With Wakestock almost upon us, now seems like a good time to have a look at another festival that took place in Wales just two weeks ago.
I like to think of myself as a bit of a festival veteran – My first festival was Reading in 1997, where my 3 day camping ticket cost me £78, if memory serves me correctly, less than half what the ticket for this year cost! – in fact, I’d just pitched my tent for this years Download Festival and was sat in the sun admiring Donington Hall when I got a call from Discover Carmarthenshire confirming my guest pass for Beach Break Live.
For those not in the know, Beach Break Live is a student only festival and, if you hadn’t guessed from the last paragraph, that would make me considerably older than most of the attendees! Not only that, as my student days are long behind me, the guest pass to cover the festival for this blog would be my only way to attend the festival and see what it’s all about.
Beach Break Live started life as a very small festival in Polzeath, Cornwall in June 2007. In it’s first year, they sold the festival on it being an end of term celebration, something akin the Spring Break ethic of our American counterparts; somewhere to chill out after exams with a beach, bands and, the obvious cure to post-exam season stress, plenty of booze. Due to it being on such a small scale, they could only accommodate they around 2,000 attendees. Even with a line-up that, I think even the bands themselves would admit, you’d have to be very much into their local scenes to be aware of, the company lost £30,000 on their first outing.
Now, it’s fairly safe to say that a start-up business might lose money on their first event but in order to avoid this happening again, the organisers applied to be on BBC’s Dragons Den for funding and the chance of business advice from one of the Dragons. They put together a very impressive pitch which garnered the attraction of all of the Dragons, eventually walking away with £50,000 and a partnership with Peter Jones.
The 2008 event at the same location proved to be much more successful. Now with big name headliners to act as more of a draw, they still booked many smaller bands to fill up the equally smaller stages. The festival also offers the chance to take part in many outdoor activities and the attraction of a festival on a beach remained a driving force. Enlisting world class DJ’s they stuck to their original ethic of “Beach by day, Beats by night” giving the festival almost a free-party feel to it.
Off of the back of the 2007 event, they were nominated for Best New Festival. No doubt this, along with the extra exposure gained from their Dragons Den appearance along with the line-up helped to bolster ticket sales with nearly 5,000 attending this event.
A year later, however, disaster struck. With the festival ever expanding, Polzeath was no longer able to accommodate the growing numbers. Searching for a new site, the organisers secured St Agnes Beacon in Cornwall. However, with 10 days to go until the festival was due to take place, local councillors made the decision to not grant permission for the event to go ahead. Not to be deterred by this however, the organisers managed to find a new site almost immediately. The new venue, Port Lympne Wildlife Park in Kent, didn’t exactly fulfill the “Beach” part of the festivals moniker but keeping in with the spirit of things, the organisers brought in sand and paddling pools; a self-mocking “hey, at least we tried!”. This was no mean feat, the festival runs coaches to the site from all major university towns and implements a park-and-ride service for festival goers making their own way there. Ensuring that everyone was aware of the changes and still able to get to the festival, on top of finding a new site must have been a veritable nightmare.
Their efforts didn’t go unnoticed, however – not only did the event win an award for Best Small Festival but the organisers were also recognised with an award for Best Promoter. Clearly, Port Lympne Wildlife Park also enjoyed the custom and exposure that the festival brought as this year they become the site of Hevy, a brand new festival.
However, with Polzeath unsuitable, St Agnes pulling out and the Kent site not catering to their Summer beach holiday ethos, the festival was now homeless and searching for a new venue. Amongst many hopefuls, Pembrey Country Park in Carmarthenshire was the favourite of the organisers but faced fierce opposition from the local residents and council members. Despite this, the festival was still granted permission to use the site and I have to agree with the promoters; they could not have chosen a better spot.
As a recognised area of outstanding natural beauty, the park offers a great aesthetic for the festival goers with a huge expanse of coastline just 5 minutes walk from the main arena. There’s a dry ski-slope on site (intelligently restricted to the use of rubber rings over the weekend to limit drunken injuries to revelers) and a brand new Go Ape offering half price entry to students. Not to mention that the organisers stacked the line-up once more with Vampire Weekend, Calvin Harris and Plan B as headliners.
With just one day to recover after Download, I grabbed an able photographer and off we headed. At just over an hour outside of our home in Cardiff by train, this seemed a very convenient method to get to the festival. Although most of the camping attendees would have arrived on-site the previous day, there were still groups of fresh-faced students with rucksacks and tents crammed into the overhead storage above them as we made our way down the carriage. Quite impressive seeing as we were on the 9am train!
The organisers had very helpfully arranged a shuttle bus to carry us the 4 miles from the train station to the site itself and although it was still early in day, it was easy to see that the weather was going to be glorious. This was certainly looking to be a preferable alternative to a day spent in the office. Arriving at the park itself, the area’s clearly very secluded which lends itself well to limiting any noise pollution from the bands and DJ’s playing throughout the day.
Walking through the campsite toward the arena, it occurred to me that this would easily be the smallest festival I’d ever attended. With nearly 20,000 people here it’s 10 times the size it started out as but also one fifth of the size of the festival I’d just come from. As a result, everything felt far more relaxed and laid back, no doubt helped by the beautiful scenery around us. It’s clear that many more people could be crammed in but the fact the festival sold out and still seemed relatively quiet really gave everything more of a holiday feel to it.
The arena was well laid out with the main stage and dance stage in the main area with another area containing smaller stages in tents. There’s plenty of food stalls and yet more tents with activities for people to take part in, not to mention an assault course set up in the middle of everything with girls in sumo wrestler costumes struggling to make their way through the course as part of The Celtic Games, teams of 4 compete to win free tickets for next years festival.
It’s things like this that really hit home with regards to the difference between this and other mainstream festivals – people are taking part in activites and in good spirits. Having spent 4 days surrounded by drunken mayhem, it makes you realise why there was so much local opposition to the festival taking place; festivals can be chaotic, messy and sometimes damaging to the site. Anyone who’s ever trudged through the mud at Glastonbury can attest that it must take most of the year for Worthy Farm to recover. But this is a huge departure from what even I was expecting, this is an atmosphere that unrivalled by any other festival I’ve attended.
We were eager to explore and see what was going on in all the tents around us but got distracted by a tent selling spiced tea and stopped for a cuppa and sat to watch 8 Fold, the band currently on stage. Uncannilly, considering the venue, they played a song about drinking tea; not something you’d expect from a live hip hop/funk band but it definitely worked.
Venturing further, we found a stage dressed up to look like a TV set, a very small cinema, people taking part in classes on exotic dancing, some guys dedicated to beard cultivation, a lot of people packed into a tent to watch the football and many charities spreading their word without pressuring you for money.
Clearly time to hit the beach where we bumped into, Cardiff-based band Under The Driftwood Tree about to play a tiny stage set-up on the beach itself (and fittingly made up to resemble a pirate ship). The tide was out but a leisurely wander down to the sea itself gave a good chance to take in the amazing Welsh scenery. One of my favourite quotes from someone on Twitter was from them overhearing someone exclaim “I thought we were coming to Wales, not Spain!” and it’s easy to see how this came about, this beach is stunning and as someone who’s lived in Cardiff for 9 years, I had no idea there was a beach this nice so close to us.
We headed back to the main stage in time to catch Dan Le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip. This is their third time performing at the festival which means they’ve played every year aside from the first one in 2007; clearly the organisers are doing something right when someone as popular as them are happy to come back time after time.
After a storming performance by them which saw the crowd at the mainstage grow exponentially, as people joined the dancing masses, we decided to take a break from the festival arena and see what else was on offer. Heading out of the arena itself, we found London-based beatboxer MC Xander in the middle of an impromptu performance just outside of the campsite. He’d performed earlier in the day at the afore mentioned Chai Wallah but, eager to get closer to his audience, brought his own generator so he could treat passers-by before he headed back home.
Not being granted access to the press areas, he became one of the few performers I was able to speak to about their opinion on the festival. Despite being exhausted having travelled from a performance in Berlin the previous day he was happy to have a quick chat. We spoke of our shared appreciation for the area and the atmosphere of the festival and about other gigs he’d played in Wales. He explained that the train journey to Carmarthenshire always made him forget that he was in Wales, for a stretch of the journey, the track hugs the edge of the coast with nothing but but an expanse of water to be seen out of the window. “It’s like being on the edge of the world,” he exclaimed.
With all of this before we even get to the headliners for the day, Vampire Weekend, it’s easy to see that this will already be a festival to remember for everyone in attendance. In fact it’s around now that I’m starting to wish I didn’t have to be back in the office tomorrow and could spend another couple of days chilling out on a beach and watching bands.
Needless to say, Vampire Weekend topped off the day nicely. Powering through a set filled with numerous indie anthems and covering material from both albums released so far, they left even the most casual of fans wanting more.
So, I was only able to attend the first day due to work commitments but the fact that, even at 10 years older than the youngest person I met at the festival, I wanted to stay for the whole thing shows that the promoters have got the right idea when it comes to organising a festival.
By keeping it small, they create an atmosphere that you just wouldn’t find at other mainstream festivals. They’ve got the clout now to attract big name headliners but not only that – because they’re a student-only festival, they can book bands that have exclusivity deals with other festivals as they technically aren’t open to the public.
So was the furor amongst the locals justified? Reports after the festival suggest that local police and even the councillors who opposed the festival going ahead themselves were pleased with everything in hindsight, going so far as to admit that the negative impact they anticipated had not materialised and that there were more problems on a Saturday night locally than there had been at the festival. The only arrests made were of local people who had made their way onto the site with very little in the way of trouble from the festival goers themselves.
The festival’s no re-admittance policy ensured that the students would remain on the site itself rather than wandering into the nearby towns and sound levels were kept below the level agreed upon by the organisers and the council.
Not only this, £750,000 of contracts were issued locally with the festival paying for the extra police presence and medical services required by such an event. All backstage catering was provided by local companies with many locals also being granted licenses to act as traders within the arena.
Musically, the smaller stages were filled with local bands with Coleg Sir Gâr being given a whole tent to curate with the opportunity to book Welsh bands from all corners of the country, giving many a chance to gain exposure that only an event such as this could offer. Cardiff based band Zepher were narrowed down from many other hopefuls from around the UK to be offered the chance to play at the festival through the Almost Famous competition.
The organisers are hopeful that the park will now be their permanent home, for at least the next five years. Even on the scale they’re out now, this will bring in millions in tourism revenue and business for the local area, not to mention raising the profile of Carmarthenshire and even Wales as a whole.
There were complaints about the litter that was left following the festival and, for a country park, this really isn’t acceptable. But this is also their first event in the park and there will always be lessons to be learnt from a first outing. Although I can’t find anything reported, I know that the promoters paid a bond to use the site so if any surplus clean-up effort was required after their departure, I imagine this too would have been paid for by the organisers, even if it meant taking it out of the bond.
One of the most telling examples of the locals embracing the festival however was on boarding the shuttle bus from the train station, the girls sat in front of us were conversing in very strong West Walian accents. As the bus pulled away, they waved farewell to their mother, stood in the front doorway of their home just outside the station.
For these girls, along with many more from the local area, having such a good experience this close to home can only make it even better.
All photos, unless otherwise credited, are courtesy of Michael Partridge.
This entry was originally posted to the Visit Wales blog on Friday, July 2nd, 2010 at 3:07pm