Good literature has formed the backbone of society for centuries. From the literary salons of yesteryear to modern-day book clubs, literary masterpieces have stirred emotion and provoked debate. Little wonder, then, that book festivals are such hugely popular dates in the cultural calendar. Here is our guide to the best literary festivals across the UK to book tickets for now.
The UK’s Best Literary Festivals
If the news that Val McDermid is set to release her first new series in 20 years this summer quickened your pulse, you’ll want to head to Harrogate to make a pit-stop at this annual celebration of crime fiction’s finest talent. McDermid herself will be putting in an appearance, hosting a panel spotlighting the genre’s future stars in a packed programme curated by festival chair, Ian Rankin. Expect to see Ann Cleeves, Mike Herron and recently crowned author of the year, Richard Osman who will offer insights on writing a top-selling whodunnit, and be the first to find out the winner of the prestigious Crime Novel of the Year prize.
30 July-1 August
With a focus on showcasing works by women and those whose voices might not otherwise be heard, Primadonna exists to level the publishing playing field. Held at the Museum of East Anglican Life in Suffolk, this children-friendly festival sees writers, editors and bookworms rub shoulders with comedians, musicians and food lovers. But with festival-goers having been known to go away from here with a book deal in the bag, it’s the insightful workshops and tips from featured speakers (Adele Parks, Emma Dabiri and Sandi Toksvig join the line-up this year) that make this a must for budding novelists.
Is Chiswick London’s most bookish borough? The organisers of the annual literary hoorah in this leafy suburb certainly seem to think so. Its Writer’s Trail highlights 21 giants of literature that have either lived in or written about the area, and it’s this commitment to showcasing Chiswick’s writing talent that ensures this festival’s programme is full of inspiring speakers (Antonia Fraser and Alexandra Shulman and Trevor Barnes all joined the online event last year). Kicking off proceedings this year will be a discussion at Chiswick House about the life and work of Nancy Mitford and her notorious sisters, one-time residents of Strand-on-the-Green.
If you’re keen to catch the last vestiges of the great British summer, make a beeline for the Devon coast this September to enjoy this intimate gathering of bookworms by the sea. Helmed by president Dame Hilary Mantel, the festival attracts an impressive array of critically acclaimed authors, poets and playwrights, who come together for five days of thought-provoking talks, panel events and workshops. However, if you can’t wait until then, join in with a spot of pre-festival fun courtesy of the virtual book club. The Lamplighters is the inaugural page-turner, and there is an opportunity to join author Emma Stonex to hear her chatting about the true events that inspired her atmospheric debut novel.
Following the success of its virtual offering last year, the Henley Literary Festival returns with a mix of in-person and online sessions spread throughout the town. With more than 130 events forming the backbone of its impressive programme, visitors are positively spoilt for choice in how they should carve out their time. Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio, Sebastian Faulks and Kate Mosse are all putting in appearances, but expect the pop-up with Joanna Lumley discussing her book A Queen For All Seasons on 28 October to be a sell-out.
Holding the accolade as the longest-running festival of its kind in the world, Cheltenham’s lit-fest has had plenty of time to become a master of its craft. And rather like a finely-turned phrase, the calibre of the cultural icons and commentators who appear here is always top-notch. This year, a number of guest curators are set to put their own stamp on the revelry, with the events being developed around Booker-winning pioneer Bernardine Evaristo’s Writing Back series a highlight. Literature lovers will also be keen to see how Ann Morgan tackles her role as the Festival’s inaugural Literary Explorer in Residence.
Cliveden House, the gloriously seductive country estate-turned-luxury-hotel in Berkshire, has been always been a magnet for literary greats. Lord Tennyson, H.G. Wells and Rudyard Kipling were all entertained within the walls of the Italianate mansion, and this festival revives a penchant for literary salons that has existed here for centuries. Following a brief hiatus last year, expect this intimate must-do event – recently dubbed ‘Glyndebourne for book lovers’ – to return with an eclectic line-up of high-profile writers, historians, politics and cultural mavens, ready to set the agenda on literature once more.
21-31 October 2021
As one of the most important dates for bibliophiles in the capital’s calendar, this annual showcase of cultural talent always attracts literary big hitters. As publishers gear up for the Christmas book-buying frenzy, this festival provides the perfect opportunity to seek out intellectual inspiration for a winter reading list and hear the views of talented writers and thinkers who are keen to start a debate. Although the programme for this year’s festival is yet to be released, the Southbank Centre – the festival’s home – has plenty of events on its calendar for literary lovers to enjoy.