Hitchin festival of talent
PUBLISHED: 12:37 16 June 2015 | UPDATED: 12:37 16 June 2015
From its early days as a weekend event, Hitchin Festival now takes place over four weeks, attracting tens of thousands of people to the town. Sandra Deeble meets some of the key figures involved in putting on this celebration of all the talents, which kicks off this month with the jewel in its crown
The British summer has become the season for boutique festivals, with more music, arts, crafts, food and niche-interest events than you can shake a sunflower at.
In Hitchin, the Rhythms of the World music, arts and food extravaganza takes place this month on the longest day of the year on Saturday June 20 and Father’s Day the day after. This party atmosphere will set the stage for the Hitchin Festival that starts on the following Monday with Much Ado About Nothing at the Queen Mother Theatre and then takes in dozens of events over the following four weeks.
‘It’s like a mini-Edinburgh,’ says Keith Hoskins, Hitchin town centre manager, when we speak about the festival on the day before he is to go to Windsor Castle to be presented with an MBE by the Queen for his services to the community of Hitchin.
‘The Hitchin Festival has grown over the years,’ he explains. ‘In its early days it was a weekend. Now it’s a whole month of events. We have the Art Trail, where the whole town centre becomes a gallery. There’s the Anthony Slinn art lecture, which always sells out; and so many musical, food, arts and walking events.’
Hoskins says he is particularly looking forward to the Priory Picnic in the grounds of the historic Priory in the centre of town – the same venue as Rhythms of the World. It’s on Sunday July 5 with a big firework display and music from the North Herts Music School.
And, as Hoskins points out, 25 per cent of the festival is free, including several lunch time concerts being held in St Mary’s, Hertfordshire’s biggest church. ‘The whole thing creates a wonderful atmosphere in the town, because there’s always so much going on,’ he adds.
There will be a diverse array of artwork at Hitchin Priory for the Rhythms of the World Festival or ‘Rhythms’ as everyone call it. ‘We’ve decided to concentrate on the arts side of things this year,’ explains Amy Hopkins, long-time volunteer organiser of the festival and now chair of trustees. ‘We’ve got an art site and we’ve been doing a lot of community outreach work with schools and day care centres.’
The atmosphere of Rhythms is very relaxed, she says. ‘At the Priory, you’ve got the rolling green hills and fields. There’s a real family vibe.’
Rhythms of the World started life in 1992 as a gig organised by Oxfam at the 500-capacity Hitchin Town Hall. This year, the organisers, all of whom are volunteers, are expecting 30,000 visitors. After expanding into the pubs, venues and squares of the town, continuing its ethos of celebrating both world music and giving a platform to local artists, the festival moved to its current 19-acre site, with six stages, in 2008. It continues to attract big-name artists from the UK and around the world, as well as having a habit for booking artists that are about to break out in a big way.
It’s an event that wouldn’t exist without the time people give for free. ‘Over the course of the weekend we have 800 volunteers,’ says Hopkins. ‘And there is a team of 100 people who volunteer year round. The volunteers are priceless and there are still opportunities for people who want to get involved for the weekend.’
Support from local businesses, trades-people, pubs and clubs is key, she adds. Working on the festival by day, by night she cooks at the Half Moon pub, a stone’s throw from the Priory and a haven for lovers of real ale.
Artists for the festival are being booked by a team of people, one of whom is Donna Mackay, head of performance and new to the volunteering team but no stranger to the event.
‘In 2003 I played on the main stage at Rhythms,’ says Mackay, a singer-songwriter and guitarist in her own right.
‘It’s been a jump right in at the deep end,’ she says, about booking artists. ‘I can’t believe the amount of work! It’s not just having chats and cups of tea. It’s huge!
Referring to the team of volunteers, she continues, ‘I had no idea how hard people worked. ‘We have the performance team, the legal team, the guys who do the rigging... it just goes on.’
Rather than being put off by the amount of time she’s giving to the event, she says she’s now hooked and will probably be involved for life. ‘People do it for the love of the festival,’ she says. ‘Hitchin has always been about music. We have 60 artists each day and 125 acts over the weekend. We’re a registered charity and the tickets are only £15 per day.’
Until the move to the Priory, the festival was a free event and according to Mackay there are still people who say it was better when it was free. But she points out, ‘It hasn’t been free for seven years now and we were offering early-bird tickets for £12 per day. And for that you can see 60 artists perform each day!’
Mackay’s enthusiasm for the festival is contagious. ‘Just talking about Ghost Town gives me goose pimples!’ she grins, as she describes the moment she booked Neville Staple, the Specials’ former frontman, for the festival.
‘And we’ve also got the Brand New Heavies. There are loads of brilliant DJs and Paul Young’s Los Pacaminos. And (Indian contemporary folk star) Raghu Dixit is coming back.’
For anyone who has never been to Rhythms, could she sum up what it’s about? ‘This festival is completely unique. There’s a lot of world music and also many local artists. It’s music from around the world and around the corner. There’s a definite love vibe for Rhythms.’