Cheltenham `97: Literary love affair

Cheltenham's Festival is a celebration of the written word spanning almost 50 years

"The Cotswolds in Gloucestershire can be thought of as a lopsided cake, with baking-cracks in the top, which are the valleys, the cake must sag on one side, because approaching from the east, from London, you are unaware that you are climbing, but on the west side, where Crickley Hill and Cleeve Hill drop steeply and irregularly into the flat plain of Gloucester, you look down and you decidedly get a cake-feel. Below, on the flat, but spreading into the irregularly of the hills above it, is the strange town of Cheltenham."

This strange town, described by the poet P J Kavanagh, and both celebrated and derided as the bedrock of middle England, has for almost fifty years served as home for the world's oldest gathering of readers and writers who join together every October to celebrate books and their authors.

The Festival, which started in 1949, breathed new intellectual life into those culture-hungry post-war years. Gloucestershire writer John Moore organised a gathering of writers to celebrate the written word and for many years he invited his friends and fellow writers, including John Betjeman, Ralph Richardson, Cecil Day Lewis, Dylan Thomas, Compton MacKenzie and Joyce Grenfell, to come to Cheltenham for an inspiring week of readings, discussions and talks. The directorship was passed on to other writers as well as the much-loved antiquarian bookseller and collector Alan Hancox, whose second-hand bookshop became a focus of literary life in Cheltenham, before his death some years ago.

Cheltenham and Gloucestershire's literary connections sweep wider than this annual migration to include connections with Jane Austen, J M Barrie, Edward Thomas, Pope, Dickens and A E Houseman. Tennyson wrote substantial parts of In Memorium whilst staying in Cheltenham; Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass may have been inspired by his time in Gloucestershire and W H Auden lived and taught in Cheltenham in the 1930s before becoming Poet Laureate. Today, the town is still surrounded by literary connections from Kit Williams to Joanna Trollope, Jilly Cooper, P J Kavanagh and the late Laurie Lee who lived in nearby Slad and supported the Festival faithfully over the years.

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