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Tuesday, 23 December 2014

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Festival set to put town on international tourism map

IF any one thing symbolises the variety of entertainment on offer on Britain’s Energy Coast then it must be Whitehaven Festival. On land, sea and in the air it is the perfect fit.

The festival was the brainchild of local entrepreneur and Whitehaven’s independent wine merchant Gerard Richardson – a vintage idea if there ever was one.

Has it really put Whitehaven on the international tourism map?

“Of course it has,” says Gerard.

“People from all over the country – all around the world – have heard of Whitehaven Festival. What’s more, we see a lot of them here. That’s the proof. If you look at our statistics then 30 per cent of the interest and inquiries are from outside Cumbria. A huge percentage when you consider that for a lot of people it’s essentially a local event, which of course it is, but with international dimensions. It gives enjoyment to an awful lot of people and a real feelgood factor.”

Must be like living the dream?

“Absolutely but at other times it’s living torture. To be honest I am extremely proud to have dreamt it up and to drive forward something that has had such an impact on the area. We’ve have had a lot of lovely comments such as if the festival hadn’t happened some of the town’s developments wouldn’t have either because the money wouldn’t have been there.

“It’s been such a magnet for a lot of good things. Uplifting for everyone including businesses alike, also being used unlock funding because of the tens of thousands of people we attract. This has to be good for the whole of West Cumbria – magic.”

How did it all start?

“Just a mad sort of idea. I was impressed by the work of Terry Ponting and his Whitehaven Development Company team – I thought we could follow up with something special telling people outside Copeland about our lovely harbour. “Terry and his team put in place these wonderful visions of transforming the port but it would be left to others to tell everybody about it. I took it to a few friends and we developed from there.”

Can’t be cheap to put on?

“Definitely not. We travel light, though, nobody gets paid. It’s is run entirely by volunteers on the Whitehaven Festival Committee. Everybody gives up their own time and puts in a terrific amount of effort in a professional way. We fund this extravaganza by whatever means we can. Part of the reason we’ve had to go down the line of ticketing options on the quayside and concerts is that there isn’t enough public money available.

“It’s true we do have some valuable sponsorship, the lions share of which comes from the nuclear industry, but this pays for only one quarter of the event. The actual cost of this year’s festival is around £415,000. The sponsorship we have in at the moment, largely from Sellafield and local authority, is £125,000. Without the nuclear funding we couldn’t go ahead, we need this money to kick start things.

“On the other hand the benefit for the nuclear industry is that we multiply their money three to one. I doubt whether there’s any other organisation, regeneration body or whatever in the UK who can repeat that, so this festival effectively pays for itself.

“Since 1999 Whitehaven’s hosted seven major festivals, two stadium pop gigs, one classical concert, 31 tall ship visits, four fireworks displays independent of festivals and seven continental markets plus two Royal visits including one from Her Majesty The Queen.”

Any danger of it becoming a victim of its own success?

“Yes – in June 2007 we were rated the biggest event taking place in the country during that month, we were up against Glastonbury, for one. Ironically, however, this was the critical point. Because of finance, and trying to get harbourside space, and infrastructure, we felt we couldn’t carry on – 2007 was literally our finest hour, we were set for closing down but then came a blessing all the way from Buckingham Palace.

“There was a rather secret and mysterious visit by the Lord Lieutenant; it was to tell us Her Majesty the Queen had agreed to come to Whitehaven.

“This changed everything, it snapped us back into gear. We organised a mini event, with an air show, a bit of street theatre for the Royal visit, also Status Quo to perform on the RL ground a few months later – what a sensational coup that was in itself.

“It completely reinvigorated the whole thing: to more or less start again within the confines of what we could afford, not really the Maritime Festival of old. There had to be some subtle changes such as charging on the Sugar Tongue to help pay the way.

“You could say we returned from the near dead by public demand – when we were wrapping up it was like meltdown, falling just short of questions being asked in the House of Commons.

“An awful lot of concern was raised but we’d made our decision to close. It had taken up nine years of most of our lives. For myself it had become all consuming – still is.

“We were driven on by success at the end of the day, as long as it was successful we will continue. And whichever way you look at it this festival is a vital cog in Copeland’s economy. After last year’s there was a fantastic comment from the manager of Millets (outdoor clothing shop) that in the two days of the festival he took more takings than the fortnight up to Christmas. Astonishing.

“All the surveys show that the average spend during the Festival is just short of £30 per person which would mean £35 million put into the local economy. Phenomenal. Tourist Board figures put it at around £15 a head and over £20 million – we are not arguing, it’s still fantastic.

“It might look different for different shops, businesses, but back track over a decade, try and take away £35 million you would have a radically different, worse off town.

Last year when we effectively re-launched from scratch with a new-type festival, food, everything else and a new title, because we could no longer do 300,000 people on the harbourside due to lack of space through re-developments, and all of a sudden we had an influx of 140,000 folk of all ages.

“A phenomenal response, we’re expecting the same if not more this year.

“When we first talked to Copeland Council, Sellafield and the Harbour Commissioners about starting off all those years ago, it was all about helping diversify the local economy. We are absolutely proud that they have supported us to do something that is incredibly vital to West Cumbria’s economy – we hope they feel proud as punch as well. Sellafield could quite easily be content with operating inside the nuclear fence and not bother about what’s going on outside – but they do worry and it’s helped us create this wonderful event for the community. You have to take your hat off to all our partners. Everyone from the local shops to the street theatre artists, fairgrounds and to the kids who have enjoyed the festivals growing up. It’s become part of the local psyche.

“We purposely wanted to do something that had never really been done before. The International Festival of the Sea was never as diverse as this, and over the last few years our celebrity element has worked an absolute treat bringing a new dimension of top class entertainment to Whitehaven.

“I think Whitehaven deserves to be put on the same level playing field as London, Manchester or Newcastle – if they have it we should have it. Look at Jean Christophe Novelli, the famous chef who absolutely adores the place and has become an ambassador for Whitehaven.

“Quite astonishing they’ve all taken the town to heart. I feel sure that superstar Katherine Jenkins and Status Quo (welcome back) will do the same in June 25 to 27. Having the American Navy sailing into the old harbour has been a best bonus and cement our historic connections with the United States.

“This is a town steeped in history and I think local people embrace it more now than they did 10 years ago but we need to it even more to celebrate and remember our heritage, not just the American connection.

“This year there will be tall ships and the Red Arrows, plus the Battle of Britain Display team, an Armed Forces military village featuring The Jackal vehicle, parachute and jet ski displays; something for everybody including demonstrations by celebrity chefs once again. There will be 72 Made In Cumbria stalls and a giant Continental Market.

“Taking aside all the big names, if you’re talking about the biggest crowd puller I think you’ve still got to look at the two old favourites: two nights of outstanding fireworks while the Red Arrows quite simply are the biggest draw we’ve ever had.

“First time we had them they increased the crowd figures by over 40,000.

“If we did nothing else but the Red Arrows we’d have a huge, huge audience, they will finish the show thus year, it really is the icing on the cake but it’s a special event all round.

One word to describe it all?

No, two – “Magically memorable.”

“The reality is I’m a wine merchant, ex-Sellafield fireman, ex-Royal Navy fitter, and I find myself sitting here in the back of a little shop on Lowther Street with a mobile phone contact list to die for. It’s quite flattering to take phone calls and texts from top people and to have the attention of some of the best agents in the business when it comes to the music industry.

“One of the most memorable things hasn’t happened to the town yet: I took an email from the agent for Chicago, one of the biggest hands of all time. Chicago have never done a European tour but after 40-odd years at the top they’re looking at doing their first. Guess what, having heard so much about litle old Whitehaven, they want to kick it off here. Staggering, it really is.

“We’ve started something that in some way we just have to continue. There is an incredible beauty about something which couldn’t be done without volunteers.

“Ours is the most popular event in the entire county, also one of the top 10 in the entire country. Hail rain or shine, no matter what happens the show must go on. Only a few days before last year’s festival my dad died, but the show went on thanks to everyone involved.

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