From vision to reality: the Purley Festival story

By - Friday 25th July, 2014

Kirsty MacLennan relates how a chat over a drink turned into some serious community activism for Purley-ites – and for Fiona Lipscombe

Celebrating success at Purley Festival.
Photo by the Purley Festival organisers, used with permission.

We all do it: we talk about putting the world to rights over a drink with a friend. But not many of us take action. Fiona Lipscombe, John Newberry and Ian Harris were bemoaning the lack of music events over lunch one day. They used to go to Croydon’s Summer Festival – the World Party and the Mela in Lloyd Park. The Jolly Farmers pub also put on a wonderful music festival. And then it all stopped for various reasons and they really missed it.

“John and I are passionate about music and the community; we were talking about creating a festival” remembers Fiona. “So I said: “How hard can it be?” We agree it must be straightforward – a few stalls and a stage and you’re good to go. And that was the start of Purley Festival“.

While working as an administrator, Fiona had dreamed of being involved in music events. Then, having moved to the US with her family, she got the opportunity to help organise and put on shows, and realised that “ordinary” people could make extraordinary things happen.

“It’s that attitude of: ‘Let’s just do it’,”she says. “It’s naïve but sometimes if you start thinking too much about the big picture, you get overwhelmed. Once you’re in it, you have to do it to the best of your ability and make it happen”.

The first year, 2011, was a huge learning curve for the small team. “It felt a bit crazy, but we were really focused. We didn’t realise what we’d taken on. There were things that we just didn’t think about or plan for. We did it on a shoestring and were flying by the seat of our pants”.

Fiona was determined that their festival would not be a glorified village fête. The vision was to put on a mini Edinburgh-type festival where anyone could be involved. “We published a program and had a website. It was just done – not super professionally. The first festival exceeded my expectations because people actually came and enjoyed it. That was a huge boost and more people came on board to help organise the next one”.

Fiona Lipscombe.
Photo author’s own.

“In the second year, we got finances together. More and more people came on to the committee and we became a lot slicker. The council was very supportive and held our hands through the licensing, and health and safety rules. They were a huge help in making sure we did things the proper way”.

“Purley Festival is community-driven and people get to promote whatever they’re doing, whether it’s a play, a music night, an allotment open day or street art. There’s room for it to grow in all directions which is exciting as you don’t know where it’s going to lead you. Our ultimate dream is three weeks’ worth of comedy, music, and a weekend in the park with an eclectic range of attractions that appeal to all ages”.

Every person on the Purley Festival team is a volunteer. “‘Because we are so passionate and have a huge range of skills, the organisation is now quite well-developed. We are concentrating on being more organised and businesslike, without losing our vision. Cost and profit centres have only recently become part of my vocabulary. That’s the part I enjoy – learning all the time.

“Every year, we come up with ideas to make the Festival more interesting. We’re hoping to have a film screening in the park on a Friday night next year. As well as those volunteers who deal with finance and operations, we need the creative members of the team. At our meetings, it’s like having your battery charged. We all leave really excited, motivated and full of ideas.’

As the festival has grown, more people have become involved as volunteers and been able to try doing something new. This year someone had the chance to be a stage manager and he loved it. He’s now a permanent member of the team.

I’m lucky to work with such an incredible bunch of people

“The end result is a huge set of people, absolutely amazing working together, creating an event that people love”, says Fiona. “To produce a week-long festival, which is so popular with the local community, plus an incredible weekend of entertainment which people travel to, is no mean feat. I am so lucky to work with an incredible bunch of people who are just brilliant at what they do”.

Fiona’s tips on making your dream project a reality:

  • Be clear about your vision and what you want to achieve. In the second year I wrote our mission statement. We want it to be an eclectic mix; it can change later down the line
  • Assess what resources you’ve already got in place. If you look at the whole project, it can be too daunting. Take baby steps and do little bits at a time
  • Your enterprise needs to be an asset, not a burden to you. If you want to spend time with your children, then don’t do something that means you are working day and night
  • Be aware of your own skills and limitations, and don’t be ashamed of your weaknesses. People respect honesty and requests for help
  • It’s important to have meetings in person. You don’t get that energy and emotional investment on Skype or over the phone
  • Never beat yourself up over failures. Learn from your mistakes but try not to repeat them. If you can’t resolve it, don’t fight against it – you’ll drive yourself nuts. It’s like the rain at a festival – you can’t do anything about it, so accept it
  • Value all the people you work with. Their energy and skills are vital to you and what you are trying to achieve. Never take them for granted
  • Kindness, compassion and acceptance make life so much easier. If someone messes up, think about what’s going on in their life before getting frustrated with them. Be kind in dealing with people on all levels. That is part of our festival philosophy and what is amazing is that we get kindness and help back in shedloads

Purley Festival runs a mentoring system where volunteers (aged 16+) are matched with an experienced member of the group to get experience or learn new skills. (This is great for university personal statements and CVs.) They’re then able to give them a reference; one journalism student went on to work for the Croydon Advertiser. There is also a youth group called The PJs, for young people aged 13-16, which is looking for members. For more information, contact the team at .

Kirsty MacLennan

Kirsty MacLennan

Having worked in magazine publishing for over 20 years, Kirsty set her sights on the tech world and now writes content for websites and marketing agencies. Originally from Cape Town, South Africa, she appreciates the cosmopolitan, culturally diverse nature of Croydon. She keeps a mental list of entrepreneurs, actors, artists and other leading lights who turn out to have come from this borough. (One is Annie Sloan, who attended Croydon Art School and invented Chalk Paint, used by upcyclers across the world.) Kirsty is also an avid designer-maker and has launched her own craft brand, Three Words.

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  • Adrian Winchester

    It’s impressive to see how it has grown, although even the first one was good. I’d take care before expanding to three weeks, though, as there are so many festivals springing up that in June and July there’s often a choice of at least two at the same time. In such circumstances there’s a lot to be said for quality as opposed to quantity (of events) and Purley sets a good example in that respect.