A black and white image of two men. The person on the left is former Festival Director Michael Dawson. He wears a grey suit with a tie, glasses and is pointing to his left. The person on the right is poet Ted Hughes. He wears a black jacket with a tie and is looking up to his left. They stand in the King’s Hall, with a door and posters in the background.

2023 marks the Festival’s Golden Anniversary!

Programmes from 1973 to 2013

2023 Celebrations

Ilkley Literature Festival, the second oldest literature festival in the UK, is celebrating its Golden Anniversary this year!

We have some exciting plans to mark this milestone, but we’d love to hear from you too. What memorable moments stand out from events you’ve attended in the past? Do you have any experiences or interactions with authors you’d like to share with us? If so, fill out this online form!

The Origins of the 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.’- J.B Priestley writing in support of the first Ilkley Literature Festival

The Kings Hall during the Festival in the 1970's
The Kings Hall during the Festival in the 1970s

The original idea for the Festival arose from discussions between Michael Dawson (first Director of the then, newly formed, Yorkshire Arts Association) and Peter Harland (then editor of the Telegraph and Argus and Chair of the Yorkshire Arts Literature Panel) who at the time both lived in Ilkley. Michael Dawson had been to literature festivals in Cheltenham and Peter suggested, “Why don’t you try starting something similar here? Submit a plan that we can discuss at our next panel meeting.”

The 1971 postal strike gave Michael Dawson an unexpected window of opportunity to draw up firm proposals and a realistic budget. The Literature Panel subsequently approved the plans and promised a Yorkshire Arts grant provided the urban district council was willing to make a similar commitment.

Other key individuals involved in starting the Festival included:

The first Festival committee
The first Festival committee
  • Gerald Hodges (Borough Treasurer at the time and later Director of Finance for Bradford City Council) who not only obtained Bradford’s backing but also volunteered his services as the Festival’s treasurer.
  • Dr Robin Alston who combined lecturing in the School of English at the University of Leeds with owning a local publishing venture, the Scholar Mansel Press.
  • Paddy Rowe – for many years the Festival’s sole employee who provided secretarial help.

And a large number of local enthusiasts and volunteers.

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.

The Festival today

The Kings Hall during the Festival in 2019

Today the Festival is held over 17 days at the start of October in this miniature Victorian spa town at the foot of Ilkley Moor. Surrounded by beautiful countryside, Ilkley is only fifteen minutes from the Leeds-Bradford airport and a stone’s throw from Haworth, Harrogate, Leeds and Bradford. The Festival is supported by Arts Council England and Bradford Metropolitan Council.

Over the last forty-nine 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.

In a typical year, around 150 events take place in a variety of venues across the town and beyond. And Festival events are no longer confined to October, with special events taking place across the year.