Now in its third year, Burford Literary Festival has become a highlight of the Cotswolds calendar. Launched by Kim Harvey of The Mad Hatter Bookshop, it brings an enviable array of writers and authors to a series of select venues, scattered across the historic town. We caught up with Kim to find out more about her love of books and the motivation that lead to her taking on this challenge.
What were you doing before you started The Mad Hatter?
The short version of how I came to stand at the helm of The Madhatter Bookshop starts with my first career for Blackwell Publishing in Oxford, skips gaily through being a full-time mum of three, comes around to a part time job at the bookshop and then being handed the reigns in February 2020.
There has been a bookshop at 122 High Street for over 40 years and even when I am working seven days a week I still put the key in the door each morning and smile at the scent of printed paper.
What do you love most about your job?
Making people smile. Many customers that come to the bookshop are not sure what they are looking for, so we have a chat and I point them towards a shelf that might work for them. When they come back to the counter they are invariably smiling, clutching a book that will take them somewhere. Sometimes it is a book that has been on the shelf for a few months and I think to myself – I knew you would find a home! It is so very true what they say, bookshops are dreams built of wood and paper. They are time travel and escape and knowledge and power. They are, simply put, the best of places. These places are time machines, spaceships, story-makers, secret-keepers.
What motivated you to launch a literary festival in Burford?
Simple: Covid inspired me to start Burford Literary Festival. It was January and we were in lockdown. I knew books made a difference to lives and this year we were going to need the difference more than ever before. I wanted to bring authors and readers together and I knew I wanted them to be able to talk to each other rather than just sit and listen.
How important is location in deciding how to structure the event?
Part of my plan was always to bring people to Burford; it is such a beautiful historic town. When planning the Lit Fest I pictured in my head visitors wandering from event to event, stopping to admire the architecture, stopping at the fabulous pubs and cafes and doing a little shopping. We put each event in bijou venues, sometimes a private garden or drawing room or in one of the local halls or event spaces, but always bijou and always to enable conversation.
What is the greatest challenge?
2023 is Burford Literary Festival’s third year, and each year I learn something new. In our first year the schedule was a little chaotic so I spent five days running up and down Burford Hill – great for my steps, but not great for smooth organisation. Our greatest challenge this year is getting the word out there. So many people say they knew nothing about our events but we are a not-for-profit festival and don’t have a budget for advertising so we rely on social media and word of mouth.
What have the highlights been in previous years?
In our first year we were delighted to secure Dame Hermione Lee, considered one of our greatest living biographers; I was very nervous that the event would go well. It was one of my favourites, with 30 guests in the room. It really felt like I had achieved my goal – a conversation between a fabulous author and their audience.
Last year Pam Ayres joined our line-up. I sat on the floor to the side of a room packed with guests and she was an absolute joy. I watched as every face in the audience light up and everyone left with the biggest smile on their faces – that made me very happy.
Dame Professor Hermione Lee and Kate Kennedy
What you looking forward to most this year?
This is the first year we have given the Festival a theme: Our Environment. From personal connection to world-wide effect, and I am really excited about the variety of authors we have in our programme including garden and plant expert Emma Crawforth, fabulous author Marc Hamer, performance artist Andy Field and this year we are offering a walk and writing workshop with Alison Waller.
What you are you reading right now?
I always have a pile of books on the go, some are proof copies of books yet to be published, books planned for my Bookshop Bookclub and others I simply have to read for love. My favourite at the moment is Cat Brushing by Jane Campbell, a collection of original short stories that explore the worlds of thirteen women – loving it.
And finally, what is your 'comfort reading'?
To be honest I don’t have a great deal of time for comfort reading but when I do its definitely something terribly heavy in the winter, maybe Boris Pasternak and in the summer – a jolly good beach read, Colleen Hoover or a retro Jilly Cooper.
Burford Literary Festival takes place between 22-24 September. Speakers this year include Anne L Murphy, Marion Turner, David Edmonds and Mark O’Shea.
For more information, to book tickets or to sign up for regular updates, visit burfordlitfest.co.uk.