Britain’s best literary festivals

Clive Aslet, an experienced literary festival attendee, points to the best.

Can you hear the susurration in the countryside? The murmur of lectures, the rustle of books being perused, the polite enquiries as to what authors might inscribe in them — the season of the literary festival is upon us.

How often does one hear that publishing is dead? That nobody reads books anymore? The doom-mongers should take a look at the number of literary festivals taking place across Britain and recalibrate their judgement.

The Hay Festival has not only revitalised a sleepy market town in the Welsh Marches, turning it, every year, into the literary equivalent of the Field of the Cloth of Gold, but the model is being exported to other countries, at boutique settlements in need of a leg up in the world.

There’s a Hay Festival at Kells, Co Meath, another at Cartagena in Colombia. Literature adds class. It attracts high-end tourism rather than stag parties and is a victory for the silver pound. Recently, I attended the Aldeburgh one. Was I lucky to get a ticket! It sells out within 24 hours of the box office opening.

Hay, Cheltenham and Edinburgh are the equivalent of the complete run of Dickens, their programmes voluminous. At the other end of the spectrum is, so to speak, the parish magazine: organised by a local bookshop or village-hall committee, to which the hopeful author travels to find an audience of six. And, in between, the joy of reading is celebrated in a multitude of inventive ways.

A file of Napoleonic re-enactors is likely to guard the lane to the Chalke Valley History Festival; Ayrshire’s Boswell Book Festival, which began its life at James Boswell’s Auchinleck House, but has upgraded to Dumfries House, targets biography — draws this year include Jung Chan, Joanna Lumley and the Duke of Wellington (May 8–10,

It would be invidious to name my favourite gigs and perhaps not that helpful, as those on the other side of the lectern tend to have different criteria. Naturally, the number of people who are kind enough to buy books weighs in the scales, but — so low are most of our expectations on this score — the quality of the green room takes precedence. One well stocked with refreshments — I seem to recall Wigtown had lobster — enables authors to do the thing they like best: gossip about publishing.

On this score, Chipping Campden (May 5–10, 01386 849018; and Oxford (last month) score highly, but nothing can exceed Althorp, where the luckiest stay in the house overnight; the drawing room contains an animated version of The Times Literary Supplement.

Writing is a solitary activity. The ‘litfest’ provides a rare moment of conviviality for those who pursue it as a career. I hope that joie de vivre rubs off on the audience.

Hexham Book Festival, Northumberland
Until May 4
David Starkey and Laura Thompson
(01434 652477;

Stratford-Upon-Avon Literary Festival, Warwickshire
Until May 3
Jacqueline Wilson and Alastair Campbell
(01789 207100;

WhitLit: Whitstable Literary Festival, Kent
May 9–17
David Nicholls, Sandi Toksvig and Kate Mosse
(01227 281174;

Charleston Festival, East Sussex
May 15–25
Lady Antonia Fraser, Ali Smith and Colm Tóibín
(01273 709709;

Hay Festival, Powys, Wales
May 21–31
Stephen Fry, Irvine Welsh, Ian Bostridge and Charlotte Rampling
(01497 822629;

Althorp Literary Festival, Northamptonshire
June 10–13
Sir Tom Stoppard and Julian Fellowes
(01604 770107;

Chalke Valley History Festival, Wiltshire
June 22–28
Sebastian Faulks, Ian Hislop and Jon Snow
(01722 781133;

The Telegraph Ways with Words, Devon
July 3–13
(01803 867373;

Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, North Yorkshire
July 16–19
Lee Child, Val McDermid and Ann Cleeves
(01423 562303;

Circus of Children’s Dreams at Voewood, Norfolk
July 22
A day of literature and art, with John Hurt and Sally Gardner
(01263 713029;

NiddFest Literary Festival, North Yorkshire
July 24–26
Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy (

Port Eliot Festival, Cornwall
July 30–August 2
Books, music, nature, food, fashion and wild swimming

Edinburgh International Book Festival, Lothian, Scotland
August 15–31
(0845 373 5888;

Write on Kew, Royal Botanic Gardens, Surrey
September 24–28
Bill Bryson and Louis de Bernières
(020–8332 5655;

The Telegraph Children’s Bath Literature Festival, Somerset
September 25–October 4
Past contributors include Michael Morpurgo.
Country Life’s Katy Birchall will speak this year
(01225 463362;

Henley Literary Festival, Oxfordshire
September 28–October 4
Jane Hawking and Lt-Gen Sir Barney White-Spunner
(01491 575948;

The Times and The Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival, Gloucestershire
October 2–11
Nearly 500 debates and interviews
(0844 880 8094;

Cambridge Winter Literary Festival, Cambridgeshire
November 29
(01223 300085;