Above: The founders of Leyburn’s Dales Festival of Food & Drink with Richard Whiteley in May 2004. From the left (the late) Keith Knight, (the late) Richard Whiteley, Ann Hodgson, Margaret Knight and Gerald Hodgson. Below is a feature I wrote in April 2003 about how the festival began, followed by photographs from 2002, 2003 and 2004.
The Festival was so successful that from 2004 until 2015 it was held in a field on the east side of Leyburn. It was then moved back into Leyburn Market Place but in March 2020 the partnership which organised the event issued this statement: “The event had remained popular with the public but the absence of an entry charge made it impossible to cover costs.
“The directors of the Leyburn and Mid Wensleydale Partnership wish to thank the festival’s supporters, many generous sponsors and an army of volunteers, whose efforts enabled the event to happen and to be the big success it was for many years.”
Driving into Leyburn in Wensleydale for the first day of the Dales Festival of Food & Drink in 2002 was an amazing experience. The town centre was so full of people that one little boy commented: “It’s just like London.” During the foot and mouth epidemic the year before Leyburn had been almost like a ghost town and a pall of smoke and depression had hung over Wensleydale. But four local people were determined to help kick start the dales economy.
Over 15,000 attended that first festival and it has become an important annual event in North Yorkshire and beyond. I interviewed Keith and Margaret Knight and Gerald and Ann Hodgson in April 2003 for their story about the founding of the festival and this was published in the Darlington and Stockton Times. To mark the 10th anniversary here is that story:
Good friendships and the hands-on approach were major factors in the success of the first Festival of Food and Drink in Leyburn, Wensleydale, in 2002. And at the heart of the team were four people with a vision: Ann and Gerald Hodgson and Margaret and Keith Knight. It all started with Ann being irritated by the way urban politicians and planners viewed the countryside.
“I got terribly upset listening to instructions to farmers that they had to change their lives and that the countryside should be a large pleasure ground for the tourists. And all these farmers were going to have to change their way of life by applying for grants. That upset me again. Most of the farmers were born around here. They love and understand the land and how to use it, and have great animal husbandry skills. All this knowledge is so important and not to be just packaged up and changed. We have this wonderful countryside – let’s use it.
“Let’s tell everyone we are good farmers, that we provide excellent food and everyone can come to Leyburn and buy it. We should have a food festival I said. I was thinking more about the flower and wine festivals in Europe. I used Gerald as a sounding board.”
This was just after Margaret Knight started her two year stint as chairman of the Leyburn and Mid Wensleydale Business Association. So Gerald told her about Ann’s idea. They also shared it with Richard and Jacqueline Wells who told them there was an annual food festival at Ludlow. At their own expense, the Hodgsons and Knights headed for Ludlow just a few weeks later.
“We had a lovely time and were very impressed,” commented Mrs Knight. “I walked around with a pad of paper and if I saw a good idea I would make a note of it. Those notes were the foundation of our planning.”
“But we never thought we could do as well,” added her husband, Keith.
“That festival had been running for eight years and had worked up to 12,000 visitors,” said Mr Hodgson. “It had clearly had a considerable impact upon the town of Ludlow which has become a nationally renowned centre for good food. We noted good ideas and added our own. It was held in the centre of the town and that seemed very important because that created a great atmosphere. They had made only a small effort to involve the farming community but we wanted to involve the farmers in a more meaningful way.”
They also wanted to make sure that all local businesses benefited. But they never thought they would do as well as Ludlow in their first year. “We expected a total of 8,000 people and we got 15,000,” said Mr Hodgson.
Mrs Knight, as chairman of the business association, got the ball rolling by organising an open meeting. Among those invited were representatives of the local churches. “We thought we had done a fair amount of work but St Matthew’s scored four tries,” said Mrs Knight. “They suggested the band concert, flowers in the church, refreshments and that lovely cookery book. The Methodists also organised food and a pudding tasting competition.”
“The business association was a great help because they said they would bank roll it. Without that we would not have been able to go ahead,” said Mr Knight. They decided to look for funding because with that they could plan with more confidence, including ordering the marquees. In the end they received £20,000 from various agencies as they emphasised the need to counteract the devastating effects of the foot and mouth epidemic in 2001. Even so, as Mrs Hodgson said, it was an ambitious decision to go for a three-day event. “People could not envisage what we were trying to do. They could not believe it. That was the worse moment for me. I thought it was going to fail.”
“In January and February 2002 we debated if we should pull the plug on the whole thing,” said Mr Knight. “We had no idea how many people would come. It was a leap of faith.But all were used to facing tough times.
Mr Knight had been a train control system consultant and they had lived quite a transient life before moving back to England after five years in the States. They looked at properties in the Lake District and the dales and found something suitable in Leyburn.At first they had a bread and breakfast business but this almost came to a standstill during the miners’ strike. They were facing bankruptcy when the local vicar pointed out there was a need for good quality residential care for the elderly.
“It was a complete gamble,” commented Mr Knight. But it worked well right through to their retirement in 2002. The Hodgson’s retired in 2001when they sold Copley Decor in Leyburn to their long term business colleague, Bruce Storr.
“We first came to Leyburn 25 years ago and started that business in an outbuilding beside our house,” said Mr Hodgson. When that was moved to a premises on Leyburn business estate Mrs Hodgson was busy developing a special idea of her own in those same outbuildings. She came from a textile background in Bradford but as a young woman was thoroughly frustrated that the whole wool trade only employed women as secretaries or tea makers.
In the dales she was fascinated by the Wensleydale Longwool sheep. “They have a magnificent fleece. Its probably the world’s finest lustre wool,” she said. At that time the breed was in decline. She said that the main way to promote it was to use the wool. And so she started the Wensleydale Longwool Sheep Shop, which is now run by Ann Bolam and Ruth Tombleson at Garriston near Leyburn. Under Ann’s guidance the shop twice won an International Quality award from the British Wool Marketing Board.
The Hodgsons and the Knights were also encouraged to keep going in 2002 by the rest of the steering committee set up to organise the festival. “David Berry, Alistair Davy and Elizabeth Hird were just great,” commented Mr Hodgson. “Another major contributor was Mavis Parry who joined the team as the representative of Leyburn Town Council.” In the end about 35 people were involved besides the small army of volunteers who helped throughout the festival.
“Ann worked immensely hard to persuade people to come,” said Mr Hodgson. “It was a very big commitment for small businesses as they had to spend three days at the festival.”
His wife added: “They had to make all the preparations beforehand and there was a lo t of clearing up afterwards. We were trying to give confidence to everyone to go ahead. But we had to proceed with it. It was really worthwhile not just for us but for the whole area.” And all their hard work did pay off for not only was that first festival a big success but everyone who had a stand in the food hall last year returned in 2003. And more booked to join them.
“I would love to see the festival being automatically included on everyone’s calendar just as the Yorkshire Show is,” said Mrs Hodgson. To which Mrs Knight added: “We also want the local people to have a good time.” Their ultimate aim was summed up by the Hodgsons: “We want Leyburn to become nationally recognised as a centre of good food based on the wholesome production of the surrounding countryside.”
Margaret Knight spent most of the first festival wearing an apron as she was so busy making sure that the theatre marquee was clean and tidy for each demonstration. She was still cleaning up the day after the festival – and was spotted “shut in” the market shelter. Her husband and the Hodgsons all helped with tidying up afterwards – and for the Hodgsons that included moving a rather sorry looking “sheep”.
Among the special guests in 2002 were Clarissa Dickson Wright and Johnny Scott who signed copies of their books. Derek Kettlewell of Raydale Preserves has been among those who have regularly had stalls in the main marquee. And Andrew Thwaite had his Wensleydale family there to help at his chocolate stall including his grandmother, Isabel Robinson, and his mother (right) Gillian Thwaite.
Richard Whiteley joined Andrew Thwaite in the theatre marquee during the 2003 festival for lessons in how to make chocolate much to the delight of a packed audience. “It was great fun. I’ve never made chocolates before and I thoroughly enjoyed myself,” Mr Whiteley said.
Below: Rick Stein was one of the guests at the 2003 festival where he enjoyed sampling the roast pork at the Mainsgill Farmshop stand and trying his hand at Craske’s traditional shooting gallery. Gerald Hodgson took good care of him during his visit to Leyburn. Also pictured: Local estate agent Brian Carlisle with all those balloons, and the young four-legged star of the farming marquee.
The festival in the field east of Leyburn
After the 2003 festival it was decided to move to a field on the outskirts of Leyburn for the festival had already outgrown the town’s market square. This new site has proved to be a big success as it provides plenty of space of the large marquees as well as room (on warm, dry days) for families to sit on the grass and relax.
Also photographed in 2004: Richard Whiteley after a cookery lesson with Peter Ball of Darlington College; Gervaise Phinn book signing; and Ffion Hague tasting honey watched by her husband, William Hague MP.