I’m more than a little excited to park the car and take first steps, almost skips, towards the entrance to of The Good Life Experience – it’s the local festival hosted at Hawarden, conceived by Cerys Matthews (of Catatonia fame) and Charlie and Caroline Gladstone, and designed to be an event that brings together and celebrates the more wholesome and natural joys hence the ‘Good Life’ name (nothing to do with the tv sitcom of old!) I’ve always wanted to go but dates have inevitably clashed (the first weekend in September why so full of events?) and unlike some other festivals, it encourages you to down tools and head over for the full weekend immersion (Saturday-only tickets are available but that’s the only other option to the whole weekend).
Coloured lights strung and swaying overhead lead the way, and the striped peak of a vintage helter-skelter beckons enticingly at the top of the gentle grassy slope that leads into the main festival site. In the camping field, I pass a rainbow-striped tent, like a mini circus tent, and others adorned with fairy lights. Festival going families have chunky wheeled trolleys decked out in lights or flowers, full of children in onesies and little dogs, replacing the camping kit load they carried earlier.
The first thing I come across is some beautiful, bright handmade shawl-blankets – the sign makes me laugh and sums up the feeling of the festival perfectly – ‘buy a hug and get a free nou nou’ (see pic), I enter the Good Life Experience with a smile on my face that stays there all weekend.
The retro lights of the helter-skelter, swingboats (my favourite as a kid – it’s so rare to see them!) and Mr Swine food van set the tone; all shiny lights and kooky lettering and kids’ shrieks, campfire sparks and hay bales.
It’s like all the best bits of a bumper bonfire night party.
I feel like I’m entering an enchanted forest; with uplights colouring the leaf canopy like multicoloured twilight. A path through the trees leads to a entrance arch, the Liquor sign and arrow (tracked down and imported from America, and apparently a favourite of regular Good Lifers, it looks like a Vegas neon graveyard find) begs to be followed and points helpfully to a rustic forest bar shack serving whisky and some pretty cool sounding cocktails – I make a mental note to return later.
I’m drawn to the main stage – a huge marquee surrounded by an earth bank with hay bales where people are chilling with food and beer listening to the tunes. The stage is framed with a delicate cutout design with tree branches fluidly twisting and revealing owls and doves above the band who are giving it their all to a chilled and gently appreciative crowd. An artist live-paints the bands on the stage. Later, after 10pm, the hands-in-the-air-dancing is heralded in by Trevor Nelson starting out with funky beats to get everyone revved up into night time mode.
I buy a programme and the map inside helps me orientate a little better.
Inside the marquee, it hits home what’s different about this festival – everything’s earthy and real, beautiful but natural. The arts intermingle with unexpected twists that make you smile even wider and marvel at the creative brains that have had such fun developing all these touches to amuse, entertain, educate and share the love they have for all that is good and the best bits of life. It’s bursting with good stuff. The outside is brought inside with silver birch trunks adorned with twinkly lights and paper lanterns, autumn leaves, fluffy pom poms and a giant moon.
Casually gorgeous, in a cool handcrafted way that is somehow never twee, the decor is as covetable as the merch (hint – next year maybe they will sell them off or put on a workshop to re-create). It’s a particularly British type of hygge.
The merchandise is quaint, cute, colourful and on trend – I love how the pennants resemble Scout badges; how can I resist when they’re just 20p and shout ‘Happy Camper, ‘Wild Free’ and ‘Wild Thing’. I’m just disappointed (though my credit card is not) that the ‘Wild Thing’ t-shirts are only child-sized. I compensate later by screen printing my own t-shirt with the 2018 exclusive design for the festival at one of the workshops.
Its a good job the giant fluffy pom poms are strung up so high as I would be trying to snuggle (ok, steal) them otherwise – the deep vibrant, seasonal colours echo the start of autumn. But there’s a definite end-of-summer vibe this weekend, especially as the weather stays largely fair, with only the odd shower. The sun breaks the clouds more than forecast – even the weather gods appreciate the good life.
The pace of the festival is so chilled and there’s something liberating about not having a set itinerary – wandering from store to store between the one or two key things you’ve decided on, enables chance opportunities and encounters – the type of yoga lesson I got to try chose me based on the time I got back from the lake.
It’s all about independent traders with a focus on quality design and craftsmanship. It’s refreshing to see unusual items I’ve never seen before – I get an air plant ‘jellyfish’ (a unique pottery cap – the head of the jellyfish, holding the air plant upside down so it becomes the tentacles) from a store that also does macrame workshops. The workers and vendors are as much part of the festival audience as the ticket holders – I’d be tempted to volunteer at a stall next year but think I’d get too much FOMO from the daytime activities on offer.
A friend of amble, Wildbrew, and the Wildbrew handsome hound join me on Saturday. TGLE is thoroughly dog-friendly and the experience with a canine in tow is different again. Prepare for slow but social progress around the fields – every two feet we are stopped by dogs wanting to say hello (only occasionally maybe not so friendly!), or humans wanting to pet the dog. Conversations are started and new friends are made – suggestions of the hound joining in the canine circus school (seriously, they have dogs in miniature cars and jumping through hoops) or entering the dog show (‘He is soooo handsome!’) are deflected – we’re not sure TGLE is ready for the kind of chaos the pup can cause – maybe next year!
The slow round of the site lets us see what’s going on. It feels like a medieval fayre with tents, metal, carcasses cooking on fires and animal skins. We’re fascinated by watching the knives being hammered on anvils in the forge, we learn from the guy rhythmically filling and emptying the old-fashioned bellows into the campfire kiln that it’s quite zen-like. We watch copper jewellery being delicately made.
The short walk to the lake sees us pass the glamping field in front of the old and new castles, an idyllic spot to make your home for the weekend – Insta worthy pics straight from the tent. A neon striped kayak points the way to the water and we try our hand at axe throwing. Great tuition, but my efforts are abysmal – apparently, I’m not angry enough, though I’m sure I’d have at least knocked an assailant out with the handle. Wildbrew gets three for three, dead centre – every time.
We listen to a talk about but don’t try, fire walking. The man promises we’ll come away with three things – a smile, a sense of achievement and a memory. A gent I meet later while wild swimming in the lake says he tried it and came away with a fourth thing – a rather large blister.
You go up to food vendors confident that what you’ll get will be great (food is also served at the Hawarden farm shop on the site and sets the standard). It’s not cheap, but I’d rather quality than the pricey tat you get at events normally. The winner seemed to be the Persian street food stands serving halloumi or Persian chicken toasted wraps, judging by the steadily long but quick moving queue. Our good friends Hanky Panky Pancakes rivalled them with a snaking line for most of the weekend (loved the Mirabelle jam, by the way, guys!) and I felt I cheated on Meltdown when I tried a cheese toasty from another vendor – it was good but Laura (Meltdown), don’t worry you’re still the toasty queen.
We drink beer, eat food, chat, pop into tents and wander the field, appreciating the slow pace – it’s a full day of doing not much but taking it all in. The good life indeed.
The Sunday is a shorter day, ending at 6pm, and there’s a constant trickle of campers decamping – I love that there’s none of the devastation left as at some other festivals; the fields are left like fields, not rubbish dumps. The lake has been calling me and I spend a refreshing half hour exploring the lily-topped water, so cold it’s greeted by shrieks that soon turn to wide beaming smiles. Most first-time lake swimmers say they’ll be trying wild swimming again soon – a happy effect of TGLE, that you get to try and enjoy new things, often for free, that might just become hobbies or skills.
I warm up with yoga, a gentle flow session in a cosy tent and leave stretched, chilled and glowing. My mission for stone baked pizza is temporarily hindered when I’m distracted by a huge tableful of mushrooms of all different shapes, sizes and colours – the result of the morning’s foraging walk with mushroom expert Roger Philips. I grab my pizza and head back to see the master talk us through the mushrooms and prepare them for campfire cooking, heading off to catch the end of the talk at The Academy tent on ‘Awe, Wonder and Wild Stargazing’ and finish my wanderings with poetry backed by a string quartet at the main stage. I squeeze in a final open mic session in the last tent on the way out.
Leaving the festival, I’m ‘good tired’ after a full but lovely few days, inspired but not overwhelmed, restored and content, sated but with a firm idea, I’ll come back for more next year. It’s one of the friendliest places I’ve been – people chat in queues, at workshops, watching campfire cooking, while wild swimming, looking at foraged mushrooms, after the talks. It’s really social, and a testament to the event’s ability to attract people who align with what TGLE offers – you’re sure of a good crowd.
I love small festivals – here you get carefully curated acts which offer a diversity that kind of says ‘try it, you might like it’. It’s certainly compact enough at TGLE to try out a couple of acts that might be on at the same time – avoiding that terrible ‘band clash’ that irks festival goers and ends up in split ranks or coin flipping. It allows for dipping in and out – there’s so much to do it’s good to get a taste of a few different things. Good news for next year is there’s an extra day being added. Beware though, one-third of tickets are already sold, and most people we met come back year after year. Mine will be ordered as soon as payday comes. I might just end up a lifer at The Good Life Experience.
2019 tickets now available from £179 for 3-night adult camping