Kirkstall Festival is now in its 37th year and this year is expected to attract 25,000 people. Interview by Neil Hudson
Kirkstall Festival has gone from being one of the smallest community fairs in Leeds - attracting just a few hundred people when it began in 1980 - to one of the biggest. It is now second only to Leeds West Indian Carnival and this year, assuming the heavens don’t open, is expected to attract about 25,000 people.
Retired shop owner John Liversedge, 68, pictured, is chairman of Kirkstall Valley Community Association (KVCA) and one of the people behind the successful festival, which is held in the grounds of Kirkstall Abbey. To say he’s helping organise something so big, he’s remarkably calm when I meet him for a coffee at Cafe Enzo.
“We use every bit of space,” explains John, who lives in Kirkstall and is passionate about improving the area. “You look at Kirkstall Abbey and you think it’s huge but when it comes to fitting everything in, it’s not. The one thing we don’t have is space.”
The festival has grown steadily year on year to the point where it is now a major fixture on the Leeds calendar. To give you an idea of how large a concern it is, here are some of the logisitics the organising committee contends with.
There are about 160 stalls, including 23 catering sites, six performance areas, on-site paramedics, a fully-kitted out ambulance, they liaise closely with police, council and a road management organisation, there are more than 100 bins, not including six 12-yard skips (which they fill) and don’t even mention the paperwork, which extends to risk assessments, site medical plans, safety certificates for fairground rides, food hygiene certificates, the list goes on. But John, who has been chair for the last 20 years or so, is incredible self-effacing. “It’s all down to the committee and volunteers,” he opines. “Without them, we wouldn’t have a festival. A lot of people think this is a council-run event and while they are incredibly helpful and advise us on a lot of things, this is ultimately led by the community. It’s ordinary people, with families and businesses giving up their time.”
The festival has gone from being a small family fair to one of the biggest in Leeds, attracting 25,000 people
That sense of community, says John, lies at the very heart of the festival’s success and it’s something which has been in place since its inception 37 years ago.
“Like any community organisation, we have a constitution. That states that this festival is a family fun day, it’s for all age groups, so there’s something for everyone. It’s at the heart of what we do and we keep that in mind when we’re organising it.”
The festival begins with a parade, which starts up by St Stephen’s Church, before snaking its way through the back streets of Kirkstall to wind its way down onto the main Kirkstall Road, where traffic has to stop for around ten minutes to allow the procession to make its way into the grounds of the Scheduled Ancient Monument that is Kirkstall Abbey. Once inside, they pass everything from fairground rides and stalls to beer tents and sound stages, mingling with the thousands of people who will, by that time, already be thronging through the grounds.
The battle of the bands sound stage typifies the festival’s popularity. John says: “When we launched it, we were inundated with requests and when we moved it to the bowling green three years ago, we put 60 chairs out. When I went to have a look, there must have been 600 people watching, I was gobsmacked.”
For John, all this started some 20 years ago when he and his late friend Ken Stratford attended a meeting of KVCA, as he recalls: “They basically met to say that unless anyone there stood up to take on the mantle, they would have to fold. Ken, who was my best friend and a great man, nudged me and said, ‘We’ve got to do it’. That’s how we ended up getting involved.” A full list of the members of the organising committee can be seen inside the programmes, which cost £2 to buy, with proceeds going toward the running costs of future festivals (this year’s cost about £33,000 to stage. Each member has a nickname and up to press John’s has been ‘The Godfather’ but this year, that’s changed, as he explains. “This year it’s ‘Do Me A Favour’, because invariably if you come up to me during the festival, I will ask you to do something for me. Actually, it has a double meaning, because depending on what it is, it can also be used in another context, as in ‘do me a favour’, say if something has not gone to plan.”
John temporarily stood down as chair in 2013 but found himself returning just two years later, although as he admits, he won’t do it forever. “We’ve not struggled, as some community groups do, to entice younger members and I won’t be in the chair for much longer, but we will make sure the festival continues. I have to thank the council for all their help, we work incredibly well together and they advise us on all sorts of things, particularly with all the health and safety checks we have to do.”
But while John is passionate about the festival, he’s also passionate about Kirkstall as a whole and is working closely with members of the Kirkstall Valley Development Trust (KVDT) to try to secure a permanent base for both groups, at Abbey Mills, opposite the sports centre near Kirkstall Lights.
“It’s something that’s ongoing, it’s a huge building and we would love to be able to have KVDT take it on. We have had a few site visits and there are even plans to show how we would develop the building and bring it back into use. There’s a great community spirit in Kirkstall and we saw that with the floods a couple of years ago. If we had a base there it would allow us to do more, in terms of running other events, holding coffee mornings for mums and toddlers, running workshops for youngsters and so on. It’s an ideal location because it’s just behind the new shopping centre and we think with a footbridge, we would get more people in.”
Kirklstall Festival was first held in 1980 and had a handful of stalls, including a ‘biggest marrow’ stall
It is held on the second Saturday of July
Two years ago, it attracted between 25,000 and 27,000 people
This year, there will be about 160 stalls and six performance areas
This year’s cost £33,000
Members of CVCA, who organise the festival, use about 100 bins and fill six 12-yard skips during the post-festival clean-up
Organising the following year’s festival begins almost as soon as the previous one has finished