Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Snuffed out - regatta fireworks off

THIS year’s summer fireworks in Henley have been cancelled after the organiser pulled out.

THIS year’s summer fireworks in Henley have been cancelled after the organiser pulled out.

Billy Pinches, who has been managing the display on the Saturday of Henley Royal Regatta since 2010, is leaving the town and selling his land at Meadows Farm, off Marlow Road, where the event takes place.

The 71-year-old, a lifelong Henley resident, is moving to Herefordshire to be nearer his daughter and grandchildren following the death of his father Peter in December.

Mr Pinches said it was becoming harder to raise the £12,000 annual running cost as a growing number of regular supporters were backing out and he was having to plough more of his own money into it.

He was able to keep the event going last year after receiving an £8,000 grant from Henley Town Council. This year he requested the same amount but the authority wanted to see detailed accounts, which Mr Pinches said he didn’t keep.

He registered the event as a charity in 2012 and would donate the proceeds to other good causes in the Henley area including the Wyfold Riding for the Disabled Association, Henley Regatta for the Disabled and the Chiltern Centre for disabled children.

There was no entry fee but parking cost £5 and volunteers would collect additional donations in buckets. The event raised more than £10,000 between 2010 and 2015.

Mr Pinches said: “It reached the stage last year where I realised I couldn’t keep begging for money from friends and supporters. The whole operation had become too labour intensive.

“The council wanted accounts but we’re only a small operation. I receive an invoice for the fireworks and send off a cheque then for the rest of the year we just give out £1,000 here and there. If the council wanted anything more, they could get our figures from the Charity Commission.

“Nobody seems to appreciate the support we have among local people. Everyone’s very much behind us, from senior citizens through to town centre retailers. We spend a lot of money ensuring the fireworks go to 800ft so that everyone can see them.

“For insurance purposes, I have to set aside the area the fireworks are launched from. I’m not allowed to use it for any other activities that might be generating an income, so that’s another indirect cost.

“The council hasn’t explained why it gave the money last year without asking for all that information. With so many people in town during the regatta, you’d think they could just put their hands in their pockets.”

Mr Pinches said he was grateful to everyone who had supported the event, including Lady McAlpine, who lives at the Fawley Hill estate with her husband Sir William, and has been a patron since Mr Pinches took charge.

He said: “I went in cold with no clue as to what I was letting myself in for. I just felt that the people of Henley, especially young families, deserved it.

“Before the town council gave me a grant last year, I would just send out begging letters and that took a lot of my time. We collected money for it through the Lions Club but that was incredibly hard work for very little return. The logistics of putting it together are phenomenal.

“When it all went successfully the first year, I think I burst into tears at the gate. My phone was ringing constantly with people congratulating me.”

Mr Pinches, whose grandfather William bought Meadows Farm in 1952, said he was sad to be leaving as there have been firework displays during the regatta for at least 100 years.

“I’ve had letters from senior citizens who no longer live in Henley to share their memories of the fireworks,” he said. “They remember it was a real treat and they were only allowed to go if they were good children.

“It’s a long tradition in the town and it’s so closely linked with the regatta that many people think it’s an official part of the event. I do hope it survives - you never know what’s around the corner.”

Lady McAlpine said it was “unlikely” the fireworks would go ahead as raising enough money was “too much of an uphill struggle”.

She said: “When we took over the fireworks, the Lions were still involved and while it was seen as a ‘thank-you’ to the inhabitants of Henley for putting up with the disruption of Regatta week, it was also a means of collecting a decent amount of money for local charities.

“Sadly the Lions gave up and it has become increasingly difficult to find enough volunteers brave enough to push their way through the crowds to bucket-rattle. Add to that the difficulty of raising the cost of the fireworks and perhaps it is time for some much younger people to take over?”

Councillor Will Hamilton, the chairman of Henley Town Council’s finance strategy and management committee, said: “Billy has done a fantastic job in terms of keeping the fireworks going.

“When he put in a grant application we had to ask to see the accounts. It’s perfectly usual procedure to do so and we are still waiting for them.”

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