A fine day in Caerleon remembering the Basque children and the kindness shown to them in a small Welsh town, 10th July 2017

This year is the 80th anniversary of the evacuation of 4,000 Basque children from Bilbao to Southampton. It is also the 80th anniversary of many of the battles that the British Battalion of the International Brigades fought in during the Spanish Civil War. Quite rightly, therefore, there are many commemorative events occurring this year and Na-Mara has been honoured to be invited to participate and perform in a number of them.

On the 10th July, we were asked to participate in a day commemorating the arrival of 56 Basque children (or “niños”) in the small southern Welsh town of Caerleon. To commemorate this act of longstanding generosity, the organisers of the Caerleon Arts Festival designed a day’s programme of lectures, films, town walks and panel discussions to remember the welcome given to the young child refugees in the town eighty years before.

The event took place in the grounds of The Priory Hotel on the town’s High Street in a marquee laid out with an informative exhibition telling the story of the Basque Children. Authors Hywel Davies (Fleeing Franco – How Wales gave shelter to refugee children from the Basque Country during the Spanish Civil War) and Gail Giles (From Bilbao to Caerleon: The Basque Child Refugees of 1937) were joined by Carmen Kilner, the Secretary of the Basque Children of ’37 Association to make up a very impressive expert panel to discuss the Basque children and their experiences in Wales. This was complemented in the afternoon by a film made by Welsh TV journalist and rugby international, Eddie Butler called ‘Wales and the Basque Refugees: The Children’s Stories’ and a town walk to see the places where the Basque children stayed when they were in the town. To end the formal proceedings of the day, there was a panel discussion with local members of the Welsh Assembly, local councillors and others about what was happening today in Wales with respect to child refugees.

After passing through the daily nightmare that is the M25, we finally broke free onto the M4 and managed to arrive in Caerleon at around 3.00pm. As the formal town walk was in progress at the time and the event marquee thus empty, we took the opportunity to unpack the p.a. and instruments from the car and get everything laid out in readiness for the evening’s show. We then took the chance to have a look around the town ourselves – and what a fine and beautiful town it is! This was the first time in Caerleon for both of us and we were keen to see where the Basque children had stayed and to see the town’s renowned historic Roman sites.

As it was adjacent to The Priory, we headed first for the Roman amphitheatre and barracks. Caerleon was a major legionary fortress and had the facilities to match. The large amphitheatre is very impressive in scale and the ruins of the barracks readily convey the importance of this settlement in Roman times. Like millions before us, we marvelled at the extent of Roman engineering prowess. This said, we might give the practices of the soldiers’ latrines, as described on a poster by the town barracks a bit of a swerve – stick, sponge, vinegar. Ask no more.

We then strolled through the town to see Pendragon House, now a B&B in Cross Street, and the plaque to the Basque children above its front door before wandering back to The Priory to put the finishing touches to our sound check for the evening’s concert.

Once we were content with the set up, we had a quick bite to eat in The Priory. The restaurant is owned and operated by a family of Spanish heritage and the food looked excellent. Sadly, 45 minutes before going on stage is not the time for a major meal so we settled for a few light tapas from the starter menu - but each dish was excellent.

Once replete, we headed back across the lawns of The Priory for last minute preparations for the concert. We had a final check of the p.a. and, as we checked tunings, a sizeable audience began to assemble and by the start time of 8.30pm for the concert, the marquee was pretty much full.

We performed a first set of our and others’ Spanish Civil War and Basque children songs and it was clear from comments at the interval that they had served as a moving end to an emotional day. In our second set we showcased the range of other music we play and very pleasingly the audience clapped and sang along with our tunes and songs.

To conclude on the story of the niños, as the evening drew to a close we performed our song The Silver Duro. This song tells the story of the eventual reunions with their families of some of the more fortunate Basque children and it seemed to provide the day with some small element of closure.

Both the animated nature of the audience as they chatted after the show and the kind words said to us as we chatted with audience members confirmed the evening to have been a success and Rob and I we couldn’t have been more satisfied with how the evening had gone.

Then, as all working musicians know, we moved into that final and grimmest phase of the evening, namely, the taking down and packing up of the p.a. gear before the drive home. IT was a great relief then that helpful members of the Arts Festival team were on hand to aid us significantly in packing up and getting on the road pretty speedily and, albeit we saw the wrath of Irrita, the goddess of motorway disruption, in multiple sets of roadworks on the M4, nearly all of them were on the other carriageway. So, it isn’t clear whether many people made it to Wales that night but we made it back to St Albans in decent time –certainly faster than a Roman could have got from Isca to Verulamium two thousand years ago. Let’s hope it is the same when we return from our upcoming gig at the mighty Llantrisant Folk Club on 12th July.

Thanks to Chris Thomas and all of the team at the Caerleon Arts festival for the invitation to perform in an important event to tell the story of the Basque children. Thanks also to Carmen and John Kilner for their ongoing support and encouragement in telling the story.

Finally, we would like to thank Frank Hennessy of BBC Wales who summarised the story of the Basque children in Caerleon, and featured the event at the Arts festival and our song Only For Three Months on his Celtic heartbeat programme on Sunday 25th June 2017. For anyone interested in hearing it, it can be found between 32 and 42 minutes into his (excellent programme) by visiting this link http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08vl704