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Festival History

How did the Festival begin?
From humble beginnings, and thanks to the support of many generous and inspired people, the Festival has grown to become what it is today. Click the button to read more.



Two friends from Wells, Maggie Mountford and Judith Thomas, were sitting drinking tea in Cheltenham Town Hall. It was October 1990 and along with 800 others they were waiting to hear a talk by Seamus Heaney for the Cheltenham Literary Festival - then the only one in the South West of 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..” “Well - why can’t we?” Why indeed?

They found much support and enthusiasm from their writers’ group in Wells, and by the following April had obtained a grant of £150 from Wells City Council to carry the project farther. First supporters included John Frith, who became Treasurer, Jane Swinyard, then head Librarian, West Side Bookshop in Sadler Street. A local author Shirley Toulson, and city councillor Eileen Giles, later the Festival’s first Chairman. A draft programme was agreed.

On September 18th 1991 a meeting in Wells library welcomed representatives from South West Arts, the Tourist Board and Community Education, who in the following weeks provided much helpful advice about venues, ticket sales, writing competitions and involvement with local schools. Novelist Fay Weldon, then living locally, enthusiastically agreed to become the Festival’s patron. On December 4th 1991 a large public meeting in Wells Town Hall brought forth more volunteers with ideas and offers of help, including future Chairman Maggie Langdon.

Terry Pratchett

So far, so good - but then plans began to go awry. Although a splendid range of speakers had been booked, by April 1992 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 by the next meeting; the Committee met monthly from then on; press releases were issued, local newspaper editors and sponsors cajoled, ticket sales began to exceed expectations. Michael Rosen and Judith Nichols were booked for the Children’s Festival and local schools responded enthusiastically.

At 7 pm on Friday October 23, 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.

Jane Gardam

Next morning the Secretary, arriving early, saw emerging from the mist around the moat a neat, bearded figure in a large, slightly pointed black hat - not Gandalf, but Terry Pratchett, come to give the first talk.(“Never,” said a lady from the audience, “did I think that my 15-year-old grandson would ask for a ticket to a literary festival for his birthday present!”) His talk was followed by Margaret Drabble, Jane Gardam (whom we warmly welcome back in 2014), humorist Miles Kington, Joanna Trollope (in a black leather mini-skirt that made some gentlemen’s eyes water), and the marvellous Terry Pratchett again to round off a wonderful day.

On the Sunday, poets Elma Mitchell and Jeremy Hooker read and spoke about their poems in the unique setting of The Rib, St Andrew Street, and Pamela Egan recalled the much loved Wells-born novelist Elizabeth Goudge.

By the end of the year the Committee had learned that Festival tickets had almost completely sold out, there was a small but workable surplus in the bank and the Treasurer was urging that we should seek charitable status and form a company limited by guarantee. We did.) The Festival had arrived.


Watch Video

We have also compiled a short video which shows some of the events that we put on in 2012 which should help give you a flavour of what is in store.

Have you been to the Festival before? Why not check out our photogalleries to bring back some memories?

photo gallery

photo gallery

Check out some of the distinguished speakers that have appeared at the Wells Festival of Literature in previous years

What does the Festival do?
The aim of the Festival is to promote books and the love of reading in the community and particularly in schools...
Wells Festival of Literature Ltd A company limited by guarantee registered in England with number 2827744 Registered address: Tregantle, Milton Lane, Wells, Somerset. BA5 2QT Registered Charity number 1045654.