NiddFest: is this the UK’s best small festival?

By Graham Chalmers

Monday, 3rd August 2015, 12:21 pm
Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy with the 'NiddFest' pork pie, courtesy of Weatherhead's.  (Picture by Mike de Horsey)
Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy with the 'NiddFest' pork pie, courtesy of Weatherhead's. (Picture by Mike de Horsey)

There’s not many arts festivals which would entice you to tramp the fields near the River Nidd being bitten to death by insects.

But the very first NiddFest, which celebrates nature in writing, is no ordinary festival.

While most festivals feature big names in their field, few take their audiences into an actual field in the Dales, transforming what were words on the page into real experiences.

NiddFest - Harrogate-based author RobCowen on stage at NiddFest at Pateley Bridge's Memorial Hall.

Which is how I came to find myself near Wath in Upper Nidderdale in a Saturday morning listening to the impressively 
knowledgeable Dan Turner of the Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust as he explained the ins and outs of the River Nidd - while standing in the middle of it in a pair of green wellies.

A new family-friendly literary festival whose main base is Pateley Bridge, NiddFest had started the night before with an intimate event combining poetry and live song in Tofttgate barn high up on the hillside at Greenhow Hill, featuring its patron Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate, and the National Poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke sharing their favourite passages of nature writing.

It was that sort of festival. Top writers from every genre of nature writing, fiction and non-fiction, from literary phenomenon James 
Rebanks of The Shepherd’s Life fame to Jackie Bennett, gardener and journalist discussing 20 inspiring gardens - usually appearing in lovely settings in front of good crowds.

Organised by a group of book-lovers based, in part, at the King Street Workshops in Pateley Bridge, main organisers Kit and Megan Peel created the perfect balance of indoors and outdoors in a well though-out of the informative and entertaining events which included plenty of children’s activities.

Wath Chapel was hushed in heavy atmosphere and bathed in dusty sunny light on Saturday afternoon for an emotional talk by writer Katharine Norbury.

The author of The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream, she was remarkably open about the origins of her critically-acclaimed book.

Being diagnosed with breast cancer had made her reappraise her whole life, she revealed to a spellbound audience, making her take the story in a whole new direction.

The Harrogate Advertiser Series also did its best to support this fledgling new festival.

Features Editor Graham Chalmers played interviewer to interviewee Mark Cocker, author of Birds and People, who’d appeared on BBC Radio 4 defending nature from modern encroachment just a few days earlier.

On Saturday Mark found himself at the pretty St Chad’s Church in Middlesmoor whose magnificent vistas sweep down the valley.

The Harrogate Advertiser also sponsored the closing event with Rob Cowen.

The Harrogate-based author has received rave reviews for his recent book Common Ground which explores the history and nature edge-lands of the town near the Bilton-Ripley Bridleway.

In person Rob proved a powerful and inspirational speaker linking the story of this neglected piece of scrub land to wider environmental concerns of our era.

NiddFest director Kit Peel said he was thrilled by the reaction to the new festival overall and the hundreds of people who had booked tickets and turned up at the weekend of events.

He said: “This was the first festival in the world dedicated to celebrating nature in writing and all the team at NiddFest are delighted with the terrific turnout for a first year.

“There were so many highlights - Valentine Warner’s incredible cured sea trout that was served during his talk having gone out foraging first for ingredients, Mark Cocker spotting a young cuckoo being fed by a meadow pipit and the James Rebanks talk which attracted people from all over the country.”

Other highlights included an appearance at Toftgate Barn at Greenhow Hill by Evie Wyld, whose second novel All The Birds, Singing has hit the prize short lists this year.