“This event is so special”

Photo by David Bartholomew

The fourth Tunbridge Wells Soapbox Stars Race takes place in Dunorlan Park on June 24 and it promises to be bigger and better than ever. Eileen Leahy meets its chief ambassador, celebrity chef Rosemary Shrager, and the event’s compere Tom Swift to find out why they’re such fans of this brilliant, fun day out that raises thousands for various charities every year and is the brainchild of Coco Piesse


As SO cover photoshoots go, this month’s was certainly a fun one! It involved two novelty soapbox karts, a celebrity chef, a local panto legend and many laugh-out-loud moments – especially when traffic had to be intermittently stopped on Wadhurst High Street while the lorry carrying the aforementioned karts reversed in and out of our shoot location.

That location was the front driveway of TV star and cookery writer Rosemary Shrager who, as official ambassador for Tunbridge Wells Soapbox Stars Race kindly agreed to host the June SO cover shoot at her home. And although it is a beautiful house it’s fair to say it was just a bit of a squeeze getting the karts – and Rosemary and Tom – in and out!

But as ever the pair were such good sports and totally willing to go that extra mile in order to help drum up publicity for this year’s Tunbridge Wells Soapbox Stars Race which takes place in Dunorlan Park on June 24.

The brainchild of local PR and podcaster Coco Piesse, it began in 2018 and, despite having to take a break due to Covid, the event – which raises thousands for local charities and sees both the business and general community of Tunbridge Wells come together for a day of races and fun – is now an annual fixture on the social calendar of Tunbridge Wells.

Rosemary and Tom have been involved right from the start and tell me they are more than happy to lend their support as chief ambassador and compere once again.

“I remember when Coco first asked me if I’d like to be the official ambassador and I said yes immediately. That was simply because nothing like this had ever been done before. And now all these years later I still jump at the chance of being a part of it,” explains Rosemary after the shoot is wrapped.

“I feel that this one this year will be the biggest one to date. It has become such a staple of the local social scene and that’s all down to Coco’s hard work. She has quite frankly been amazing. It’s her baby and it’s not an easy event to put on given the logistics. Most would have given up after a year or so but she has never done that. She’s invested her own money and kept going in order to promote such a wonderful thing that brings the local community together and helps raise so much for local charities.”

If you’re not familiar with the Tunbridge Wells Soapbox Stars Race then in short it invites a number of businesses, and this year for the first time members of the general public, to sponsor, pimp up and have fun racing one of the event’s specially made karts. There are various heats throughout the day culminating in a final where a winner is crowned for being the fastest to complete the winding course around Dunorlan. Businesses who have taken part to date include HR Revolution, Thames Motor Group, Markerstudy and Rise and Shine Cleaning. And last year saw many schools take part too. The karts’ chassis are made in collaboration with engineering students at North Kent College in Tonbridge.

Entrants pay £599 (plus VAT) and are asked to pledge £250 directly to the Hospice in the Weald. It’s then up to those racing to decide upon a secondary sponsor (if they so wish) to raise extra funds for. In the past the likes of Pickering Drop In Cancer Centre, Nourish foodbank and ellenor have all benefitted.

As we chat over coffee in Rosemary’s cosy kitchen, Tom tells me why he is so passionate about his involvement with the soapbox race which has raised over 83K for local charities so far.

“It’s a win-win for everyone. There’s silly cars to look at, fun costumes to giggle at and little crashes to enjoy,” the Wicked Production pantomime star teases.

“Seriously though it’s just a really fun event that brings the whole community together. And it’s something all the family can enjoy too.”

“You’ve hit the nail on the head Tom,” says Rosemary. “It’s something everyone can enjoy – and actually for me it’s about making memories as well as making lots of money for charity.”

The clever cook who has just published her second thriller novel Proof in the Pudding tells me that her chosen charity this year is the No1 Community Trust.

“It’s local and been going for 30 years but hardly anyone knows about it. I certainly hadn’t until they asked me to be an ambassador. It’s located on the Showfields Estate and has a café, where both subsidised and free meals are offered to those who need it. There’s also a nursery and a children’s library and lots of free activities on offer in the community hall. The delivery of this trust is quite frankly phenomenal.”

Rosemary will officially open the soapbox race by gently racing down the hill along with Tom Swift in her specially commissioned ‘Pie’ kart which has been tagged by local graffiti artist Humour AKA by Hugh Whitaker.

“I only do it once because let’s face it you wouldn’t want to have to get me in and out of that kart twice,” she laughs raucously.

“But in all seriousness this event is so important as it supports local and gives people the opportunity to have a great day out. It’s very special and I’m so pleased to have been involved since day one. I do this because I want to. Coco gives, Tom gives, everybody gives and this is the one I give to as well. The atmosphere is fab. I do a lot of events but this one is really unique.”

“It’s just so different to everything else,” adds Tom. “It’s karts hurtling down a hill and people having a laugh – including me when I do the compere bit. What’s not to love with me taking the mickey out of everybody?!”

Local musical theatre troupe The Talentz will be opening the event as part of their involvement with Tunbridge Wells Fringe Festival.

Rosemary tells me that in addition to her busy schedule of cooking, presenting and writing she has been working hard on the launch of a new selection of sugar-free preserves and chutneys. “Maybe I’ll go down in a jam jar next year!” she giggles as we bid our farewells.

A couple of days later I meet up with Coco and her partner Garry Jeffrey. They are keen to give me the background on the soapbox race so people know the full story of why it was originally started.

“I’m a big believer in community,” Coco tells me as we sit down to chat at SO’s HQ which is located at Salomons Estate.

“I’ve been able to get involved with local charities and businesses running my public relations business Chatty Hatter which I’ve done for the past 11 years but I’ve especially enjoyed helping them courtesy of putting on the Tunbridge Wells Soapbox Stars Race.

Wearing a pair of her trademark Edney & Edney colourful designer glasses and dressed in a gorgeous sundress from Kitch, with funky trainers from bod & ted, Coco who now presents a weekly show on West Kent Radio, explains that it was in fact her partner Garry Jeffrey’s idea originally to run this type of event in Tunbridge Wells.

“He’s the one who initially came to me and said I want to put on a soapbox race and I need your help to do it.”

“I’m Tunbridge Wells born and bred and when I was little there was always an annual summer carnival held in the town,” Garry, who owns Henry Paul Funerals explains. “For some reason it ended and I missed that opportunity for people to come together and to have a good time. So that’s when I thought about putting something on that would be fun but also raise money for charity.”

“My idea was to have lots of cars racing around the centre of Tunbridge Wells but the council said no and we eventually got Dunorlan which of course turned out to be fantastic.”

At that time Garry’s mother had recently passed away so he also wanted to do something in her memory which is why the inaugural event in 2018 was actually called Jean’s Soapbox Race.

“It was a fantastic success. Students from North Kent College built the karts’ chassis and after all these years we continue to have a relationship with them. Their help is absolutely vital to the event’s success.”

Coco tells me that her role has gone from simply helping out with the first year’s marketing and PR to taking over the business such is her passion for the event.

“I suppose initially it was a good distraction for me at the time,” she reveals. “When I helped launch it my father was really sick, I’d split up with the father of my children and lost a dear friend. But then I met Garry and that’s when it all changed for me. Being involved with the soapbox race really opened up my creative side and although there was a lot of pressure it did make me realise what I was actually capable of doing!”

Despite having never worked on a project of that scale before Coco and her team made a great success of it, raising 20K for charity and bringing the business community of Tunbridge Wells, who’d all sponsored karts and gathered racing teams, together.

“It was such an exciting project to work on and so it made sense for me to get completely involved the following year,” Coco smiles.

That of course was in 2019 and despite torrential rain and also injuring herself when she and her team were trialling the course at Dunorlan Coco says it was still a success. But then of course the wheels – quite literally – came off when Covid hit in 2020 and suddenly the race hit the buffers for the next two years due to social distancing restrictions.

Thankfully the event was able to return last summer, after NFU Mutual stepped in as the event’s insurers. Thousands of people descended on Dunorlan to see lots of local businesses racing their karts in various timed heats and to enjoy the live music and food and drink on offer.

This year the joint sponsors are NFU Mutual and the Stoner Motor Company, who hosted the 2023 Soapbox Stars launch party at their Hyundai and MG showroom on North Farm industrial estate.

“Both will be raising for Hospice in the Weald but NFU Mutual will also race for Mental Health Resources while the Stoner Motor Company have chosen the charity Demelza to also support.

“Chatty Hatter will be racing and raising for Hospice in the Weald and Pickering Cancer Drop In Centre while The Big Chat will be racing and raising for Hospice in the Weald and Mental Health Resources,” adds Coco who has just been announced as an ambassador for the latter charity.

Once again there will be live music courtesy of Paul Dunton’s brilliant Local & Live stage with music maestro extraordinaire MC Melody also racing a kart!

“This year for the first time we have had people entering from all over the country including MC Melody from Pied Piper and Master of Ceremonies racing. With his real name being Michael, like my late dad, I might even dare to be a passenger again for the first time since my infamous crash back in 2019!” giggles Coco.

Having raised 50K at the Dunorlan Soapbox Stars Race in 2022, Coco says the aim is to smash through the 100K barrier this year. To date they have raised 83K. And they have made entering super easy she says.

“We provide Motorsport built chassis kart frames courtesy of North Kent students and we are the only soapbox race in the country to offer this level of initial help in making it even easier for you to concentrate all your attention on designing something incredible for the main race on the day!

“Each kart races on the day for their very own chosen charity. Each entrant pays £599 (+ VAT) to loan one of our chassis for the race and then pledges £250 out of what they raise to Hospice in the Weald. They can then raise as much as possible for their second chosen charity – which could still be the Hospice in the Weald if you like. Like Tom Swift says it really is a win-win for everyone!”

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