Kit Peel, director of NiddFest, the festival that combines literature with nature, talks to JLife’s Laura Sefton about appealing to everyone and getting a Poet Laureate to help out.
The idea came to the couple a few years ago as they travelled through Yorkshire on the train. Writers Kit and Megan Peel wanted to create a special, original event within the county that would combine literature with nature.
Having experienced other literature festivals, and as both Kit and Megan write about nature in their own literary ventures, the pair quickly developed an idea of what they wanted this new special event to be.
“We’d both been to the Hay Festival [an annual Wales-based literature festival] back in the day and it was one of those things where we thought ‘why not do this?’” explains Kit, who in addition to being a trained journalist and writer recently completed a three-year course in garden design. “We write about nature in our books and knew we wanted to make nature accessible and inclusive. There has been a big upsurge in nature writing now, but the festival had to be more than nature books; it had to be a celebration of all nature and writing.”
With this clear vision in place, NiddFest was born.
There have been two serendipitous events that have taken place to ensure the pastoral idyll of NiddFest’s success. The first of these took place as the plans for the festival started to take shape when Kit found himself talking to Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (ANOB). Through sheer good fortune these talks took place just as the ANOB was in need of a cultural element upon which to bestow £25,000 of its Heritage Lottery Fund money.
Kit explains: “The money was given to us for four years covering 2014, 15, 16 and 17, and we had to plan what we were going to do with it.”
The second serendipitous occurrence took place when Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy responded to a request for her help with NiddFest.
“Although we had funding for 2014 from Nidderdale ANOB, 2014 would have been too much, too soon for NiddFest,”explains Kit. “So we asked Carol Ann Duffy to see if she’d be interested in getting involved somehow. We were amazed when she said yes.”
Before the full version of the nature-themed literary festival took place last year, in 2014 the poet performed at Pateley Bridge Memorial Hall as part of a special family show. During this, she signed books and read her nature-themed fairytale, The Princess’ Blankets.
It was Carol Ann Duffy’s presence that caused ripples of excitement and helped to set the standard for the first NiddFest in 2015. The writer, who became Poet Laureate in 2009, offered to be patron of NiddFest and presented prizes at the festival’s children’s poetry competition.
Her support will be felt again at the 2016 event when she appears at the Curious Arts Festival in Hampshire, where NiddFest will be popping up from 22nd-24th July. Kit says that Carol Ann Duffy has even bigger plans for Yorkshire festival’s future: “She wants to ultimately create a national literary prize – the NiddFest Literary Prize.”
In addition to Carol Ann Duffy, the family-friendly NiddFest featured an array of literary guests at its inaugural run, including poet Gillian Clarke and Valentine Warner, the chef and cookbook writer who prepared sea trout with foraged cure that was served during his talk.
Locations were booked in around Nidderdale, including Wath Chapel, Pateley Bridge’s Memorial Hall, Toft Gate Barn, and Scar Reservoir and the line-up was deliberately eclectic. It covered those writing about the natural world from different angles: “There could have just been high-brow literary authors, but we wanted to have a broad appeal and inspire people who love books and nature, which is not a terrible thing, given the current state of the world. It just makes programming so much more interesting.”
Approximately 800 tickets were sold at last year’s NiddFest and there were 20 events across the weekend. This year, there are hopes to draw even more to the lush Nidderdale hills: “It’s a long way for a lot of our speakers to travel, so we want to make it worth it,” says Kit.”
The 2016 programme will include, in addition to the return of Carol Ann Duffy, an appearance by world Laureate, Imtiaz Dharker, author Ali Shaw, and Tony Juniper, former head of Friends of the Earth. In addition, there will be a dedicated outdoor programme, including a wood walk and wild swim, and there will also be den building as part of the children’s programme. Kit says of the family friendly element of NiddFest: “We aim to create a mix of adult and children’s events, as we want to inspire children in the natural world.”
This year’s line-up will also feature Adam Feinstein, a former journalist and author who has written extensively about the life of Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. In his talk at the festival, Adam will cover Neruda’s love of nature that is reflected in his poetry.
Adam is also known for his writings about autism, which began when his son was diagnosed with the condition. He edits Looking Up, a website and resource for people affected by autism, and also works for Autism Cymru.
His book, A History of Autism, Conversations With Pioneers, looks at the people, many of them Jewish, affected by it. The book also reveals Adam’s thoughts on the work of Dr Leo Kanner and Dr Hans Asperger, the Jewish Austrians known for their work in the field of autism.
All Together Now
It is this diverse array of writers, all from different backgrounds and with their own experiences, coming together that makes the festival so original. Kit explains: “I think it’s the bringing together of different writers from different literary areas, from garden writing to poetry, and placing them in a space where they wouldn’t normally meet. That’s what makes this so special.
“One event from 2015 has really stuck with me, and that was when Katharine Norbury gave a reading at Wath Chapel, a lovely venue near to the River Nidd. The sunlight was streaming through and it was such a lovely moment.”
For Kit, it is this Nidderdale setting that makes the festival unique. He believes that being able to marry the nature writing with the natural surroundings is the ultimate pay-off. All of the talks are within the landscape, and each piece of work is carefully linked with the venue or setting for the reading to give a sensory experience for the audience.
Although he describes the last few years as a ‘bit of a slog’, Kit knows it is going in the right direction: “Seeing [the audience’s] reactions makes it all worth it. Ultimately, I’m hoping to grow this into a large festival over the next two to three years.”
With the high calibre literary support and a strong legacy from the 2015 event, the only way is up for NiddFest.
The picturesque Nidderdale is located on the border of the Yorkshire Dales and easily accessible via car, with a journey to the area from LS17 taking under an hour and just 30 minutes for those travelling from Harrogate. Find out more about getting to the festival here: Niddfest.com/nidderdale/getting-here.
What are you most looking forward to about NiddFest 2016?
The wild swim is going to be lots of fun and the opening night will be brilliant as it was fabulous last year.
What is your favourite book?
Ludo and the Star Horse by Mary Stewart and The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.
Who is your favourite author?
I very much admire Carol Ann Duffy’s writings and I’m a fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald, but these change. I think children’s novelists tend to stay with you longer.
NiddFest returns from 5th-7th August 2016. Visit Niddfest.com for the full 2016 line-up and booking details. Kit Peel’s book, Snow summer is available in October.