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Our pick of the best UK literary festivals

by Dinah Hatch (March 2016)

Our pick of the best UK literary festivals

Darlings, forget about those corporate monstrosities known as pop festivals this spring and summer. Those REALLY in the know realise that the literary festival is where all the coolest people go to unwind. Think sunny afternoons sipping spritzers, sporting cream panamas and getting your grey matter tickled during debates on the latest bestseller. Beats watching a tiny Kanye on the Pyramid Stage, queuing for eons to get a warm pint and sleeping next to the 24-hour rune-reading tent, doesn’t it? Here are six of our favourite hotspots for book lovers this season….


Showing below are all 6 records in "Our pick of the best UK literary festivals"

Hafod Y Garreg (Bed & Breakfast)

Erwood, Builth Wells

Hafod Y Garreg, Erwood, Builth Wells, Powys

The mothership: Hay Festival, Hay-on-Wye, Brecon Beacons National Park, Welsh Borders, May 26-June 5. The first time I went to Hay, I was a very poorly paid cub reporter very keen to see Bob Geldof bantering with Rosie Boycott and David Starkey savage Lyn Barber. Lack of money never a deterrent, I spent the day soaking up the book talk and the night sleeping in the back of my boyfriend’s car (long story but reader, I married him). Great times at “The Woodstock of the mind” (as Clinton rechristened it), yes, but stiff neck also. There’s really no need, however, as the granddaddy of all literary festivals is amply served by some great hotels. So whilst perusing this year’s fantastic line-up (Dara O’Briain, Dave Gilmour and Polly Samson, Peter Carey, Marlon James, Caitlin Moran, Germaine Greer, Tippi Hedren), book yourself into somewhere gorgeous. I suggest the stunning Hafod y Garreg in nearby Erwood, a grade 2 listed treasure known as the oldest house in Wales. It’s a B&B but serves dinners too and sits in the Wye Valley hidden in a hollow surrounded by hills and larch forests. The breakfasts, dished out on a huge 16th century refectory table, are to die for.

The Old Ship Inn Hackney (Small Hotel / Inn)

2 Sylvester Path, (Adjacent to the Hackney Empire), Hackney

The Old Ship Inn Hackney, 2 Sylvester Path, Hackney, London

The urban cool one: Stoke Newington Literary festival, London, June 3-5. Because not everyone fancies trekking out into the middle of nowhere, I thought I’d throw in the Stokey Lit festival, the spiritual home of Hipsters everywhere, and a new chapter in the festival calendar since 2014 (see what I did there?). Last year’s star turns included big-brained Will Self, Fay Weldon, Mark Thomas, Yasmin Alibhai Brown and journalist Zoe Williams so expect some similarly cool, smart and wordy people this year (the line-up is not yet published). This being Stoke Newington, leave the Fedora at home and wear your best beanie and moustache-less beard please. The festival’s not just about books, mind. It describes itself as an annual celebration of literature, music, science, political debate, comedy and art. Imagine what’s going on inside the editor of the Guardian’s head, basically, and that’s pretty much what you’ll see here. Don’t forget your muesli! Stay at The Old Ship Inn in Hackney opposite the Hackney Empire which combines tradition with comfort – think excellent Sunday roasts and fabulous bang-up-to-date deluxe rooms.

The Majestic Hotel (Hotel)

Ripon Road, Harrogate

The Majestic Hotel, Ripon Road, Harrogate, North Yorkshire

The bloody one: Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival, Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate (where Agatha Christie was found suffering from amnesia in 1926) July 21-24. Who doesn’t love reading about psychos and villains murdering people right left and centre from the cosy safety of their armchairs, right? Well, if you fancy venturing out to gorgeous Harrogate (let’s hope it’s not a dark and stormy night…) then you can meet an awful lot of the authors (around 90) who pen those dastardly tales at this, pretty much the AGM of crime writers everywhere. King of the thriller Peter James presides, natch, but expect to meet Jeffery Deaver, Martina Cole, Neil Cross, Linwood Barclay, Tess Gerritsen, Val McDermid and Gerald Seymour. With the added bonus of there being plenty of cracking ale on hand to sup whilst you get an insight into those crazy authors’ minds, what could be more enjoyable? Stay at Harrogate’s landmark Victorian grand dame, The Majestic Hotel on Ripon Road. Close to all the smartest boutiques and bars in the heart of town, you can be at the famous teashop Betty’s in the time it takes to scoff a cupcake and out on the Dales just as speedily.

Lantallack House Cornwall (Bed & Breakfast)

Pencavo Hill, Landrake, Saltash

Lantallack House Cornwall, Pencavo Hill, Saltash, Cornwall

The kooky one: Port Eliot Festival, Rame Peninsula, Cornwall, July 28-31. Throw on your 100% cotton Seasalt tunic, slide into your white thong Birkenstocks and head to what sounds to me like the most fascinating festival I have ever heard of. Writers like (Withnail & I legend) Bruce Robinson, Helen Dunmore, Geoff Dyer, Ali Smith and Alexander Masters have already appeared on an unfolding line up but there is oh-so-much more at this gorgeous country estate to explore too. Meet The Mighty Boosh’s Noel Fielding, Peep Show’s Issy Suttie, super chef Nathan Outlaw, Fresh Meat writer Jesse Armstrong and gardening guru Dan Pearson. Or watch a chemistry experiment in the estate’s grand house. Or seek out a secret gig in the woodlands. Or do a late night astronomy walk. Or learn to dye natural silk. Or study vintage swimming cap design. Or listen to a lecture on the science of sleep… You get my drift! If camping’s not your bag, stay at Lantallack House, an idyllic little B&B close to the Tamar Valley and just 20 minutes from Plymouth. The wooded valley view is blissful, the cider’s from the farm’s own orchard and the bacon butties are organic. What more could you ask for?

Ettington Park (Hotel)

Alderminster, Stratford-upon-Avon

Ettington Park, Alderminster, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire

The grown-up one: The Stratford Literary Festival, Stratford Upon Avon, April 24 –May1. Now in its ninth year, Stratford really packs a punch with the literary heavyweights but the festival is just as known for its eclectic performer choices. For instance, this year sees Brooklyn rapper Devon Glover AKA The Sonnet Man attempt to recite all of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets non-stop in hip hop speak (dontchaknow) while elsewhere on site actor Martin Jarvis and his wife Rosalind Ayres join composer Richard Sisson to celebrate the life of Beatrix Potter. Presenter Chris Packham will launch his memoirs, debut author and Costa First Novel winner Andrew Michael Hurley will talk about his novel The Loney and Joanna Cannon will debate her bestseller The Trouble With Goats and Sheep. You’ll also hear from former Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis who will discuss her novel The Butcher’s Hook. Book your accommodation early as Stratford always fills quickly. Treat yourself with a stay at the utterly luxurious neo-Gothic Ettington Park, five miles from the centre. With 40 acres of parkland, vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows and divine dinners in the Oak Room, it tops off a perfect literary day.

The Victoria Hotel (Hotel)

The Esplanade, Sidmouth

The Victoria Hotel, The Esplanade, Sidmouth, Devon

The one by the seaside: Sun, Sea and Books Sidmouth Literary Festival, Kennaway House, Sidmouth, Devon, June 10 and 11. Ooh, now there’s another reason to head to this wonderful Regency seaside town – books! I already adore Sidmouth for its fabulous mix of 21st century boutiques and 19th century seafront plus pretty Byes riverside park but last year the clever people at Kennaway House teamed up with local shop Winstone Books owner Wayne Winstone to create this super little festival. This year’s line up so far includes Salley Vickers, Penelope Lively, Nicholas Evans and Robert Goddard and the festival looks like going from strength to strength after last year’s inaugural event took the town by storm. And if you fancy yourself as a writer in the making, look out for commissioning editors from Penguin Viking and Pan Macmillan who will be at a special session for new writers seeking to get published. Stay at The Victoria Hotel, which sits in five acres of floral loveliness on the town’s pretty esplanade. Make sure you get a south facing coastal view room – ask for one with a balcony.


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