicianship and stagecraft are up there with the best in the business and, based on what I saw, this trio are going to be huge. In between putting together their debut album, scheduled for release in late 2018, they will be touring extensively and performing at festivals right through the summer. In all likelihood The Trials Of Cato will be performing somewhere near you at some point, go and see them, they really are that good.
The act following The Trials Of Cato onto the Theatr Gwaun stage certainly had something to live up to Nancy Kerr And James Fagan proved to be more than up to the task, putting on a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining set to round off Sunday evening's festivities.
If you were to believe John Sparkes and his roving reporter Hugh Pugh, Fishguard is a town existing perpetually in black and white and populated by bizarre and unusual characters. The reality, however, is somewhat different, we thoroughly enjoyed our short stay in this small town on the western fringes of this island. The one thing that really shone out about Fishguard Folk Festival was the fact that was very much a part of the town, using venues around this compact place, rather than an out of town site, this way local businesses have an opportunity to gain from the extra visitors an event like this brings to the area. We found the festival to be well run and organised and, one minor technical glitch at Theatr Gwaun on the Saturday night notwithstanding, the sound to be excellent across all the venues that we attended. The programme assembled was varied enough to suit most tastes and if you didn't fancy the main concerts at Theatr Gwaun, there was always something going on somewhere, whether it was another concert or a more informal session in one of Fishguard's pubs. As a family, the only observations we had were that our son would have liked more dance displays, the geography of the area may cause problems for those with mobility issues and young families getting between the upper and lower towns, something that could be rectified with a shuttle bus, and that fact that we weren't able to stay and enjoy the whole weekend, something that we intend to rectify next year.
If you are looking for something to do next Whitsun Bank Holiday then you really don't need to look much further than making the trip to Pembrokeshire and visiting the Fishguard Folk Festival. We found this to be a very friendly, well run festival with a varied programme that is excellent value for money. In fact, if you so desired, you could go to Fishguard, not attend any of the Theatr Gwaun concerts and still have a great time. We fully intend to be back in 2019 and this time we will be staying for the whole weekend to experience Fishguard Folk Festival in it's full glory, hopefully we'll see you there.
David Chamberlain - Words, pictures
Apologies for the delay, review got a bit pixie lead in the file system
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