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  • Richard Hanks

Wells Festival of Literature

Updated: Jun 19

Wells Civic Society monthly meeting - 8th May 2024

This months talk was from Sue Rye, describing the scope of educational projects that Wells Festival of Literature is involved with.

Sue Rye talks to Wells Civic Society members about Wells Festival of Literature
Sue Rye talks to Wells Civic Society members about Wells Festival of Literature

“Have I got news for you?” It quickly became apparent that Sue Rye, did, indeed, have news for many in the audience at the May meeting of the Wells civic society, as she described the tremendous range and scope of the education projects that Wells Festival of Literature initiates and funds. The bare statistics of 48 schools and 2 600 children participating are impressive enough, but they cannot convey the richness and diversity of the multitude of activities which are occurring throughout the school year, and by no means just for the nine days of the festival itself.

This aspect of the festival started by bringing children in to hear story telling by the authors but then moved on to having authors visit schools, not all of which are in Wells itself. Thence: to providing free books to schools to the tune last year of 1247 books; visits to theatres; poetry events; creative writing prizes; visits to Waterstone’s bookshop and book gift vouchers of £20 per pupil; funding the work of Coram Beanstalk, who train volunteers to go into schools to offer 1:1 support to children who are having difficulty with their reading, which means that 44 children in eight schools are currently benefitting; supporting the Coram Shakespeare School Foundation in their work in schools across the board, giving pupils experiences which go beyond just staging a Shakespeare play; and the annual Year 6 Event in Cedars Hall has involved some 1000 children, 33 schools and the sale to the children at subsidised prices of 1588 books. The list, briefly described here but illustrated and explained in detail by Sue, left the audience, who had largely been unaware of this all year round aspect of the festival’s grassroots work, open-mouthed in admiration.

This all stems from the Festival of Literature. But where did that come from? This was explained by Alex Kolombos, chair of the festival’s trustees. He was delighted to find Pamela Egan in the audience, who was the very first secretary of the festival. Pamela was able to give some firsthand personal insights into the early days of the infant festivals. It all came from two local residents who, on attending the Cheltenham Festival in 1990, dared to wonder if Wells could possibly have its own. This acorn of an idea showed its first shoots in 1992, when the first festival did indeed occur and it has prospered and flowered every year (with some Covid adjustments) into the splendid oak which is today’s renowned event. As Pamela explained, though, whether that first festival would see the light of day was a touch-and-go affair, with people not responding to this unknown event. She was able to use a little extraneous influence, gain some wider publicity, the day was saved and the festival opened with Terry Pratchett, Margaret Drabble, Jane Garden and Joanna Trollop among its speakers, thus ultimately ensuring full houses and the festival finishing in credit.

That weekend event has now grown into one of nine days and 34 events. These are now all held in Cedar Hall, which is regarded as an excellent venue, whereas in earlier years, as more and more sessions were staged, a variety of venues had to be used, such as the churches of St Thomas and St Cuthbert, the Bishop’s Palace, the Museum and the Cathedral. All was brought under one roof within a marquee in the grounds of the Bishop’s Palace until, fortuitously, Cedars Hall came along.

Besides the talks given by the visiting authors and illustrators about their most recent book, which often attract capacity audiences, there are competitions for poetry, short stories, books for children, and for young poets. There are literary lunches and patrons’ events, where speakers have included Kate Adie, Sir John Major and Mariella Frostrup, while this year it was Mike Gunton, creative director of the BBC Natural History unit, who oversaw the acclaimed Planet Earth series on TV.  Patrons Lord and Lady Waldegrave are always much involved in the festival.  

From its very early days the festival became a registered charity, which brings one to the question of how is it financed. Alex explained that funds come only from ticket sales, competition entries, local sponsors and Friends. In other words, the festival is self-financing and self-sustaining and receives no funding from, say, a local council. Further, it is entirely run by volunteers: in this it may well be the only one in the country, and ensures that it is independent, beholden to no-one and free from vested interests.

Remarkably in this time of general inflation, the price of a ticket to hear a speaker, quite possibly an extremely famous and well regarded one, has remained at £10 for the last ten years. Even more remarkably, of that £10, £3 goes to the great range of enlightened work the festival champions, facilitates and arranges twelve months of the year in nearby schools of varying types.

The audience had been fascinated by the quality of the presentations, so well prepared by Alex and Sue. Without doubt, the dates of the 2024 festival, 18 – 26 October, will have been inked into some diaries, possibly with a further memo to enquire about the additional benefits of becoming a Friend. A member of the Wells Rotary Club in the audience had mentioned that they have a project in which Rotarians go into schools to hear children read .Could there even be a further link? Certainly, tonight another jewel in the rich life of Wells had sparkled, to the delight of the audience. 

There will be more sparkle, some of it in a glass, at the society’s Summer Social at 6.30pm – please note the time – on Wednesday, June 12. This will be held in the much developed garden of Wells Museum, Cathedral Green. The bubbly will sparkle and the strawberries will shine in the evening sunlight. Immediate past High Sheriff of Somerset, Robbie Drewett, will talk about the role and his year in office. More information about this event or the society in general can be found by contacting the chair, Chris Winter, on or by going to   

Richard Hanks


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