Charleston offers an eclectic mix at this year’s festival

Diana Reich in the garden at Charleston.  Picture by Axel Hesslenberg
Diana Reich in the garden at Charleston. Picture by Axel Hesslenberg

Charleston Festival (May 20-30) celebrates a special landmark this year.

A hundred years ago two artists came to live in a house at the foot of the South Downs, close to the village of Firle and a few miles from the county town of Lewes.

The artists were Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and they were quickly joined by David Garnett, Clive Bell and John Maynard Keynes.

Charleston became a hub of creative and intellectual activity, with Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry, T.S. Eliot and E.M.Forster among the regulars who gathered to talk art and politics.

Bell and Grant were pioneers of early 20th century British art and Charleston became a place of dissent and debate, of creativity and conviviality. And it is that same free-thinking spirit that inspires the Charleston Festival, now in its 27th year.

There are more than 300 literary festivals across the UK, but none have the unique quality of Charleston. Wander through the enchanting walled garden, explore a house alive with art, crowd into the marquee, jostle at the bar and indulge yourself in conversation and debate.

“There is a real edge to this year’s programme,” says artistic director Diana Reich. “It is as much about ideas as straight literature.”

Gone are the days of authors reading only from their latest books. Today’s audiences want to participate, to discuss and question.

“I think I have very acute antennae,” says Diana. By remaining constantly aware of the key issues of the day – whether in politics, art or literature – she brings together speakers who will stimulate and excite.

Science now plays a role in this year’s festival, with Astronomer Royal Lord Rees in conversation with novelist Ian McEwan and the founder of the Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, on net neutrality and the openness of the Web.

Politics are highlighted in a discussion on the rise and fall of Tony Blair and Melvyn Bragg looks back on the Peasants’ Revolt.

The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Charlotte Bronte versus Jane Austen, poetry, art, fashion and prose, it’s a mouth-watering and eclectic mix.

As it’s a centenary celebration, there’s a festival dinner with Her Royal Highness Princess Michael of Kent and Hollywood royalty John Lahr, biographer and senior drama critic for 21 years of The New Yorker.

And, of course, the marquee will continue to be at the festival’s heart. Charleston just wouldn’t be Charleston without the creaking of guy ropes and the smell of trampled grass under foot.

Special ticket offer

For a limited period only there are two-for-one ticket offers on selected events.

Learn how thriller writer Patricia Highsmith came to write the book on which the film Carol was based. Or hear Graham Swift on his new novel Mothering Sunday and Michael Morpurgo on WW1. These are just some of the subjects under the microscope.

Call 01273 709709 for details of ticket offers, quoting Code CF20162FOR1. Visit for the full programme.

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