Rural towns often face a struggle for survival and relevance in modern Britain. Many of the industries that sustained them have now gone while farming employs fewer and fewer people and has less influence on the market towns that once depended on it. A large number of towns and villages have simply become dormitory towns for commuters heading to city jobs.
My home town of Abergavenny is an interesting case study. Until 2013, it had a livestock market in the centre of the town but this has closed and moved five miles away, taking with it the traditional weekly influx of farmers and their families and the subsequent boost to the local economy through their visits to the shops, cafes and pubs.
The town obviously benefits from tourism, being a gateway to the Brecon Beacons and it’s a beautiful place to live but there are no obvious big local employers or industries left. Many residents are self employed or, like me, commute to Cardiff, Newport, Bath and Bristol.
Instead the town has striven to create opportunities for itself that put it on the national map and keep its hotels pubs and high street buzzing – when so many similar sized towns have lost their mojo. There are small-scale literary, jazz and cycling festivals but the biggest and most notable event is a two-day fiesta every September – the Abergavenny Food Festival – which turns 20 in 2018 (15-16 September).
Based in and around the old Market Hall and magnificent Castle Gardens but extending its tendrils across the town, it allows you to meet food producers of every hue and try their produce (there are a lot of cakes).
Street food market just below the market hall.
You can watch chefs at work, try exciting street food, learn new culinary skills (for me, fermenting and pickling this year) and hear discussions about farming and food ethics – particularly at the new Triodos Bank stage. There’s plenty of music, crafts and even an art fair.
All your tomato needs are catered for…
And garlic too… also from the Isle of Wight.
I first visited it long before I lived in the town. I was seduced by the setting, the pretty streets overlooked by green hills. And the buzz and delight in food. We all need food and in Aber you get to taste the very best Britain has to offer, whether you are carnivore, veggie or vegan. Plenty to drink, too. 37,000 people attended in 2018.
Friday setting up at Abergavenny Castle.
But not everyone loves it. I’ve been living near or in Aber for the past 7 years and the food festival is not universally approved of by local people. Some simply don’t like the noise and bustle – and lack of parking.
Others have told me that the festival “isn’t for me” – explaining that it’s either too expensive to attend or see the food itself as being elitest.
The first point is understandable. Beyond the attractive facades, posh hotels and a Waitrose, Abergavenny, like most towns in South Wales, has its fair share of poverty. If shopping in Aldi is a struggle, a food festival might seem irrelevant 0r an impossible dream.
The second point is more debateable – and is more a reflection of wider social divisions in Monmouthshire (and rural Britain as a whole) than the festival – where there is a wearying British snobbery and inverse snobbery about food. Then again, you don’t have to eat the deep-fried, soft-shelled crab or the artichoke and truffle pesto; there’s great pizza for a fiver and some beer stalls are cheaper than the pubs.
Children are encouraged to rustle up tasty treats at the festival’s on site cook school.
Plus you don’t need to enter the actual festival to join in the festivities A lot of familiar local suppliers set up stalls in the streets around the market hall and in he square outside the Kings Arms pub – all of which are free to visit.
Connecting with the local community is a subject I’ve talked about with the organisers over the years and in 2018 I felt there was an even greater concerted effort to promote community feasts and emphasise local producers. And it’s Abergavennians who create the food-themed sculptures that famously hang from the market hall ceiling (this year seafood).
Setting up the community feast in the Market Hall on the Friday night as a ‘show opener’. Note the seafood decorations made by the local community. Photo by Henry ET Wheatley
This year was the first year I’ve experienced the festival from within the town, having moved from a cottage in the hills in February. The big benefit was making use of parental babysitters and finally getting to attend the Saturday night party in the floodlit castle. It’s a thrilling evening – we danced to a Cuban salsa band, drank local ales and sampled seafood from Pembrokeshire.
Party at the castle…
There were a lot of happy people traipsing back through the town – where it was noticeable that all the pubs and hotels were spilling onto the street (decent weather helps). And that’s the rub: the festival has a cascading effect on the town’s businesses. Cafes, pubs, b&bs and hotels are all full. And all the shops were busy.
And I’m sure that many people visiting fall in love with the town, its hills and charms and return again and again throughout the year. Well, that’s what happened to me. And I ended up living there.