by Sara Harrington 

Hidden amongst the quaint gastro-pubs and perfumed pamper boutiques of Timberhill, the beating heart of Norwich’s DIY punk scene lies low in an unassuming alleyway. Those unaware of its whereabouts may accidentally miss its entrance, were it not for the the unmistakeable presence of punk kids lugging gear through the doors every evening. The Owl Sanctuary in Norwich is acclaimed in the DIY punk scene, having already been established from the ashes of many previous venues and playing host to a deluge of touring bands and artists from all over the UK and beyond. It recently found fame for the collective action taken after the landlord of its previous venue (near Castle Mall) evicted the owners. A widespread social media campaign and even the involvement of Norwich South MP Clive Lewis led to the venue being named a ‘community asset’, and re-locating to its current site.  

21037862_807650046070312_1316496740_oIn the wake of the upheaval, The Owl Sanctuary has soldiered on, continuing to play host to some of the best artists the scene has to offer. It retains the same ‘Euro-punk-band-flat’ decor as its predecessor with walls daubed in red, murals by prominent local artists, an ‘anti-fascist’ flag hanging above the bar and stray stickers peeling from tables and doors. It has also seen a change in hands; two new managers have taken on the venue – relieving the previous manager, Dan Hawcroft. Sean O’Neil, the manager handling bookings and event management, assures me that it is still business as usual for The Owl. Yet he was was also keen to stress that one of their main goals would be to branch out the bookings: “I’d like to see poetry coming in, maybe on a Sunday… even comedy”. This is because he wants to ensure that The Owl Sanctuary remains a diverse space, saying: “It has a punk rock ethos – it’s for everybody”. Previously, The Owl had always made room for a cacophony of punk, reggae and hardcore shows with smatterings of folk and rock-and-roll as well as other, more obscure, sub genres, but Sean is keen to bring together the fractured music scene by ensuring that indie, hip-hop and alternative club nights all have a home here too.

“The most important thing with The Owl Sanctuary is giving people the opportunity to play”.

One of the main ways in which Sean intends to keep the gigs accessible is by ensuring that the hire fees for promoters or bands are kept low. It is clear that keeping the space accessible and approachable is fundamental to Sean’s vision for the venue. While discussing the issue of maintaining a relevant and fresh music scene that is representative of the many bands playing on the scene, we stumbled upon the one area that Sean feels The Owl is not able to cater for; underage shows. “Norwich Arts Centre recognises that need… and currently because of our licensing we are not able to host that”. Places to play for younger people are fundamental to keeping the local music scene fresh and vibrant, and although The Owl Sanctuary may not be a space for that, Sean is striving to ensure that there is a safe and welcoming space for them to play when they do come of age.


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…a promoter renowned for booking female-identifying bands is refreshing

For now, his primary concern is with ensuring that female-identifying bands have a welcoming environment to play in. As we discuss his views on safe spaces within the punk scene it becomes acutely apparent that Sean values the safety and comfort of all those who come into The Owl. And, more powerfully, the platform he provides as a promoter renowned for booking female-identifying bands is refreshing. He acknowledges the deluge of male-fronted bands and aims to ensure that women in music are being given the opportunities of their male counterparts by booking their bands.“It’s really nice to have a space where you can put on more feminist focused nights – it’s good because you get a female heavy crowd… everyone can come in and feel safe… there’s no attitude.”

By promoting safe and accessible spaces within punk and branching out to unite the music scene by inviting a diverse array of bands to play The Owl Sanctuary, Sean and co are ensuring that we all have a space to go to that is creative and does not stagnate. The Owl Sanctuary continues to host a vast array of punk bands, but will also be putting on more alternative club nights, aiming to encourage those who want to promote or organise a gig to get involved. By inviting a legion of local promoters, The Owl Sanctuary wants to ensure that the direction of the gigs is informed by its grassroots community and not compromised by the whims of business. The roster for the next few weeks sees a barrage of bands rolling through the venue – CJ Ramone, EA Dames (a female-led hip-hop night) and a skate-park fundraiser to name a few.

Local venues are fundamental to keeping punk rock and local music scenes alive, and I for one am glad to see that the current Owl Sanctuary has its sights set on the future. See you in the pit.

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