It was planned primarily as a means of celebrating British achievements in the fields of the arts, architecture, industry, science and technology, but also as a way of lifting the spirits of a nation that was still feeling the effects of the Second World War. The 1951 Festival of Britain, with its magnificent Dome of Discovery, Royal Festival Hall, futuristic Skylon and numerous pavilions with exhibitions on all sorts of subjects certainly achieved both of these aims, with over eight million people visiting the site on the south bank of the River Thames in London. Even more visitors flocked to the Festival Pleasure Gardens in Battersea Park, where families could enjoy numerous attractions including a fun fair, zoo, boating lake and the whimsical Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Railway. For those Britons who were unable to travel to the capital, there were complementary exhibitions in towns and cities across the country and even a Festival Ship, Campania, that took the celebrations to coastal venues around our island.
The hard times (“austerity” as it has come to be widely described) did not vanish overnight, and there was still a lot of reconstruction to be done before the scars of 1939-45 were healed, but by the time the five-month festival was over many people did feel a greater sense of confidence, optimism and pride in their country. While preparing the autumn issue of This England it struck me that there are certain parallels between then and now. Although most people are certainly better off as far as housing, health and material possessions go, we still hear a lot about “austerity” and people struggling to make ends meet. And following last year’s Referendum and the decision that the United Kingdom was going to leave the European Union, there have been a lot of doom-laden, negative comments from people who do not believe we will be able to survive as an independent, self-governing nation once again, making our own laws, controlling our own borders, protecting our fishing grounds and spending our money on projects that benefit the people of the United Kingdom.
I believe, therefore, that we should organise a new, 21st-century festival to celebrate and promote our wonderful country. I have written about in the Editor’s Letter, but envisage an all-embracing “Festival of the United Kingdom”, encompassing all four home nations. It would highlight our magnificent history and culture, pay tribute to the great men and women from these islands who have excelled in so many fields, remind visitors to the site (somewhere strategically situated in the centre of England?) of everything our country has given the world (inventions, industry, literature, scientific discoveries, political and social movements, charitable and philanthropic societies etc.) and acknowledge the priceless contributions made by our greatest national institutions: the Royal Family and the Armed Forces. There would also be displays and exhibitions recognising the importance of the Commonwealth countries and, perhaps most importantly as we rediscover our role as a great trading nation free from the constraints imposed by the EU, a series of stands and demonstrations showcasing the best UK businesses and the latest developments in science and technology.
I intend writing to prominent businessmen and public figures to see whether they would be interested in supporting such a festival. If you think it is a good idea, or if you have any suggestions of your own, please leave your comments here, write to me at our Cheltenham office, or send an email to email@example.com
You can follow the progress of our campaign and read any comments we receive in each quarterly issue of the magazine. To arrange a subscription, please click here.