Grown in Wales

Grown in WalesGrown in WalesGrown in Wales

16

January

New Cardigan

Charles Warner

Elvis is in the house (Costello that is) and sourdough is drying on my fingers as I type. The sun has yet to get it's shoes on and the wind is like an overtired toddler that doesn't know what the hell it wants.

It was 1989 when I came to live in Cardigan. I was an incomer, a foreigner, a stranger. I'd settled into city life for a couple of years before coming here and it took a while to get the sound of night buses and the waft of the curry house on every corner out of my system. I soon took to Cardigan though. Stuck out on the West coast it had the feeling of separation, like an island or peninsular might although it was only an island in the sense of major roads. It had a glorious coastline, a rich history, proper pubs and a taxi rank where you might, if there was noone inside, pick up the radio mic and summon your own taxi. It had a bit of a reputation mind. Like all country towns it was punch up central at the weekend and the weekend often started on Wednesday. No decent restaurants or shopping places we made do with Happy City Chinese with it's 70's decour and "Cupid" which was a crumbling boutique where the entire family came out to admire any piece of clothing that you bought.

I liked it. It was a real town . It didn,t quite have enough momentum to alow it to head the way most towns were going. Few chain stores looked twice so the high street clung on to its faded individualism . We couldn't seem to keep a decent fishmonger in business and the the grandest building in the town (the guildhall) was a cool and empty place where market stalls came to die. Other towns like Llandeilo and Narberth played more to their strengths and became twee little places with designer shoe stores and wildly expensive kitchen gadget shops . I grew very fond of cardigan  but it was leaving it in 2002 that made me realise just how fond. Two years away made me realise that despite being born in London and raised in Oxfordshire my heart was in this small west Wales town. I came back one weekend and the wonderful welcome that I had from my old friends made me realise that I was coming home. I packed in my job hired a lorry and was back here within a fortnight penniless, jobless and happy.

A career break is just what you want to ferment ideas. On a trading estate where most of the units were empty I  worked in a call centre selling domain names with a bunch of funny teenagers. It was fun to be in a job that I didn't care about but if you are an ideas person then there's nothing like a break to get the ideas coming again and I guess i was always likely to start in business again at some point. One of the other units was occupied by a clothing company called Howies. We had a kind of communal area and they used to leave their catalogues about the place and I'd often pick them up and have a read.The catalogue was a masterpiece. Here was a company that had moved to Cardigan for a better life. Ethical and funky they promoted themselves proudly as the secong biggest clothing company in Cardigan. (Dewhirst were still hanging on then). Despite being a cyclist I had never heard of clothes being described as "technical" I didn't know about wicking and I'd never given a thought to Merino wool. The catalogue marketed the area as much as it did the clothes. I'd never wanted to buy clothes more and finding that catalogue was a piece in the jigsaw that sent me back to horticulture with some new ideas and a silly business name.

Howies went on to great things, kind of. I suspect that they became one of the coolest and best respected clothing brands in the country. It felt good that they were here and they cast a favourable light on the place. I was completely sold on their wonderful marketing but part of me wondered if it was just a bit to good to be true. A bit too worthy perhaps. In a West Wales town that was all grit and grind maybe they were a bit too Notting Hill. Mostly though I thought that it was just the medicine that the town needed. A cool, ethical company choosing to settle in what to me was the best little town in Britain.

Stuff happened with Howies. The founders sold to an American company and since then it has been sold again. The shine came off it a bit when the founders left. I noticed that their sound bite slogans have lost their edge. Their shop in the high street still attracts holiday makers though. The brand is still strong enough for that.

Howies' founders have not been idle though. The DO Lectures are a set of small talks held on a glamping site in my very own village of Cilgerran. Years ago some local hippies started a "harvest festival" there . I honestly thought that they were going to treat us to a big tent with a stoned guy playing a didgereedoo but I was way off the mark. They managed to create a wonderful atmosphere with kids activities, horse riding, a harvest parade and they had great bands. Well orgaised with good sound. It was such a treat. Lots of the old guys from the village wandered up through forgotten footpaths to check it out and they were just let in so that they could see what was going on. It was a hippy triumph. There was of course a backlash from a small group of highly vocal local residents who had decided that we were allowing a debauched and drug fueled group of maniacs into our midst and that there would be a crime wave and noise pollution and litter and violence. The following year they had their way. The policing was ridiculously heavy handed with holiday makers and passers by being searched and their cars being searched. A mobile police station parked in the school and a helicopter buzzing around for days before and during the event. Even my old dad got searched before being allowed into the village. The festival was great but the policing made it impossible for the organisers to plan another year and that was that. On the site we now have Fforest. A business that has continued in the Howies tradition of marketing the area as a forgotten paradise. It's amazing to me how much city folk will pay to get down with the countryside and spend a few days in a teepee in a field but they do it seems. Fforest host the DO lectures. These are a series of talks by all kinds of thinkers and innovators that are given the tag of Doers. Another great idea from the founders of Howies. It's real folksy, with a log for a lecturn and the rain thundering on the roof during talks but its the perfect way for people with (quite a bit) of spare cash to get together and feel a communal warmth with others that, like them know the meaning of selvedge denim and the price of patagonia outdoor gear. This is an event for city dudes with skinny jeans and a single speed bike. I'm not sure that anyone that lives in the village is even aware of the event.It's not promoted locally although a small number of local people have spoken. I find some of the talks (they are available online) are very inspirational but I get a strong feeling that they are not really for the likes of us locals. Not only is it not promoted locally but it's way off the budget of most of the people in the area. It's a shame. Preaching ideas of sustainability and conservation and innovative business to the converted is a fun business to have but ultimately it could easily become a love in for the already converted. The locals, who perhaps it could be argued are in greater need of  inspiration, are left looking over the fence and wondering what the fuss is all about.

Next up is Hiut denim. A new company set up with the stated aim of re-employing the 400 people that lost their jobs when the Dewhirst factory closed by building a global denim brand. This is a wonderful idea. Just the idea of actually manufacturing anything in the UK has got to be an innovation and clothing perhaps especially so. It must be a huge challenge to make profit from producing so few units and again it's the highly skilled marketing that comes to the fore. Making something of greatly superior quality is only half the story. The next thing is to make them so exclusive and so desireable that the huge price tag is not an issue. Indeed it is part of what makes it so exclusive. I would suggest that the jeans that Hiut denum produce are beyond a designer label. On the whole designer labels are familiar to all. They are an aspirational purchase simply because they have the right name on them. The high price that they command reflects this rather than any qualities that the clothing intrinsically has. Hiut denim go beyond that and into the world of the denim geek. The beautiful photography on their website portray in artsy monochrome that these clothes are essentially workware. Photogenic people are portrayed having the time of their lives knocking down walls and jumping with wild abandon into water troughs whenever the fancy takes them. We are persuaded to refrain from washing our jeans so that they mature like a fine cheese and then download photographs of them so that they have a story from manufacture to charity shop that is documented and can be accessed by any future owners of the garment by using the unique history tag that comes with each pair.This is denim porn but if you are going to manufacture clothing in the UK you are going to have to justify the hefty price tag that it will inevitably have. Hiuts' idea seems to be to do this with a combination of high quality, innovation and brilliant marketing. I would love to see a bit of this in my industry. In horticulture what we mostly do is compete over the same ground as each other with the same product in the same retail outlets. Price is pretty much the only way to compete and we do this until the pips squeak and then when things get tough businesses fail. My expirience lies outside the clothing industry so I have no idea how succesful Hiut denim's strategy will be but I wish them well and sincerely hope that going up market is the way forward.

I've not finished..... Glad though I am that such innovative entrepreneurs have alighted on Cardigan I am sometimes left with the possibility that these "New Cardigan" businesses offer us, through their amazing marketing, a dream with little substance and it leaves me confused. I want everything that they offer but I want it for us all and not just those with the right face for a monochrome photo shoot. Because of the fact that I am a greedy pig, I am led inexorably towards the "new Cardigan" latest offering. I first came across the 25 mile restaurant soon after it opened. I found the website somehow and was struck firstly by the concept. They planned to use suppliers from a radius of 25 miles of the restaurant as much as possible. I emailed them enthusiastically and asked where they were in Cardigan. I got no reply but found it on the high street next time I was in town. It was where the old ship Inn (punch up central in the old days) used to be. It looked good. There was a basket of bread on the bar and decent coffee and brownies during the day. I like my food and couldn't wait to get a chance to eat there. The chance came when my daughters came for an, oh too short, visit. It was literally just a few hours so I wanted it to be as nice as possible so booked a table. I thought my dad would like to spend time with his granddaughters so asked him along as well. Was the meal awful ? Not exactly. The salads that the girls had looked nice. My dad hated it and this was made worse by the long wait and the food arriving at different times and cold. The poor food spoilt the occasion and my dads grumpiness ruined it. I wasn't ready to write the restaurant off though. It was early days and I can imagine how hard it is to get good quality food right every time. I have now had dinner three times in the restaurant and I'm ready to declare that it is a triumph of style over substance. Their new website has all the marketing hallmarks of "new cardigan" and the concept is great. The food though is ordinairy at best though and to me that is the wrong way round. Get the food right first guys and then the concept and the marketing. If you need to see how this is done try " The shed" in Porthgain or "Y Polyn" near Carmarthen. The food is king in these places . It has taken the shine off for me. I suppose I might have aspired to buy a pair of Huit jeans but I'm no longer convinced that the marketing relates to a better product or maybe even a better future for the business. I want them to be succesful but my little business is so rooted in getting the product to be the best that it can be and then marketing it that I feel at odds with what they are trying to achieve.

I'm not alone. There are people in this little town that are finding new and innovative ways of making a living and at the same time keeping a deep seated integrity . The guys at Gleblands market garden have their eyes on quality and their fingers in the soil. "our two acres" make proper street food that is a treat and I have had the very best little lemon meringue that I have tasted in a shack in Cardigan and it came from the oven of Vicky north. For too long our high street has been populated by retailers that stand gloomily in their shop doorways puffing cigarettes and throwing the butts on the floor. If our town is to flourish it has to embrace the optimism and the marketing potential of "new Cardigan" but also it has to stay firmly rooted in it's own character as a foundation in the pursuit of excellence in all things.

 

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