Park on right lines for Latitude

With less than six weeks until it starts, Sarah Brealey finds out how an East Anglian park is transformed into the venue for a major music festival.

With less than six weeks until it starts, Sarah Brealey finds out how an East Anglian park is transformed into the venue for a major music festival.

Ever since he was a child, Hektor Rous has wanted to host a festival on his family's estate.

He remembers enjoying the feeling of thousands of other people enjoying themselves at the Henham steam rally - and so years later, when he was looking for ways to make the estate profitable, he wrote to major event organisers Mean Fiddler. He told them that Henham Park, between Southwold and Beccles, was the perfect place to hold a festival - but the letter was one of hundreds and went unanswered.

In fact it was Mischa Gaudin, a former Mean Fiddler employee who now runs a Southwold florist, whose intervention made it all happen. She emailed managing director Melvin Benn two years ago to tell him about Henham.

Mr Benn said: “Literally it was all because of her. Her mum lives across the road. She had been emailing me for two years saying come and look at this place, it is beautiful.”

He had long been wanting to hold a festival that was broader than just music, with comedy, film, theatre, literature and an intimate feel. All it needed was a site. But it was early this year before he visited Henham, and now he wishes he had come earlier. Before he visited he sent site manager Luke Cowdell, who had to be shown around by grazier David Hull because Mr Rous was abroad.

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Mr Benn said: “Luke came down and he rang me as soon as he got through the gate and said this is stunning, this is perfect. It was February when I came down here and it was cold and wet but it was beautiful. I look at lots of sites to hold festivals, but when I saw this, this was it. It had to work here really.”

Henham Park beat off “literally dozens” of other sites because of the beauty of its gently rolling grassland, its mature trees and the lake in the centre of the park - which during the festival will be spanned by a bridge connecting the campsite with the main entertainment area.

As for Mr Rous, son of the sixth Earl of Stradbroke, he could hardly believe it when he heard that Mean Fiddler had been to look at the site.

“They are the organisers of Reading and Leeds and Glastonbury. They are not just big name festival promoters, they have the Jazz Café and a lot of really interesting venues.”

Gradually Mr Rous and Mr Benn hammered out a deal - mostly over a pint at the Anchor in Walberswick, as well as a key meeting in London's Oxo tower.

Mr Rous said: “We were at the bar having a chat, the place was full of people and I was really aware that all the people around us didn't know what we were planning. This is a huge change on the festival scene. It hasn't got a big-name sponsor, it is about coming to enjoy it.”

He did have one big surprise ahead.

“When they said, 'We would like to run a festival in July', I definitely thought it would be next year. Definitely next year.”

Mr Benn said that although there was not much time to organise the festival, he had already thought through the basics of how it would work. He says it would not have gone ahead without the three headliners - Antony and the Johnsons, Snow Patrol and Mogwai - who all agreed to take part.

“Antony and the Johnsons said so much about what we wanted it to be, but so did Snow Patrol and Mogwai. We wanted diversity but not to be exclusive.

“Every single act that we have approached that we wanted has said yes, which is amazing for a first year festival.”

But the work does not end there, and it takes “more hours than exist”. There are the nettles to get rid of, the sheep to move, fencing, traffic and security to worry about, talking to the police and the council, even putting up signs warning about the pike in the lake. The festival will see the premiere of a new design of toilets, “more open-plan” than the norm.

Mr Benn expects 5,000 tickets to have been sold by the end of the week, well on the way to his target of 10,000 to 15,000. He accepts that it will make a loss this year, but this is a long-term game. Latitude, he says, is here to stay.

“It is a long term project. I am unlikely to break even in year one or year two.”

Henham Park has been home to the Earls of Stradbroke for more than 500 years - and, says Mr Benn, “home of the Latitude festival for the next 500 I hope, and certainly the next few years at least.”

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