Talegate? Appledore beats Covid to keep book festival alive

Event organisers think outside the box to hold drive-in literary event in North Devon field

The book lovers of Appledore, a picturesque fishing village on the north Devon coast, are a resourceful, determined lot.

When their library faced closure 14 years ago, they helped save it by launching a literary festival, which grew and developed year by year into one of the most popular cultural events in the south-west of England.

And when the 2020 Appledore book festival was threatened with cancellation because of the Covid crisis, they came up with the bold idea of holding a coronavirus-secure drive-in event, believed to be the first in the UK.

Over this weekend, hundreds of people will park-up in a field usually used as an archery range to listen from the safety of their cars to talks and readings on topics including politics, cooking, shepherding and gardening.

Appledore book festival visitors.
Visitors to the festival. Photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian

If they are not distracted by the stunning views of the sea, they will hear the wise words of science writers, novelists and environmentalists relayed into their cars via their vehicles’ radios. There is even a drive-through Waterstones bookshop for fans to pick up copies of books signed by the authors as they leave.

“It’s about keeping the festival alive, keeping it going no matter what,” said director Ann Juby, as she watched motorists being directed into their parking slots for the first event. “It’s been a lot of work but the whole team of volunteers has pulled together.”

By March, when the UK went into lockdown, 45 authors had been booked for a nine-day festival this September. Fringe events, music evenings, workshops and children’s activities had been set up.

Rather than cancel because of coronavirus, the organisers thought outside the box. They contacted a Devon events company, Waggle, which runs drive-in cinemas, and asked if they could do the same sort of thing in Appledore – but with books.

They have had to reduce the number of events but are able to accommodate up to 120 cars for each session with up to five people in every vehicle.

Ann Juby
Ann Juby: ‘It’s about keeping the festival alive, keeping it going no matter what.’ Photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian

A string of shows have sold out, including appearances by the television star and quiz show supremo turned novelist Richard Osman and Kim Darroch, the former British ambassador to the US.

Appledore and the surrounding area have traditionally been known as centres for fishing and shipbuilding rather than for a thriving arts scene. The festival is changing that.

The area’s remoteness means that many local people have come to rely on the festival for an autumnal fix of culture. The chair of the trustees, Pat Hadley-Smith, said: “We are a remote here. It’s wonderful that the world of literature comes to us every year. People really look forward to it.”

Navigating the rules and regulations to stage the drive-through festival has been a challenge. “It’s been a steep learning curve,” said Hadley-Smith. “But when you see the people come, it makes it all worthwhile.”

And come they did. Dozens of cars arrived for the opening event – an interview and Q&A with the celebrity chef Ainsley Harriott. It felt a little like the scene from the film Field of Dreams when hundreds of cars suddenly turn up to Kevin Costner’s cornfield to watch a ghostly game of baseball. If you build it, they will come.

Rebecca Flashman and Debbie Moss.
Rebecca Flashman and Debbie Moss. Photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian

Friends Rebecca Flashman and Debbie Moss, from Braunton, north Devon, arrived in an open-topped two-seater car with just enough room for a hamper packed with cucumber sandwiches and sparkling wine.

“We’re used to coming to open-air classical concerts,” said Rebecca. “But we thought we’d give this a go.”

Covid means, of course the festivalgoers cannot freely mingle but have to stay within boxes marked out with whitewash. Nevertheless, the atmosphere was warm and convivial.

“It felt surprisingly intimate,” added Rebecca. “It’s wonderful to get out and do something cultural in these difficult times. I’m going to come back on Monday for the talk on Vladimir Putin.”

Tobias Kennedy-Matthews, a local chimney sweep, had been given his ticket to the Harriott gig as a birthday present. He loved the chef’s tales about Ready Steady Cook and his culinary trips abroad. “It was brilliant. This is my first literary festival. I’ll definitely come again,” he said.

Ainsley Harriott on the big screen at Appledore book festival.
Ainsley Harriott on the big screen. Photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian

The festival founder, children’s author Nick Arnold, who lives in Appledore, said he had always been keen for the festival to be innovative. “We knew we couldn’t be the biggest or richest festival but ideas come for free,” he said. “I always hoped that by coming up with new and exciting ideas we would attract attention.”

Harriott had wondered how the audience would engage and how he would know if they had enjoyed his appearance. He needn’t have worried. He walked off not to the sound of applause but to the enthusiastic honking of car horns.


Steven Morris

The GuardianTramp

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