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Ilkley Literature Festival celebrates its 40th anniversary

PUBLISHED: 00:00 09 September 2013

Pic Joan Russell
Feature on Ilkley Town in West Yorkshire. Abbey Vale - from the Ilkley Literature Festival outside The Grove Bookshop.

Pic Joan Russell Feature on Ilkley Town in West Yorkshire. Abbey Vale - from the Ilkley Literature Festival outside The Grove Bookshop.

Joan Russell Photography

As Ilkley Literature Festival celebrates its 40th anniversary, Jo Haywood asks what it means to the town

If there are still any lingering doubts about Ilkley Literature Festival’s elevated status as the north’s answer to Hay and Cheltenham, this year’s guest list will banish them forever.

Not only is poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy premiering a specially commissioned work, but there will also be talks and appearances by Jonathan Dimbleby, triathletes Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee, musician Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young), journalists Kirsty Wark and Kate Adie, Germaine Greer, Melvyn Bragg, former politicians Douglas Hurd and Jonathan Aitken, poets Simon Armitage and Ian MacMillan, and esteemed authors Alexander McCall Smith and Colin Dexter.

The festival, which runs from October 4th to 20th with more than 220 events across 20 venues, began life in the early Seventies after a vague discussion between Michael Dawson, the first director of Yorkshire Arts Association, and Peter Harland, then editor of the Bradford Telegraph & Argus, about ‘doing something similar to Cheltenham’. And so the UK’s second literature festival was born. The Ilkley event was launched as a biennial festival by WH Auden in April 1973, in one of the poet’s last public appearances. It was greeted warmly by JB Priestly, who wrote: ‘Ilkley is the right size for a festival town.

It’s large enough to provide various amenities and small enough to stroll around and run into everybody.’

It became an annual festival in 1988, and now takes over the life of this small Victorian spa town at the foot of Ilkley Moor for a fortnight every October, attracting thousands of visitors (and their wallets). Writer, arts project manager and former theatre director Rachel Feldberg has been with Ilkley Literature Festival since 2003 and is now festival director. She believes it has survived and thrived for 40 years because it is an event for the people, by the people.

‘Looking through the archives for this milestone anniversary has been a really moving experience,’ she said. ‘It made me realise that the festival is only the success it is today because of local people; their hard work, their sense of loyalty and their sense of pride in what’s been created by their town.

‘The whole place buzzes during the festival. We have 90 volunteer stewards, but it wouldn’t work without the restaurant owners, the taxi drivers, the hoteliers, the shopkeepers and the pub landlords doing their bit too. They appreciate the extra business and we appreciate their support.

‘People go out of their way for us. When we dashed into a restaurant for a double espresso for a desperate author last year, they obliged immediately. And when Alan Bennett needed a clock for his reading, a local jeweller handed one over without a second thought.

‘It’s not a one-way street though; the festival gives a lot back to the town. It’s very important for the local economy, attracting very large sums of money every year. We have to purchase services like any other business, and we also bring in countless extra visitors.

‘And you have to factor in the extra publicity the town receives. A lot of festival authors write columns for the national papers and they talk about us and paint Ilkley in a very positive light. This brings extra visitors all year round, not just during the festival period.’

And is it any wonder? Ilkley is worth visiting at any time, even if it’s only to sing the Yorkshire anthem, On Ilkla Moor Baht’at, at full pelt on the rocky, heather-dotted moorland above the town.

It’s one of West Yorkshire’s prime tourist destinations, with its combination of Victorian architecture, bleakly attractive countryside and covetable collection of independent shops bringing visitors from far and wide. There is culture to be had at the Manor House, one of the town’s oldest buildings which houses a museum and art gallery, and at Ilkley Toy Museum, which has a stunning collection that dates back to 350BC.

Add this to the shopping opportunities in the lovely Victorian parades and arcades, and Ilkley is a surefire winner with tourists of all persuasions.

But it’s the literature festival that really makes the town stand out regionally and nationally. And this year looks set to be the best yet, with specially commissioned work, exhibitions and events aplenty to celebrate this literary giant’s passage into middle age.

‘This is a very important year for the festival and for the town,’ said Rachel.

‘We were the second literature festival to be launched in the UK after Cheltenham and now we’re widely regarded as the biggest northern literature festival.

‘And there’s something particularly special about what this town has achieved because the festival is completely home-grown. It was started by local people, not the local authority – although Bradford Council has been a stalwart supporter over the years. This truly is the people’s festival.’

And it’s also a festival that’s looking to the future, sketching out the plot for the next 40 years and sourcing the volunteers, stewards, organisers, authors and directors of the future.

‘We do a great deal of work with local young people, encouraging secondary school students to organise author events for primary schools,’ said Rachel.

‘We’re basically training them to do what we do. It’s wonderful to see a new generation of people who believe literature is exciting, relevant and worth celebrating. The future of the festival is already with us.’

Five key festival events

:: Leeds-born and Ilkley-based screenwriter Jeremy Dyson will be telling spooky ghost stories from around Britain. He was one of the original creators of the massively popular black comedy series The League of Gentlemen and co-wrote the West End show Ghost Stories.

:: Anticipating next year’s Le Grand Depart, Team Sky professional cycling team coach Rod Ellingworth will be telling the back-story of his book Project Rainbow: The Rise of British Road Cycling with leading cycling journalist William Fotheringham.

:: Love him or loathe him, you can’t deny the Dragon’s Den regular Duncan Bannatyne will certainly pull in the crowds when he talks about how he has survived personal and professional setbacks, including the recession and the break-up of his second marriage.

:: Festival-goers will have the opportunity of hearing themselves in stereo if they bag a ticket to BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions? presented by Jonathan Dimbleby, who’ll also be talking about his latest book, Destiny in the Desert.

:: Festival favourite and poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy will be premiering a new work specially commissioned by the organisers to mark the milestone 40th anniversary. A piece of work commissioned last year by Patience Agbabi – The Doll’s House, inspired by the servants’ quarters at Harewood House – has been shortlisted in the best single poem category of the Forward Prize 2013.

Five other things in Ilkley worth queuing up for

:: Ilkley Lido was built in 1935, can be enjoyed by up to 4,000 visitors on a hot summer day (we have at least one a year) and reaches around 22 degrees at its peak. The indoor pool is open all year round and the outdoor pool is open until September 3rd (so you’ve just got time to dive in for a bracing dip).

:: You haven’t lived apparently until you’ve indulged in a Fat Rascal at Bettys on the tree-lined Grove (Ilkley’s main shopping street) or enjoyed a slice or two of something savoury at Lishman’s, the multi-award winning butcher in Leeds Road.

:: Once you’ve had your photograph taken by the famous Cow and Calf rocks, why not see if you can find the cup and ring marked rocks? These are very important archaeological items on Ilkley Moor, dating back to the Bronze Age, and are part of a much larger, internationally famous group that stretches right across Rombalds Moor.

:: White Wells on Ilkley Moor was instrumental in establishing it as a spa town. It’s now a cafe (you know it’s open if the flags are flying), but intrepid visitors can still use the plunge pool on New Year’s Day.

:: The King’s Hall and Winter Garden are a traditional theatre and glass-roofed spa at the heart of Ilkley. Among the many highlights still to come this year are an evening with the BBC’s Test Match Special team plus shows by singer Joe Longthorne, comedian Alex Horne and all-round smart alec Gyles Brandreth.

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