St Leonards-on-Sea’s biggest multi-site community festival of the year, #ATownExploresABook21, opens 1st April and runs through the Easter holiday. April Fool’s Day fun centres around the nonsense poetry project which artist Peter Quinnell and his team have been exploring with residents in Stockleigh Road and parts of Carisbrooke and Silchester Road. 

This project, and all the festival’s creative responses, are inspired by this year’s book choice, Edward Lear’s 1871 Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets. The Bavard Bar has lively and eccentric perspectives to share on the anthology in the festival’s opening online event on Isolation Station Hastings on 1st April at 7pm.

But it’s the second day of the festival, the Good Friday bank holiday, when the #owlandthepussycat150 celebrations begin in earnest. Lear’s 1871 anthology contains the first publication of the nation’s favourite children’s poem (as polled in 2014), The Owl And The Pussy-Cat, first penned for Hastings MP Frederick North’s grandchild. Hastings and Bexhill Mencap’s Active Arts has led a community project creating 150 owls and
their cat partners for a joyous trail around St Leonards.

Ann Bloomfield, Project Co-ordinator for Active Arts, explains: “Our students have been busy creating owls since November. During lockdown they have been working twice a week via Zoom to create so many of the colourful owls on display.” She says it has been such an exciting project that they were also joined by members of Hastings & Bexhill Mencap Open Door day service and residents from Westwood and Streatfield House residential care homes who created alongside them. 

Explaining how best to view the display, she says: “We encourage you to begin the trail at Hastings and Bexhill Mencap’s shop in Kings Road where we have a big display of our tawny, little and eagle owls that were made originally for the exhibition Looking at Things, then take a walk around and seek out many art works made by us and the community.”

Erica Smith, the festival’s community engagement co-ordinator, says: “The owl-making that began with Hastings and Bexhill Mencap’s Active Arts students has spread like wildfire through the local community. From 1st-18th April there will be owls in front gardens and windows across St Leonards. We will publish an online Owl Trail map on our website to help you find them.”

“Edward Lear often drew himself as an owl. In his later years he had a cat called Fos that he adored. It’s easy to read The Owl and the Pussy-Cat as wish-fulfilment for Lear. Whilst he had strong friendships with both men and women throughout his life, he never felt able to settle down and marry. If Lear was alive today, he probably would have been part of the LGBTQ+ community. Poems like The Duck and the Kangaroo and The Nutcrackers and the Sugar-Tongs – which run away together – can be seen as celebrating unconventional relationships.” 

Visit the festival’s ‘What’s on’ page for details of all the events in this eighteen-day festival which will comprise the national marking of Edward Lear’s famous poem in a celebration of nonsense humour guaranteed to lift spirits in pandemic times. The festival, funded by Arts Council England, Hastings Borough Council, Sussex Community Foundation as well as the East Sussex Build Stronger Communities match the crowdfunder that the festival community group ran in 2020, is covid-adjusted with a blend of children’s outdoor art display and online experience.

The festival’s social medial channels (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) will offer daily experiences generated by the energetic team of early career artist mentees recruited to the festival core team. Expect much nonsense!

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