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Rural Roots in the City

"Urban Village Fête celebrates people, experiences and products that are unique, innovative, thought-provoking and fun."

Fête: the French word for feast. Though nowadays most dictionaries give the definition as a celebration or party. Everyone comes together. Young and old, rich and poor, celebrating the arrival of summer, the beginning or end of harvest…the reason doesn’t matter as much as the willingness of people to be part of the event.

Food has always been at the centre of this most British of outdoor get-togethers. The traditional village fête is a diner’s delight; stalls heavily laden with jams, cheeses, pickles, and glorious towers of Victoria sponge cakes seduce the eye, while succulent hog roasts and sizzling sausages fill the air with fragrant temptation.

Photography: Nina Manandhar

Meanwhile, creative types get stuck into epic flower-arranging and jam-making competitions. And don’t forget the super-sized veg and fruit contests, where rivalries have been known to run for generations. And then there’s donkey rides and coconut shies and tug-of-war and impromptu games of cricket where everyone has a go and no one bothers to keep the score.

With its roots firmly anchored in rural life, is it possible to transfer the idea of a village fête to the mean streets of London? Would urban-dwellers be willing to down tools, hang out with their neighbours and even contribute to such an event?

Photograph: Laura Dale

The thing is London is no ordinary city. The unique nature of its sprawl has given birth to a very particular landscape: the London boroughs. Fiercely independent, each one cultivates and guards its own distinct ambience and personality.

They are almost like mini-cities, and within that, there is further fragmentation, cities within cities within a city. Greenwich alone is home to a more than a dozen mini iterations of itself, including, of course, the newly fledged Greenwich Peninsula. So although the idea of a fête may sound far removed from a ‘London thing’ when put into this context, it’s not actually that hard to imagine.

 

Photograph: Laura Dale

Well, this is exactly how London’s latest fête, Greenwich Peninsula’s Urban Village Fete, came to be. Because when a community is emerging from scratch, there’s nothing like some tried and tested methods to get things off to a good start.

Naturally, there was a level of risk involved: this fête could not be some twee, rural knees-up transposed to an urban environment. So the organisers had to think carefully about the ingredients that would bring a new urban community together. So they looked to the basics: food, drink, music, participation and interaction.

But when delivering these components, they looked for twists and surprises; they looked for different perspectives and approaches; they sought out artists and makers who were new themselves and who put a different spin on their work and wares. And then they took a deep breath, and the Urban Village Fête was launched.

 

Photograph: Laura Dale

The inaugural event three years ago felt like a housewarming. Or a Peninsula-warming if you like. The newly fledged community gathered together to celebrate its space and its people. And it worked. The Peninsulists came together. They talked together, they danced together, they ate together, they played together and they laughed together. They even had a few drinks together.  And then they did it again. And again. And then other people came.

So there are no donkey rides or coconut shies. But there is Maypole dancing, and hog roasts and a few (ok many) stalls heavily laden with cakes and cheeses and the like. And this year there’s even a contest just for the community: to design ‘balcony gardens using mainly concrete.’ It’s aimed at Ravensbourne’s students — who are, after all, a big part of the Peninsula’s fabric. But the winning design will go into production and be unveiled at Sample Autumn, a pop-up design market of the Urban Village Fête, and may ultimately grace the balconies of other Peninsula dwellers.

Photograph: Laura Dale

Here’s the thing: compact and green though it is, Greenwich Peninsula was never going to be anything like a rural village, it’s far more than that. But there’s nothing to say that its people can’t get together and be just as tight-knit. It doesn’t mean they can’t support each other and shape the character of their neighbourhood.

Urban Village Fête celebrates people, experiences and products that are unique, innovative, thought-provoking and fun. Curated by creative supremos Hemingway Design and the cultural team at Greenwich Peninsula, the fête focuses on nurturing up-and-coming talent and giving a platform to people who like to do things a little bit differently. And it’s all about bringing these people together: so that’s why it’s genre-blending DJ Gilles Peterson in charge of music and fierce BBC Radio London broadcaster and writer Robert Elms hosting talks throughout the day.

Above all, Urban Village Fête is proof that this newly-minted bit of London is starting to burst with contemporary community spirit, a tough call in a city that can often feel fragmented, digitally-obsessed and lonely. And if that’s not worth celebrating we don’t know what is.