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.
More by accident than design, this website completely managed to miss the fact that the On Blackheath music festival actually finally happened at the weekend. (The line-up really wasn’t my bag and it ended up clashing with a sublime St Etienne show at the Barbican, as it happened.)
Personally speaking, it was good to see the event finally happen – particularly after years of gripes from Greenwich councillors and the Blackheath Society’s court battle over Lewisham Council’s decision to give it a licence in 2011. Here’s an interview with the organisers from way back then.
It seems to have gone down well with those who went, although there’s been some mickey-taking over the “food and music” concept…
I couldn’t hear much of Frank Turner when crossing the heath at Duke Humphrey Road at 9pm last night (not a bad thing in my book,) but I’ve seen a few noise gripes on Twitter (the Blackheath Society is asking locals to fill in this survey). If you went along, or if you live nearby, I’d love to hear your experiences of the weekend.
(Update 31 May: Lewisham councillor Kevin Bonavia reports the festival has been postponed for a further year.)
It’s been a long wait, but first details of the On Blackheath music festival, due to take place on 7 and 8 September, will be revealed in the next few days. Long-suffering 853 readers will remember the festival was initially due to make its debut in 2011, but was derailed by a costly court battle brought by the Blackheath Society, which aimed to overturn Lewisham Council’s decision to award it a licence.
The ruling upholding Lewisham’s licence came in July 2011, too late for a festival that year, and the heavy demands on Blackheath during the Olympics kiboshed any chance of a festival in 2012.
While it won the court case, Lewisham Council was criticised by magistrates for a lack of transparency in consulting over the event. It failed to formally tell Greenwich Council about the application, which magistrates called “astonishing”. The festival site, at Hare and Billet Road, runs metres from the boundary between the two boroughs, and all six Greenwich councillors for the Greenwich West and Blackheath Westcombe wards formally objected to the event.
But Greenwich may try to fight the festival again. At a council meeting in March, Blackheath Westcombe Tory councillor Geoff Brighty asked environment cabinet member (and Greenwich West councillor) Maureen O’Mara if the council had heard anything from Lewisham about the festival.
Her response: “Both of us lodged a very strong response against this matter, and if anything happens, we will you know – and I’ll see you at Bromley Magistrates Court!”
It’s difficult to know on what grounds Greenwich could object – the magistrates’ decision in 2011 dismissed fears over noise and public order. But with Greenwich boasting of its own festivals down the hill, it’d be sad to see an attempt to stop an event that organisers hope could pump a much-needed £1 million into the local economy.
In fact, it’d be downright hypocritical to claim disruption from On Blackheath when Greenwich Council remains determined to host unloved half-marathon Run To The Beat a few hundred metres away on the same weekend, a date pencilled in by On Blackheath for 15 months, an event which is likely to cause many more problems.
Sadly, there’ll be no Greenwich Summer Sessions to run alongside On Blackheath this year – just as the Greenwich Festivals lost the comedy festival, the music festival was also kicked out by the Old Royal Naval College, and has been brushed under the carpet by the council which once funded it.
But its organisers determined to stay in SE10, and are putting on Deptford boy Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel at the Borough Hall on Royal Hill on 19 July – it’s good to see a criminally under-used venue put to good use, and hopefully GSS will be back next year.
Finally, anything about festivals in SE London would be a incomplete without mentioning Leefest, at Highams Hill Farm near Biggin Hill, about as far away from Greenwich as you can get while still staying (technically) in the capital. I went in 2011 and it was a fantastic day out – now it’s ballooned to three days (12-14 July) and has raised £50,000 from fans to fund its future expansion. Tickets are still available, and it’s well worth the trip.
Will On Blackheath build up such a dedicated following? We’ll have to wait and see…
Yeah, yeah, last with the news, but here it is from the horse’s mouth.
Sad news, but it can’t just be the demands on Blackheath this Olympic year – it’s already going to be a packed summer for events in London (the Blur/ Specials / New Order closing ceremony gig looks something very special) and it’d be hard to get a decent profile for the festival.
But come 2013, and the post-Olympics malaise… and it could shine. Hope to see you next year, chaps.
A bit late with this, but the organisers of next year’s On Blackheath festival are planning to hold the event on 22 and 23 September, a little later than the weekend they’d usually aim to hold it on. It’s all down to the Olympics and Paralympics, with the police planning to use the Territorial Army building at Hollyhedge House as a base, and On Blackheath wanting to use it too.
An application has gone into Lewisham Council, which needs to approve the date change, with responses due in tomorrow. Lewisham’s certainly learned a lesson from being criticised in the court case surrounding the festival’s licence – with the site of the event covered in notices for what’s only a minor change. Even the side of Shooters Hill Road without a pavement is festooned with notices.
While on the heath, what’s with the fence surrounding the bank holiday funfair? Apparently there was one there for May’s fair (I was away then) as well, which dispels my notion that it’s some kind of post-riot measure. But it doesn’t look particularly welcoming with a steel fence around it…
Plans for a two-day music festival on Blackheath have been upheld by magistrates, who threw out an appeal against it being granted a licence.
Bromley magistrates dismissed the appeal brought by the Blackheath Society against Lewisham Council, which granted a 10-year licence to Nimby Events Ltd last year.
The society now faces an £80,000 legal bill following the seven day hearing, the longest appeal ever heard under current licensing laws.
This year’s festival, due to attract 50,000 people over two days, was abandoned because of the lengthy court case, but organisers are now planning to hold the first On Blackheath festival in September 2012.
Despite the rejection of the appeal, Lewisham Council came in for criticism in the magistrates’ ruling. They said there was “little evidence” the council conducted its consultation into the festival licence in an “open and transparent manner”.
Lewisham approved the event at a licensing sub-committee meeting in October – but a large number of local people in both Lewisham and Greenwich boroughs were “totally unaware” of the application, they said.
The festival is due to be held on the western side of the heath, between the Territorial Army base at Holly Hedge House and Shooters Hill Road, on the boundary of the two boroughs.
Furthermore, the magistrates branded Lewisham’s failure to formally notify Greenwich Council of the application “astonishing”. Festival organisers had informed Greenwich of their plans – but officers at the neighbouring authority, whose boundary runs just metres away from the festival site, were left waiting in vain for Lewisham to inform them when a full application was made.
While it had complied with the Licensing Act 2003, magistrates Roger Mills and Dr Patrick Davies said “Lewisham, through its licensing sub-committee, as not acted in an appropriate manner and has not had the interests of some of its residents at heart”.
But concerns about public order and noise at the event were dismissed by the magistrates, who noted the “days when events would have banks of speakers on a stage facing the audience” were gone, and were confident sound control firm Vanguardia would be able to mitigate any problems with noise.
Counsel for Nimby Events had asked the magistrates to award the full £140,000 costs of the hearing to the Blackheath Society, but the magistrates declined, saying the appeal had been “properly brought and Parliament had intended residents to have a say in the licensing process”.
It was revealed in the hearing that the society, which has a membership of 980 families, has assets of around £400,000, partly tied up in local property. Nimby Events’ Tom Wates, Terry Felgate and Alex Wicks were described in court by their counsel Simon Taylor as “local family men” who were funding their legal costs from their own pockets – they will be liable for most of the remainder of the costs.
Speaking before the costs ruling, Nimby’s Alex Wicks said he and his fellow organisers were “pleased” the festival could go ahead.
“We’re looking forward to working with the whole community, including the Blackheath Society and the Blackheath Joint Working Party. We very much want this to be a community event.”
He added that they were looking to hold concerts at Blackheath Halls during the winter as a build-up to the festival. “The halls need all the help they can get, and hopefully we can get it sold out for three nights.”
Blackheath Society chairman Howard Shields said that Lewisham’s decision to revise its policy on holding events on the heath showed the appeal had not been completely in vain.
“Our grouse all along has been with the way Lewisham has handled it,” he said.
“We have never said there should never be anything on Blackheath. But if we’re going into an era of having big commercial events on Blackheath, then there should be proper scrutiny.”
The decision to begin the appeal was taken by its management committee after an overwhelming response against the festival on its e-mail list, he added.
Asked about those who backed the event, Mr Shields said: “Nobody has written to us asking, why did you do this?”
However, he conceded there was a feeling the society had lost touch with younger people, and needed to “broaden our communication abilities” in future. (A full statement is on the Blackheath Bugle.)
Festival organisers will now be looking to find a suitable date for On Blackheath, with the Paralympic Games equestrian events taking place in Greenwich Park during early September 2012. Earlier this year, Tom Wates told this website the event could bring up to £1m of custom for local firms.
If you’ve followed the row over the On Blackheath music festival, you’ll recall that Lewisham Council is now planning a new policy on what it does with its parks. That includes its portion of Blackheath, where the festival was due to take place, as well as other open spaces like Hilly Fields, Beckenham Place Park, Ladywell Fields and Manor House Gardens.
If you’ve a strong view on what happens on the heath, or any other Lewisham open space, then the consultation is here – it only takes a couple of minutes, and there’s nothing stopping you if you’re on the wrong side of the border. (Indeed, you can even suggest Blackheath as a good place for fireworks.)
Be quick, though – it closes tomorrow (Friday).
As for On Blackheath, that battle returns to Bromley Magistrates Court on 29 June.