Once more unto the beach: artists’ plan to boost the UK seaside

With coastal towns severely affected by coronavirus, one creative duo are planning a string of artist-led festivals in October half-term to lure people back to the seaside

Dixe Wills http://www.theguardian.com 

Can the arts help save the seaside? The organisers of a new multi-town festival planned for October half-term (26 October-1 November) are hoping they can.

Billing itself as “a coastal call to arms”, Back & Fill was created by writer and artist Dan Thompson and designer Kate Kneale of Margate-based studio HKD as a response to the economic damage done to seaside towns by the coronavirus crisis. Working with a small team of volunteers furloughed from their jobs, the pair have invited local people involed in the creative arts to put on performances, exhibitions and other events to lure people to the seaside for one last autumn fling.

“The idea came to us when we were sitting in our studios in Margate talking about how the summer would be wiped out,” said Thompson. “So many things were cancelled and the Turner Contemporary, one of our key attractions, was closed for much of the year.”

That loss of the summer season was disastrous for coastal communities across the UK, despite the few weeks immediately after lockdown when some towns were overwhelmed by visitors as restrictions lifted. As early as April, a study by the University of Southampton and the Centre for Towns warned that lockdown would show the economies of seaside towns to be especially vulnerable. Many are heavily reliant on holidaymakers – in Newquay and Skegness, for example, more than half the local jobs depend on tourism. Of the study’s list of the 20 towns in England and Wales identified as most at risk, 16 are on the coast. By August, the National Coastal Tourism Academy was estimating lockdown would see seaside towns losing up to £10.3bn this year.

Back & Fill hopes the festivals will claw back a little of those losses. Each local event is independently run, using a starter kit devised by Thompson and Kneale that anyone can share and edit. To date, a dozen towns have signed up. Ten are in England – Cleethorpes, Hastings, Margate, Newhaven, Portsmouth, Ramsgate, Sandown (Isle of Wight), Southwold, Westward Ho! and Weymouth – along with Swansea in south Wales and Northern Ireland’s Portrush.

With anti-Covid measures still in place up and down the country, Thompson is keen to point out that he’s not encouraging large gatherings. The events are typically small and keep to the rule of six.

“They’re an antidote to big crowds,” he said. “They’re about exploring and discovering, about beauty and magic. We wanted to plan something for people to look forward to, that would extend the summer season. A moment of joy and happiness somewhere over the horizon after the summer has ended.

“We’ve also created a new network of arts organisations in seaside towns that will talk to each other and offer mutual support in these difficult times.”

Plans for events are still being finalised in many of the participating towns and details will be released shortly. Those already announced include a “pennydrop” treasure hunt in Westward Ho! by the artistic duo Quiet British Accent, who have organised similar events around the world.

Swell Portrush is unleashing Operation Zombie by the Big Telly theatre company, in which teams of up to six people will work their way across town, completing missions to drive the zombies out. There’ll also be a wild food walk, a wildlife cruise, lots of yoga, driftwood boat-making and shop-window exhibitions along Main Street.

Among events planned in Margate is an exhibition of “lockdown prints” by Robert Montgomery, famous for his art installations.

In Cleethorpes, the Birdhouse Theatre is hosting Life’s a Beach, a week-long programme engaging children and families in nature-based and creative activities, most of which will take place outdoors, including a shipwreck ramble and story-telling in the sand dunes. Full details will be announced on its website on 12 October.

According to Thompson, there’s still time for more coastal towns to join the event. So it will be worth checking the Back & Fill website nearer the date for a last dose of seaside fun before winter.