It was Sunday 31 July, the last day of the 7th annual Ramsgate Festival 2016 and we’d been meaning to visit since the start. Expanded this year from a long weekend event to take in Ramsgate Regatta week, and other local events, the Festival started on Friday 23 July with a Littoral light exhibition on the seashore. This combined low tide with sunset to showcase improvised art and sculpture installations in a truly natural and local setting: white cliffs replacing the white walls of the safety of the studio.
The finale was played out a full nine days later to the pulsating rhythms of Rio as the Rhythms of the City band took the enthusiastic audience to the beaches of Brazil and back; creating their very own brand of Ramsgate rhumba. The festival atmosphere was more than completed by four exotic dancing ladies, dressed in stunning carnival costumes, topped with brightly coloured plumage and spectacular headdresses.
In between there was foraging trips on the seashore, all manner of creative workshops, sea life parades, talks and lectures with nautical themes, a celebration of local legends such as the Ramsgate Whale, as well as the Food and Arts & Crafts festival, not to mention, opera on the beach.
Catching up with Ramsgate Arts organiser Suzy
I caught up with Ramsgate Arts organiser Suzy Humphries outside the Victorian Custom House which overlooks the Royal Harbour. It was an appropriate place to meet as the recent mixed fortunes of the grand building seem to sum up all that is good about the regeneration of Ramsgate. Closed to the public until relatively recently, it now proudly hosts the Visitor Information Centre and a cafeteria as well as the Town Council and the RNLI.
Suzy’s helped run Ramsgate Arts for the last five years or so, and seen it and the Festival develop, in tandem. It takes up to six months of the year to help organise the arts side of things, all on a voluntary basis. A kick starter crowd funding initiative to raise the final 3k of the 10k or so, needed to fund the festival had only just been reached in time, but Suzy seemed to take these things in her stride. She even smiled when she told me that the council had revoked at the last minute permission to finish the festival with a celebratory bonfire, citing the granting of a permit to a company to film on the beach. Co-operation with the town council had, though, led to funding and a brief to utilise previously ‘unloved’ spaces in the town such as Charlotte Court, and instill a more artistic touch to the surroundings.
When we visited later, we saw a game of boules taking place in the sand and several niche boutique shops in the square on the site of the old police station and pub.
A little detour to Nice Things
Suzy set up and runs Nice Things, a shop also in the Custom House which opened in 2010. It sells ‘nice things well-made by real people, focusing on local talent and always with a unique charm.’ She explained that by 2012, she had over-run the space in the shop and started a monthly market just across the road by the Royal Harbour. It may have been a short step but it was a long journey. Originally the shop had more of a gallery feel, but Suzy works with around 25 makers, around 80% who live or work locally, and all the goods are totally handmade. Work is displayed on a sale or return basis.
The shop hosts work from around 12-15 makers at any one time and collections are often rotated on a 4-6 week basis with artists taking it in turns to help staff the shop. Suzy takes an active role in sourcing and promoting local talent as well as working with local artists to help them develop their work and ideas so that they can be accessible.
Wearing her high vis organiser’s vest, we left Suzy cheerfully sorting out a request for a ladder, and talking to traffic marshals and took up her invitation to step inside Nice Things.
The shop certainly lives up to its title. It’s a cosy little well managed space, and Irene Reyagin, who herself makes hand embroided decorative woollen yarns, took us through some of the many creative collections on display in cabinets, tables, on the walls and practically anywhere space allows.
Laura Dent’s vivid collection of textile mermaids and faeries immediately attracted the eye. Dressed in a range of various outfits from pirate black to glittering colourful party ball gowns, their various poses and exquisite attention to detail raised an appreciate chuckle and nod of admiration.
Displayed on the wall was Melanie Tong’s shoal of silver painted wire fish. Other blue and orange ceramic fish floated by our eyes, as did the work of a selection of local talented painters and print makers such as Pru Cross, Rose Dickenson and Mike Childs.
We could have stayed and lingered for hours, but dragged ourselves away and ventured outside again to visit the stalls of the Feast of Food and Craft Festival lining the Royal Harbour. Talking with the owners some were regulars of the monthly market but many had come to the Festival for the first time.
The highlights were wonderful cupcake creations from Martello, tropical and marine soap combinations and flavours from Janice Gibbs which were well suited to their harbour setting. Lola’s old fashioned food van was doing brisk business while the huge whole hog roast was lazily turning over on its spit; fat cracking on the charcoal fire. It must have been the heat…
Deliciously looking (and tasting!) cupcakes.
Unique handmade jewellery
Repurposing old maps and postcards
Bespoke handmade cards
Photography, cards and prints
Original paintings and cards
The Festival has taken in the whole town and it seems that the town had taken to the many events on show in equal measure. It was time stretch our legs and our visual imagination and visit Arch 18, Military Road, underneath the rising bridge on the road to Pegwell Bay and Silverland Studios. It’s the home of painter Joe Allen and painter and print-maker Christine Henn. You are welcome to find out more about their workshops and what they do on their website here.
Their ‘The Sea Brings Life’ exhibition had been running during the Festival. They also run evening classes and will be running public painting courses during the year.
We climbed upstairs and admired Christine’s five painted landscapes made from natural fibres and inspired by the Red Sea and more local vistas. I’d read the programme notes downstairs and noted that there were six paintings on display. Where was the sixth, I wondered? Christine told me to step back and gently guided my eyes straight ahead to the front arch overlooking the harbour. There in front of me, was a long narrow post box type slit across a canvass between the window.
Outside I could see that the sea does bring life. A yacht sailed into view and then I noticed the clouds re-forming into different shapes.
Christine had cleverly created an ever changing landscape before my very own eyes.
We wandered back to the UK’s only Royal Harbour, an honour granted by a grateful George IV in 1821, in return for the sort of hospitality now shown during Festival Week.
Braceman was finishing his cool funky groove vibes. The sun hadn’t quite set but by now the stage was set for the glorious finale. A cacophony of carnival music provided by Rhythms of the City decked out in their blue t-shirts and white trousers. This was percussion of every conceivable size and shape from the 30 strong member band. The sound could probably have been heard across Pegwell Bay in Sandwich. The only whistles were ones of encouragement. Lilting it may have been to start with but it finished with a rum punch of kick helped along by the long legged Rio style carnival dancers.
All, in all, it may have been an Olympian task to organise. But on a shoreline which has had its fair share of shipwrecks, Ramsgate Festival rocks where others might flounder. Bring on the bonfire next year!