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17 July 2018
The ever-popular British Summer Time (BST) festival returned to Hyde Park this July, bringing two weekends of incredible live music to the capital. From The Cure and Eric Clapton to Bruno Mars and Paul Simon, legends to suit every musical taste were on hand to entertain countless fans in one of the UK’s favourite outdoor spaces.
A disability-friendly festival from the start, this year saw the Barclaycard-sponsored event take its efforts to ensure equal access for all even more seriously than before, with a number of improvements made and new innovations being rolled out.
Below, you will find more information about what the team at BST did to help make this year’s instalment the most accessible yet, along with a quick look back at the amazing performances which took place on the festival’s closing day.
Most fans of live music who have mobility issues will agree that – at almost every event – the levels of access and disability-friendly facilities available are now much improved compared to how they were just a decade or so ago.
However, it is still often the case (especially at outdoor festivals) that ensuring a smooth and straightforward visitor experience for disabled guests seems to only be something that is considered as an afterthought. It is clear from exploring the BST Hyde Park site, however, that the organisers do all they can to prioritise the needs of limited mobility guests, and then build the rest of the festival experience around the accessibility facilities.
One example of this proactive approach is the lowered service areas which were in evidence across the site. The above picture shows one of many lowered service points that were in place on each side of the festival’s bars, allowing wheelchair users to relax in the knowledge that they would be able to order refreshments quickly and easily at any time, and avoid the risk of not being noticed amongst the crowds of standing customers.
Elsewhere around the festival, the prioritisation of wheelchair users was demonstrated even more clearly, with other important service points such as the official merchandise stands all exclusively having lowered counters (as shown in the above picture).
This approach was fundamental to the success of BST Hyde Park from an accessibility point of view, and could easily be replicated by any other festival or live music event which is looking to appeal to more limited mobility guests. It cannot be overstated how important it is that disabled customers (in any retail setting) are given the peace of mind of knowing they will be able to access whatever they need, whenever it is needed beforehand.
The reassurance this ‘disability first’ approach provides is every bit as vital as the practicalities of making the necessary adaptations, and BST Hyde Park demonstrated how publicising these facilities in advance will contribute to excellent ticket sales – all but one of this year’s six concerts were completely sold out long before the shows took place.
Many people who have been to music festivals in the past often joke about how unpleasant the experience of going to the toilet there can be, especially on the final day of an event that has been running for a week or so! However, those with limited mobility and their carers will be able to tell you that the provision of adequate restrooms in public spaces is a very serious matter, and not something that is always planned for as well as it should be.
Generally, though, BST Hyde Park met the challenges of providing disability-friendly bathroom facilities well. For a start, all of the disabled toilets were conveniently located and – as can be seen in the picture above – well signposted. The facilities were also clean and regularly supervised by friendly and approachable staff who were happy to help with any special requirements.
There were fairly lengthy queues for the toilets at peak times (i.e. in between the evening’s main acts), which was the one area in which further improvements could be considered for next year’s event. The Hyde Park site on which the festival is held is a massive area, so it is unlikely there would be any logistical difficulties in adding to or even doubling the number of standard accessible restrooms.
However, the festival must be praised for its comprehensive provision of Changing Places facilities. Specifically designed to assist people with complex needs and their carers visit the bathroom with comparative ease, these units have been appearing at more and more public attractions in recent years (although there is still a long way to go until they are offered at the majority of such places).
The above picture shows the exterior of the Changing Places facilities available at BST Hyde Park, which included important features such as an adult changing bench, hoist, privacy screen, emergency alarm and, crucially, an adequate amount of floor space in which to manoeuvre comfortably. ‘Changing places’ is exactly what these relatively new facilities are doing, and it is to be hoped that more event organisers follow this festival’s lead in the coming years and increase the number of such units available at them.
Another area in which BST Hyde Park impressed was with its dedicated Welfare Tent, which provided a range of services not just for people with disabilities but for anyone who found themselves needing support during their attendance.
A calm and caring team – some of whom have worked at the festival every year since it began in 2013 – were on hand to oversee all kinds of services, such as reuniting people who became separated from their carers or parents, offering a ‘quiet space’ in which anyone with a hidden disability could take some time out to get away from the noise of the main site, and even handing out free bottles of sun cream!
The Welfare Tent also shared a premises with volunteers from St John Ambulance, who were on hand to help anyone who needed immediate first aid assistance or was otherwise in distress.
Everyone who lives with a disability knows that there are certain stereotypes which are sometimes still attached to the community, including the notion that being disabled necessarily means being a wheelchair user. Fortunately, however, the organisers of BST Hyde Park have shown a great deal of knowledge and understanding of the challenges facing live music fans with a wide range of disabilities, including hardness of hearing.
Admirably, the access team at the festival arranged for live interpreters of BSL (British Sign Language) to be available to provide sign language for every performance which took place on the main stage throughout the festival. The interpreters were positioned right at the side of the stage, meaning they were fully able to immerse themselves in and project the atmosphere of the music as it was being played, and their signing was clearly yet unobtrusively displayed in the corners of the two massive electronic screens which stood behind the performers.
Each of the sign language experts who were used were enthusiastic and clearly enjoying the music every bit as much as the crowd they were interpreting to, and they even mimed the playing of various instruments during the song introductions and solos in order to show which sound was dominating when no words were being sung.
Of course, the most important part of attending any music festival – whether or not you have limited mobility – is being able to enjoy experiencing your favourite songs performed by the artists you love. Fortunately, BST Hyde Park did their utmost to ensure that wheelchair users and others with disabilities were given the best view possible of their musical idols.
There were two accessible areas adjacent to the main ‘Great Oak’ stage, both of which offered excellent, unimpeded views of the performances. A raised Viewing Platform provided a spacious area in which dozens of wheelchair users and their carers could relax, whilst the Ground Level Viewing Area provided plenty of seating for people who either required an uncrowded space or were only able to stand for short periods of time.
Plenty of staff were on hand throughout the performances to handle any requests, and there was also a small but well-stocked bar conveniently located at the side of the viewing areas. The atmosphere in both of the viewing areas was relaxed and friendly, with several of the guests commenting that they made the journey to BST Hyde Park every year – surely the biggest vote of confidence the festival’s accessibility facilities could have.
There was also a Viewing Platform available at the second ‘Barclaycard’ stage, which ensured that it was not just fans of the headline acts who were given the opportunity to see their heroes play live in comfort and safety.
The extent to which the organisers of BST Hyde Park have considered the needs of their disabled guests is clear to anyone who attends. It is no surprise that the festival was the first to have been awarded the prestigious Silver Level of the Charter of Best Practice by the campaigning disability charity Attitude is Everything in its inaugural year.
As Jim King, Festival Director of BST Hyde Park, told us in our recent interview with him, future instalments of the event are sure to be even more disability-friendly: “Each year we look to improve based on customer feedback, which we collate via post-event surveys and mystery shoppers.” With this in mind, there can be little doubt that the 2019 event will be even more exciting and enjoyable for people with limited mobility than this year has been.
Even the best accessibility facilities in the world would not quite make up for a disappointing festival line-up, of course, but anyone who visited BST Hyde Park on its closing day would certainly not have been let down in this respect.
From the impressive range of food and drink on offer (with the likes of German bratwurst, vegan curry and gourmet burgers available to those who worked up an appetite in the sun) to the mesmerising samba carnival procession that wound its way around the site in between acts, everything about the festival provided a feast for the senses.
As for the music itself, the artists who graced the bill on Sunday 15 July presented a perfect day for lovers of both classic and contemporary folk-tinged rock.
Over on the Barclaycard stage, up-and-coming American country singer Sarah Darling gave the kind of confident, assured and note-perfect performance that would suggest a place on the main stage in years to come would be well-deserved.
Along with plenty of melodious originals, a highlight of Darling’s set was her faithful interpretation of the Fleetwood Mac classic ‘Dreams’, which anyone who wasn’t in sight of the stage could have been forgiven for thinking was being sung by Stevie Nicks herself.
The highlights came thick and fast on the Great Oak stage, meanwhile: country-pop duo Ward Thomas stood out for getting a huge reaction from the crowd, given that they took to the stage relatively early in the afternoon. Graduates from playing the Barclaycard stage in 2017, it was easy to see why the twin sisters from Hampshire were promoted to the big leagues this year.
The gloriously eccentric folk-rock sounds of Johnny Flynn & the Sussex Wit were next up – a rare treat for fans, as frontman Flynn explained that it was their first (and possibly only) gig of the year. Along with songs from their latest record, the band also used their appearance to mark the tenth anniversary of the release of their debut album, A Larum, by playing several tracks from it, including a rousing finale of crowd favourite ‘The Box’.
Blues legend Bonnie Rait was the hardest rocking of all Sunday’s acts, with a surprising highlight of the set being a memorable rendition of the Talking Heads hit, ‘Burning Down the House’, whilst the evening’s final support act, evergreen singer-songwriter James Taylor, brought things back to a more laid-back level with his relaxed yet sublime delivery of such classics as ‘Carolina in My Mind’ and the Carole King-penned ‘You’ve Got a Friend’.
Last but certainly not least, and closing off BST Hyde Park 2018 in style, was the living legend that is Paul Simon. In the knowledge that they were set to enjoy the last ever live performance outside of North America by one of music’s all-time greats, the atmosphere in the jam-packed crowd was one of unbridled excitement and anticipation.
Opening with ‘America’, one of only two Simon & Garfunkel songs he played during the main set (the other being an imaginative interpretation of the timeless ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’), Simon treated the crowd to a performance that was split more or less 50/50 between well-known hits and challenging yet engaging recent tracks.
Many thought that the evening may have finished with two favourites from the legendary Graceland album, ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’ and ‘You Can Call Me Al’, but this was really just the beginning of what turned out to be an extraordinary ending.
Treating the audience to not one but two encores, Simon reeled off a series of classics to end his final UK performance, including ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’, ‘Graceland’, ‘The Boxer’ and, fittingly, ‘Homeward Bound’ (accompanied on the big screens by photos from his six-decade touring career).
The most sublime moment of the entire day, however, was its last. For a crowd that had been so raucously noisy for around 10 hours, it was mesmerising to hear Hyde Park fall appropriately silent to listen to ‘The Sound of Silence’ sung, with just his own acoustic guitar for accompaniment, by a songwriting icon saying goodbye to his British fans for the final time.
Everyone who lives with limited mobility knows that - despite many improvements being made in recent years – day-to-day life can present difficulties that people who are always able to move freely would struggle to truly appreciate, from having to take the time to research and compare stairlifts prices to visiting poorly-equipped public spaces in safety.
Nevertheless, the team at events like BST Hyde Park show that it is more than possible to provide a memorable and enjoyable visitor experience to people with all kinds of physical and hidden disabilities; hopefully, even more events will follow their lead in future and recognise the importance of ensuring truly equal access for all.