From ale to arts at poetry festival

As the Poetry-next-the-Sea festival at Wells celebrates its 10th birthday, co-founder Kevin Crossley-Holland is stepping out from behind the scenes to read his acclaimed new work. KEIRON PIM met him to find out more.

It began over a pint in the pub and a decade on, the Poetry-next-the-Sea Festival has become a fixture on the cultural calendar.

The tail end of this week will see writers, artists and musicians descend on Wells for the 10th year for a convivial few days of poetry events.

After stewarding the festival through nine years, founding chairman Kevin Crossley-Holland has handed over the reins to fellow Norfolk-based poet Caroline Gilfillan.

As he steps out from behind the scenes, however, the celebrated poet and novelist will instead appear as part of the festival programme for the first time.

It all started, he recalls, over a beer in Burnham Market.

“I had a phone call from a man called John Coleridge, who said 'You won't know me from Adam, but I have a dream and I'd like to discuss it'.

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“We had a pint of Adnams at the Hoste. He said he had always had this dream of having a poetry festival at Wells and would I be interested in helping me to realise this dream?”

Crossley-Holland is best known as a poet and children's novelist, but adds that “part of me is an entrepreneur impresario who loves enabling others to put things on”.

Some might expect poets to be rather ethereal characters, ever awaiting the muse to strike, but he is refreshingly pragmatic.

“I have always thought dreams are relatively easily come by,” he says. “What really matters is work and elbow grease.

“There's a lot of practical work involved in making a festival sing.”

So he and Coleridge, a poet (a descendant of Samuel Taylor Coleridge) and a former teacher at Gresham's, drew together some like-minded friends and a plan emerged with three main aspects.

“The first was that we would bring internationally known poets to north Norfolk.

“There's a wonderful pleasure to be had from hearing a poet read her or his work. There is then the additional pleasure that they may say something about it that's useful and interesting.

“The second was that we would feed the roots of writing in Norfolk by offering a platform for local poets.

“And the third intention from day one was that we recognised the crossing-places between poetry and music, and poetry and the visual arts, to be fruitful.

“So from the beginning we incorporated into the programme musical or fine art events.”

Crossley-Holland's latest book, from which he will read at the festival, is a sublime example of such a crossing-place.

Moored Man combines his poetry with the moody and bleak etchings and watercolours of Norman Ackroyd.

Both the verse and the art are beautiful alone, but combined they form a stirring meditation on the wilds of the Norfolk coast.

Ronald Blythe's foreword notes that: “What enthrals us when we arrive at the coast is neither land nor sea, but that narrow flux of both of them called the shore.

“Kevin Crossley-Holland's Moored Man is the voice of that ultimate geography which separates land from water.

“He has listened to what it says for the best part of his life and is able to give us this exciting translation.”

As Blythe suggests, 66-year-old Crossley-Holland has long been familiar with the north Norfolk coast.

He spent childhood holidays with grandparents at Burnham Overy Staithe “messing about in the creek and heading out to Scolt Head,” and a decade ago settled in Burnham Market.

Recent years have seen his career really take off, with his Arthur trilogy winning worldwide acclaim for its blend of historical fiction with Arthurian


Further confirmation of his standing among children's writers came last month when his 1985 Carnegie Medal-winning book Storm was announced as one of 10 short-listed contenders for the all-time 'Carnegie of Carnegies' prize.

It was that “magical” childhood exploring the Norfolk wilderness that set him on the road.

“One night almost immediately after my grandfather died I wrote a few lines about my feelings for him.

“Of course, most teenagers when they start writing poems are sorting out knots in the grain of things, which is what I was doing.

“Then I wrote about the windmill at Overy Staithe and one about my girlfriend, and I felt that voltage, that surge of pleasure that I was doing something I should do.”

With the festival now in Gilfillan's capable hands, it should continue to establish itself as a draw for lovers of poetry from Norfolk and beyond.

“Lots of people now write it into next year's diary more or less as soon as one festival ends,” he says. “It's a festival of national standing - which is not bad after 10 years.”

t Tickets can be booked by telephone on 01379 742599 or 07810 438916. For further information, see

t Moored Man: Poems of North Norfolk, by Kevin Crossley-Holland and Norman Ackroyd, is published by Enitharmon in hardback priced £25.


t The festival kicks off on Thursday, May 3, at 7pm at The Alderman Peel High School, when youngsters will read work developed with Norwich-born poet-in-residence Jack Underwood.

t Carla Phillips is festival artist and her husband, Bernard, hosts Dear Departed on Friday, May 4, at 8pm, a programme of readings and songs from poets with local connections.

t Saturday morning, May 5, sees the first presentation to a junior school poet of the Helen Flanagan Prize, in memory of the festival's much-missed secretary. Over sandwiches at lunch, local poets are invited to read at an open floor event. Kevin Crossley-Holland and Sarah Law read at 7pm, then at 9.30pm four young poets from Norwich will read in a free fringe event.

t Sunday lunchtime, May 6, sees John Coleridge in the company of Keith Chandler and Andrea Holland. The festival closes on Sunday afternoon with Matthew Hollis (pictured left) and prize-winning author Blake Morrison.

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