Laugharne Weekend: Europe’s quirkiest festival?

This year, the Laugharne Weekend of literature, music, and comedy celebrates its 10th anniversary. For me, having been born in Wales, it’s the perfect festival – a magical marriage of arts and culture that, at its best, is like Dylan Thomas’s ‘Under Milk Wood’ come to life.

Banner image credit: iStock.com/acceleratorhams

A festival creating connection

Got your Glasto tickets? Bagged your trip to Barcelona’s Benicassim? Lined up for Latitude? One of the joys of spring and summer is the prospect of a great festival. While all offer likeminded people a chance to connect, the smaller ones give you the opportunity to physically connect with a band or artist. It’s this intimacy that Welsh writer John Williams and promoter Richard Thomas looked to create when they set up Laugharne Weekend in 1997.

This incredibly unique event came about while Richard was promoting literary events around London, but looking for a good place to start a festival on the side and saw Neil Morrissey on TV. John recalls that “there’d been a recent news story announcing Morrissey had opened a luxury hotel outside Laugharne. The same Laugharne where Dylan Thomas had lived in the boathouse and Richard’s uncle had run a pub. That had to be the place”. Richard called John to ask if he fancied organising a festival and the rest is history.

Dylan Thomas Boathouse

The Boathouse. Image credit: iStock.com/leighcol

What makes Laugharne so special?

What was born in that moment, for me as an avid festival-goer of 40 years, has become the world’s most intimate and heart-warmingly original festivals. By the end of the weekend you’re likely to have met most of your fellow festival-goers, sipped an ale with a performer or two, and been treated to homemade curry by the partner of the local hotel.

So, what else makes Laugharne Weekend so special? It’s a festival run on a small scale – there’s usually no more than 300 people there, attending events at quirky venues ranging from the village hall and a pub to a church and a tent. The atmosphere generated is one of community and togetherness – which is down to his and Richard’s experience coming of age during the punk era. He says “that sense of community and the human scale is something we value very highly”.

Laugharne town and castle

Laugharne town and castle. Image credit: iStock.com/AmandaLewis

That punk upbringing informs, but doesn’t define, the musical content of the festival. The line-up is always an eclectic mix including a top-class offering of Welsh artists like Cerys Matthews and Euros Childs. It has also boasted rosters of global stars including Patti Smith, Ray Davies and Mick Jones of The Clash.

It’s not just the music that makes Laugharne what it is. Writers, filmmakers, comedians and artists grace the bill each year and past years have seen Ian Rankin, John Cooper Clarke, Harry Hill and Michael Sheen, to name a few, entertain and educate the crowds. Those artists alone would excite most audiences but the Laugharne organisers take it up another level with fascinating “match-ups” – ingenious pairings that have seen maverick filmmaker Julien Temple in discussion with music legend Ray Davies. John and Richard’s idiosyncratic programming is, of course, behind this magical concept. “When you’re lucky enough to have Ray Davies come down, then obviously you want to put him together with someone he’ll spark off,” says John. With John and Richard running everything, right down to the Monday-morning clean up, there’s an organised chaos to the whole event which adds to its distinct charm.

The end is certainly not near

The charming chaos and creative disruption is clearly working, because artists come back again and again – from the infamous Howard Marks to actor Keith Allen. The latter hosts the marvellous Laugharne’s Got Talent, a talent show where locals and visitors pile into the Fountain pub to perform with Allen’s excellent band.

“Our idea has always been to break down the barriers between artist and audience as much as possible. Artists who come here end up doing most of the same things as the punters, and a good few of them really love that”, says John.

The Great Tor, Gower

The Gower coast. Image credit: iStock.com/RichardMorgan147

What they, and I, also go back for is the allure of the area. The melancholy feel to the Taff estuary town, and the constantly shifting landscapes created by the tide’s movements, make Laugharne a bleakly beautiful spot on the border of the Gower coast. There’s easy access east to the Brecon Beacons, west to the stunning St Bride’s Bay and Camarthenshire proper, and north to neighbouring Pembrokeshire’s equally beautiful spots.

All of which makes for a perfect driving holiday with a real touch of Welsh magic at its heart.

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