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To mark tonight's Eurovision Song Contest we look back to when Maidstone celebrated the Festival of Europe in the 1990s


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Many eyes will turn to Europe tonight as the final of the 65th Eurovision Song Contest gets underway.

So perhaps now it is apt to look back to before the Leave vote took us out of the EU and we all groaned about the M20 being ruined by Operation Brock for months and mark a time when Kent was still proud to celebrate its attachment to Europe.

Youngsters from many nationalities joined an event organised by the Twinning Association as part of the Festival of Europe
Youngsters from many nationalities joined an event organised by the Twinning Association as part of the Festival of Europe

The year was 1992 and the Festival of Europe was the brainchild of Alan Reading, a former designer.

Maidstone, the county town, was accustomed to its annual carnival that had been running since the 1940s and to the Maidstone River Festival created in 1978.

Mr Reading had been involved in both events. He is a former Kent Messenger design studio manager who was then working for Adverkit International, a company providing artwork services for publishers world-wide.

He became vice chairman of the Maidstone River Festival in 1991 and chairman of the town's Leisure and Tourism Committee in 1992.

He conceived the idea of a Maidstone Festival of Europe, combining all the town's existing activities – and with more beside – to celebrate the UK's Presidency of the Council of Europe that year.

Maidstone's Passport to Europe for the 1993 festival
Maidstone's Passport to Europe for the 1993 festival

The festival ran from July 25 until August 1 and included the 53rd Maidstone Carnival and the 13th Maidstone River Festival.

The intention, as Mr Reading put it in a newspaper article at the time, was "to put Maidstone on the map of Europe".

And that idea was taken literally by dividing the town into 16 different European countries (including some not in the EU), with each area sporting the flags and bunting of their adopted country, and with many restaurants and pubs offering the appropriate continental fare.

Italy was based in The Chequers Centre (now The Mall), Sweden was in Pudding Lane and Belgium was in Lower Stone Street.

Visitors to the town were invited to call in on each 'country' and have their festival passport stamped at one of the two businesses acting as "Checkpoint Charlies" in each area.

The Maidstone Carnival beauty queens with Miss Maidstone and her deputy
The Maidstone Carnival beauty queens with Miss Maidstone and her deputy

Those who clocked up 12 countries could visit the Town Hall to be entered into a prize draw with gifts which included a trolley dash in Safeways, a SeaCat trip to the Continent, a ferry ride to France and a flight to Le Touquet.

The purpose of the passport was two-fold: first to teach people about other European countries, secondly to encourage them to visit shops in parts of the town they never usually went to.

In addition, there was live music throughout the town, which included a visiting choir of 50 school children from Switzerland and the Klezmer Festival Band from Germany.

There was a vintage car parade, a simultaneous festival at Penenden Heath, a funfair at Lockmeadow and a production of A Midsummers Night's Dream at Brenchley Gardens, performed partly in English and partly in Slovac and Czech. There was also a look-alike competition, with appearances by The Queen and the then Prime Minister John Major among others.

It was a huge task of co-ordination that included the town's Twinning Association which was celebrating its 30th anniversary, Maidstone's newly-appointed town centre manager Eryll Woollett, the mayor Madeline Blackham, the chairman of the Maidstone and Mid Kent Chamber of Commerce and Industry David Brett and even Maidstone Hospital Radio, which broadcast live for a month as Maidstone Festival Radio, with a cool picture of Iggy, Maidstone's famous dinosaur as its logo.

Alan Reading today
Alan Reading today

For the main event, a Euro-starred logo was designed and printed on T-shirts for stewards to wear on the day

Mr Reading said: "There were about 20 people involved in the organising committee. There was no local TV then but the festival still made the news in all sorts of media.

"I remember visiting schools ahead of the event to get the school children excited about Europe."

He added: "The list of jobs was long. The number of people that the team had to contact was enormous.

"Shops, stores, restaurants, pubs, other tourist destinations, media companies – the organisers were looking for sponsors, advertisers, helpers, anyone that could share the vision and make things happen.

'The Queen', Howard Leader from BBC's That's Life, Miss Maidstone River Festival and the Prime Minister 'John Major' at the Maidstone Festival Of Europe
'The Queen', Howard Leader from BBC's That's Life, Miss Maidstone River Festival and the Prime Minister 'John Major' at the Maidstone Festival Of Europe

"There were many meetings, mainly in the evenings and at weekends, as the organisations concerned were charities or volunteers.

"We did a big presentation to an open audience in one of Maidstone's bigger hotels. It went well. The only complication was that when I collected all my display materials and went back to put them all in my car, I couldn’t find it. It had been stolen."

The festival went ahead with a 40-page programme, VIP guest John Altman, who played 'nasty' Nick Cotton in EastEnders and thousands of visitors.

At the end of the festival, an Article of Association was signed at Boughton Monchelsea Place between Maidstone, represented by the mayor, and a number of European towns including Poiters in France, Namur in Belgium and Coimbra in Portugal.

The festival was deemed such a success that naturally the town wanted to do it all over again the next year.

Gillian Gibson, organiser of the Penenden Heath Festival with the Mayoress of Maidstone Cllr Madeleine Blackham
Gillian Gibson, organiser of the Penenden Heath Festival with the Mayoress of Maidstone Cllr Madeleine Blackham

The second Festival of Europe ran from July 9 to July 31, 1993.

It is very obvious from the 56-page programme that it was even bigger and better.

This time Maidstone was divided into 13 European countries. Far more music groups and artists arrived from Europe to take part in the street entertainment.

Forrest Amusements provided a funfair in Mote Park and former heavyweight British boxing champion Gary Mason was the VIP guest.

Mr Reading said: "Everything was carefully thought out.

A vintage car parade travelled from Maidstone town centre to Penenden Heath for the 1992 Festival of Europe
A vintage car parade travelled from Maidstone town centre to Penenden Heath for the 1992 Festival of Europe

"Even the location of the Town Hall as the final destination was because so many ordinary folk had never visited this gem in the town centre, feeling it was out-of-bounds to them."

The event was a huge success. Some 7,000 people were thought to have attended the Penenden Heath Festival alone with its dog display, archery contest, dancing and kite displays.

And the crowds watching the firework display that ended the River Festival element were estimated at 80,000.

Read more: All the latest news from Maidstone

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