Virginia Woolf, Horace and Rectories : The Ilkley Literature Festival 2013

October is the month of The Ilkley Literature Festival. I remember when ‘all’ the events took place in one venue – a children’s weekend of ‘literary’ entertainment- poetry, puppets, that sort of thing – and a weekend of talks for adults. But that is going back nearly 30 years and I noticed that this year celebrates the 40th anniversary with 17 days of talks, walks, visits and entertainment with even free Fringe events.


I usually pick a couple of talks or events to attend each year and this year was no different. On the first Saturday I chose to hear Alexandra Harris talk about her book “Virginia Woolf“.

Liverpool University cultural historian Alexandra Harris’s hugely acclaimed Romantic Moderns (Guardian First Book and Somerset Maugham Awards) overturned our picture of modernist culture. Now Harris discusses the life and work of Virginia Woolf, revealing a passionate, determined woman full of wit, vivacity and fun, whose life was shaped by her defiant refusal to submit to literary convention, social constraints and mental illness.” [ILF Programme]

The Sitting Room at Monk's House, East Sussex

The Sitting Room at Monk’s House. The armchair was one of Virginia Woolf’s favourite reading chairs. It is upholstered in a fabric designed by her sister, Vanessa Bell. ©NTPL/Eric Crichton [As seen here]

I’m expecting to get to Monk’s House next year (and felt the need to learn more about VW) with a friend and bought the book and had Ms Harris sign it for her. She hopes we will also have a chance to walk on The Downs whilst we are there … and I hope so too!

Later that afternoon I went to a Question and Answer format event featuring the FT ‘Slow Lane’ journalist and poet Harry Eyres who has recently published a book ‘Horace and me‘ a fascinating subject about whom I knew very little.


Harry Eyres, theatre critic, wine writer, poet and ‘Slow Lane’ columnist for the Financial Times, journeys into the work of the Roman poet Horace, exploring his lessons for our time. The humble son of a freed slave, Horace championed modest pleasures in the face of imperial Rome’s wealth and expansion. A celebrity in his own time, Horace influenced writers from Voltaire to Hardy – and Boris Johnson!” [ILF Programme]

And finally last Saturday it was Deborah Alun-Jones who gave a short talk, then took questions from the presenter and then from the audience on the subject of her book (which I had read earlier this year) ‘The Wry Romance of the Literary Rectory‘.


Author Deborah Alun-Jones strips away the idyllic exterior of the village rectory to reveal the lives of writers like Tennyson and Betjeman who lived and worked in them. She investigates hidden desire, domestic drama, bitterness and isolation – and the secrets of the highly creative environments from which some of the greatest English poetry and literature has emerged.

Ms Alun-Jones had travelled the country visiting rectories (and vicarages, parsonages and the like) and although she mentions Jane Austen and the Brontes they are not included in this book. A future book will look at women in the rectory. The only woman to feature in this publication is Dorothy L. Sayers. The male authors are Sydney Smith (at Foston in Yorkshire); Alfred Tennyson (at Somersby in Lincolnshire); Rupert Brooke (at Granchester – also now home to Lord Archer); John Betjeman (at Farnborough); R.S.Thomas (at Manafon); George Herbert and Vikram Seth (at Bemerton) and The Benson and de Waal families (at Lincoln). I haven’t visited any of these places and I don’t think any are open to the public. Such a lively speaker and interesting topic it was a pity that the room was only half full. But those of us that were there were very appreciative of the talk.

Shandy Hall

Here is Shandy Hall in North Yorkshire and former home of Lawrence Sterne vicar of Coxwold – also not included in The Wry Romance

I wonder if Simon at Stuck-in-a-book has a comment to make about the wry romance of being brought up in vicarage?


On Ilkley Moor : The Colin Speakman Way

I’ve been regularly walking/hiking in the Dales and in Yorkshire in general since 1995. In the summer this year my sister and I tackled my (she did many of the national long distance paths during the 1970s) first long distance walk in Shropshire – Wild Edric’s Way. It was pretty tough in places – those places being along Offa’s Dyke where WEW shared the path with Offa’s Dyke Path. I learnt from this recent recording of Ramblings on Radio 4 that The Dales Way is often a first-attempt at a long distance path for many people. At various times I have walked along all of that part between Ilkley and Beckermonds finding some of it a bit too low level. It’s OK as part of a walk but it’s the sense of achievement on gaining a higher level path or peak and the views that go with it that I find the most satisfying. Still that did not deter me from setting out on Sunday to my second Ilkley Literature Festival outing which was a ramble with Colin Speakman – author of Walk!, and over 50 walking and other guides to Yorkshire and the man responsible for putting the Dales Way on the walking map.

Colin Speakman meets his audience

We assembled in swirling rain by the main entrance to The Rombalds Hotel  on the doorstep of the Moor. Due to the weather our walk was to be somewhat curtailed – Colin’s ‘Plan B’. We were to take the donkey path up to White Wells and then the historic packhorse way (which links Ilkley with Bingley via the famous ‘Dick Hudson’s’ pub) through Rocky Valley and across the moor to The Cow and Calf Rocks. After a visit to the Hanging Rock quarry and the Hanging Rock itself our path would head down to the tarn and from thence back the Rombalds Hotel for tea.


Our first stop was only steps from the Rombalds – the boarding house where Charles Darwin had stayed in Ilkley on his visit to the spa for ‘the cure’ in 1859. It was then a steep climb up to White Wells built in the 1760s.

The steep path out of Ilkley to The White Wells.

The White Wells plunge pool.

Turn the tap for the curative spring water!

The Famous Cow and Calf Rocks

The Hanging Stone Rock with Early Bronze Age Carvings

Hanging Stone Quarry

The Tarn – a natural water feature which was ‘improved’ by the Victorians who created the paths for a ‘walking’ cure.

At the end of our walk – what could be better than a Rombalds tea and scones with jam and cream – yummy!

In The Magician’s Footsteps : Words, Land and Landscape

Harewood House. Today’s main entrance looks north and not over the park.

Every October The Ilkley Literature Festival in Yorkshire features a vast programme of talks, discussions and events from which it is difficult sometimes to choose just a couple. This year I had no problem with my selection and today’s choice includes more than one love of mine – books, country walking and a historic house visit: the ‘Capability’ Brown Walk.

Looking south over the parkland from the Terrace.

A mixed group of us met on Sunday morning in the grounds of Harewood House, just a few miles from Leeds, to follow on the heels of Head Gardener, Trevor Nicholson and author of the book “The Omnipotent Magician: Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, 1716-1783″, Jane Brown (no relation). We were all there to find out more about the eighteenth century landscape designer extraordinaire – ‘Capability’ Brown. Naturally, the focus today was Brown’s influence on the superb outlook from Harewood (pronounced Harwood) House. My pictures just don’t do the scene justice.

We were told that the ornamental parkland was set out in the 18th century by Brown. He came to Harewod in 1758 and proceeded to wave his magic wand over the next few years (helped by his Foremen and a large band of local labourers). This parkland is a fine example of Brown’s characteristic arrangements – native trees, gently sweeping hillsides, a lake. He got rid of all field boundaries and each and every tree is located just where Brown decided it would have the most impact. Hahas were dug in order to restrict the movement of the sheep, deer and other animals.

The Haha also forms a drainage conduit.

The original manor house (Gawthorpe Hall) had been demolished and during the time that Brown was working here a new house was being built by John Carr of York and Robert Adam on a spur of land looking south. Part of Brown’s plan was to create a carriage drive to the house in order to impress visitors arriving from London.

After admiring the view we were taken down this drive (which is not open to the general public) from where we gained glimpses of the house as visitors would have done since the 1770s. Brown’s plan was to improve on nature and it resulted in our typical English countryside. This is recognised as a truly English style and contrasted greatly with the French formal style. Of course, later the Victorians made changes to both the house and the gardens, but fortunately not to the park.

The Carriage Drive today as it emerges from the woodland.

Not only did he pay attention to views and aspects but also planned cascades under bridges for the sound effects! Everything was done to impress visitors.

Cascade by the Rough Bridge

Brown seems to have had a boundless supply of energy. He travelled around the country visiting projects, extolling on the virtues of views and their ‘capability’ for improvement, collecting his fees and, according to Jane, took on at least 200 major projects.

Our walk took us across the fields by the lake in front of the house and through some delightfully wooded gardens back to the house itself where a sandwich lunch was served in the Steward’s Room where “Capability’ himself would have been entertained on his visits to Harewood. Yet again no photography is allowed in the House!