Festival fever grips East Anglia as thousands seek escape from hassles of ‘atomised, digital world’
PUBLISHED: 17:33 30 September 2019 | UPDATED: 17:33 30 September 2019
Jamie Honeywood Archant Norwich Norfolk
The festival culture is on the rise in East Anglia, bringing with it a sense of community and wellbeing – and a shot in the arm for the regional economy, experts say.
Festival organisers are seeing an increase in the number of festivals held, with a bumper 600-plus events staged across Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire in 2019.
These are having a significant impact on East Anglia's bottom line, as well as its culture and wellbeing, according to the East Anglian Festival Network (EAFN), whose members are due to hold their own get-together at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds today (Wednesday, October 2).
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Although there are no up-to-date figures to reflect their full economic impact, across the region in 2014, music festivals alone netted £273m, sustained 1,367 full-time jobs and attracted 194k people, according to a UK Music report.
This year, tens of thousands attended the Out There Festival of international circus, street arts, comedy and music in Great Yarmouth and the Sundown Festival at the Norfolk Showground - and around 85k people attended farming showcase the Royal Norfolk Show.
New festival First Light brought more than 10,000 people to Lowestoft, while the Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival brought tens of thousands of people to the Suffolk coast at the end of September, and more than 90,000 attended the Suffolk Show at Trinity Park.
Meanwhile, a rich mix of theatre, art, comedy, cabaret, poetry, politics and dance at the Latitude festival brought tens of thousand of people to Henham, near Southwold.
University of East Anglia's Professor George McKay - an expert on music festivals and a member of the Film, Television & Media Studies department - pointed out that when festivals reached their first high in the 1960s and 1970s, they were "pretty uncomfortable places" and yet people flocked to them. They should have become a quaint memory, yet almost against the odds, they have survived.
Their continued attraction is partly down to escapism, a yearning to connect with the countryside and to envision a better world, as well as a desire to engage in an intense shared social experience, social experimentation, elements of counter-culture and even our sense of what it is to be English, he believes.
"It takes us away from our atomised, digital world," he said. "A festival is kind of a retreat from the everyday and we go somewhere to get away from the hassles of our daily lives."
It was also a way of engaging with "a pressing issue of our day" - the environment, he said, although ironically, a great deal of mess and destruction can be created by such events.
"Green field" festivals - which take place over more than one day and offer camping - enable festival-goers to lie on the ground at night time - an important part of re-engaging with our rural roots, he said.
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On the minus side, there were festivals which failed, or were hit by bad weather, and the decision to hold one was "a delicate balance". "It should not be entered into lightly," warned Professor McKay, who also tours as a double bass player with East Anglian folk group The Punch House Band in his spare time.
The professor, one of the speakers at the EAFN Show, which is sponsored by Ipswich-based generator hire firm Gofer and Eye-based PAC Wristbands, will be joined by Pete Waters, executive director at Visit East of England, who also believes that festivals' continuing draw is down to people's desire to come together.
The number of festivals in the region is growing, he said, as he predicted that the trend would continue.
"More and more people want experiential travel and to get to know local cultures and local people, and festivals are a great way of doing that. In a world of digital isolation, festivals are also way for people to come together, to share and be communal with like-minded people," he said.
There was also a big economic upside, as guest speaker Phillip Ainsworth, chief executive of Suffolk Show organiser the Suffolk Agricultural Association, pointed out. The Ipswich show alone brings "several millions" to the region, he said.
"As well as a positive economic benefit to the local economy, I believe the show has a very positive social benefit," he added.
Mostly people enjoyed other people's company, he said, but events such as the Suffolk Show play an important role in enabling people to socialise, have fun and learn something.
Lady Caroline Cranbrook, founder of the Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival, which brings an estimated £2m or more to the local economy, said it had been "hugely successful" and very influential in getting other towns and villages to hold their own festivals, which is turn had encouraged more food and drink producers to emerge.
Stephanie Crowe, marketing and communications co-ordinator at the Norfolk Show, said it was worth around £20m to the East of England economy.
EAFN founder and show organiser Mike Wilson said the overall theme for the EAFN show this year was the positive impact that festivals have on the region's economy, culture and wellbeing.
"Our festivals have a significantly positive effect on East Anglia's social and cultural well-being and on our local economy," he added.
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