The Forest Café celebrates tenth birthday

This article is from 2010

The Forest Café celebrates tenth birthday

Volunteer-run café is a true original in Edinburgh

The Forest Café’s tenth birthday, happening mostly on Saturday 14 August, but spreading its shambolic, joyous tentacles throughout the rest of the month, is one of those true causes for celebration. That an entirely volunteer-run, hippy-hearted freespace for the arts has been able to survive in the relatively staid Edinburgh for ten years, through love alone, is absolutely miraculous. If it’s possible to be both a bohemian paradise and an Edinburgh institution, then they’ve managed it.

‘Over ten years, literally hundreds of people have come to the space, got involved and put time into it,’ says Chris Palmer, one of Forest’s founder members, who still takes an active role in the day-to-day running of the place. ‘Painting, cleaning, fixing windows, doing a kitchen shift, putting on an arts exhibition, running a gig: unpaid people doing that stuff is unbelievable. It’s become this dynamic hub that people just seem to want to be involved in.’

The Forest Café was born in August 2000 in a tiny empty space off the West Port. ‘A group of us were looking for something that was missing in the city,’ explains Palmer. ‘We wanted a free arts space in Edinburgh, a place that we liked, that we could have a say in how it was run and managed, where bands could play, we could show films, like an exciting living room that you could hang out in with your friends in.’ After three years, it was pretty clear they’d outgrown the original venue; the current Bristo Place location has been on loan to them from the local charity Edinburgh University Settlement (not connected to Edinburgh University) ever since.

Yes, between the veggie food, comfy shabby furniture and proliferation of dreadlocks, the Forest might seem like slacker Nirvana, but over the years some very driven people have used its easy, anything-goes ethos to launch major arts projects. Ryan Van Winkle’s monthly spoken word/ performance night The Golden Hour has spun off into Forest Publications, a platform for great new writing. Visual art wing TK Gallery is an important stopping point for emergent Scottish artists, while Forest Fringe, originally organised as a free alternative to the corporate bloat of the Fringe proper, is now a year-round, London-based arts organisation, showered in awards and generally regarded as the best place to go for excellent new work.

So, how to celebrate all this? Palmer laughs. ‘We’ve had some extraordinary parties over the years. We made the whole building silver one year, using tinfoil; there was the naked bouncy castle thing; and for our eighth, the band Silk played and we issued everyone with white boiler suits (although some of them chose just to get naked) and the band handed out tubes of paint. People just smeared themselves in colours. It was pretty amazing.’

He’s quieter about plans for Forest X. The press notes say ‘Featherface, granny flats and baptism tank.’ ‘Yeah, pretty much exactly that!’ he says. Baptism tank? ‘Yeah. Just imagine, if the Forest was a church. And you wanted to get baptised, in a really big tank. That might actually be a hot tub.’

Oh, Forest Café. Never change.

Forest X is on at Forest Café, Bristo Place, Sat 14 Aug. For more information on the month of celebrations, see: