Five years ago, this website was one of the few places you could go to find updates on a planned music festival due to take place on Blackheath. I even had a chat with the organisers in a nice place in Blackheath Village.
OnBlackheath’s birth was a difficult one, though, not helped by a lack of public information – the first many had heard of it was when Lewisham Council granted it a licence. The venerable Blackheath Society blew an enormous amount of money on fighting that decision through the courts, while Greenwich Council also got its knickers in a twist, with one councillor grumbling that a cuts-ravaged Lewisham was allowing the heath to be hired out for profit. The boundary between the two boroughs runs just a few metres from the festival fence, but these two councils are miles apart in many ways and in truth, neither came out of the saga very well.
The first festival was meant to happen in 2011, then 2012, then 2013… then it finally kicked off in 2014. Updates here have been sparse since (frankly, the line-ups weren’t my bag, so I didn’t bother seeking out a ticket) but now it’s in its third year, and guess what? Greenwich Council is allowing part of its side of the heath to be fired out for profit (In The Night Garden Live doesn’t just pitch up rent-free, y’know).
Was it worth all the fuss? I remember attending a public meeting where residents seemed to be expecting Altamont on the Hare & Billet Road. But what emerged was a “food and music” festival sponsored by that well-known anarchist front, the John Lewis Partnership. It looked like the kind of event for those who eagerly anticipate the Guardian’s Family supplement each Saturday, rather than throwing it in the recycling.
But there was a decent line-up promised, so I thought I’d have a look this year. And what a difference a day makes… it was a lesson in the luck a festival needs to be a real success. Or maybe in how fickle I am.
Day one was enveloped by persistent drizzle that lasted longer than the forecasts predicted.
Under leaden skies, the jollity felt strangely forced when we strolled in at half-past six – the crowd felt a bit too freshly-scrubbed and out of central casting, there seemed to be a bit too much going on in a small space, and Hot Chip droned on like a poor man’s Erasure.
When frontman Alexis Taylor thanked John Lewis for having them there, I started to wonder what all the fuss was about.
Wandering around the deserted food area, sponsored by the aforementioned retail giant, felt eerie – celebrity chefs I’d never heard of stared out at me from huge photos, the “best chips in London” I’d spent £4 on were anything but. I saw the huge queues for the toilets and decided to skip the bar. I was expecting an underwhelming first day line up, and Primal Scream (why are they still going?) didn’t do much to change that perception. We went home and watched the Paralympics instead.
Day two was bathed in bright sunshine. And the line-up was great. So nearly every gripe faded into insignificance. I sauntered in at half-past four, smug after being able to take the bus from my front door to the front gate in 10 minutes.
The biggest problem, though, was the scheduling – the top two stages scheduled against each other rather than alternating. Edwyn Collins or Squeeze? I picked Edwyn Collins and he was great. James or St Etienne? I’ve seen St Etienne a couple of times before, so plumped for James and they were magnificent, right down to frontman Tim Booth’s dad-dancing. They also took the piss out of John Lewis, which scored extra marks in my book.
The awful toilet queues remained, so I avoided the bar again. But watching James while the sun set over south-east London, the whole thing felt like an utter triumph. And right on my doorstep. I can take or leave Belle & Sebastian, but putting the twee Scottish band on last seemed a decent answer to noise worries – they’re hardly Metallica.
Given sunshine and a decent line-up, OnBlackheath flourished. There were a handful of neighbourhood gripes on Twitter, which appeared to be from those looking to perpetuate the old trope – familiar to those of us who endured the anti-Olympics campaigns – about it being illegal to fence off part of Blackheath (it isn’t). The main stage pointed towards Greenwich Park, and there were reports of the festival being audible as far away as the Thames and deep into Charlton, a mile and a half away.
But the people sat out with blankets on Hare & Billet Road as we left on the Sunday night were a reminder that many locals were ready to embrace it. The Hare & Billet pub itself seemed to be doing a roaring trade.
There are certainly ways it could improve – as well as sorting out the toilets, getting a proper pass-out system in place (if a minnow like Leefest can afford proper wristbands, so can they) would allow people to use Blackheath Village and boost more local traders, rather than be stuck inside a relatively small festival site. Some better cycle parking would be appreciated too, considering the number of two-wheeled steeds shackled to nearby lamp posts.
But on balance, OnBlackheath is a good thing, and we’re lucky to have it on our doorsteps. It’s slowly becoming a part of our summer – last year, of the 36,000 attendees, 23% came from Greenwich borough and 14% came from Lewisham. It’s also a family event too – 10% of the tickets went to under-12s. It’s light years away from the fears expressed five years ago. Just pray for a decent line-up – and good weather.