On May Bank Holiday Chiddingstone Castle is hosting its first literary festival. Eileen Leahy spoke to the organiser and some of its esteemed guests to find out what to expect over a weekend that celebrates books, theatre and poetry
What do Downton Abbey’s Robert Bathurst, Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell and the veteran broadcaster Sandy Gall all have in common?
They, along with a wealth of other revered writers, actors and poets will all be appearing at the first Chiddingstone Literary Festival.
Running from Sunday May 1 until Tuesday May 3, the beautiful historic 16th-century castle will host an impressive array of literary talks, inspiring musical performances and poetry readings.
There will also be pop-up cocktail bars, cafés and children’s theatre workshops to keep you refreshed and entertained during the three-day event.
The festival was the brainchild of local Chiddingstone resident Victoria Henderson, a former publicity manager at Century and Michael Joseph publishers and an online contributor to the Lovereading website. Juliet Nicolson She came up with the idea after realising that despite the fact there are over 350 literary events up and down the country, her corner of West Kent had absolutely nothing.
“I was struck by the plethora of literary festivals nationwide, but astonished to find none on my home ground. I thought: Perhaps this was something I could address…
“I decided to approach Mark Streatfeild, who is Chairman of the Trustees at Chiddingstone Castle, as it seemed the obvious venue,” says Victoria.
“With help and support from publishing colleagues and friends we have been able to put together an impressive line-up.”
Proceedings kick off with the novelist Vita Sackville-West’s granddaughter Juliet Nicolson talking about her latest book A House Full of Daughters. In it she reveals the eccentric lives and intimate secrets of seven generations
of the infamous Sackville-West family from Sissinghurst Castle.
“A festival like this is a storyteller’s dream come true,” says Juliet, speaking to the Times about her Chiddingstone debut.
“I think there is a real thirst for meeting writers and being able to talk to them,” she reveals.
“People want to know how you started, why you write, where you do so and even whether it’s with a pen! It’s just such fun to discuss the art of writing.”
Juliet will be exploring the themes in her new book with her ‘great friend’ Imogen Lycett Green, the granddaughter of poet John Betjeman.
“We’ll talk about life and mothers and daughters. I hope that my book will have some relevance to other females. We are, after all, someone’s daughter. That’s the Janet Ellis one thing every woman has in common.”
Other draws to the festival include Cold Feet and Downton Abbey actor Robert Bathurst, who lives in Stonegate, performing a unique version of Christopher Reid’s The Song of Lunch with his co-star Virge Gilchrist.
In an exclusive interview with the Times he told us how he became involved in Chiddingstone’s inaugural festival.
“The organisers approached me after seeing me in The Song of Lunch at the Minerva theatre in Chichester,” Robert explains.
The play is an adaptation of the poem by Christopher Reid which tells the story of a reunion between two former lovers. It features a mix of poetic monologue and spoken dialogue which Robert describes as ‘very engaging’.
“It is a story about someone who tries to rekindle love with an old flame,” he continues.
“They go to an Italian restaurant and it’s a complete disaster. My character does a lot of drinking but it’s very funny and has a lot of poignancy to it.
“It’s in a language which is so extraordinarily lyrical. I talk to the audience in narrative then go into the dialogue, then talk directly back to the audience about how the conversation is going. It’s very direct, it’s very engaging and it’s not like the poetry you learnt at school.”
It wasn’t a hard sell to get Robert on board for the festival once he’d visited the venue at Chiddingstone.
“It’s the perfect spot in the most beautiful corner of Kent which I hadn’t really explored before,” he says.
“It’s delightful. The organisers have clearly done their research and discovered there’s room for a literary festival here. It’s also attracted a lot of very good writers and I think it will be very exciting. I hope it will become a long-running one.”
Other writers and artists who will be waxing lyrical about their tomes and trade include former Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis, who will be chatting about her debut novel The Butcher’s Hook. The tale is set in Georgian London and is one of intrigue and intimacy. It has just been published – to much critical acclaim.
There are also plenty of heavyweight literary offerings on Sunday, including talks by former ITN war correspondent Sandy Gall discussing his book War Against the Taliban: Why it All went Wrong in Afghanistan.
He will be sharing his intricate knowledge and passionate interest in the country’s past, present and future alongside Major Richard Streatfeild who served in Helmand.
If you’re a fan of espionage then you’ll want to book tickets to the Q&A featuring Andrew Lownie, author of Stalin’s Englishman and Sandy Gall Adam Sisman, John Le Carré’s biographer.
They will also be chatting about Guy Burgess and the infamous Cambridge Spies set.
On Monday and Tuesday the literary festival turns its focus on children with fun events for all ages, including the Pericles Theatre Company performing The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter in order to celebrate the author’s 150th anniversary.
Brian Moses will perform a special poetry and percussion session on the same day and there will also be a Roald Dahl storytelling event to celebrate his 100th birthday.
Fans of Chris Riddell, author of the Ottoline and Goth Girl series of books and Children’s Laureate will be present on Monday afternoon answering questions about his impressive canon of work.
If the weather’s fine you can enjoy a literary walk around the grounds of Chiddingstone Castle with local historians Penny Harris and Chris McCooey, or take part in an ‘espresso’ theatre stall brewing freshly-made individual ‘plays’ from London’s Royal Court Theatre.
Other events happening over the three days include the winning entries of a short story competition in aid of the festival being read out on Bank Holiday Monday by Geoffrey Streatfeild from the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre.
Both he and his soldier brother Major Richard Streatfeild, who is appearing alongside Sandy Gall, grew up in Chiddingstone and their family once owned the historic castle.
Go along and find out how life for them has turned yet another interesting page…