Tuesday, 7 July 2015

'Head Out, Not Home' - Bringing Covent Garden to Norwich?

This Thursday evening will see the third in the series of 'Head Out Not Home' events organised jointly by the Norwich Business Improvement District (BID) and Norwich & Norfolk Community Arts (NORCA). Designed to tempt city workers to linger a while after work, perhaps enjoy a drink or something to eat at one of the city's bars or restaurants, the 'Head Out Not Home' campaign is focusing on the Thursday evenings between June 25th to August 27th. Although I am not one of those who works in our 'Fine City', I made the effort to come in for the first two of these evenings just to see how successful they are turning out to be.

This is the second year that 'Head Out Not Home' has attempted to sustain the city centre footfall beyond the 5.00pm drop-off as the shoppers and workers largely drift off homewards, abandoning the area around Market Square to the pigeons and the Big Issue sellers. Only later will the numbers begin to swell again as the cinemas and theatre audiences return, possibly grabbing something to eat first at somewhere quick like Wagamama or Pizza Express. Family diners are more likely to drive outwards to visit Pizza Hut or Macdonalds somewhere on the circuit of retail parks that now surround the city.

 The late opening of the Norwich bars and clubs mean that youngsters now come out much later - it is not unusual for friends to now not meet even for pre-drinks at someone's house much before 10pm, and when they do go out it will be Prince of Wales Road or Riverside that takes their cash. So how exactly can Norwich city centre expect to acquire a regular evening 'buzz'?

Thursday was chosen as the day most likely to stimulate interest - many of the larger stores and the two shopping malls traditionally remain open later on a Thursday, and indeed in the lead up to Christmas the streets can seem as busy, if not busier than a Saturday afternoon. In the Summer, though, even the big department stores seem quiet.

On the first Thursday of this year's campaign I arrived in the city centre at about 5:00pm, just as the outward traffic jams were approaching their peak. I had done my homework, so knew exactly where to head to see the planned entertainment. I also knew that several of the local car parks have cheap deals in the evening. For example, Chapelfield is flat rate £2 after 3:00pm, The Forum is £1.80 after 5:30pm, and on a Thursday night John Lewis is completely free after 5:00pm. The weather was warm and sunny, and I was optimistically looking forward to catching some summer atmosphere.

Betty Brawn on Timber Hill

The line-up for June 25th was advertised as indie band 'Thieving Icons', performing on St Gregory's Green (adjacent The Birdcage and the Grosvenor Fish Bar), Covent Garden favourite Betty Brawn appearing on Timber Hill, Cuban rhythms on Gentleman's Walk from singer Kandela Mi Son and the Chilli Con Salsa dancers, and 'local' Gambian musician Sefo Kanuteh playing on Hay Hill.

Sefo Kanuteh on Hay Hill

First disappointment was finding that 'Thieving Icons' were a no-show. Their pitch had instead been poached by a local busker. Betty Brawn had her work cut out attracting a crowd on her pitch on the cobblestones of Timber Hill - not exactly the busiest thoroughfare at any time of day, and struggled to find volunteers to feature in her act without depleting her audience even further.

 Sefo Kanuteh was performing to a small scattered audience on Hay Hill, close to where the local soup kitchen later provides hot food to the city's homeless. One shirtless young man, obviously under the influence of something much stronger than Calpol, was swaying rhythmically whilst oblivious to the fact that his tracky bottoms had slipped down exposing much of his buttcrack.

Kandela Mi Son on Gentlemans Walk 

Kandela Mi Son sounded wonderful on Gentleman's Walk, and the dancers led the way for several passers-by to be tempted to join in. In between sets, though, there was nothing of interest going on to stem the exodus and, more worryingly, no blackboard to announce the start of the next set. For all we knew the show could have been over for the evening.

The Vagaband on Gentlemans Walk

Last Thursday, unfortunately, was not much better, even though we had enjoyed an absolute scorcher of a day, and the temperature was still up in the high twenties. Local favourites 'The Vagaband' were doing a sterling job under the shade of the gazebo in Gentleman's Walk, and guitar duo 'Café Warriors' were doing their best on Hay Hill. Kilted knife juggler and Rubik Cube solver (I joke not) Pete Dobbing was suffering the same fate as last week's Betty Brawn underneath the trees on Timber Hill, and seemed almost embarrassed by the absence of an audience. After performing at Covent Garden Market, Norfolk must seem a little quiet by comparison.

Pete Dobbing on Timber Hill

The most successful pitch seemed to be the spoken word Open Mike event on St Gregory's Green hosted by Cat Woodward and Shey Hargreaves from Norwich's Writers' Centre. Whether it was the quality of the poetry, the chance to sit on the grass with a portion of cod and chips, or simply sup at a cold drink, but this was the closest thing I had yet seen to a Norwich evening 'vibe'. Well done.

The Spoken Word Open Mike at St Gregorys

So we have more of these evenings to come, all paid for through the 1% levy on the rateable value of local businesses levied by the City Council on behalf of Norwich BID. So what do we think of it so far?

I certainly do not want to appear negative, and support the whole principle of  'Head Out Not Home' wholeheartedly. Anything that can help create an evening atmosphere close to what we have come to expect elsewhere in our European cities has to be welcomed. But there are one or two observations and comparisons that have to be drawn.

1) The Name - 'Head Out Not Home'. I am sorry, but I have really struggled to get my head round this one. I have been writing it and researching it for over two weeks, yet I still end up calling it 'Don't Go Home, Stay Out' or something else that is close, but earns no cigar. Whatever was wrong with 'Norwich Evenings', or a name that would draw people in, not simply attempt to stop them leaving? Whilst I would not necessarily advocate anything as edgy as Robbie Powell's 'Dirty StopOuts' evenings (which are not at all dirty, but actually very good!), it needs to be more snappy.

1) The British Weather - One reason why we never plan in advance to eat or drink 'al fresco' in this country is the unreliable nature of our weather. Last year it was too cold or wet to linger on many evenings, so going home seemed like the sensible option. This year we have been so much luckier. In order to provide shelter to performers and equipment 'Head Out Not Home' provides white gazebos at each pitch. When the weather is favourable, it would be nice to see the artistes emerge from under the gazebos and perform in the evening sunshine. Whilst the St Gregory's Green gazebo had the beautiful backdrop of the church, the 'Cafe Warriors' had to perform with  a rusty white Renault van parked up immediately behind them on Hay Hill. Temporary stages are probably out of the question, but the gazebos should be positioned more carefully if they are to be used as performance spaces.

Café Warriors in front of that white van on Hay Hill

2) Location - Many European cities are lucky enough to have central squares or plaza surrounded by bars and restaurants. In order to create an atmosphere conducive to stopping and watching street entertainers we need to feel comfortable and relaxed. Whilst St Gregory's has its own intimate atmosphere that appears to work well, Timber Hill conversely has little going for it. Hay Hill is little better, and whilst Gentlemans Walk has the greatest potential there is little in the way of ambience once the market shuts. The best pitches are probably outside the scope of 'Head Out Not Home', or not under the control of the City Council, but one would have thought that The Forum, or Millenium Plain outside of Chapelfield, would lend themselves better to this type of entertainment - bars and restaurants, and plenty of space for a casual audience too. And what about a limited local relaxation of the by-laws banning public consumption of alcohol? I would have loved to have sat with a bottle of wine enjoying the recent live feed of Don Giovanni, but three bum-numbing hours on the steps of The Forum without a discrete slurp of Pino Grigio was too much to contemplate. Presumably 'Head Out Not Home' is currently deemed an alcohol-free zone, too? (although several performers seemed to have cans on the go).

3) Information - Yes, I did clock the volunteer stewards at each pitch, but what was badly missing was a timetable of events or shows at each pitch. If you happen to wander past in between performances you have no way of knowing whether you have arrived too early for the start, or too late for the finish. Not everybody previously researches their Thursday visits as carefully as I did. I know from volunteering at events organised by Norfolk & Norwich Festival that attendances are heavily influenced by distribution of leaflets, and carefully worded posters. The current display of Go-Go Dragons has captured the public imagination because they know exactly where to find each dragon.

The feedback that came overwhelmingly from last weekend's Lord Mayor's Celebrations was that we all loved the atmosphere of those three activity-packed days and evenings in the Summer sunshine. Whilst nobody expects the centre of the city to be like that every evening, it does show that folk will come out in large numbers, and want to see the city centre buzzing.

Thank you Norwich. We do appreciate it, and really do want it to work. I know that this is not the Mediterranean, or Paris, but there are a lot of us that cannot afford to eat out every night or go to the theatre. This initiative should not just be about making the corporate tills ring, or attracting tourists, but about creating a vibrant streetlife for us because, without the Norwich residents coming out in force you cannot create a fake vibrancy for all the tea in China (or beer in Southwold).

Keep up to date with the rest of the 'Head Out Not Home' Thursday evening programme at http://www.norwichbid.co.uk/the-norwich-experience/early-evening-events/summer-events-schedule/
or by checking out their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/norwichevenings?fref=ts

Hope to see you all there one evening!


  1. 'local' Gambian musician Sefo Kanuteh playing on Hay Hill.

    Is he not a local?

    Also, shouldn't we be encouraging of a project/scheme like this if it means businesses (especially independents like The Grosvenor) are benefiting from it?

    I think it's a great idea to encourage the use of our businesses in Norwich through the means of free entertainment.

    What's wrong with HONH? It makes me feel intrigues as to what it is whereas Norwich Evening basically tells me nothing.

    Overall, cool post but a bit pessimistic for someone who would like to see Norwich 'grow'

    1. Sefo was born in Gambia, relocated to UK in 2011 and is currently based in Norwich when not touring. Sorry if I came across as pessimistic, was not my intention. Thanks for your feedback.