Meet the man behind the Peninsula Festival
Frank Dekker walks along the riverside path, and gestures towards Canary Wharf. He’s sketching out a scheme for his planned beach on the Greenwich Peninsula. Why not get a sponsor to fund a water flume on the beach?
“It’s limited only by our imaginations and what we can make happen commercially. The cost of a water flume and splash pool at the end of it is about £200,000,” he explains. If a sponsor got naming rights, and free entry for its customers – “job done”.
“You’ll be sitting up there in your Citibank tower and there’s this blue thing – the water flume splash pool – and…” There’s laughter as we picture frustrated bankers distracted by the sight of toned, frolicking bodies across the Thames.
“We’re limited by our own imagination.”
Frank Dekker laughs a lot. We’re wandering around the peninsula on an unseasonably warm day, and he’s chuckling at children playing in the fountains in Peninsula Square.
The Peninsula Festival aims to give those children – and adults – something bigger to do, by making use of undeveloped land on the peninsula in 2012 and in the years after. But plans to launch the beach have hit a hitch, with concerns over the stability of the land at Delta Wharf – river defences were damaged when the warehouses were demolished – meaning the site won’t be ready this summer. But beach fans may still get their chance nearby.
“We’re trying to do the beach on another location on the peninsula for a shorter period of time, to test all the systems and communications so when we go live in 2012, we have proven systems so everything works.
“We can showcase what it’s about – and people from Greenwich Millennium Village can have a look at it.”
The whole idea for the festival, Frank explains, came out of a plan to provide somewhere for Dutch fans to stay during the Olympics. He is working alongside Arjen Korpel, whose Oranje Camping firm specialises in building campsites.
“We needed a council that was forward thinking, that had spare space, and was close to London. We’d done the tour of various places, a couple north of the river, but none of the other councils are as forward thinking. They can see the vision. What we have been able to do is harness that vision into something that is becoming a reality.”
The festival has been a year in the making – but has been kept deliberately low key.
“Until we knew there was a good chance of pulling it off, we were just crazy guys with crazy ideas,” Frank says. “And there’s plenty of those walking around London. If you hear some of the things people were planning for the Olympics two years ago, even a year go, you’d just go – lunatics. And we were in the same basket. It wasn’t until we’d figured out a lot of this suff, and got through some of the initial hurdles, that we progressed from crazy idea to planned reality, and I have to stress that until we have our licences, it is still a planned reality.”
Frank’s company is letting space from Greenwich Council in its Mitre Passage offices alongside the Dome. He insist there are no favours from the council, and he is paying a commercial rent.
“The council have been very clear from the start – ‘we haven’t got money for this kind of thing’.
“We have accepted that, and said if you haven’t got money, help us in whichever way you can, with guidance through the licensing process, dealing with certain communities, what are the points we need to address, and they’ve been quite good – particularly the licensing dept, very professional and helpful.
“And when tapping into wider London authorities, through TfL and the mayor’s office, [council leader] Chris Roberts and [chief executive] Mary Ney carry more clout than Frank Dekker does. For the time being,” he chuckles.
“Sometimes we get a slap on the wrist for being too cheeky, but they’re more supportive than anywhere else.”
As well as the beach, 2012’s festival will include a stage area (now planned for the area of empty land opposite Millennium Primary School), tall ships sailing up and down the Thames, a marina at Greenwich Yacht Club, and the germ of Frank’s original idea, the campsite, now to be located in another patch of empty land, between the Millennium Village and Peartree Way.
Wouldn’t the campsite be disturbed by noise from the aggregates yard close by?
“It’s a residential space,” Frank explains. “People who come to London for three or four days aren’t going to sit in front of their tent on the peninsula for more than a couple of hours.
“They’ll come to London at the most exciting time – and London is the most exciting city at the best of times – so we don’t expect them to sit in front of their tents and go ‘oooh, it’s a bit noisy here’. That’s where they sleep, and then the works won’t be operating, and the rest of the time we want them to go to Olympic things, tourist things, spend lots of money, and then they come back to the campsite, go to sleep and then do the whole thing again the next day.”
He admits that “campsite” doesn’t quite sum up what’s on offer, though.
“It’s not a travellers’ site, it’s a prebuilt village of high quality tented structures. We really need to figure out a new name for the campsite. The ‘glampsite’? The peninsula village? So if you guys have got some good ideas, we’d love to hear them. “
What would residents from the Millennium Village think of a ‘glampsite’ on their doorstep, though?
“We’re selling some pretty expensive campsite spaces. We’re not going to be making an awful lot of noise at sleep time, because we want people to do what they’ve come for – which is to sleep. Closer to here [the top of the peninsula] you want to party – but at other times, the campsite is a residential village for two and a half weeks.
“I’m pleased the residents’ association and management company are supportive. Everyone has the right to an opinion in the licensing process, and we’ve committed to litter patrols, stewarding, and it’ll be fenced.”
The licensing process is one of a number of complicated aspects Frank and his team are dealing with – another is transport, with Peninsula Festival events having to dovetail with the Olympic timetable. But with a background in retail consultancy, isn’t he a bit inexperienced to be doing all this?
“We haven’t done this before – but Oranje Camping has done this many times before. They take fields, turn them into campsites, then back into fields again. We don’t need to know how to build a campsite, we know people who do. We don’t need to know how to organise tall ships, because we know people who do.
All of which leaves Frank to concentrate on the ideas. The beach remains a long-term project – the land won’t be developed for at least five years, giving him time to establish what he hopes will be a major London attraction. “You come here only because you know it’s here. Like the O2, we have to generate traffic, to get people coming to the beach.
“So whether it’s a comedy night, or a live poker night, or beach volleyball, or what ever it maybe – something that drives excitement. Once it’s established itself in year two and year three, hopefully, it’ll be ‘London’s got a beach, wow!'”
While the riverside path will separate the beach from the dangerous tides of the Thames, Frank hopes having people around will mean the path is looked after and the area becomes safer – as we talk, we spot where cable thieves have taken away some of the railings.
“We need to protect this space. If you pedestrianise a high street, crime goes up because there’s no traffic there. There’s an argument for keeping the beach open for longer, to generate traffic.
“When you look down from the 10th floor, you think ‘is that all?’ but it’s a big piece of land. It’s 10,000 square metres. I couldn’t even kick a ball from one end to the other. You can bring a football, frisbees – we’ll have a beach bar, some spaces where you can sit down, and particularly in weather like this, a cold beer or an ice cream or a milkshake – but we’re really looking at getting a couple of attractions to come to the beach and drive traffic in its own right.”
Which takes us back to the water flume, and giving Canary Wharf bankers even more to look at.
“We’ve already been in contact with the UK beach volleyball team to ask what specification a court needs to be. There’s a beach volleyball tour which goes around the world where you can get semi-pros and pros dong exhibition matches.
Frank laughs, as if another idea has come into his head. “Imagine the Brazilian women’s beach volleyball team here! That’ll drive traffic!”
How much of Frank Dekker’s imagination comes to reality next year remains to be seen – there’s still plenty of hurdles to cross. But summer 2012 in Greenwich could be very interesting if he gets his way.