Acorns of inspiration
John Osmond explains why a Festival of Ideas is being held in Wales’ smallest city
The notion of holding a Festival of Ideas in St Davids came about through its being a place where people congregate, to share and exchange experience. It is a confluence of people with place, but above all place.
St Davids may seem in a marginal position, set as it is on a far-flung peninsula at the edge of a country that itself is often regarded as a peripheral nation. It is no coincidence that Solva, St Davids’ near Dewisland neighbour, has called its own festival The Edge. That name was prompted by a sense that the village verges on a seascape that sweeps westwards unimpeded until the Americas.
But these feelings of peripherality do not reflect St Davids’ true position in the world. It was once a mid-point, if not a destination, for important trading and pilgrimage routes. In the Bronze Age, some 1,500 years ago it was a staging post on a pathway that linked Salisbury Plain to Ireland, taking the high routes that included the seven mile ridgeway across the Preseli Hills. It was dubbed the Golden Road because its destination was the Wicklow Hills where gold was mined. And in the Age of the Saints, in the fifth and sixth centuries, St David’s was the focus for a seaborne Celtic culture that connected Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, and Brittany. We sent Patrick to Ireland, and many of their saints came to us.
So in part the Festival of Ideas was prompted by an aspiration to return our smallest Welsh city to a central point in the thinking world. After all, it remains a site of European significance for pilgrimage. Historically, two pilgrimages to St Davids were equal to one to Rome, and three were equal to one to Jerusalem. And of course, a pilgrimage is not just a spiritual and physical undertaking, but a mental and intellectual one as well.
Then, of course, although St Davids is a small community, with a population of less than 2,000, it is a city with the Cathedral, Oriel y Parc, and a range of hotels, all in the magnificent coastal setting of Dewisland. And couldn’t we turn peripherality to our advantage? At the western edge of Wales, St Davids is sufficiently remote to ensure that the people who attend will be with each other for the Festival’s duration, breaking bread and sharing a cup as well as talking. We envisage the Festival will take over the city in a way that simply couldn’t happen if it were held in a large urban setting such as Swansea or Cardiff.
Stimulated by such thoughts, a small group started meeting in the autumn of 2018 with the heady ambition of creating some oak trees from a few scattered acorns of inspiration. We quickly won support from St Davids City Council, Pembrokeshire County Council, St Davids Cathedral, the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, Pembrokeshire College, the Learned Society of Wales, the main political parties, and a range of other organisations and individuals.
As ever an obstacle was money, but we decided that if our ideas were good enough, money would follow. Faith moves festivals. A year later, in October 2019, we held an event in Ysgol Penrhyn Dewi to launch the concept. To our amazement, on an exceedingly west and windy evening, about fifty people turned up, interested, curious and above all willing to pitch in.
We had some stimulating speakers, including St Davids native Dr Sarah Beynon who runs an environmental consultancy and The Bug Farm at Lower Harglodd, the Rev Canon Dr Sarah Jones, Dean at the Cathedral who left the Foreign Office to follow her vocation, and Andy Middleton, founder director of TYF, the St Davids adventure tourism organisation, and Adam Price MS, the leader of Plaid Cymru, plus a message but sadly not the presence of Baronness Eluned Morgan, Labour’s MS for Mid and West Wales.
The enthusiasm generated by this event emboldened us to continue, and so we organised an inaugural Festival that was due to be held in March 2020, but like so much else was scuppered by Covid. Undeterred, we are now launching the Festival online over the Friday to Saturday, 12-13 March 2021.
All the speakers we had lined up for 2020, plus others, will now be appearing via the miracle of virtual platforms. They include Paul Mason, former Newsnight economics editor who will be expounding on his book A Radical Defence of the Human Being , writer Sir Simon Jenkins, chair of the National Trust, Baronness Eluned Morgan, in virtual person, David Melding MS, the Conservative constitutional guru, environmentalist Professor Gareth Wyn Jones, and the Eisteddfod crowned bard Mererid Hopwood plus many others.
We see the St Davids Festival as being national in character, drawing people from all parts of Wales and beyond. One inspiration is Almedalan Week, held in early July on the Swedish island of Gotland, 100 kilometres east of Stockholm. With speeches, seminars and other activities, involving all the country’s eight parties, it is regarded as one of the most important forums in Swedish politics. It is a kind of political Eisteddfod in which journalists, politicians, business people, artists, lobbyists and activists mingle, debate and exchange ideas.
The event was initiated by the future Swedish premier Olof Palme in the late 1960s. In the first few years the gathering was small, involving a few hundred people. However, in recent decades it has grown hugely, and is now attended by 40,000 people, with more than 4,000 activities, and 800 journalists accredited. An important dimension is that all seminars are free of charge, with the large majority open to everybody. It is noteworthy, too, that Almadelan Week has inspired similar events in other Nordic countries, such as Suomo-Areena in Finland, Arendalsveckan in Norway, Arvamusfestival in Estonia, and Folkdmødet on the island of Bornholm in Denmark.
We are sure Almedalan Week will also come to be regarded as inspiring Wales. St Davids and Gotland, now there’s a coupling.
John Osmond is a writer and journalist and a member of the Festival organizing committee.