Could arts festival success save a much-loved Sussex hall?

Visitors to Perou’s photography exhibition at Haywards Heath Town Hall. Photo credit: Colin Kenward.

The mid-Sussex town of Haywards Heath has just held its first ever arts festival. There were two compelling reasons to launch one now, in summer 2022. The first of those was to raise money for the civilians of war-torn Ukraine, and the second was to provide local entertainment for people in Haywards Heath, whose town venue, Clair Hall, has been closed for performances or shows of any kind since the first UK Covid-19 lockdown in spring 2020. 

Following on from the demolition of the Martlets Hall and library in nearby Burgess Hill early in 2019, this has left local residents bereft of suitable venues in which to book, or put on, entertainments for a reasonably-sized audience, without travelling quite a bit further afield to the larger conurbations of Horsham, Crawley or Brighton.

A controversial closure

The Mid-Sussex District Council closed Clair Hall, which would have seen its 50th anniversary in 2021, without public consultation in summer 2020, in what many saw as a move towards selling the site for redevelopment. There was an immediate outcry from the public, and the site was soon being used as a Covid-19 vaccination centre. Reassurances from the council that no options were off the table were undermined by calling the site ‘Perrymount Hall’ and it was subsequently forced by the High Court to overturn the decision to permanently close the venue. This was in January 2021. 

In the intervening 18 months, the District Council has hired a firm of consultants, BOP, to explore options for the future of the site, and the future of a similar facility in Haywards Heath. Redevelopment or relocation will both require investment, and meanwhile the town goes without a civic entertainment venue at its heart, that has been used and loved by diverse elements of the community for half a century.  

Lead festival organisers (from left to right: Marion Wilcock, Colin Kenward, Penny Blake). Photo credit: Colin Kenward.

The challenge of peripatetic arts

This uncertainty made it particularly challenging to organise an arts festival. Marion Wilcock, co-founder of the Haywards Heath Community Interest Company (CIC) and Colin Kenward, co-founder of the Save Clair Hall campaign group, pressed into service everyone that they could think of to find acts, venues and the necessary publicity to mount a credible week-long programme. This included exhibitions by local artists, photography by Perou, music, songs, dance, comedy, an arts-based supper quiz and talks to appeal to all ages. 

Inevitably there were hiccups.  The mounting heatwave and the sensitivity of the walls at one venue meant the fixatives melted overnight and the pictures had to be hastily remounted the next morning, “not to mention removing them one by one with a hairdryer,” added Penny Blake, who signed up as a member of the Weald Theatre Group and found herself Treasurer and also an exhibition curator, rattler of donation buckets and provider of refreshments.

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Despite all the hard work, the organisers have already decided to repeat the experience in September 2023.  “We’ll have new challenges, but we’ve learned a lot this year,” Marion explained.  “We’ll have more time of course (the committee is planning an initial meeting next month), but there are a finite number of local alternative venues to Clair Hall, and those that there are available have other uses, so there are restrictions.” 

Both the Baptist and Methodist church halls featured in the programme this year, fitted around services, and without the appearance of alcohol. Two events were partner efforts, with a comedy evening held in Lindfield’s small King Edward Hall and the chorists Coro Nuovo’s summer concert taking place at St Andrew’s Church in Burgess Hill.

Members of the Burgess Hill Musical Theatre Society performing excerpts from their upcoming show. Photo credit: Colin Kenward.

Keeping community arts alive

So would it have been different to host the arts festival at Clair Hall?  It soon became evident in the planning stages that it would be venues, and not people, which would require the most effort to find, and in fact there were several extra attractions that couldn’t be hosted.

“A base venue where the exhibitions could remain throughout the period, with other events coming and going, would have made things a lot easier,” maintains Colin, whose skills of persuasion meant fewer overheads and lots of favours for a good cause – he also managed to find time to design a website, a flier, a leaflet, and banners that were distributed and displayed around the town.

The enthusiasm and hard work of all the performers, artists, venue organisers and administrators who gave so generously of their time and talent, helped to make the festival a huge success and highlighted the thirst for arts events locally. It’s evident that the festival organisers are intent on keeping arts alive in Haywards Heath, and keen to have an arts venue.  With contributors already being lined up for September 2023’s arts festival, is it too much to hope for that it might have found a permanent local home?

Almost £3,000 was raised for the Ukraine Appeal at Hope and Homes for Children and World Extreme Medicine’s Medics4Ukraine. Anyone who missed the festival can get a flavour of the shows at this year’s Haywards Heath Town Day in Victoria Park on Saturday 10 September.

With thanks to organisers Marion Wilcock, Colin Kenward, Penny Blake and other members of the organising committee: Chair of Mid-Downs Radio Wendy Swinton-Eagle, and Anne-Marie Cooke, the sponsors at Acorn Sales and Lettings and CEO of It’s Magic, Tim French.

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