Every year in October, a corner of Cheltenham is taken over by books. A small town of white tents appears in Montpellier Gardens, a pretty park near the town centre, to host Cheltenham Literature Festival.
Spread over 10 days, the festival caters for a broad range of interests, from the world of fiction, memoir and travel writing, to food, showbusiness, children’s books and more. You can get political – for example this year visitors could have breakfast in a nearby restaurant with presenter and political satirist Marcus Brigstocke to dissect the morning papers. Be charmed and entertained with talks by performers, comedians and national treasures like actor Bill Nighy, folk singer Peggy Seeger or 60s fashion icon Twiggy.
Or get riled up by one of the political speakers – at this year’s festival Labour MP Jess Phillips was quite rightly very annoyed at the way in which women are still being ‘shushed’ everywhere from the home to the Houses of Parliament, as she explains in her new book Everywoman.
Top tip though: keep an eye on the online programme throughout the festival, as not everything is announced from the offset and new events sometimes get added. You might discover that you missed something you would have enjoyed. This year’s special additions included Hillary Clinton talking about What Happened.
As book meccas go, Cheltenham is no Hay Festival in terms of dramatic natural landscapes and bookshops, but the bustling spa town, nestled in the Gloucestershire Cotswolds, provides a rich backdrop. The park is surrounded by grand regency houses, and the timing of the festival means that its many large trees are at their peak of autumn colour.
Even though you might have to venture outside the town to enjoy a walk in the picturesque surrounding countryside, you can live vicariously through the adventurers and travel writers on the line-up.
‘The godfather of microadventure’ Alistair Humphreys inspired the audience to make the most of their free time by getting outside to enjoy nature, even if it’s just a few hours after work, or a bit of midweek wild camping. “I love getting the train back into town in the morning stinking of woodsmoke,” he tells us.
On stage with Alistair was Phoebe Smith, editor of travel magazine Wanderlust, who advocates sleeping out on your nearest hill in her new guide book, even if you feel wary of it. “It’s natural to feel scared,” she reassures us, “but then you’ll realise that the noise outside your tent is just a rabbit, the monsters are just sheep, and then it’s great and you’ll want to do it again.”
She talks passionately about the importance of living in the moment, and not posting a picture of everything on Instagram (noted). But she also says that creature comforts are important when you’re sleeping wild – “enjoy not endure” is her motto – and she never leaves home for a wild sleep without chocolate and an inflatable pillow.
The extraordinarily adventurous writers at this year’s festival included two women who have embarked on several solo motorcycle journeys, in unexpected places. Despite contrary advice from The Home Office, Lois Pryce swapped her helmet for a headscarf and took off on a tour of Iran. She describes encountering welcoming locals and sweeping landscapes, which redefined her image of a country that was being demonised in the western media.
Meanwhile, Antonia Bollingbrooke-Kent talked about her thrilling and potentially dangerous adventure through Arunachal Pradesh, a mountainous state in north-east India and one of the world’s least explored places. While most of us will never embark on such extreme adventures, it’s inspiring to hear their stories, and imagine for an hour that we might.
Something else we will probably never do is live in a van, but that was the topic of conversation among the ‘nomads’ on stage during another panel discussion, sharing the highs and lows of van life.
After garnering popularity by posting sun-drenched images of their idyllic lifestyle and travels around the UK and Europe, Lauren Smith and Calum Creasey turned their Instagram account into a book and journal – The Rolling Home – named after their converted camper van, which celebrates similarly alternative lifestyles led by people all over the world.
The celebration of the depth, variety and importance of books on show at the festival made it an appropriate place for the announcement of the David Vaisey Prize for Gloucestershire libraries. Small rural towns have come to rely on their local libraries to shoulder the responsibility as centres of the community. To raise awareness of the valuable work they do, an initiative was launched to award funds to the library that came up with the best ideas to get people into reading, judged by a panel led by journalist and broadcaster Anne Robinson.
Bream Community Library was awarded the prize of £5,000, which will help it to expand its LEGO-based project to inspire and encourage children to read more, by sparking their imaginations and getting them interested in books. The remaining three libraries on the shortlist received £1,000 each.
David Vaisey was Bodley’s librarian at Oxford University and has dedicated his life to libraries. The winner of the prize was announced by his friend the playwright Alan Bennett, who shared his childhood memories of reading, and being “forbidden to read library books in bed, for fear of catching TB”. He talked about the magic and importance of reading, especially to the active imagination of a child. “Libraries are indispensible”, he adds, “and should be a community service, like hospitals.”
Who knows, the children being encouraged to read up the road in Bream and other areas of Gloucestershire might one day be authors in their own right, on the stage at Cheltenham Literature Festival.