My Countryside interview: Cerys Matthews

The musician and BBC Radio 6 Music presenter discusses the joys of jazz by a fire in the garden, the value of nature and her The Good Life Festival 

Carys-Matthews-crop_0-214013b

I was always the kind of girl who asked questions. To me, to look closely at a moss growing, or to be told the story of lichen or about the kinds of lichen that grow in different areas – urban, semi-urban or country – was fascinating. I was lucky to go to a school where we went on field trips all the time. And my mum was keen on taking us on walks and showing us what you can eat and what you can’t, as her grandfather did for her. Life without enjoying plant life or wildlife is something I just couldn’t comprehend at all.

Advertisement

I’m a total country girl at heart, despite living in London. Our house was full of records and books, but I sacrificed half of our record collection in order to get a piece of soil that we could call our own, where we could plant potatoes and marrows. The garden is up there in importance with my record collection. And in terms of my work, my songs, the countryside is all over it.

As a musician, it’s a privilege to tour the country through the seasons. I remember going through Norwich in cabbage season. I’m from Pembrokeshire, where our crop was potatoes and maybe rapeseed oil. So to see that number of cabbages, I thought: “Oh my goodness! That’s just terrific.”

tgle-2015-photos-nenad-obradovic-IMG_1854-a34b081
Carys enjoying tug of war at The Good Life Festival. Photo: Nenad Obradovic

I’m a bit of a lazy gardener. I do garden a lot but I’m really lazy. That’s why I’m so amazed at things I can just put in as little seedlings. I’ve got kale growing, runner beans, spinach and perpetual beets, carrots, runner beans and some pumpkins for the kids.

I just watch my strawberries grow while sitting on my swing chair. I light the fire, smell the smoke, maybe open a bottle of wine and cook. Then I watch people come, because if you light a fire in the countryside or your garden, people are bound to come… And play great jazz! That, to me, that’s heaven on earth, right there. Listening to Sidney Bechet, the fire’s on, my garden is growing, I’m watching it, children are climbing trees and the neighbours come by to have a tipple. That’s better than any tour, any concert – that’s the best thing in the world. 

Value to me is waking up in the morning with a lungful of good air, energy to do something and health to do it, the people you love around you, and the world’s still healthy and existing. That’s the priceless thing.

Nenad-Obradovic-IMG_4298-bd76240
Carys believes there’s nothing better in life than a fire outdoors. Photo: Nenad Obradovic

We’re never reminded of the great things that surround us in nature because it doesn’t make a profit for anybody. So we’re told stuff about the make-up we need, the new shoes, the new fashion, the new album, the new whatever-it-is… things, things, things, things. We don’t actually need them, they’re not actually that interesting, but nobody’s shouting out the things that really are. We’re not told there’s value to the free things in life enough. People are hankering for things that cost money, that you have to earn money to go and buy and it shouldn’t be that way.

I’m sad at the rise of chemical fertilisers in the farmer’s almanac. It’s myopic of humans as a race. We need to all take responsibility and, whoever can afford to, eat organic and support organic farmers. If you can’t, read about it and lobby the government to put taxes on processed foods, to have subsidised whole foods for everybody. 

To eat healthily you have to have money, and that’s so wrong, because what we’re doing is feeding the most vulnerable people the worst food, which is going to make them the most ill, costing even more money to get treated, while the NHS is under stress.

Tim-winter-PED_1034-6b954f3
Cerys argues that “the good life” should be open to all

Since when did the value of a good life become a middle-class aspiration? When was that not a working class thing? All my family are country folk. When did it suddenly become a middle-class aspiration to value the country around you? We need to stop that because it’s in everybody’s interest, no matter your walk of life. Makes me cross! It ought to be all of our rights to eat good food. And we need to be louder about that.

My rural heroes are scarecrows and worms, they’ve both been doing an amazing job for years!

If I were a British wild animal, I’d be a badger. They can be quite bulldozer-y in their nature and I’m like that. I might be enthusiastic but I’m not really very subtle. I’ve got passion but the finesse isn’t there – if I’m in a hockey team, I might be good at tackling but I’ll never get the ball in the goal. Also, badgers kind of trundle down the road and I’m not a very graceful walker.

Badger In Forest
Carys says she would be a badger, because her behaviour is bulldozer-like and she trundles along

When I moved to America, what was really an eye- and ear-opener for me was the different wildlife  I found. I lived out in a shack without any running water or electricity for a year in the hills of Tennessee and went walking. And in America, walking is really radical. Their model of existence is something that I just don’t understand. But we won’t go into that. I used to walk a lot there because I didn’t have a car. Even riding a bike on the road is really radical there. But the sizes of the dragonflies, the snakes, the cottonmouth moccasins, the snapping turtles, the herons, the cardinals, the mockingbirds and then the frog choruses at night. It was beyond exciting because the animal life and insect life was so exotic to me and so much bigger and louder than I was used to.

The dawn chorus is pretty damn loud in Ladbroke Grove, I can tell you. All these sounds and these sights and just the excitement of the miracle of life around us every day… whatever country you’re from and whatever part of the world and whatever city or suburbia you live in, to me, that’s it. That’s the be-all and end-all of my inspiration, right there in a nutshell.

I’m interested in the peasant poet John Clare, born in 1793, and who wasn’t an educated man and yet he is one of the poets who most closely was able to represent the countryside in words. I’ve also read a really good book called The Running Hare by John Lewis-Stempel, about the plight of the countryside.

As for cream or jam first on a scone or scone – neither. Chilli! I’m addicted to chilli.

tgle-2015-photos-nenad-obradovic-IMG_2799-7d89f94
Carys performing at the The Good Life Festival

I curate the Good Life Festival with my husband Steve Abbott and Charlie and Caroline Gladstone. We wanted to create a festival that wasn’t about making a quick profit for the founders, it’s about having a platform for like-minded people to go out, get your handy dirty, drink craft beer, listen to great music and cook by fires with top chefs like Thomasina Miers, Bill Granger, Tom Herbert, or listen to Michael Morpurgo speak, whatever floats your boat. And it’s in Flintshire, two hour train from Euston, eight minutes from Chester by car, less than a tenner in the taxi. It’s on an organic farm in William Gladstone’s land. It was his ethos that Jimi Hendrix stole, which was: “It’s not the love of power, but the power of love.”

It’s right at the end of summer, at harvest time, which is a magical time of year. There’s bushcraft, wood-carving, abseiling, archery, tree-climbing, pumpkin-smashing – I love to see the kids go wild in the countryside. 

The Good Life Festival is held at the Hawarden Estate in Flintshire.
 

Advertisement

Main Image: Getty