Towersey: 60 Years of the Family Family Festival

Sibling Revelry - Joe Heap, Kathy Mowatt and Mary Hodson, the third generation.

60 years under the stewardship of the same family, Towersey is unique before you start to think about the site, the audience or the line-up. Originally organised by Denis Manners and his friends, handed over to two-time UK  Festival Award winning son-in-law, Steve Heap and now under the stewardship of a third generation, we had to get together with Director, Joe Heap to get the story behind the UK’s longest running independent festival.

Happy 60th birthday, Towersey.

Thank you very much.

Not that you were there, but how did Towersey Festival begin?

My granddad was a very passionate music lover, but also really passionate about community, the village of Towersey that he lived in and bringing people together.

It wasn’t just him; it was him and a number of people in the village, some of his good friends, they already ran a little music club. They needed to raise some money to replace the toilets, would you believe, in the village hall.

They thought, okay, this is a good excuse to grow the little music club and to create something a little bit bigger. So, they started a festival, which in the first year, in 1965, was actually in my nan and granddad’s garden; that’s how small it was. It really was just a gathering of local people, friends, and musicians that they knew.

You’ve got to bear in mind that this is a long time before festivals were even a thing. There was no Glastonbury, there was no Reading, this was a very novel idea in 1965. It started as a little gathering of people in my nan and granddad’s garden, no more than maybe 100 people or so.

It’s obviously developed since then. At what point did it move out of the back garden?

Well, it moved out pretty much straight away. There were more people came than they expected, they couldn’t put everybody up in their house or put that many tents up in their garden, so they moved it to the village green the next year.

Then they raised enough money to buy some farmland when it was easy to do that, back in 1965, which they turned into a playing field for the village, and it was put in trust; it remains to this day in trust to the village. They moved the festival there, and that became the home of the festival for the best part of 50 years.

Did you then move after that to the current site?

We’ve sort of skipped through 50 years of the festival, but it grew massively from just a few hundred people. We ended up renting farm fields, having car parks dotted around on farm fields all over the village; the festival took over the whole village. By the time we got to 20-odd years old, it ran in the village hall, in the pub, in that field, on the farmland all over the village.

All sorts of stuff happened in those years. The farmer, whose land we relied on for the camping, decided to sell up. Anybody who’s run greenfield site festivals knows camping is the bit that takes up more of the room than the actual show site. So after the 50th, we moved to Thame Showground in the town that Towersey is almost bolted on to these days, which is just a mile down the road. We ran it from here for five years.

And you’ve had another recent move, what were the reasons behind that?

Well, that eventually happened in 2022, but it was meant to happen in 2020. We all know what happened in those years, right?

Principally because Thame Showground wouldn’t sign a long-term agreement. There’s no bitterness or anything, they just weren’t in a position to sign a long-term commitment to the festival. We felt like we couldn’t run an event where we were just running year to year to year. Anybody who works on a large-scale event knows that the planning cycle is much longer than a year.  Also, Thame Showground was always a bit of a stopgap in that it was not the most beautiful site. It’s flat and was practical, [but] we had to do a lot of work to make it look nice. We’d kind of secretly always hankered for a beautiful looking site; Claydon gave us that, it’s an incredible backdrop.

Did the move to Claydon coincide with you taking over the reins?

Not really. I’d already been co-director with my dad. So you know, the history in terms of who ran it; my granddad and his friends ran it only for a very short period; then my dad, who was already working as a music agent, took over the reins and ran it for a long, long time. And then I got involved in the 2000s. Obviously I’ve been going to it as a kid, then after a few years away, when I was off gallivanting around, being an actor, I came back to it in 2002 and started working with my dad and did all the roles. Typical of my dad, he made me do all the work to get to know the festival, which is the right way to do it.

A classic management apprenticeship?

Yeah, absolutely. And it’s absolutely the way to do it. I say it to my students now on the event management that I teach, I say ‘you’ve got to learn from the bottom; you’ve got to learn every part of it’.

I did stewarding, volunteering, I did trade and catering management, I did production, I did operations, I did everything, then I became co-director with my dad, probably from about 2014/15, and ran it with him, started doing all the booking, programming, and then my dad kind of gradually stepped aside and then fully retired in 2019.

Did the longevity and your in-depth knowledge of Towersey make the move easier?

It was certainly less of a challenge than it might seem from the outside, and certainly less of a challenge than it would be for a festival that’s only been running a very short period of time. We had the knowledge of our own festival, our own capabilities, and our own infrastructure, it was easier in that respect. It was still hard in the respect of how we move the audience, how we think about the impact on sales. Plus, obviously using a different piece of land has its own kind of uniqueness that you have to take into consideration.

The planned move to Claydon, where we are now, was more difficult because it was further away. We’re not very close to Towersey the village anymore, so that was much harder in terms of a marketing and sales point of view, than an infrastructure point of view. The infrastructure bit I find relatively easy in the sense that you just take what you’ve got, rejig it a bit and make sure it carries on working.

Was there a lot of fan engagement when it came to the latest move?

Running for as long as we have, you don’t do that without building up a rapport with your audience, building up some trust. We’ve got a kind of hard core of really dedicated followers who we reached out to, did lots of consultation with lots of questionnaires, lots of talking, lots of focus groups to work out what we needed to do.

We also really crunched the data and looked at the geography of our audience and worked out what we felt we might lose because of moving that far and what we might gain. And I’ll be totally honest with you, we’re still finding our way back to the numbers that we were on the showground. We knew that would happen and we budgeted for that accordingly. We didn’t budget for Covid, of course, but it’s probably been harder than we thought it would be, to bring the audience with us and to find a new audience in the location that we are now.

One of the big things that’s changed in my time of working festivals, which is 25 years now, is that there used to be so few festivals when I first started working at Towersey, that you could market nationally and people would come from all over the place. Now everything is much closer, people don’t travel so far and there are a lot more choices. So, we were very aware that we would need to develop this new audience, even though we were only 20 miles down the road.

Did the change in venue give you a capacity increase?

No, it didn’t, but only through choice. Where we are now at Claydon Estate, there is massive room for growth if we wanted to, but we’re actually not interested in it. One of the things we celebrate is that we are small and that’s part of the offer. People can have as much space as they want on the campsite, they can get close to the artists, they can get close to the stages, they don’t have to queue for toilets and bars and things. That’s what we think makes Towersey unique.

Is Towersey still a family business?

My younger sister Mary is now a co-director, she’s been working with me for a few years, and my older sister Kathy does all the overlay, site decor and creative, and runs all the volunteers. And now my daughter Jessica is involved as well and does a lot of the event’s admin, accreditation, things like that. And then beyond that, everybody’s involved; nieces and nephews and [partners]. Everybody gets involved in it one way or another.

Have you got your eye on the next generation of management apprentices then?

Oh, definitely; the sooner the better in terms of handing it over to somebody else. That sounds really negative, but I’ve done it for long enough already in the sense I’ve been working for it for 25 years. Anybody who’s done a job for that long knows how tough it is to kind of recycle your enthusiasm. I still love it to bits but would like to do less. So yeah, Jessica’s definitely in the running and is keen, I think.

How have recent inflationary pressures affected your costs versus your ticket prices?

Yeah, it’s been really, really tough. Actually, much tougher than I thought it would be since Covid. I think there was a kind of thought that everyone would just bounce back, and it would be huge. I think that has been the case for some events, but not for others, we’ve definitely found it difficult. And the inflation increases have just been impossible to deal with really. I mean, we’ve put our price up as far as we think we can, and it’s definitely had an effect on sales. We know it’s too high really for what people can afford, but you can’t make the budget work any other way at the moment. I’d say we’re still transitioning from Covid and post Covid, and I think that’s going to take another few years. Personally, I think this year and next year will be tough. I think hopefully by 2026 it starts to plateau; we find our feet again and the budgets start to add up. But we kind of accept that the last couple of years and probably the next couple of years are probably going to be kind of loss leaders. That’s just how it is.

What do you put Towersey’s longevity down to?

I think a lot of hard work. I take my hat off to my dad because he’s the one who’s done most of that work. But also, just being really in touch with the industry, being on top of what’s going on and what’s happening with the audience and what’s happening further afield, being adaptable to change and being flexible. Those are the sort of things that spring to mind for me.

We never rest on our laurels, we don’t stand still and just go, ‘oh well, this is what we are, so take it or leave it.’ If we’re not selling enough tickets, we go, ‘What are we doing wrong? How can we transition? What’s the offer?’ That flexibility has always been there.

I read that you have a mantra: ‘Any stream but mainstream’. Doe taking the big mainstream headliners out of the equation make programming easier?

I wish it was but that hasn’t transpired quite yet. I don’t think there’s any magical recipe for making a festival; work is the honest truth. I think you only make it work through a bit of trial and error and a lot of diligence and longevity. Some festivals with headliners work, some don’t. Our mantra of any stream but mainstream is more just driven by the fact that we just want to have the flexibility to program exciting music that isn’t the sort of the day-to-day stuff that people hear. And it’s partly due to the fact that we’re quite small and it’s driven by budget.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a family run festival?

The advantages are that we have much more open discussions. But then I suppose on the flip side, the disadvantages are we run the risk of falling out as family, but we try and avoid that. That’s never happened. But yeah, the advantages are we all want the same thing; we’re all doing it for the love of the festival, first and foremost, before any financial reward. Whereas if it was a situation where I just employed a load of people, they’re doing it for a wage, to engender that excitement and that passion is harder. I’d say that’s the main advantage.

The disadvantages sometimes, I suppose, are the skills gaps that we have to identify, so we have to reach out and identify what those are and make sure that we’ve got those covered. We’ve not always been brilliant at that, but we’re definitely better at it than we used to be.

One development this year is the comedy and spoken word line-up.

Yeah, it comes back to what I said about never resting on your laurels. We want the festival to not just be a music festival; to be multi arts, to have that diversity in it. There’s an amazing musician, songwriter and comedian called Gavin Osborn who’s been involved in the festival in the sense of he’s played lots of times and he’s a friend of the family and so on. We were just chatting one day, and he had loads of great ideas and I said, well, we should definitely programme some stuff, let’s do it. Like all the best things, it just came out of a chat in the pub.

I’ve been programming the event for maybe 12 years, and it’s kind of run its course in that sense. I love doing it, but it needs fresh ideas. And again, it’s just that recognition of skills and going, ‘okay, I don’t know that world, let’s make sure that we’re getting that covered and let’s start to expand the program in that direction.’ We’ve always had spoken word and film and comedy, but it’s always been a bit disparate and spread out across the program. So it’s kind of just bringing that together, giving it to someone who really knows that stuff and seeing what comes along.

Last questions: Can you think of one of those Earth please swallow me up moments where something’s happened and you just really don’t want to be there?

Oh, yeah. Oh God, like hundreds of them. But the biggest one was on our first year [at Claydon]. Well, I’ll give you two.

The one that comes to mind first is on our first year at Clayton Estate. We were still kind of building a rapport with the landowners and the estate because we hadn’t run a festival [there], and they were, understandably, very nervous. It was 2022, it was that incredibly dry year, and the grass was non-existent, it was like straw. Lord Verney, who runs the estate, came down the day before we opened in a bit of a blind panic and said that there couldn’t be any naked flames on site, we couldn’t have any camping stoves because there were going to be fires and so on, and we’d have to cancel the event. I had to spend a good couple of hours sitting down with him and talking him through it and going okay, we’re going to make this happen, it’s going to be all right, we’re going to put all we have, bring in lots of extra fire safety and all sorts of things. It was just one of those moments where when he kind of said, ‘we’re gonna have to cancel the festival’, and I was kind of like, okay, that’s not going to happen.

The other one was in 2017 on Thame Showground, a month before we were due to be on site. The showground rented out the site to what they thought was a big church group, but it turned out to be an enormous gathering of travelers, who then wouldn’t leave the site. And then it rained, and they absolutely trashed the site. We had about two weeks to turn the site around, we had to pretty much rebuild the site. We had to bring in loads of hardcore, fill holes, put the land back together, order loads of extra tracking in order to make the event work. I think most people in those circumstances would have just gone ‘no, we’re cancelling, we can’t do it.’ But me and my dad stood there and went, ‘right, we’ve got to make this work, we’ve got to do it.’ And we worked out a way of doing it. That was another one where I just wanted to curl up in a ball and cry.

A superb example of triumph over adversity. Now the flip side: Can you identify one of those pinch me, am I dreaming moments?

There’s just so many, but I guess for me, we have this huge lantern procession, which sounds really kind of twee, but it’s actually really magical. We build loads of lanterns over the weekend; families make them. Then we have this magical parade every year, across the site. If you stand back up on the hill looking down on the site, you see these lanterns going across the site on the last night. So we’ve kind of got the festival done and we feel like we’ve achieved, and then this magical procession with music happens. Every year for me that’s a kind of goosebumps, hairs stand up on the back of the neck moment. Because not only does it signify the fact that we’ve achieved, and we’ve done the festival again. But also, I just know what a highlight it is for people who have never been to the festival. In the feedback they always go, oh my God, the lantern procession was just magical. So for me, it’s that every year, the kind of yes, super memorable moment.

Finally, how do you sum up Towersey in three words?Well, I’m going to borrow it from something that one of our customers said a few years ago and that we’ve used:

Another lovelier world.