Being a teen in the noughties on the Isle of Wight was great in the summer with the revival of the Isle of Wight Festival and creation of Bestival but between those two weekends there was little else to do. With the closure of Ryde Theatre visiting bands became few and restless young minds turned their attentions to events off of the Island.
The prospect of leaving home and going away to university was so much more exciting because this astonishingly beautiful Island had little to offer the young cultural succubi.
In order to see exciting bands, plays and art exhibitions young people had to take a boat journey away from the Island to Southampton, Portsmouth and then onto London.
For three young people back in 2009 (Jack Whitewood, Mhairi Macaulay and Thea Welsford) the idea that they might not return to their beloved hometown became very real. Returning home after university had seemingly no benefit to their careers or cultural awakening.
“We wanted a reason to come back.” – Mhairi Macaulay.
These three sixth form students began meeting in pubs and discussing how they could fill this cultural void. The initial planning on beer mats and paper napkins in the Crab & Lobster Tap soon found help from a team of mentors (Simon Perry, Sally Perry, Jim Willis, Liz Cooke, Malcolm Lloyd and Kathy Whitewood) sharing their own event planning experiences with our three 18-year-old students.
“It was just the initial year really, we tried to share what knowledge we had to do with events and since then the Ventnor Fringe has become bigger and better every year. A lot of us still pitch in with where we can and think they’ve done a brilliant job of bringing people down to the Island every year.” – Jim Willis.
An entire year of planning culminated with the first ever Ventnor Fringe in the August of 2010. This first year premiered with names such as The String Theatre, Michael Champion, award winning film director Vincent Moon and the now critically acclaimed folk singer/actor Johnny Flynn.
Three and a half days has steadily become six; jam packed with comedy, spoken word, art, film and music across Ventnor town. 2016 is set to be the best yet, with the addition of the Ventnor International Festival.
Not only has the festival grown in size but the core VFringe team has been increasing in numbers every year. The first Ventnor Fringe attracted friend and budding event organiser/designer Joe Keele-Toms and Arts Management undergrad, Becky Boucherat. These two names have reappeared each year and remain crucial to the development of the festival. Then in 2013 we had the edition of local socialite and vinyl collector, Billy May who has taken on many roles across the festival.
“I met Thea when I was doing my foundation year at University in London. She told me about this cool little festival she and her friends were organizing and I just tagged along and chipped in where I could. I really wanted to get involved with festival organization and I fell in love with the Ventnor Fringe ethos, the town and its people.” – Becky Boucherat.
In November 2014 the Ventnor Fringe found a year-round home, The Ventnor Exchange. Described as an “accident” by Festival Director, Jack Whitewood, The Exchange, as it’s known, has become a creative hub for people across the Island.
“We needed a box office for Ventnor Fringe and people kept telling us that the old post office was available to rent. After some time of umming and ahhing, we decided to go for it. When we got inside we realised that the space was far too big to keep as a box office which is why we now have a café/ bar/ record store/ theatre/ everything else space.” – Jack Whitewood.
In truth, the Ventnor Exchange actually first opened its doors during the 2014 Ventnor Fringe as a pop-up box office. At this point it still resembled an old post office with various people walking in asking what stamps were recommended for next day delivery.
Over 12 months the 80s postal husk transformed into a chic London-esque record store, bar and café that stocked over 40 different craft beers from across the world.
Ventnor Exchange has showcased a number of spectacular performances since their opening with names such as the Flabbergast Theatre, Maria Ferguson, Luke Wright, Ahir Shar, Grainne Maguire, Joe Bone, Chordorize, Bonchurch Theatre Company and Reading Between the Lines.
Ventnor Exchange has been granted Arts Council funding which means that they’ve been able to create some of their own theatre productions over the last year. At Christmas they had the popular premier of Good Night Little Bear, and most recently their puppet show, Wireless. Ventnor Exchange has started running children’s workshops. So far they have had Songwriting with Paul Armfield, Night Photography with Lucy Boynton, Watercolours and Abstract painting with Mhairi Macaulay and Spoken Word with Maria Ferguson.
“I didn’t move down to the Island until I was 10. As a child growing up in London, my mum used to take me and my sister to art workshops at Hampstead School of Art and we loved them. We did still life, watercolour and pottery. I like to think that these workshops fuelled my creativity as a child and played a part into my career path as an adult. I wanted to give kids in this community the same experience.” – Mhairi Macaulay.
Lastly, but by no means least, the record store: the revival of vinyl records has been keenly observed by the VFringe crew who felt that it needed to be a part of their space, which is why Ventnor Exchange sells new and old releases of vinyl records.
“I started record collecting after a night when I got very drunk in Southampton, I must have been about 20. I walked into a charity shop and found a copy of Spanish Flea for 50p and I really wanted it, so that’s when I started collecting. As for Ventnor Fringe, I worked with Jack at The Bonchurch Inn, he told me how much fun event organisation was. Then in 2013, I finally realised what a good liar he was.” – Billy May.
The vinyl revival in Ventnor has meant that Record Store Day came back with a vengeance in 2015. This resurgence had people queuing outside Ventnor Exchange from 6am to get their favourite records.
I think you’re about up to date with what’s going on. So here we go again…