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.





Contributor

Steven Morris

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
A galanthus effort: Covid-hit snowdrop festival moves online
The winter flowers are having a vintage year in Devon in the unfortunate absence of visitors

Steven Morris

17, Jan, 2021 @12:17 PM

Article image
Edinburgh book festival to quit New Town for art school
Festival cites Covid and costs of staging event heavily dependent on live audiences as reason for move

Severin Carrell Scotland editor

27, Jan, 2021 @10:39 AM

Article image
Covid: Totnes concerns reflect UK-wide rise in conspiracy theories
Suspicion in Devon town of 5G and face masks means take-up of vaccine may face resistance

Sarah Marsh

11, Nov, 2020 @9:57 AM

Article image
Edinburgh international festival to hold more online events after 1m views
There were 26 specially staged opera, classical and ballet performances after the cancellation of live concerts

Severin Carrell Scotland editor

01, Sep, 2020 @1:19 PM

Article image
Covid-cautious festival cancellations dampen ‘great British summer’ hopes
Promoters cite financial risk of staging events that the government could shut down at short notice

Damien Gayle

20, Apr, 2021 @8:30 PM

Article image
Glastonbury and Hay festival organisers press on despite coronavirus fears
Most UK events, theatres and museums yet to be affected by outbreak

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

08, Mar, 2020 @4:05 PM

Article image
Almost 5,000 Covid cases linked to Cornish music and surf festival
Organisers of Boardmasters say event had measures in place ‘above and beyond national guidelines’Coronavirus – latest updates

Steven Morris

23, Aug, 2021 @6:26 PM

Article image
‘A chariot in the sky’: Lumiere festival of light in Durham honours Covid dead
Installations bring dazzling illuminations to county in beloved biennial event

Mark Brown North of England correspondent

18, Nov, 2021 @1:34 PM

Article image
Edinburgh book festival sets up online signings as it adapts to pandemic
Fans will have chance to join one-to-one signings with writers such as Ian Rankin and Ali Smith

Severin Carrell Scotland editor

31, Jul, 2020 @9:00 AM

Article image
Mandela's relatives to visit prisoners as part of Edinburgh book festival
Zindzi Mandela and her grandchildren will hold private reading at Shotts prison

Severin Carrell Scotland editor

07, Jun, 2018 @5:30 PM