Abbie Panks has become the third ever female chair of Festival Too, one of Europe’s largest, free, outdoor festivals. Here she talks of overcoming a heart attack at the age of 35 and how she can’t wait for live music to take centre-stage again next year
My life up until now has been a heck of a rollercoaster, but a pretty good one overall. I’m lucky in the respect that during my adult life I’ve been involved in some really interesting jobs, hobbies and projects which have keep me both busy and entertained for the past 43 years.
It’s not been without its hurdles. A heart attack at 35 from a congenital defect slowed me down for a while but, post-surgery, I got back up to full speed fairly swiftly. Although an awful experience, it gave me an even greater lust for life and, if anything, spurred me on even more. I’m not very good at sitting about doing nothing so I made for a terrible patient!
At the start of the year, I was just finishing up my time working as manager of arc shopping centre in Bury St Edmunds. I decided to take some time out as I’ve worked back-to-back my whole life and have never really given myself any significant ‘me time’ (not even holidays) and it seemed a pretty good time to do that. Little did I know that would be extended as, no sooner as I left in February, we headed straight into lockdown.
Then at the start of lockdown, I lost a friend to suicide and I wanted to use the time to try and fundraise for local charities including Norfolk and Waveney Mind and with King’s Arms at Shouldham and Emily’s family and friends – we have raised just under £11,000 so far. I’m hoping we can get to £15,000 in Emily’s name. That money will be used to support suicide prevention in West Norfolk.
Like everyone else I’ve had ups and downs during lockdown. I think I actually had a bit of mourning time for my day to day very busy lifestyle and for a little while I felt rather useless.
Quite early on it became apparent that there were lots of people in the immediate and wider community who needed support, so I threw myself into doing as much as I could on that front, both for individuals who needed help with shopping, gardening or errands running but also community ventures, charities and businesses who needed support with changes required to help them continue to trade and grow.
Behind the scenes I had the time to think about what I wanted to do once lockdown ended and that was a real blessing. Workwise, I am an unusual mix of business and arts in background and, now more than ever, there is real value in those industries working together hand in hand.
One of the main things I have learnt during lockdown is how much I miss designing and managing events and how important they are for our wellbeing and community, but also as a boost to our tourism industry and local businesses. Giving people access to arts is not just about entertainment.
A large part of everything I do is about bringing people together, whether that’s bringing them into a leisure space, a shopping centre, or to an event or into a business – it’s all ultimately about connection and that’s been one of the most challenging things to work around during the pandemic, the lack of social connection and coming up with ways to help combat that.
It was such a lovely surprise to receive a letter from The Lady Dannatt, MBE (HM Lord-Lieutenant of Norfolk) and it’s really thoughtful that she’s taking the time to thank people during the pandemic. She has fabulous handwriting too!
Honestly, it’s such a pleasure to become the third ever female chair of Festival Too in King’s Lynn. I’m working alongside such a dedicated and brilliant committee (including a founding member) who all care so much about the festival. It’s a real ‘can do’ and hands-on team.
Growing up, King’s Lynn was the closest town to me of size and, in fact, Festival Too was one of my first experiences of live music, which has been a passion I’ve held though my whole life. It’s such an asset to the county and there are not many places which hold a free to attend festival of its size (80,000 over the three weekends). It’s something that many of our artists comment on, in fact.
I’m fully expecting we will have a number of significant challenges over the coming years, not least with Covid-19 restrictions but also in terms of funding the festival. It costs us £110,000 to deliver and, as a committee, that’s money we need to bring in. We have some excellent supporters who contribute but I think the next two years will be somewhat more difficult.
In terms of other changes, during lockdown I’ve been doing my industry standard qualification for sustainable event management which has given me some more ideas on how we can make the event more sustainable for the next 35 years.
It’s vital for me to promote my corner of Norfolk to the world at large and I sing its praises at every available opportunity, whether it’s the vast skies, the beaches, the architecture, forest walks, the history, the food or the people. I’m a very proud Norfokian!
I’m based in west Norfolk which can sometimes be a bit overlooked so I’m particularly passionate about highlighting all the great things we have happening over here.
I love that we have the best of both worlds too. If I need to work in the city, it takes me 90 odd minutes on the train, or I can drive for 20 minutes and be sitting on the beach. I really don’t think I’d want to be anywhere else.
(Featured image of Abbie and ‘trolls’: Abbie is one of the event organisers of the Fairyland Trust, which organises the Fairy Fair and Real Halloween events)