One very hot August in Beckenham, when we were 16, my parents went on holiday and left me home alone. Before leaving they gave my friends and I one strict instruction: do not have a house party… so we did the logical thing and decided to have a festival in the garden.
My parents had been gone 4 hours and we’d already booked a lineup. It was just artists we knew from the area, but there was some great talent. The next day we went down to our school and gave the caretaker a crate of ale and he let us borrow the school stage for the weekend. He was happy with the deal until he realised it was a permanent part of the building, but by that time we’d dismantled most of it. None of us could drive so we had to put it all in shopping trolleys and wheel it a mile to my house, which resulted in our first ever brush with the law.
It wasn’t long before our second. My friend Steve was doing security during the festival when the council turned up to see what was going on. Even though they were about 40 years older than us, Steve was convinced they were just trying to blag their way in for free, so he charged them all £3. We praised Steve’s stoic commitment, but pretty soon the police turned up to get the council’s money back.
150 friends, and friends of friends, turned up and drank the illegal bar dry, raising quite a lot of money for a great charity called Teenage Cancer Trust. It was probably the best summer we’d ever had.
Unluckily my parents found out about the first festival when my next-door neighbour mentioned that her garden was full of beer cans. Luckily my dad found it pretty funny so I managed to avoid being grounded. It took us a while but eventually we managed to convince them to let us do it again. My mum wasn’t so amused and was freaking out about people going into the house to use the toilet, so we ordered 1 portable loo and got it craned into my driveway. At the time we thought it was the coolest and funniest thing ever. Now looking back, it was just a toilet.
350 people turned up to the second festival, which was a bit scary and very cramped, but a brilliant day. That year we raised more money for another great charity, Save The Children.
Sadly the second festival was a bit much for my poor old mum; we were turfed out of my garden for good. At the time we were upset but it was definitely for the best in a tough love kind of way. We had no choice but to find somewhere bigger and up our aspirations.
We managed to convince our crazy old headmaster – crazy in the best kind of way – to let us use one of the school’s playing fields. (Luckily he still didn’t know about us borrowing the stage.)
We only had a month to organise the third festival, but about 600 people turned up that year (along with 6 portable loos!) and it began to feel like we had something really special.
By the fourth festival the team of people involved had become pretty big – over 70 very talented volunteers. We decided that we should make a proper go of it and got down to reading some serious books about health and safety, licensing, and other deadly dull stuff so we knew how to do it professionally. A few of us also chipped in some savings to book our first professional artists, which was very exciting.
That year we also attended the UK Festival Awards for the first time. We were all pretty skint so had to sit in the cheap seats at the very back. We heard our name over the PA and looked up to the stage in confusion to see a Welshman holding an award looking around for who was going to collect it. It was surreal; we won the Best Grassroots Festival Award.
Rich staggered down to the stage with me clinging on to him piggy-back style. Everybody important and influential in live music was there, so we decided to make a speech. In our heads it was funny, witty, moving and inspirational. In the auditorium it sounded somewhat less cool, but we managed to make lots of friends regardless. It was really nice to meet similar people doing similar things, and also some of our festival heroes!
In the summer of 2009, 1500 people came to LeeFest. For the first time our financial profit went towards the fantastic work of KidsCo Charity.
Disaster struck after the fourth festival when the council banned us from doing it again because we were too noisy. Once again we were homeless. We couldn’t bear to cancel it so went straight to Camden market, got ourselves some fake Barbour jackets, and started wandering the countryside hoping to find a farmer nice enough to lend us a farm. After a few months we struck gold – we were over the moon but unfortunately the council were not; they were going to do everything they could to stop us.
Again we got down to some books. This time it was licensing law and the physics of noise (luckily I was doing a physics degree at the time so we could understand it). Our battle to inject some culture into the lifeless monotony of Bromley was taken all the way to court, and after a lot of red tape, politics, and a lucky (slightly tipsy) meeting with the guy who advises the government on noise level legislation, we managed to win the council round and got our licence.
Despite a slow and frustrating start to the year we were able to do some amazing things with the festival because of the changes forced upon us. Over 150 people volunteered to make LeeFest 2010 happen, and 1800 people made their way to the farm to enjoy it! The portable loo count hit 23. We got some brilliant reviews both from press and the punters themselves – having all those people on site together created an incredible atmosphere.
We had settled into our new site nicely and managed to get some incredible artists involved. Thankfully the council had been off our back, so 2 days before the festival things were going really well. We’d been living onsite for a few days, enjoying the outdoors and the physical work when we saw a huge plume of smoke rising into the sky only a couple of miles away.
We dashed to the BBC website to find out that London had been rioting and Croydon was on fire. Our hearts sank as we sat in silence watching. We were petrified that it would jeopardise the festival going ahead and devastated by the society we could see destroying itself. It really affected us.
The next morning we had crises meetings with the council and police and convinced them it would be safe for the festival to go ahead with a lot of extra measures in place.
The ensuing festival was the best we have ever had; the people there with us, and the atmosphere they created, restored all our faith in humanity – we’ve been on a high from it ever since! It was an incredible example of how important LeeFest is as an opportunity for everyone who wants to be part of it.
We have decided to stop growing the festival in size for the time being, and instead concentrate on making it the most amazing experience for the 2000 people attending and hundreds more volunteering.
We want to be creative with the format and have the confidence to try new things, providing as many opportunities as possible by involving anyone who wants to get involved.
We hope that you will join us in one way or another. We believe this is going somewhere incredible.