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Literary festivals 2019: our pick of the UK’s best book festivals

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Sarah Shaffi
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UK book festivals, including Hay Festival.

Indulge your love of books with other fans.

Sometimes, finding a quiet space and curling up with a book is the best way to experience the joy of reading.

At other times, what you need is to be surrounded by people who love the written (or spoken) word as much as you do, and for those times, literary festivals are invaluable.

The UK is home to dozens of book festivals, from small, local outfits to large events that attract global audiences.

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What all of them have in common is that they bring readers together with other readers, and with authors. You might go to a book festival to hear from and meet your favourite author, but we can guarantee you’ll also discover some new writers along the way.

Festivals take place throughout the year, so there’s always something going on, and many festival also host special events in their off-months.

Here are seven UK festivals to get you started.

  • Bradford Literature Festival

    Bradford Literature Festival's Sufiana Kalaam event in 2018.
    Bradford Literature Festival’s  Sufiana Kalaam event in 2018.

    One of the newer additions to the literary festival scene, Bradford Literature festival is a vibrant event taking place in the heart of the city. Encompassing more than 500 events across 10 days, this is a festival with inclusivity built in – especially impressive when you consider that many festivals struggle to programme inclusively and to attract diverse audiences. Events this year include Sufiana Kalaam, an evening of Qawwali music from the Sufi tradition; a poetry night with Nadine Aisha Jassat, Charly Cox, Sophia Thakur, Sabrina Mahfouz, Juan Felipe Herrera and Imtiaz Dharker; and MPs Rachel Reeves and Tracy Brabin talking to Sky’s political correspondent Kate McCann about women in Westminster.

    Where: Various locations, Bradford

    When: 28 June to 7 July 2019.

    How much: Prices differ depending on the event.

  • Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival

    Love to lose yourself in a twisty thriller, a classic whodunit or a true crime? Then Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival is for you. Taking place in Harrogate, this weekend-long event brings together some of the biggest and best authors in crime. Among the events this year is a conversation between crime writer Val McDermid and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. McDermid will also join authors Mark Billingham, Jane Gregory and Mari Hannah as “suspects” in Cooking Up a Murder, a murder mystery event where guests have to figure out who killed a contestant in a TV cookery show.

    Where: Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate, Swan Rd, Harrogate HG1 2SR.

    When: 18 July to 21 July 2019.

    How much: The festival offers a series of packages which include entry to events, food and drink, and accommodation.

  • Edinburgh International Book Festival

    Edinburgh International Book Festival takes place in Charlotte Square
    Edinburgh International Book Festival takes place in Charlotte Square

    Set in a tented village in the heart of Edinburgh – just off the famous Princes Street – this festival welcomes around 1,000 authors each year across 900 events. The 2019 programme will be announced in June, but previous guests have included Gina Miller, Juno Dawson, Jess Phillips and Kamila Shamsie.

    Where: Edinburgh International Book Festival, Book Festival village, Charlotte Square Garden, EH2 4DR.

    When: 10 August to 26 August 2019.

    How much: Most adult events are priced from £0 to £15, while most children’s events cost between £0 and £8.

  • Primadonna

    New for 2019 is Primadonna, which will give prominence to work by women. It’s the brainchild of 17 women in publishing and entertainment, including Women’s Equality Party co-founders Catherine Meyer and Sandi Toksvig, and novelist Kit de Waal. The three-day festival will include roundtables, panels and music performances. Authors already confirmed include Elif Shafak, Diana Evans, Katy Brand and Kerry Hudson.

    Where: Laffitts Hall, Suffolk, IP14 6DT

    When: 30 August to 1 September 2019

    How much: Adult weekend passes cost £90, weekend concessions £45, and campervan passes £50

  • Bloody Scotland

    The name should clue you in – Bloody Scotland is a festival focused on crime. As well as the usual literary events, the Stirling-based festival includes teams of authors going up against each other in a quiz, and in the annual Scotland vs England football match. There’s also an open mic night where you’ll get to see authors displaying different talents to the ones you know them for; in previous years Val McDermid has stepped up to sing ballads.

    Where: Various venues, Stirling

    When: 20 September to 22 September 2019

    How much: Prices differ depending on the event

  • Cheltenham Literature Festival

    Cheltenham is chronologically the last of the big three literature festivals to take place each year, but that doesn’t make it any less star-filled. In 2017 it was the only UK festival that Hillary Clinton spoke at during her tour for her book, What Happened. This year’s festival is the 70th, and there are a host of special events planned, including a series of guest curators: novelist and editor Max Porter, Slay in Your Lane authors Yomi Adegoke and  Elizabeth Uviebinené, broadcaster and historian Dominic Sandbrook, novelist Tessa Hadley, poet and Out-Spoken founder Anthony Anaxagorou, head of Chatham House US, Leslie Vinjamuri, and children’s author Robin Stevens.

    Where: Various locations, Cheltenham

    When: 4 October to 13 October 2019

    How much: Prices differ depending on the event

  • Manchester Literature Festival

    Manchester Literature Festival puts on a variety of author events, but has a focus on contemporary writing from across the world, and commissions work from emerging and established writers. The festival takes place in venues across the city, with previous venues including Manchester Jewish Museum, Working Class Movement Library and The Lowry. The festival also hosts events throughout the year, outside of the main festival fortnight.

    Where: Various locations, Manchester

    When: 4 October to 20 October 2019.

    How much: Prices differ depending on the event.

  • London Literature Festival

    London’s Southbank Centre hosts literary events throughout the year with both new voices and big names (Michelle Obama appeared in conversation with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in 2018, and this year there’ll be appearances from Nadiya Hussain, Celeste Ng, Malorie Blackman and more), but in October each year it dedicates almost two weeks to the world of books. This year’s London Literature Festival will begin with Poetry International, Southbank Centre’s longest-running festival, which was founded by Ted Hughes in 1967.

    Where: Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London, SE1 8XX

    When: 17 October to 27 October 2019

    How much: Prices differ depending on the event

  • Hay Festival

    Hay-on-Wye, on the border between England and Wales, is home to one of the country’s most famous literary festivals. Hay Festival takes place in a tented village on a massive field, and this year will welcome authors including Leila Slimani, Matt Haig and Bernardine Evaristo. If you can’t make it to the main festival, Hay also hosts a Winter Weekend and international festivals in locations including Mexico, Spain and Peru.

    Where: Hay Festival, Dairy Meadows, Brecon Road, Hay on Wye, HR3 5PJ

    When: 21 May to 31 May 2020

    How much: Tickets for events cost from £5 to £40

  • The Bath Festival

    The Bath Festival includes a diverse mix of literary events, from a lunch with cookbook author Sabrina Ghayour to Austentatious, an improvised comedy play by a company that conjures up a “lost” Jane Austen novel based on nothing more than a title suggested by the audience. Events take place in venues across the city including the Holburne Museum, The Old Royal Theatre and St Swithun’s Church. The Bath Festival is followed later in the year by the Bath Children’s Literature Festival.

    Where: Various locations, Bath

    When: May 2020

    How much: Prices differ depending on the event

  • Greenwich Book Festival

    The majority of Greenwich Book Festival takes place in the beautiful grounds of the University of Greenwich at the Old Royal Naval College. The festival includes paid events for children and adults, as well as a series of free creative workshops, poetry and play readings, and lectures. Events in 2019 included Kerry Hudson talking about her book Lowborn with Cathy Rentzenbrink, author and singer/songwriter Tracey Thorn in conversation with Hannah Beckerman, and a celebration of the New Daughters of Africa anthology with Margaret Busby, along with contributors Malorie Blackman, Bridget Minamore and Diana Evans.

    Where: University of Greenwich, Old Royal Naval College, Park Row, London SE10 9LS

    When: June 2020

    How much: Prices differ depending on the event

Image: Matthew Horwood/Getty, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Bradford Literature Festival

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