A life changing event for some, a glorious romp in the country for others... this week we celebrate twenty years since The Big Chill took its first tentative steps into the wide blue yonder..
Here is Alan James' diary entry from that memorable weekend:
The Big Chill Gala was held in the summer of 1995 at a secret location in the Black Mountains of Wales. It took place on land owned by a hill farmer who shall remain nameless but with the typical non-conformity of the people of his region let his camping field to the fledgling Big Chill organisers and turned a blind eye to the usual red tape. Essentially it was a private party for 500 or so people, the scale of which in retrospect made The Enchanted Garden look like Glastonbury.
The Big Chill had spent a year or so putting on events at the Union Chapel in Islington, North London, and was itching for a bucolic frolic in and around one of Pete and Katrina's favourite holiday spots in the Welsh Borders, the wonderful Maes-Y-Beran camping ground. A vast arena of green and brown capped by blue ridges and expansive skies. The site with its gazebo for HQ, one marquee for DJs and bands, a Circus Tent, and an eccentrically stocked café nestled in the lee of Offa's Dyke and was skirted on its other boundary by a stream which snaked through knarled and stooping trees. It was a magnificent and imposing setting. Nearby stood the famous ruins of Llanthony Abbey at which Oscar Wilde had stayed and on which Alfred Watkins plotted the most famous ley-line in the world, the mother of them all. Up on the Welsh side of the valley a white, low-slung farmhouse was the supposed birthplace of Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side of the Moon'. Down towards Hay end the artist Eric Gill had founded a neo-pagan commune at Capel Curig. The area was redolent with psychogeographical references and idyllic beauty.
The Ewyas, or Llanthony Valley, became midwife to the birth of a burgeoning line of open-air chills, which stumbled into adolescence in 2002 with 7000 Chillers at Eastnor Castle. The valley is marked at one end by the split peak of The Skirrid Mountain and Wales' oldest alehouse, and at the other, by breathtaking views from Hay Bluff and the barely visible remains of a stone circle. It is a magical place, first committed to manuscript by wandering Monks in the 11th Century.
As we have established, the area had long held a fascination for creative types and Iain Sinclair's latest book, 'Landor's Tower', focused on an eighteenth-century landowner's doomed attempt to build an exotic dwelling above the abbey and to plant landscaped gardens and lawns. Some of the larger alien trees in the valley are the living archaeology of Landor's early attempts at controlling the landscape. The monks had colonised the area since the 12th century and quarried the stone needed for their building from the hillside above, where they also dug fishponds and grazed sheep. It is possible to conject that Bruce Chatwin's 'On the Black Hill' was set here (a cottage called The Vision can still be seen nearby, being marked clearly on the OS map).
Wayfinders, grid references and whispered directions were acquired and transport booked. Local plod arrived and inspected the proceedings, nodded his approval… and requested tickets for the family next day. The party commenced.
Pete had selected the usual variegated blend of DJs, VJs and live acts, and set them up with his customary words of encouragement: 'Play what you will, it's the Big Chill.' This element of trust and respect is at the heart of the artistic vision of the Chill and has remained at the core of its aesthetic. Tom Middleton later took this to the first of many post-modern extremes when he dropped the Grange Hill theme into his set causing much ensuing mayhem. Morris slept on a hay bale after a typical marathon set from Saturday night to Sunday morning. He was serenaded by an hour of perfect classical music. The Gentle People floated by and Matthew Herbert worried some kitchen utensils. George from Nightmares On Wax set off up the side of the hill and re-emerged four hours later after following various sets of conflicting directions. Jony Easterby carved sonic slices off internally-combusting blocks of ice with a contact-mic'd violin bow. A one-man inaugural art trail.
White clouds scudded across the ridge as Another Fine Day dropped the sound of the stream into a total classic of a live set. Various Chillers lost themselves in the landscape.
I stepped off the stage after becoming totally absorbed in my Sunday afternoon set only to realise that I was still wearing the headphones, the mixer decided to accompany me. Luckily a nimble Dr Jam saved the day, springing cat-like to my rescue before proceeding to play a killer rare soul, funk and jazz set.
Time to give the café a swerve and venture forth. We left the site to eat at the hotel bar in the Abbey and realised that the setting there was as unreal as the one we had just left – topped off by an impressive Basil Fawlty management style. News arrived that ace photographer Alex Brattell, on security duty the previous night, had sent vanloads of Cheesy Quavers from Bristol looking to 'large it' off down Hereford way. Did they wonder what he was doing stood in the middle of an isolated road at midnight, and not realise that they were a mere handful of feet above the site itself? Perhaps Alex was just too convincing, or was it that in those days we seemed to chill at a much lower volume?
It was simply a great way to spend a weekend.
The writer EM Forster once famously employed the following to attempt a definition of the notion of 'festival': 'A festival should be festive. And it should possess something which is distinctive and which could not be so well presented elsewhere.' Modern festivals in Britain have a relatively short history, the first being Edinburgh People's Festival organised in 1951 as an alternative to the International programme. More recognisable to us perhaps, Sidmouth Folk Festival appeared in 1953 and has continued ever since. Now in the 21st century Britain is full of outdoor concerts posing as festivals, but what a true festival has is something that creates a synergy and an energy, which makes no single attraction the headline feature – the event itself is the star of show. This is one of the great strengths of the subsequent Big Chill Gardens and Castles, no one artist or intervention encapsulates the essence of the event. It is an experience approached via many portals, for some it may be a seven-hour set by Morris, for others the Art Trail, or perhaps even a first experience of camping in nature. It is the entire experience, however, which makes the Big Chill what it is.
It is no accident that festivals have also been called Fayres. The best of them have a sense of a roller-coaster ride of attractions and distractions. The world turned upside down for three days, Lords and Ladies of misrule let loose in the world to make it surreal. The effect can be transformative whilst the return to normality is hard for some (check the Big Chill's online forum for examples of this) and others just carry on with the anarchy and never come back. It's hard not to be fanciful and think of our just recent ancestors revelling in green wood bacchanals each May Eve – the British have always liked their country pursuits. In rural communities, which have been blighted in recent years, the boost to the local economy generated by a weekend with music in the fields is gradually being welcomed again rather than feared.
The Big Chill continues to find newer and more beautiful sites (sights) for its festivals. But the Gala was the first and for that reason, in many people's opinion, it will always be the best. I've been back to camp there and have also seen it from high up on the Dyke path. It's nothing but a green field full of memories. But from it grew a beautiful thing.
Alan James – May 2002
The Black Mountains featured: Tom Middleton and Mark Pritchard (Global Communication), Kirsty Hawkshaw, Matt Black, Springheel Jack, Nightmares On Wax, Mixmaster Morris, Tuu, Paul Thomas, Rockitt, The Gentle Experience, Bunny, Wishmountain, AJ, Goosebumps, Funki Porcini, Rephlex sound system, Daniel Pemberton, Diversity Of Life, Bit Tonic, The Black Bitch, Another Fine Day, Jony Easterby, Dr Jam, ease, DJ minutes 33, N4 Eric, Late Night Bellyvision, Nelson Dilation, Micky Nice, Contrived & Exaggerated, Strictly Kev, Simon Mu, Pete Lawrence, Jon Chillout, Virtual Dawn, The Lost Music of Celtarabia, Higher Intelligence Agency, John Tye, Another Green World, Mamaloucos Circus.
I know of virtually no video footage that exists, other than @matt black's shoot of Jony Easterby's fire and ice sculpting. Below is some footage I took on a very early, shaky camcorder (apologies for quality)