Ilkley Literature Festival began in 1973, the brainchild of Michael Dawson, first Director of the newly formed Yorkshire Arts Association. During the 1971 postal strike, the lack of any new mail gave him the space to browse through a stack of brochures from arts festivals across the country. To his surprise he discovered that only Cheltenham staged a literary festival and that that there was nothing of the kind in the North and he set about instituting a new Literature Festival in Ilkley, his home town. After two years of planning and fund raising, the first Festival was launched by W.H. Auden in April 1973, in one of the poet’s last public appearances. At first biennial, the Festival became a regular yearly event by 1988, going from strength to strength. Over the last thirty five years innumerable famous authors have passed through its doors – from international figures and Nobel prize winners to poets like Ted Hughes and Benjamin Zephaniah. There have been residencies, literary walks, discussions, commissions, workshops, exhibitions, performances & moments of high drama.
Today the Festival is held over a two week period at the start of October in the miniature Victorian spa town at the foot of Ilkley Moor - surrounded by beautiful countryside – but only fifteen minutes from Leeds Bradford airport and a stone’s throw from Haworth, Harrogate, Leeds and Bradford. The Festival is supported by Arts Council England Yorkshire, West Yorkshire Grants and Bradford Metropolitan Council who also provide the Festival with two tiny offices in a listed Victorian cottage on the site of a Roman Fort in the grounds of the Manor House Museum. Each year more than 180 events take place in a variety of venues across the town, from a well equipped modern studio theatre for 150 at Ilkley Playhouse, to the large function rooms at the imposing Craiglands Hotel and the ornate Grade 2 listed early nineteenth century King’s Hall, with its gilded boxes and balconies, seating 500. The Children’s Festival has a home at the newly built All Saints C of E Primary School and other events take place at St Margaret’s Church Hall, Otley Courthouse Arts Centre and the Education Room of the Manor House Museum. There are projects and residencies involving local schools and community organisations across the town and a lively Fringe that squashes into any venue it can find.
As J.B. Priestley said, when he wrote in support of the very first Festival:
‘Ilkley is the right size for a Festival town…large enough to provide various amenities and small enough to stroll around and run into everybody.’