Welcome to the Wells Festival of Literature, set up in 1992 to promote the love of books and of reading throughout the community.
The Festival is a registered charity entirely run by a committee of volunteers, and is funded by ticket sales, competition entries and our generous local sponsors. The first Festival ran for a weekend and has grown ever since. Read how the Festival began.
In 2002 we expanded to a week; we now operate over nine days every October and celebrated our 25th anniversary in 2017. Our Festival now takes place in Cedars Hall, a state-of-the-art performance venue situated in the beautiful grounds of Wells Cathedral School.
Our main objective is to promote the enjoyment and excitement of books and to encourage a love of the written word. We do this by bringing to Wells a wide range of international, national and local writers to entertain, challenge, inspire and inform audiences of all ages and tastes.
The Festival also runs an active education programme which works closely with local schools to help develop a love of literature from an early age. In addition, we are committed supporters of the literacy charity Coram Beanstalk. And we organise hugely popular writing competitions which attract entries from all over the world.
In October 1990 Maggie Mountford and Judith Thomas were drinking tea in Cheltenham Town Hall, waiting to hear a talk by Seamus Heaney at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. Cheltenham was then the only literary festival in South West England, apart from Dartington (no Hay-on-Wye, no Bath…)
‘Isn’t it great to see so much enthusiasm for literature?’ said Judith.
‘Yes, it’s a pity we can’t have something like this in Wells. There’s so much music, but nothing for people who read…’
‘Why can’t we?’
Encouraged and supported by their writers’ group in Wells, they obtained a grant of £150 from Wells City Council to carry the project further. First supporters included John Frith, who became Treasurer, Jane Swinyard, then head Librarian of West Side Bookshop in Sadler Street, local author Shirley Toulson, and city councillor Eileen Giles, later the Festival’s first Chairman. A draft programme was agreed.
In September 1991 a meeting in Wells library welcomed representatives from South West Arts, the Tourist Board and Community Education, who provided much advice about venues, ticket sales, writing competitions and involvement with schools. Novelist Fay Weldon, then living locally, agreed to become the Festival’s patron. A large public meeting in Wells Town Hall brought forth more volunteers with ideas and offers of help, including future Chairman, Maggie Langdon.
Then plans began to go awry. Although a splendid range of speakers had been booked, the Treasurer was in deep gloom over the lack of sponsors or any printed publicity. An emergency meeting was held: should the Festival be postponed? A vote said ‘No’. Festival Secretary Pamela Egan called in a favour from a printer and produced a dummy programme; press releases were issued; local newspaper editors and sponsors cajoled; ticket sales began to rise. Michael Rosen and Judith Nichols were booked for the Children’s Festival and local schools responded enthusiastically.
At 7 pm on Friday 23rd October 1992, the first Wells Festival of Literature opened with a reception in the Bishop’s Palace. The welcoming scent of wood-smoke, drifting up the oak staircase from the great log fire in the Undercroft, later came to be thought of as a Festival trademark. Prizes for the first Festival Poetry Competition were presented and Opus Anglicanum sang.
Next morning the Secretary arrived early to see emerging from the mist around the moat a bearded figure in a large, pointed black hat – not Gandalf, but Terry Pratchett, the first speaker. ‘I never imagined my 15-year-old grandson would ask for a ticket to a literary festival for his birthday present!’ said a lady in the audience. Terry’s talk was followed by Margaret Drabble, Jane Gardam, humorist Miles Kington, Joanna Trollope (in a black leather mini-skirt that made some gentlemen’s eyes water), and Terry Pratchett again to round off a wonderful day. On Sunday, poets Elma Mitchell and Jeremy Hooker read and spoke about their poems, and Pamela Egan recalled the much loved Wells-born novelist, Elizabeth Goudge.
In the end Festival tickets sold out, leaving a workable surplus. The Treasurer urged we seek charitable status and form a company limited by guarantee. We did.
The Wells Festival of Literature had arrived.
That’s how the Festival began all those years ago. Now have a look at how it has grown and developed over the years:
City of Wells
The City of Wells is a beautiful destination, rich in culture and history. It boasts magnificent architecture, including the 13th century Cathedral and the uniquely moated Bishop’s Palace.
Famous as England’s ‘smallest city’, the many attractions are within easy walking distance of each other, and there are plenty of places to eat, and to stay, close to the Festival venue. The area around the city is also worth a visit with the Mendip Hills, Somerset Levels, Cheddar Gorge, Wookey Hole Caves, Kilver Court Gardens and Glastonbury Tor all a short drive away.
Wells Tourist Information
City of Festivals
Wells boasts a range of festivals which showcase a wealth of local and national talent: in addition to our own Festival of Literature there are festivals of Music, Art, and Food during a spectacularly festive autumn! At other times of the year the city plays host to a Drama festival, a Comedy festival and a brilliantly illuminated carnival. Wells may be small, but it holds a proud place in the festival world… The city also boasts highly popular bi-weekly markets, regular craft fairs and a full season of events hosted by both the Cathedral and the Bishop’s Palace.
Wells Comedy Festival
England’s smallest city hosts a big weekend of stand-up. More than 60 comedy shows across six Wells venues in three days. This year’s line-up in May includes Nish Kumar, Lost Voice Guy, Josie Long, Mark Watson, Shappi Khorsandi, Phil Wang, Hal Cruttenden, John Robins, Ed Gamble and many more.
Wells Theatre Festival
July 2018 saw the first ever Wells Theatre Festival which brought an exciting programme of theatre and workshops to Wells. The Festival is the brainchild of Artistic Director Rosalind Johnson, former assistant director at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre.
WAC – Wells Art Contemporary
Somerset Art Weeks Festival
To celebrate its Silver Anniversary, Somerset Art Weeks will host a diverse programme of inspiring exhibitions, events, films and installations in over 100 locations across Somerset, alongside exciting new commissions, group shows and education projects involving over 300 artists.
This showcase of contemporary arts and craft includes: ‘County of Contrasts’, SAW Craft Residency at Somerset Rural Life Museum; a special exhibition at Taunton Brewhouse; Creative Pathway and Project Development Bursaries; education programme plus family-friendly activities; specially-invited guest artists, curators and partner venues taking part; workshops, talks and guided visits.
Wells Food Festival
nmw – new music wells
forty years of music: a celebration
Founded in 2008 by Matthew Owens, this innovative festival is a retrospective of sacred choral and organ music during all services since 1979. 2019 welcomed back Jonathan Dove CBE as our distinguished Composer-in-Residence.
Galleries and Speakers
- 2019 Festival
- 2018 Festival
- 2017 Festival
- 2016 Festival
- 2015 Festival
- 2014 Festival
- 2013 Festival
- 2012 Festival