The Thames is the largest river in the UK and throughout history has played an important part in London’s development. The river has always featured strongly in helping London to develop from when the Vikings and Romans conquered Britain to the Victorian era and the industrial revolvtion. The River once was a very busy waterway, both in terms of trade and also for festive purposes. Up until around 1858 the river held many festive and historic events. The Lord Mayor’s Show (an annual event marking the appointment of the new Lord Mayor) used the river for it’s main procession from the 15th century until 1856, the Lord Mayor’s boat would be followed by hundreds of smaller craft and cheered on by Londoners on the banks of the Thames. Indeed this procession along the Thames provided the setting for a famous painting by Caneletto. The river was also used for other ceremonial purposes, including the flotilla that carried Lord Horatio Nelson’s body to Greenwich to lie in state.
The Thames has also provided cultural inspiration throughout history. Great writers such as T.S. Elliot, William Blake and Charles Dickens have all used the Thames in their work. In more recent history the Thames provided the setting for famous London punk band the Sex Pistols to play a concert from on board the Queen Elizabeth Riverboat in 1977, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. The river also features in the long opening sequence to the James Bond film, ‘The World is not Enough’.
In 1858 the river suffered a major setback, what has now become known as ‘the big stink’. The river became overrun by raw sewage and combined with the unusually hot summer weather created a foul smell across London. Since then the river has been struggling to regain it’s central status in London. People used to avoid the river because it was so dirty, indeed even the salmon that once occupied the river deserted. The London Development Agency and the Mayor of London are together trying to make the Thames in to the great river it once was through the use of culture. The Thames Festival is just one of the methods used to achieve this goal.
The Mayor’s Thames Festival is one of the biggest festivals in London, occurring for two weekend days in middle of September. The Mayor of London realised developing London’s greatest natural asset, the Thames, is crucial along with diversified cultures. London authorities such as the London Development Agency (LDA) have taken this into account since 1997.
The South Bank boasts many cultural centres including the National Theatre, which recently has undergone a major renovation including haunting new lighting effects at night time, and the Tate Modern gallery. These features of the Thames and other famous landmarks such as the London Eye are all used by the festival to create an inspirational and artistic backdrop to the event.
The first Thames Festival was opened in 1998. There was an international food and craft market peppered with street theatre and music and two major events: a mid-river concert on a floating stage and a night carnival. The festival was not big at that time, but its popularity began to grow and started to make the festival’s own character based on celebration, transformation and participation.
Now the festival is a very successful event that takes place right in the centre of London, between Westminster Bridge and Tower Bridge, on the river banks and on the adjacent riverside walkways and public open spaces.
London is one of the most multicultural cities in the world with many black, asian and other ethinic citizens. The ethnic population is growing rapidly every year. Accroding to Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), 27% of Londoners are black or ethnic minority and this is expected to rise to 31% by 2011. Mayor of London wants to take advantage of London’s diverse cultural communities to make a strong reconciled and diversified culture. Diversity of art and culture (complex composition of society and identities, including race, gender, sexuality, health and faith) is a key objective for London development.
Highlights of the Thames Festival
Transe Express was an amazing open air performance by a French group at the London Eye. The musicians who played instruments, the sound is like a pinned cylinder in a music box, were hanging from a crane 30 meters high with trapeze artists in fancy costume. The whole image was like an enormous human mobile.
At this years event Southwark Bridge was closed to traffic on Saturday for Feast on the Bridge. Tables, chairs and portable kitchens were set up on the bridge. All visitors had a unique opportunity to try food samples (hog roast to curry, fresh oysters to tea and cake) from Bankside and beyond, including local restaurants and Borough Market traders. One local organisation provided the information desk to help Londoners and tourists looking for information about the local area, asking for recommendations on where to eat. Live music bands also played for the public. This event was designed to get local people and businesses involved as major stakeholders in the event. The benefits of this are that the cultural event can benefit the communities living in the area by promoting local businesses and giving local people a sense of ownership. The local element makes the culture of the event truly unique to London by using its many cultures.
Street circus, magicians, street theatre, classical musicians and painters provide a similar atmosphere to Covent Garden Market, a great centre of artistic culture.
Temporary music halls (Green Man Stage, Jive, Silke Road Stage, The Scoop) were set up for music concerts and theatre. These places were spread out all over the riverside encouraging Londoners and tourists to explore the rich cultural heritage of the river and be entertained at the same time. Each place had at least 7 international bands, from countries such as India, Turkey, Japan, S. Korea, Spain and Africa, who wore their traditional costume and played the traditional instruments. The Green Man Stage and Silkroad Stage had small dance floors where the audience could dance around to the music.
One salsa institutue brought a Latin-Jazz band which made the audience dance while the singers handed out salsa lesson leaflets. Korean drummers, Dul So Ri seized the audience with significant rythme sticks sound. Foreign village (New Western Village, Korean Village) helped people to discover another culture as well as promote their country by handing out a series of well presented books telling stories of Korean history and folk lore.
250 specially selected stall traders set up their food or art-craft stalls on the riverside. All kinds of food (Caribbean’s pure juicy sugar cane branches to suck and chew and cocktails, Japanese Tempura, Chinese stir fried noodles, Thai curries, India’s Samosas, Jamaica’s Jerk Chicken, Italian Panini, English fish and chips, sausages, organic yogurt, beers, Korean Gal bee and Dduk) is available for Londoners to try other foreign traditional foods. The food sellers were all from London’s diverse communities and providing an opportunity for London to celebrate its varied culture.
For fun and education there were walking tours that tell London and Thames River history, BBC’s film-making for children, riverside wildlife watch, and so on. Every year the festival releases an education pack for children so that they can learn about history, culture, geography and even science. There are not only london schools at the festival but also shools from other countries such as China, India, South Africa and Egypt. Experts perform speeches about the environment and peace issues therefore many people could be aware of the matters.
The festival web site provides an audio tour to help Londoners gain knowledge of hidden river history.
Twilight festivities at the Night Carnival
The night carnival has become a key feature of the Thames Festival, a colourful parade of around 2000 dancers, costumed performers, musicians and revellers take over Victoria Embankment and Blackfriars Bridge. Thousands of people join the night carnival in a vibrant procession of lanterns, costumes and floats. The night carnival is held on the last night between 7.45pm to 9pm and a huge firework finale. At dusk more than 2,000 people, many dressed as river creatures, parade along the Victoria Embankment in the River of Life procession. This event involves many local schools, providing an opportunity for children of all ages to learn about the culture of London and what the river has to offer.
Supporters & Sponsors and Partnership
This year’s principal sponsor for the Mayor's Thames Festival is Barclaycard Oyster. The Mayor of London and Arts Council England are the principal funders. BBC, Evening Standard, HSBC Global Education Trust, National Lottery are also involved with the venture to improve its profile.
The Festival commissioned high-profile, cutting-edge arts events for unique environments on and around the river which transformed people’s ideas. Many local communities were involved with the festival not only big companies like Unilever or media such as the BBC and Evening Standard news paper.
As the mayor said people should not be just spectators, but to be active participants in this event to support the working in partnership scheme, which is designed to promote sustainable development. Obviously, without visitors the festival cannot carry on every year. There are many organisations set up for London art and culture development.
Sponsors Evening Standard newspaper publicised the festival in the paper encourage local participation. Metro and London Lite, free newspapers also helped to advertise the festival to all Londoners. BBC and CBBC, educational channel previewed the Festival on television. Many London school children participated in the Carnival, street theatre, this meant their parents and friends also had to attend the festival helping to make the event more popular with families. Of course, all the stakeholders, sponsors and supporters published articles about the festival to attract more people. Consequently, those firms and the media could advertise themselves displaying their stalls or signage at the festival. The main sponsor, Barclays bank, set up the information desks as well as small stands to sell their new credit card.
Thames Festival Topline Figures
An estimated 750,000 - 800,000 people came to the Thames Festival
One third of the traders involved in Feast on the Bridge came from Bankside ? Brindisa, Oysterman (from Borough Market), Konditor & Cook, Tas, Northfield Farm (from Borough Market)
The Thames Festival website had nearly one million page visits in three days leading up to and over the festival weekend
Thames Festival worked with 300 schools and involved over 100 community groups between March and September 2007
Thames Festival reached 10,000 young people with their work
London has key strengths - authorities that know the value of tourism and the significance of transport to the health of its economy; and experienced operators committed to a successful future for an attractive product. Mayor of London Ken Livingstone said: 'The Thames Festival has grown to become a landmark event in London's cultural calendar’.
According to LDA, nearly 1 million people visited the festival this year. This means the number of visitors has increased this year compared to last year by 45 %.
Overall, it seems the size of The Mayor’s Thames Festival is growing more and more by the well planned organisation. In addition, bringing more visitors and interactive venues are one of the key objects to be successful as well as sponsors. The involvement of local communities is helping the river to recover its status as a cultural focal point. It is a great role model to other festivals and events. By 2012, the festival aims to work with all London schools and stretch the strengths to the Olympics to maximize benefits.