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Festival History

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?’

Why indeed?

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: