A buzz is forming in Abergavenny, as the town gets ready to host the Abergavenny Food Festival once more. Over the weekend of the 16th and 17th of September, people from all over the country will flock to the market town to take part in exhibitions, sell their products, and sample local tastes.
But this year is a special year because it has been 25 years of the festival, and it has come a long way. In The Angel Hotel, co-founders Martin Orbach, Chris Wardle and newly appointed festival director Lucie Parkin gather to apply the finishing touches for the event.
Speaking to them three weeks before the festival kicks off, the anticipation for the event is felt by all three members.
No stranger to organising events in Abergavenny, Lucie moved to the area in 2012 and set up the Abergavenny Writing Festival in 2016. It's allowed Lucie to get to know Abergavenny well and also gain experience that she can apply with confidence to her new role.
‘To me, taking on the role is a real privilege,’ Lucie says. ‘I did everything myself on a micro-level for the writing festival, which meant I have some understanding of raising money and who to be in touch with. The festival is a bigger thing now, with so many people to go to. It’s knowing I can go to people, such as a board of directors, who have so many years of experience. There’s a whole town of knowledge, opinion and positivity that I can draw upon. It’s very exciting but also very daunting. I’m conscious of the responsibility and being true to the founders.
‘There’s a small professional team who are just superb and I’ve been getting to know them. I want to do the festival proud.’ Lucie adds.
Ever since moving to the area, Lucie has been a frequent visitor to the food festival, taking her family along.
‘I’ve been attending now for the last ten years, and there is so much going on here with different voices and opinions. It’s so much more than a food market. It’s a festival bringing in so much joy, profiling voices, and giving everyone an opportunity to have their say. It’s a social hub and feels like a very safe environment.’
Lucie is taking over the role from Kim Waters, and all three are in agreement Kim deserves a lot of credit for keeping the festival going.
‘He’s had the role of being the festival director on and off since about 2013.’ Martin, the co-founder of the festival, says. ‘We had a patch where the festival was struggling, and Kim was responsible for bringing it back. I think of Kim as another founder or even a re-founder of the festival.’
Chris agrees. ‘With Covid, to get it resuscitated, it could have easily gone. But Kim got it going again.’
‘He’s held in such high esteem.’ Lucie notes. ‘He’s working with me, and when I was first appointed Kim said I could call him any time. He really wants us to succeed and that’s really common throughout my experience here so far. There aren’t any agendas, no egos. It’s all about wanting to best for the town and for the festival. We’re hugely grateful for Kim.’
As the festival has grown, there have been some whispers of the festival losing its roots, possibly even no longer serving the local community. But all three, and everyone involved in the festival, have the focus of the town at the forefront of everything they do.
‘It’s important that it’s got a root in the community.’ Martin says. ‘At the beginning that was true but there were plenty who didn’t welcome us to begin with, but that’s changed over time. It’s been useful for the festival to pick up on people with skills in the local community. We’ve always had support from people locally who could help us. In the early days, we had great support from the market hall team. They got the festival and got behind us. These people were amazing and they knew where to go and what to do to get something done. Then we had other individuals in the town bring their knowledge to make it work. Now, the festival sits in the town very well and the sense that the town is engaged with it is picked up from people who visit the festival. People who come to the festival start making relationships with different people in the town. It’s about hospitality, and it’s necessary that Abergavenny is hospitable and welcomes people into it, and that has happened over the years.’
Chris recalls the very beginning of the festival when it only cost 50 pence to enter. ‘The beginning was on a filthy October half-term Sunday. That was the only day we could choose because we thought all the other dates were taken. We were lucky because it poured down all day. The only venue we had was the market hall and everybody came in because of the weather. We knew the festival would have to generate some of its own money if it was going to be sustainable, and given the stalls and a bit of the chef stuff, there was a feeling that people were interested, so why not do it again? Being more local than Martin, I was interested in putting Abergavenny on the map. We wanted to talk about food issues, encourage local producers, and debate on issues. It wasn’t just a narrow viewpoint of what it could be.’
Putting Abergavenny on the map is something the festival has achieved. Lucie recalls her friends talking about the festival even though they live in Europe. ‘I have friends in Rome who know Abergavenny because of the food festival. It’s become the food capital of Wales now. As far as I know, that’s due in large part to the festival.
'Every single person who attends the festival helps shape it.’ Lucie continues. ‘A festival becomes a creature in its own right. Anything can happen and the dynamics of what can evolve from the meeting of people is endless. We’re making sure that we keep local businesses and people in Abergavenny with us. We listen and try very hard to make sure people in the town are getting positive experiences and are getting something from it as well. I think a lot of people in Abergavenny see this as our event, and we’re proud to have it here.’
One prominent chef profiled at this year’s festival is Tom Maynard, who originally worked at The Hardwick in Abergavenny. Now, he’s Head Chef at the Bar 44 Group, and it’s moments like these that help bring the festival back to its roots.
25 years later, the festival knows it has to continue to adapt, but they believe the footprint in the town is a perfect size, with no plans to expand. As part of Lucie’s new role, she hopes to make the festival more accessible. ‘The food festival isn’t a vision of a singular person. My job in terms of looking at the future is really listening, researching, talking and communicating with people. We’ve talked about the possibility of filming and streaming in the future, so people outside of the space who can’t get here, can access it. In terms of keeping our carbon footprint low, we’re not encouraging more travel than there already is, but can still share what we’re doing.’
‘The challenge for the festival is, and always has been, to maintain an organisation to run it.’ Martin says. ‘An organisation will keep it on track and make sure it doesn’t go in the wrong direction. If we can do that, then there is no reason that we can’t go on for many more years. You can change the content year after year, but the footprint is what it is. The format is for people who are interested in food so that they can see interesting products and see cookery and talks on policy and food won’t get old. The audience will change over time but I love the fact that we’re bringing people together and they celebrate in Abergavenny. Abergavenny is a market town, in the heart where food is produced. There’s a logic to it being in a market town. I don’t think that will get old, or markets will ever get old. The challenge is to keep it on the straight and narrow as a group of people who have the time and energy to do it in their own time.’
To celebrate, they have been identifying 25 remarkable people who have been key to the festival over the years. Taking to social media, they have announced names such as Nixon Farms and SA Sauces.
Now, they’re ready to celebrate the atmosphere of what is set to be an incredibly special event.
‘I’m extremely excited to welcome people to the festival.’ Lucie smiles. ‘Bringing people together on this scale is incredible. Having those moments at live events where you see people come together is really magical. You see things that wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for this event. As a group, as a town, we’ve made those moments happen. Without events like this, we’d miss out on those potential opportunities.’
‘After 25 years, as someone who has stood back, I’m so glad to see that it’s still going,’ Chris says. ’It’s very alive. That there are thoughts on how to improve it in the future, but to retain the fundamentals of it. I’m very happy to see how it has continued. It’s amazing.’
‘When the festival kicks off, a lot of people turn up, some of whom have been turning up for many years.’ Martin says. ‘Food businesses, stallholders or chefs, they know this event almost as well as we do. They bring good energy with them, as well as the audience because they’ve been before and know what they want to do. It’s a place for family and friends to meet up and it takes on its own life when it’s on. It has a great buzz when it’s underway.’
The Abergavenny Food Festival kicks off on the 16th September, 2023.