THE STORY OF REIGATE AND BANSTEAD WRITES: NOT JUST A STORY-COMPETITION
“That must be a labour of love! and “Are you insane?”
Comments I received in jest, or otherwise since establishing Reigate & Banstead Writes back in 2016. Whilst it has been one of the most satisfying and wonderful experiences of my life – 1,500 stories submitted over three rounds and counting. It has been hard work and the entry period is ‘full on’ with promotion, dealing with queries and the best bit – reading all the stories.
It began as a little seed of an idea. I love pushing my students to write for the pure thrill of seeing their imaginations create a world from nowhere and take shape on the page (or laptop screen). Working as a Library Manager at the Warwick School, Redhill. I ran several ‘in-house’ writing competitions. Winner receiving chocolates or books as small prize incentives. These little inter-form competitions proved popular.
Subsequently, Year 8 students decided they wished to enter a larger short-story competition. Nothing at the time inspired them.
I had a moment of madness.
Why not do our own competition and invite local kids to write a story based in their towns? We are so lucky to live in such a beautiful area. The borough of Reigate and Banstead is snuggled in the protective arm of the North Downs, an area of outstanding natural beauty with the wildlife to match. It is steeped in history (Reigate is mentioned in the Doomsday Book) with pretty villages and Redhill Town, with its modern shopping centre and chain-stores being the up-to-date face.
A plethora of potential settings to inspire the imagination.
I fired off an email with the wind of a good idea at my back, to school librarian colleagues from Reigate, St Bede’s, the RAA and The Beacon Schools. They were enthusiastic, all thought it a great idea but urged caution. It could involve a great deal of work – it did and it didn’t.
They all promised and were happy to promote the competition to their own students and were happy to act as ‘collection points’.
There is nothing quite like ad hoc market research As I bored friends about my ‘grand plan’, many were keen to involve their own kids. “Can they take part? On no, they’re Year 5…”
I rang local primaries to ascertain their interest, or of it was just friends being nice. They were keen as mustard. The age range was set at 10-14 or school years 5-9.
Suddenly I had a buzz. ..
Creating the Wow! Factor
With all this support and me promising to give budding writers a competition. It needed a ‘wow’ factor. We needed uncomplicated and easy to follow rules with entry forms and to give it an identity, a name and logo. Reigate and Banstead Writes, often abbreviated to RB Writes buzzed incessantly, beating out its name like the R&B music some thought it was named for (!) More importantly, as youngsters are asked to write a story about their town. It reflected the area and what we hoped for.
There was no money behind the competition. Yet. I was begging, borrowing and stealing favours from friends all over the place and a logo – needed for identity and branding was no different.
Martin Selby, a friend, colleague and gifted artist came up with our first ink logo, a scholarly looking logo with shades of Harry Potter. It evolved into the more familiar pink for the Insta generation, designed by Andrew Dunn, a local graphic designer.
Interest, support, logo and rules. Next step: asking local businesses and companies if they could possibly donate a small prize and if they wouldn’t mind dropping a few tweets, passing on emails and helping promote. The wonderful Andy Nash, the community-minded manager of the Belfry Shopping Centre, Redhill promptly responded.
Of course he could help.
He came up trumps, donating Kindles, Love2Shop vouchers and books. A stalwart supporter and I am forever grateful to him.
The Harlequin Theatre (who have been a faithful friend), a building contractor and publishers also chipped in.
Finally The Reading Zone, and its founder Caroline Horn donated popular YAbook prizes to ‘highly commended writers’ – those who just missed out and promised to publish the winning story on the website.
One last thing before RB Writes was ready to ‘go live’.
How to judge the stories?
I felt it important to have impartiality; judges who were not connected to schools. I scoured my contacts for those with an arts background. Jane Thynne, the then editor of the Surrey Downs Magazine was on board from the start and has remained in place throughout, providing wise advice and being a brilliant sounding-board for some of my wilder ideas.
Rather like Strictly, Jane is our ‘Head Judge’ – the rest of the panel consists of public librarians, a local poet/English teacher and booksellers.
They all still speak to me – I assume they enjoy the rollercoaster writing ride that is RB Writes as much as me. Joking aside, they have been moved, inspired and blown-away by the talent and are confident we have discovered a future novelist (or three)
Ready! Steady! Write!
Have aliens landed on Reigate Hill? Or an army of ducks invading Priory Park? Is there a time-slip portal in the castle grounds? Can you write about a funny day out in Redhill? What is lurking underneath Earlswood Lake? Or is there a mystery to solve on Banstead Downs?
Entry forms, full details and the blurb winged their way to local schools and the RB Writes army of supporters swung into action.
” RB Writes is refreshingly easy to enter – our students love writing stories with a local twist. One of two English teachers set it as homework but many more wrote stories in their own time and brought their precious manuscripts to the school library trembling with trepidation and excitement.
Katie Hill, librarian at St Bede’s School, Redhill.
Music to my ears. The hard promotional work paid off.
402 entries were submitted , set in every nook, cranny and corner of our borough. There were two eventual winners – Grace, whose story ‘Beneath’ started as a normal family dog-walk and ended with sinister goings on around Mercers Lake, Merstham. (A great walking spot with an abundance of wildlife for those unfamiliar).
Meanwhile, Ben’s re-imagining of Lord of the Rings was a comic quest through the mean streets of Reigate which ended at London Bridge, via Redhill.
All whilst the southern rail strike raged on, hampering the best efforts of the Lord of The Rails.
Two runners-up set their stories in Redhill Town Centre. One featured a nest of spies acting with impunity out of Redhill Library.
The other featured lemons and limes fighting for dominance and obliterating the Belfry Clock Tower – Redhill’s very own Big Ben up in the process. The Belfry Centre and its clock, have seen off a procession of, aliens, ghosts and spies, the spies performing feats that James Bond himself would be proud of.
The winners received their prizes at a small and joyful ceremony in front of an invited audience and special guest Eve Ainsworth, a local YA author.
And in a lovely touch, David Jay, host of SUSY Radio’s afternoon stroll agreed to broadcast the winning entries over consecutive afternoons. Giving the writers a chance to hear their stories on radio. How wonderful is that!
2019 and Round Two launched.
The same format as in 2017. A story from our town.
BBC Surrey gave the competition a massive boost, promoting it on their breakfast show, followed up by a live broadcast from the Warwick School on 1st March 2019.
485 stories were eventually submitted. A fantastic effort. The 2019 winner was 12 year old Katy with a historical mystery story: The Black Knight of Reigate Castle.
Other entries included an original ‘highly commended entry’ set on Banstead Downs, where Roman gladiators did battle against the people of Merstham. The eventual runner-up imagined Superdog coming from the streets of Earlswood to become Mayor of Reigate & Banstead.
February 2020 and as Covid-19 weaved its deadly, unprecedented global path, the 3rd round of Reigate & Banstead Writes began.
I had expectations it would be the ‘biggest yet’. 2020 was the year we were set to branch out.
RB WRITES and the wildly successful NMF. were linking up. Our vision was a Hay-on-Reigate type event and bring our existing music and writing together as the cornerstone for a community arts festival.
Alas, it was not to be. But look what we had!
Apollo Junction were to perform a headline gig the Harlequin. Lockdown has been kind to the boys, they have an enormous amount of new fans and may be too big to gig for us in the future. This was the headline event. A chance to show off a band on the cusp of breaking into the big time.
A wonderful arty week with something for all the community; including a murder-mystery night, an open mic at the Garibaldi, our local community run pub, the brilliant Niki Mackay, Reigate’s Queen of Crime hosting a writing workshop and her crime girl podcast from Redhill library and Eve Ainsworth doing similar for children
The RB Writes awards ceremony the biggest yet for the eventual winners. The author Vashti Hardy, winner of the Blue Peter Book of the Year was booked to be MC and to host writing workshops with some of our young writers.
We know how the 2020 story ends….
Boris Johnson locked the nation down on March 22nd, as entries were trickling in. The competition was moved online and, with a slightly extended deadline received just under 500 stories. 498 to be precise. Writers made the most of their lockdown walks, Banstead Woods, Colley Hill, the Moors Nature Reserve and Earlswood Lakes hugely popular 2020 settings.
A Reigate Pigeon’s War by 12 year old Orla, was awarded 1st place. It is an original, moving story that re-visits Reigate’s wartime history. In a lovely touch, Orla found inspiration in the stories of her former next-door neighbour.
Orla became the competitions first double- winner. she had been placed 3rd in 2019. A name to look out for in the future.
Runners-up set their tales in the majestic grounds of the RAA school and on the ever-popular Reigate Hill. They received their prizes at a socially distant ceremony from Crispin Blunt, MP for Reigate.
2020 was a vintage year, making judging super difficult. There was little to separate any of the final 10. One of my favourites came from 12 year old Tabitha. It told of naughty goslings having fun and entertaining adventures along Banstead High Street. She took the time to include a gloriously illustrated map, detailing their journey.
And now 2021 beckons. A delayed start reflecting the scattered times we’re in.
A year spent at home, with only local adventures allowed . Our young writers have explored the far-flung corners of their area. I look forward to seeing our town through their eyes.
And for all the beauty and the history showed off in full glory. A quirky entry from 2017 will always hold a special place in my heart. The tale of monstrous goings-on, in the mechanics pit at Redhill Kwik-Fit. It rivals anything Phil Mitchell from Eastenders could imagine. The most unusual and surreal setting yet and hyper-local, it encapsulates the spirit of our competition.
A Tale from our Town.
As told by one of its young residents .
I have this wild dream that RB Writes could goes out to the nation and kids up and down our land write about where they live.
If you read this and fancy setting up your own competition then I urge you to ‘have a go’.
Encouraging kids to write and seeing their imaginations fly. There is nothing quite like it.
Reigate & Banstead Writes began in 2017. The brainchild of Kay Hymas it is now an annual competition. Its supporters include The Belfry Centre, Redhill, Reigate and Borough Council, The Harlequin Theatre, Redhill, BBC Surrey and Susy Radio. For full details see the website. http://www.reigateandbansteadwrites. com.