Cowbridge festival is not always blessed with the best of weather, but leading up to their weekend they were blighted with news on all media with forthcoming storms and possible hurricanes – not the news they needed at all. Sadly the forecasts were reasonably accurate and I’m sure it must have affected the visitor numbers, although I didn’t get an official count.
However regular readers will know that Cowbridge food festival is one of my favourites and I can assure you there are not many Welsh food festivals in that select group! So why is it a favourite? Well lots of reasons really and the starting point is Polly. If you haven’t met Polly, she is the Cowbridge Events Manager. She runs her own company, pollywilson events and I think she does a great job – so enough said. Polly’s been managing Cowbridge for what seems like forever and if only I could bottle her skills and positive attitude and send it around some other festivals that could do with a much-needed boost. But obviously Polly’s not running this festival solo; she has the backing, direction and support of John Davies, the Chair of Cowbridge Food Festival. John’s such a star. Over the years he’s assembled a brilliant team around him. Between them they give Cowbridge a festival they have every right to be proud of. I’ve never said that it’s an easy job to run a food festival, I’m certainly wouldn’t volunteer to run one, but I must say, with tongue-in-cheek, it tends to look easy when you visit a well run one!!! Or maybe the Cowbridge team have all been brilliantly trained as swans, gliding serenely along whilst paddling like mad underneath!!! But it’s the producers and the visitors that matter and no-one can take away that this festival has got a great deal right.
So how did our visit to the 10th Cowbridge Food & Drink award winning festival go? Well Ian and I always visit on the Sunday as Saturday is always busy, busy, plus I obviously get better feedback after a day’s trading. The opportunity to talk to producers that are, by and large smiling, although tired and sometimes rather damp, is really worthwhile. I did talk to a few producers who weren’t on a par with their last year’s figures, but on the whole, a reasonably positive picture in that weather and this climate. Overall Wag’s funded festival programme has not been that good this year, with very few festivals managing to buck the ongoing economic recession, so to talk to some happy food producers did help to make my damp day. Another bonus at Cowbridge is that Polly accepts quite a few of our Best Of Welsh & Borders producers, but that just shows what a quality festival this is, selling the best of Welsh food!!!!!
What always impresses me at Cowbridge is how John, Polly and the team have continued each year to encourage the whole town to get involved, not only back the festival, but to push their own businesses too. I’m disappointed when other festivals can’t get their towns supporting their festivals because I do feel it is important. I’m certainly not saying it is easy, it’s something Polly and I have discussed on a regular basis and it’s been hard work for the Cowbridge team, they have found it tough, but no-one can disagree that this makes the whole festival work much better and gives it a real buzzy, party atmosphere. Some of Cowbridge shops were even advertising festival specials. I did hear of a wag funded festival who wouldn’t allow one of the shops on his own High Street take a food stand, even though it meant his shop still stayed open! I wouldn’t have believed it if the shop owner hadn’t told me himself but you couldn’t make it up could you?
I’m sure I commented last year that Polly is one of the few organisers who does listen to the traders; she takes their comments on board and makes improvements, if at all possible. The traders respect Polly and that is fairly unusual. Yet despite Polly’s skills, even she can’t increase the festival site size! Over the years John and the team have tried their best to gain additional space where they can and re-jig the layout to utilize the space they have available, but it’s inevitable that some traders are turned away. Of course that’s annoying, but as traders talk amongst themselves of a ‘fabulous festival at Cowbridge’ then the more traders apply each year and the disappointment continues. I’m sure some of you are from time to time a bit sloppy filling in your application forms, but you cannot expect Polly or any other organiser for that matter, to remember the little quirks about your particular business. Put as much detail on your form as possible and stop expecting organisers to be mind readers, or the equivalent of Memory Women!
After all these years asking, I’m now not sure that wag food can devise one universal application form that all food festival organisers will accept, even if it’s only for a year. I used to be hopeful that could happen, but with the lack of interest from wag to date, maybe that’s something else I’ve got wrong! It would cut down on producers’ paperwork, as they would fill in one form each year and email it through as an attachment, with an opportunity to make changes during the year if necessary. Instead we have a time-consuming system which wastes our producers’ time and effort and doesn’t help organisers that much either.
It’s the dialogue that Polly has worked hard to establish not just with the traders but also from my side too. I get everything I need for Polly. I know what’s happening; I know who’s exhibiting, so there are no grumbles from me. The finishing touch was on Tuesday when I received in the post two wristbands – without having to ask!!!!!! Efficient, yes, helpful, yes, but more so I actually feel that this event wants to see Ian and I in Cowbridge – so how brilliant is that?
Cowbridge is a beautiful, town full of character, without a multi-storey car park and I say thank goodness for that. So it stands to reason that parking will always be an issue. It goes without saying that every trader wishes to park a maximum of 20 paces away from their stand, but that is just not how it works in the real world. The Cowbridge team has worked hard to try and grab any space they can get their hands on for their two day festival, but as the festival continues to grow in popularity, its bond to be a victim of its own success. A great solution has been using the young people from ATC Squadron 293; they always do a great job each year, helping traders move their stock to and from their vans, litter picking and sorting out any little hiccups that occur. These young people are always polite and a credit, not only to the ATC, but to their parents too. To help combat the parking issue Cowbridge runs an efficient Park & Ride, which is a huge help and the other bonus was clear signage on my way in. Another plus was all the Marshalls/Stewards I came into contact were polite and helpful; so it’s no wonder I find Cowbridge festival a pleasure to attend.
The cookery demos were moved much closer to the main action, which was sensible and worked well. There were locals chefs down for duty and again this is something I like and want to see more of at other festivals. Not sure though if the chefs were using food from the producers, but if not, maybe this can be sorted for next year. .
Cowbridge had little option this year but to run without wag funding, not Cowbridge’s fault at all, it’s all down to lack of organisation, late confirmation of budgets, but whatever the reason it is simply not acceptable wag. Cowbridge were given at the best two and a half weeks notice not only to fill in oodles of wag paperwork, but were this year asked for CV’s for their team. No, you haven’t misread it, I did say CV’s. Now you are going to ask why CV’s are required and my answer is they are not. But it is apparently in case wag’s P.A.s are asked for them. What utter rubbish.wag food of course will then say this is public money and we have to be careful and responsible. Well that’s their theory which simply doesn’t stand up because wag food waste as much public money, in my view, as many other government departments. Someone at wag food needs a whacking dose of common sense before Welsh food festival organisers all decide on mass to resign. Again in my view, wag food doesn’t deserve to have such hard-working volunteers, because they are simply not appreciated. So a serious reality check is needed here wag. Firstly the bulk of your funded food festivals are run, by-and-large by volunteers, many retired or semi-retired. But CV’s has to go to the top of my very long list of wag’s stupid, pointless requests. No-one in wag food has thought this through from the organisers’ point of view, which continues to be one of the main problems of the wag food department.
So far this year, Ian and I have attended seventeen festivals and have failed to see a wag food person at any of them. But surely if official visitors wish to attend can’t wag pick up the phone and talk to the organiser directly? Because wag sent out their applications so late, Cowbridge were out-of-pocket by £10k – which is a big hole to fill, and more so when it was not their fault. I wonder if wag raised any concern as to why Cowbridge hadn’t applied for funding this year. If I’d have been wag, I certainly would, but then I am talking about civil servants that get paid each month, not the self-employed and certainly not volunteers. However I find it sad, because as wag, I’d want to take some of the credit for this fabulous festival. It showed off Welsh artisan food producers, the bulk of them Welsh food producers, to great advantage, it added a great deal to the town, with locals and visitors enjoying themselves.
Now there’s a funny twist to this thread, because ironically, for this festival who through no fault of their own were not funded this year, guess who visited on the Saturday? Minister of Natural Resources and that includes food, Alun Davies as well as Jane Hutt, Minister of Finance. They spent a good hour there and were given a tour around by John and hopefully in that time both Ministers could understand the problems that both their departments put on these volunteers who are supporting not only our food festivals but also their communities by attracting more people into their areas. Please don’t hold your breath on this one but let’s just hope seeds were sown and they grow. Now any festival would be reveling in two Ministers visiting in a day but that wasn’t enough for Cowbridge, oh no. On Sunday, someone else who was their in a private capacity with his family, was first Minister Carwen Jones. I didn’t realize Mr. Jones had such good taste, but as we all met up at the SamosaCo stand, in the food-to-go marquee, for their amazing chicken curry, I shall have to retract that, I cannot fault his taste on the curry front!!!
Next year Polly is going to have the same problem with even more producers desperate to get a pitch there. From her side, in some ways, it’s a lovely position so be in, providing she accepts that she can’t please all the producers, all of the time!! So if I can offer a snippet of advice to producers, fill the forms in fully, sell your company well, be adaptable about maybe not bringing your whole range, and then keep your fingers crossed. If you fail to get in maybe Polly can give you feedback ……
Congratulations Cowbridge to all involved for once again putting on a fabulous festival; your hard work has certainly paid off, despite the dreadful weather. Your success is totally deserved.