History

A history of East Finchley Festival by David Smith.

Many history articles, including those on Barnet Council’s website, state that the first East Finchley Festival took place in June 1974. However, in researching the festival’s history, Roger Chapman, Chair of Friends of Cherry Tree Wood, discovered that the first festival in fact took place in 1972! But we like a celebration, so rather than wait until the festival’s 60th anniversary, we decided to go ahead and celebrate the festival’s 50th anyway, albeit slightly belatedly.

In the beginning

East Finchley Residents Association was formed in the early 1970s to deal with the ever-growing traffic problems in Church Lane. They met in East Finchley Library until the council gave them their own base in Church Lane (which later became the Neighbourhood Centre). With begged and borrowed furniture and an old rotary printing machine they began to print the EFNA newsletter, seen as the forerunner to The Archer, and then came bigger ideas…

On 23 June 1972 the first East Finchley Community Festival began with residents parading a whole roast sheep down the road to Cherry Tree Wood.

Bill Markham remembers: “We’d set up a workshop in an empty store belonging to Ron Bowers from the carpet shop. We made a kind of glorified drum from a barrel, and paraded the sheep down the High Road, with a police escort for the procession. We must have bought up all the bread and rolls and ice-cream in East Finchley and Muswell Hill. We had good support from the shops. One shop would always give us a jar of sweets for the raffle.”

East Finchley Festival 1972. Photo courtesy Nicola Cousins

Local resident Mary told us: “I was a volunteer in a makeshift crew for the first East Finchley Community Festival held in Cherry Tree Wood. My memories start with deliveries of timber for stalls and stages, Portaloos, platforms etc. being unloaded there during Friday before opening day. That evening, committee members and their hardy adolescent children slept in sleeping bags on site to ward off marauders. On Saturday at crack of dawn the layout of stalls, stages and catering venues began. My job was to prepare food for the masses. This involved displaying mostly home-made contributions of mouth-watering cakes, tarts, pastries plus oodles of filled pitta bread and various sandwiches. All were pounced on and enjoyed, so we soon sold out. Then only a few local businesses provided any refreshments so our takings plus those of the beer tent were bolstering the Festival accounts. As I lived, and still do, near the Wood, during the afternoon the treasurer with a couple of ‘minders’ would call in to deposit instalments of cash on the dining room table to be counted and collected later.”

The Boys Brigade lead the parade in 1974

Political ban

The festival continued through to the late 1970s then, after a gap of a few years, re-started in 1984. The committee was a non-party political group of volunteers, who invited local charities and community groups to take stalls on a self-financing basis, in order to raise funds for the festival. Entertainments included fairground equipment, amplified music and refreshments. In 1986, Barnet Council gave financial assistance to the festival. However in 1987 they withdrew this assistance and, later that year, when the festival organisers made an application for the 1988 festival, the Council declined their application on the grounds that the festival was “promoting political activity” and insisted that “no political activity whatsoever” was to take place. It transpired that the problem was that the Labour party had been allowed to hire a stall, yet, despite the festival team’s assurances that no political organisation would be allowed to hire a stall in the future, Barnet Council stood firm and banned the festival from taking place.

The Wilmot Centre’s sponsored car push in 1988

East Finchley Neighbourhood Association did not give in so easily. Having already taken on battles over the building of the North Circular flyover and selling of The Phoenix Cinema to the Granada Group, they were ready for a fight and so in 1989, committee members Gill Johnson and Sandra Jacobs applied for a judicial review of the Council’s decision to ban the festival, and took the matter to The Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal in July 1990 ruled in favour of the festival and held that the Council had exceeded its powers by refusing to give the festival grant aid and permission to stage its event on council-owned open space… and in 1991 the festival was re-instated.

Baa staff

The ten years that followed saw the festival go from strength to strength. Local reggae/calypso star Antigua Joe became the face of the festival, his risqué lyrics sometimes prompting chuckles and raised eyebrows. The festival took pride in its variety and inclusivity. Local groups such as Happy Go Lucky Dancers regularly graced the community stage, and The Baa – run by festival volunteers – was the place to be!

Antigua Joe

A change of ownership

By the early 2000s, the festival team found themselves faced with the requirement for an ever-increasing amount of paperwork – and funding – so they joined forces with other local community organisations to form East Finchley Community Development Trust, in the hope of accessing grant funding.

The Trust, headed by Martin O’Donnell and based in the Green Man Community Centre, was launched in 2002 and formally took over the running of the festival in 2003.

A further highlight that year was a performance by then unknown local resident, Amy Winehouse, who was about to release her first single “Stronger Than Me”.

In 2006 the Festival came under fire for becoming too commercial after it subcontracted the running of the community stage to event organisers Masterpeace, in hope of improving the quality of the stage acts, which inevitably resulted in local groups being sidelined.

Martin O’Donnel with I Love N2 merchandise

I Love N2 

2007 saw the launch of the I Love N2 brand, a collaboration with REEF (Regeneration and Enhancement of East Finchley), designed by team member Mike Hughes. The T-shirts were such a success that the idea was expanded to include a community website www.IloveN2.co.uk

In 2011 the community stage was re-named “The Helen O’Toole community stage” in memory of long-standing festival team member Charles O’Toole’s daughter Helen, who had been instrumental in bringing inclusive arts, most notably wheelchair dancing, to the festival.

After the dissolution of EFCDT in 2011, the festival team re-formed to create East Finchley Community Trust with Roger Chapman and Stan Spinks at the helm, and were faced with another challenge, as Barnet Council announced that it was to start charging for the hire of the park. Roger Chapman branded the new charges, which were expected to be in excess of £1000, “outrageous” and stated defiantly, “There is no way that we are going to let these new charges stop our successful and free community festival.” Sadly, the festival was halted that year, though not by the hire charges… The park was so waterlogged that organisers were forced to cancel the festival at short notice.

U&N2

U&N2 in 2013

The festival came back with a brand-new look in 2013. Re-branded as U&N2 Festival, local duo Pat “Have Mercy” Leacock and Mike Hughes took over running the main stage, drawing praise for the improved musical line-up. A brave attempt to beat the world record for the largest number of shakers required team members to spend days filling plastic bottles with rice, only for it turn into a bit of a damp squib when it was revealed that nobody remembered to tell the Guinness book of records about their attempt. One proposed solution to this was to introduce one of the team as “Dorris McWhirter”, The team member in question declined, but the nickname “Dorris” stuck.

Bottle shaking record attempt. Photo Mike Coles

The following year, the name changed to the simple “East Finchley Festival”, accompanied by a bright new design by Peter Curzon.

New blood

In 2017 organisers Stan and Robina Spinks announced that they’d like to retire… and the race began to build a new team in time for the next festival. An appeal by Grant Silverman on the local Facebook group, which was picked up by The Archer newspaper, resulted in the festival team doubling in size.

The new team – namely Miranda Levey, Natalie Haslam and Alison Roberts – started to make their mark at the 2018 festival, by bringing in some of north London’s best street food vendors and transforming the stalls into North London’s biggest makers’ market almost overnight. The festival was brought up to date with a new website, www.eastfinchleyfestival.org and digital bookings system.

Breakaway

In 2019 the festival organising team split from East Finchley Community Trust and formed East Finchley Festival CIC (Community Interest Company). They launched with a huge crowdfunding campaign to raise enough money to put on the 2020 festival. The campaign was a success, and the festival was in final planning stages when the country went into lockdown and everything had to be cancelled.

2021, as soon as covid restrictions were relaxed enough to allow large outdoor gatherings, East Finchley Festival CIC swung into action to stage a pared-down version of the festival later in the year, branded the Late Summer Social. It was the first time that the festival had deviated from its midsummer date. Organiser Alison Roberts said, “I’ll never forget the huge smiles on the faces of the stallholders as they arrived to unpack. It was the first time out in almost two years for most of them. There was such excitement. We were blessed with a gloriously sunny day and a wonderful turnout.”

The main stage was dedicated to former organiser Stan Spinks, who sadly passed away some months before.

The past years have fair share of drama too, most notably when a mix-up with Barnet Council’s events booking contractor resulted in East Finchley’s two biggest events being scheduled in the same park on the same day for 2024!

But we made it, and we hope to continue the tradition for many years to come.

Mike Hughes, Andrew Myers-Nobbs, Charles O’Toole & Alison Roberts
East Finchley Festival CIC

Acknowledgments: ILoveN2.co.uk, The Archer newspaper, Chris Mentiply, Mike Coles, Nicola Cousins.

Visit iloven2.co.uk/history for more local history.