Wickham Festival behind the scenes: ‘People only notice the organisation when it goes wrong’
In Wickham Festival's first year, acts played on a stage on the back of a flat-bed lorry in the car park of the village community centre.
In the 13 years since – with a short break over in Stokes Bay, Gosport – it has become a renowned fixture on the festival calendar, winning national awards, and earlier this year, our own humble Guide Award for Best Festival.
But as organiser Peter Chegwyn reveals, there’s an awful lot going on behind the scenes to make sure things go smoothly on the weekend.
This year’s festival starts this coming Thursday, and runs through until Sunday, August 4, and will feature the likes of Level 42, Frank Turner, Judy Collins, The Proclaimers and many more, including dozens of local acts on the smaller stages.
Peter, who is also a Gosport borough councillor, first got the festival bug when he convinced the council to put on a festival from 1990, which landed acts from BB King to Squeeze, and an early appearance from a very young Take That. That ran for five years, and was then resurrected at Fort Brockhurst, this time with James Brown, Roger Taylor, and very nearly Atomic Kitten (see side panel).
It then spent three years at Eastleigh before moving to Wickham in 2006.
‘Now you look at it, it’s got a 7,000 capacity, and it attracts audiences from all around the world, major acts and it’s doing very well.’
One of those acts from the first year at Wickham are Alabama 3, who are returning this year. But they very nearly didn’t make it the first time around.
‘We got a phone call on the Sunday morning saying there was a slight problem,’ Peter recalls. ‘”Our van has just burnt out on the motorway, north of Penrith in Cumbria, and we might not be able to make it”. And it had, it had caught fire and burnt to a cinder.
‘We found out there is actually a Virgin train, direct, once a day from Penrith down to Winchester. So they salvaged what instruments they could, got the train and came down here and still made the gig. They’ve done Stokes Bay since, but this is the first time since then they’ve been at Wickham.’
As it typically does, planning for this year’s festival would have begun before last year’s even took place.
‘I’m already thinking about 2020 – I’m already getting artists wanting us to book them. I don’t start the booking until autumn, looking at changes to the site we might want to make, and trying to find the time this year while we’re rushing around all over the place – to see if we change this, what effect it might have on that.’
The site’s capacity now is 7,000 people a day and Peter is optimistic that they’re going to sell out three of the four days.
‘It’s become for me a year-long job, but I do it for the love of the music. I’d love to say I’m making lots of money out of this, but I’m not – I underwrite this, I’m not rich and most festivals at this level are funded by well-meaning amateurs who do it for the love of the music. It’s a high-risk business, it genuinely does give me sleepless nights. I spend a large part of every day checking ticket sales, almost on a daily basis.’
Aside from £3,000 from the parish council, they receive no other funding. ‘With all the cuts in funding and the politics involved it’s not even worth applying. We don’t get a penny from Winchester City Council or Hampshire County Council.
‘We’ve only got a few small sponsors and advertisers, and in a way that’s a strength. While we’d like the money, we don’t want corporates and sponsorship slapped all over the site. Once you do that you almost become a corporate pawn and have to do what others tell you
‘This is run by a committee of one – and that’s me. The only person who can tell me what to do, broadly speaking, is me. I’m also a councillor, so I do this to get away from committees.
‘I underwrite it out of my own pocket. If it goes wrong, it could cost me a rather large sum of money.’
And of course the weather plays its part. The festival has experienced both extremes.
‘Last year was almost too hot – we didn’t do so well on the gate, people go to the beach instead. Given the choice of three inches in 12 hours as we had in 2017, or a blazing heatwave as we did last year, give me sun over rain, any day of the week.’
The festival has built up a good relationship with the village and the local community over the years.
‘The businesses love us, for obvious reasons, they make a lot of money over the weekend, and not just the shops and the pubs, but the petrol station and the taxi firms, hotels, B&Bs.
‘And the festival supplies we try to source as much as possible locally. All of our tentage comes from Bishop’s Waltham, our cabins are from Winchester, electrics from Gosport, all our sound and light team come from Southampton – it’s about keeping the money in the area.
‘We only use Hampshire-based breweries for our real ale – Itchen Valley Brewery, Acorn Brewery in Gosport, is involved for the first time’.
There is also the Quay West stage, programmed by Quay West Studios in Gosport, which puts on nearly 100 local acts over the weekend.
It’s hard work, but Peter insists he wouldn’t have it any other way. ‘There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes so that things go smoothly for the acts, they have a nice time and a great show. People only notice the organisation when it goes wrong.
‘It’s double and triple checking things – a lot of it is mundane, but the buzz you get when it all goes right, that makes it worthwhile???????.’
TALES FROM THE RIDER
Whenever acts play a show they will have a list of requests, known as the rider.
While most of these are standard food and drink – probably some booze, or maybe herbal teas for the more health-conscious singers – anyone who's worked in the music business long enough will encounter some odd demands.
Wickham organiser Peter Chegwyn laughs: ‘We’ve had a few unrepeatable ones.’
But he recalls one that stood out: ‘When we booked Atomic Kitten for the old Gosport Festival at Fort Brockhurst, they had three G-strings on their rider. I looked at it and I thought, I’m a respected local councillor, there’s no way I can go into Mark and Sparks and buy them: “Who are they for, councillor?” “Atomic Kitten”. “Of course they are…”
‘A girl who lived down the road from me got them for me – I’ve still got the receipt for them. But they cancelled on the day, they blew us out. They were number one at the time. So I was left with these G-strings – I gave two to (Abba tribute act) The Fabba Girls, and one to Leo Sayer who was seen walking down a hotel corridor with it on his head.
‘We’ve had the ones like asking for all the blue M&Ms taken out, then someone this year wants particular roses on stage.
‘One came in last night asking for an air-conditioned dressing room – sorry, you’ve got a cabin in a field, but we’ll stick a fan in there!
‘Most of the artists are perfectly fine, though. As long as they get a cup of tea and a friendly welcome when they arrive that counts for a lot.’
WHO’S PLAYING THIS YEAR?
American folk star Judy Collins will headline the opening night of this year’s Wickham Festival on Thursday, August 1.
She is joined on the bill by Graham Nash, The Proclaimers, and Show of Hands’ Steve Knightley.
Isle of Wight-based funkateers Level 42 headline Friday, with Dreadzone, Stanley Jordan and the Spooky Men’s Chorale.
On Saturday it’s folk-punk troubadour Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls, with Afro Celt Sound System and Cara Dillon.
Gilbert O’Sullivan will close the festival on Sunday, after The Kiefer Sutherland Band, and Lindisfarne.
Adult weekend tickets are £180, under-16s £90 and under-10s go free with a paying adult. Adult day tickets are £40 for Thursday, £55 each for Friday-Saturday. Go to wickhamfestival.co.uk.