Summer in the City

To mark the 20th anniversary of the Marylebone Summer Festival, Marylebone Village looks back at two decades of fun, food and fundraising.

For most of its 20-year life, it was known as the Marylebone Summer Fayre. It was a name that hinted of an old-style village fete, something a little sleepy and twee, a slow day of cake competitions and giant vegetables and a vicar drawing the tombola. When I first attended in 2005, the second year the event took place, that’s exactly what I expected. What I hadn’t anticipated seeing was what awaited me: an Alton Towers in the car park, a Pyramid Stage in the gardens, dancers and performers on every corner, stalls by the dozen, and tens of thousands of people packing the streets.

In 2018, this much-loved annual event was renamed the Marylebone Summer Festival, a name that comes a little closer to capturing its breadth and ambition. So, how did such a vast jamboree come to exist? And why has The Howard de Walden Estate, a company that isn’t really in the business of putting on events, spent two decades investing large quantities of money and time into organising it? To understand, we need to go back to the early days of Marylebone’s renaissance at the start of the millennium.

In 2004, this corner of London was really starting to blossom, thanks in part to its landlord’s embrace of high-quality independent retailers. La Fromagerie and The Ginger Pig had recently opened on Moxon Street and a farmers’ market had started trading in the Cramer Street car park every Sunday morning. The car park (now home to the Marylebone Square development) had been a blight on the landscape since the 1960s when council bulldozers cleared the land for a school that was never built, but the arrival of those fantastic specialist shops and market traders had led to this unlovely patch of tarmac and the small, pretty street that led into it becoming a haven for food lovers. The team at Howard de Walden, the historic landlord for the eastern half of Marylebone, began pondering whether by hosting an event on a sunny summer Sunday they might draw attention to their budding food quarter’s nascent charms.

The company had in the previous few years started to dip its toe into the waters of public entertainment by hosting a lowkey Christmas lights switch-on ceremony, based around a scissor lift on the high street – a precedent that made the idea of putting on a summer festival seem marginally less preposterous. So, they gave it a go. They would erect a marquee in Paddington Street Gardens for the music, a small fairground and a farmers’ market in the car park, and some tables, chairs and stalls on a pedestrianised Moxon Street. Responsibility for making this happen landed on the shoulders of Steve Bateman, the estate’s then head of retail, and Jenny Hancock, who had come to the business the previous year to fulfil an eccentric and ever-evolving brief that included both architecture and marketing.

Jenny, who would continue running the event for the next 15 years, lived locally, knew the community inside out, adored music and loved festivals – but had zero experience of organising them. In an era less risk averse than today’s, this didn’t seem to matter. “There was no real event plan, certainly nothing like there is now,” she recalls. “We had a meeting with a lady at Westminster council, and with Charlie Barber, who was the local policeman. I remember drawing a freehand sketch of the car park to show where the fairground was going, but that was about it. Maybe I was meant to have done more, but if I was, nobody told me!”

Lots of people in the business were persuaded to muck in. “We made all the banners and flyers. We did the stewarding. A chap called Frank who worked for the estate did the power,” says Jenny. Jon Leake, who still works as a designer at Howard de Walden, remembers abandoning his CAD drawings for less familiar responsibilities: “My colleague Simon Davies and I basically spent an entire day blowing up hundreds of helium balloons by hand, just the two of us. It took us a while to get it right – not blowing them completely to smithereens.” Even the road closures were handled in-house, with Jenny and Steve Batemen arriving at 4am to heave the barriers into place: “We were thinking, what are we doing? How has this happened?”

Entertainment was provided by a motley crew summoned from Jenny’s contact book. “I knew a guy called Terry who had a fairground, so I gave him a call,” she says. “I also knew Tony quite well and had spent time at his club, so we got him to do the music.” The Tony in question was Tony Moore, who’d played keyboards for Iron Maiden and Cutting Crew before founding the legendary Kashmir Klub, a tiny, free-entry music venue located in a Marylebone basement. From there, and later from the Bedford Bandstand in south London, Tony championed many of the young singer-songwriters who came to bestride the British music scene. It was Tony’s proteges – Paolo Nutini being one notable example – whose strumming soundtracked the fayre in those early days. Despite having no solid evidence to back up her claim, Jenny is convinced that the biggest of all the millennial minstrels, Ed Sheeran, played here in that first year (or maybe the second). If true, one of the best-selling musicians of the past 20 years seems to owe it all to the Marylebone Summer Festival.

“Our biggest worry was that nobody was going to come,” says Jenny. But come they did, and a lovely old time was had by all. So, the decision was made to do it all again – and again and again. By the second year, the event had already expanded significantly, taking up a long stretch of the high street, accommodating many more stalls and entertainments and necessitating a far more disruptive set of road closures.

That breathless evolution never stopped. Every year, the scale and ambition ratcheted up another notch, with the festival’s footprint growing street by street. In 2015, an alfresco film night was added on the Saturday, utilising the staging that had been erected in preparation for the Sunday. As Jenny explains: “We’ve set up all the stuff for tomorrow, we’ve got everything here, we’re ready to go. The thinking was, we need to do something with that space at night, for security as much as anything. What can we do?”

But however ambitious the event became it never lost its sense of place. Its streets and stages have hosted the entire tapestry of local life: retailers, restaurants, schools, community groups, dance instructors, fitness clubs, hospitals. “We were absolutely adamant – and I’m glad we were – that if we were going to take over this street, it doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to everyone here,” says Jenny. “If it’s local and you can find room for it, then great – make some room.”

Looking back through old photos, all local life is here. Greek dancers from the Hellenic Centre. Chamber musicians from the Royal Academy of Music. Belly dancers from a local Levantine restaurant. Spin bikes from the Third Space gym. Hat making. T-shirt printing. Head massages. In 2014, Jenny decided that London Zoo should be represented in the mix. “I was thinking, why can’t we have a couple of lions? Maybe build a little pool house of penguins.” After that idea hit a (somewhat predictable) wall, a compromise involved bringing in a petting zoo, featuring alpacas, rabbits, ducks and absolutely no man-eating felines.

Since the start, the festival’s intention has been to give a platform to local culture and commerce while building bonds with the entire community. The principal aim, though, has been to raise money for charity, through bucket collections, competitions and the profits of the festival bar, amounting to tens of thousands each year. The first event raised funds for a children’s cancer charity, the name of which escapes the memory of everyone I’ve spoken to. From 2005, the recipient was Teenage Cancer Trust. From 2012, it was Kids Company, and from 2016 it was COSMIC, which supports intensive care units for children. The three most recent festivals have supported Greenhouse Sports, based just across the Marylebone Road. This year, it’s Young Westminster Foundation.

The fundraising operation has become increasingly large and sophisticated over the years, as has the festival itself. The expression ‘Heath Robinson’ was used by several observers to describe the event’s early days – a reference to the English cartoonist who imagined wildly elaborate gadgets held together with knotted string. Before long, though, aided by the harnessing of external expertise, the team turned their jerry-built contraption into a streamlined apparatus capable of overcoming a vast array of unavoidable complexities. “These sorts of projects are usually in rural areas or big fields – large, open areas where you can take as long as you like to build them,” explains Carl Miller, whose company Event Operations Limited has been responsible for powering the festival since 2010. “Here, we’re in the middle of Marylebone, on one of the busiest streets in London, so getting so much equipment in and out in a very limited time scale has always been a challenge. It takes a lot of planning, but it’s a well-oiled machine now.”

It helps that, being the local landlord, the company responsible for the event have such an acute understanding of the area. “It’s a knowledgeable group of people, insofar as this little geographical plot in London goes,” says Jenny. “If the same team tried to do that event elsewhere, I’m not convinced it would work. You knew where the trees were being planted, you knew that a particular retailer had a particular character, you knew where the scaffoldings were going up, you knew which of those would be a problem and which would be beneficial, you knew if a building was going to be empty and offer storage or power infrastructure.”

As well as overseeing the entire venture, the Howard de Walden workforce is also the source of the dozens of volunteers needed on the day to collect money, provide information and put out fires (mostly metaphorical, occasionally literal). Over the years, it’s become a great bonding experience. “If you talk about ‘office away days’ or team building – this is a great example of that,” says Jenny. “The volunteer meetings have always been great fun. For many people in the business, this is one of the highlights of their year.”

Jon, who for the past 20 years has volunteered at the festival whenever life has allowed, agrees: “You’re doing something that’s not related at all to your job, and that’s half the fun. I spend a lot of time at my desk, so there’s definitely an attraction in getting out and about, seeing lots of people.” Most volunteers are needed for their willingness and their legs (“The step count’s usually about 30,000,” says Jon), but some bring specialist skills. “You have to count up all the charity collections,” says Jenny, “and what better people to have than these top accountants for a big company, doing big, complicated spreadsheets!”

Carl, whose work runs the full gamut of public events, believes that such enthusiasm is a rare and beautiful thing: “From our point of view, it’s one of the most enjoyable events of the year, because it feels like a family running it rather than a corporation. It’s always felt like everyone’s pushing in the same direction. Everyone’s personally invested in putting on the best possible show.”

It’s testament to the rigour of the organising that nothing significant has ever gone wrong – or certainly nothing that could possibly be controlled. “The weather is the biggest challenge,” says Carl. “And that’s both hot and cold.” There was a year when torrential rain turned the park into a bog. There was a year when the sun blazed so hot that workers were dropping with heatstroke. “It was a disaster,” remembers Jenny. “It was great for the charity, because the bar in the gardens was the only shady place, and that was where we took most of the money. But it was a disaster for people working here and it was a disaster for the traders on the street, because it was so hot that no one wanted to eat or shop.”

I try to get Jon to remember a spectacular crisis that might lend a bit of drama to my story, but he comes up short. “We’ve had the odd lost child, the odd missing handbag, a few complaints about smoke from the food stalls, but nothing particularly dramatic,” he says. “We once had somebody on a bicycle with a loudhailer preaching outside the pub saying that drinking on a Sunday is a sin and basically telling us all off for being ungodly.”

Maybe he’s right. Maybe the Marylebone Summer Festival will send us all to damnation. But on the plus side, for 20 years and counting, we’ve all had a very nice time.

Words: Mark Riddaway

Images: Lloyd Sturdy, Nyla Sammons