This month, in the lush setting of Mill Marsh Park, Craft Festival Bovey Tracey will celebrate its 20th anniversary and its organisers are getting ready to welcome the event’s 150,000th visitor.

Craft Festival had modest beginnings, but behind it lay quietly audacious aspirations to create a national event for craft in rural Devon. It has since grown and built an admired reputation for curating and hosting one of the finest contemporary craft events in the UK.

Each year around 10,000 visitors come to the town to enjoy a packed weekend of craft, workshops, talks, cinema, live music, children’s activities, family entertainment and delicious street food.

The festival has achieved numerous awards and accolades and last year its co-founder Sarah James was made an MBE for services to craft in King Charles’ birthday honours list. She travelled to Buckingham Palace to receive her award from HRH Princess Anne.

Great British Life: MAKE Southwest's Laura Wasley with Sarah James MBEMAKE Southwest's Laura Wasley with Sarah James MBE (Image: Jim Wileman)

Craft Festival was created as a not-for-profit enterprise, originally known as The Contemporary Craft Fair. It was supported with European Union funding, given for its objective of stimulating rural business regeneration. The idea came from Sarah and Bovey creative businesses, The House of Marbles and MAKE Southwest (previously known as the Devon Guild of Craftsman). They wanted to create an event which celebrated British craft, and which took place in June, so extending the traditional summer season.

It has since expanded to another Craft Festival in Cheltenham and a new national event for Wales will launch this September at Cardigan Castle in Ceredigion. The team also runs Find a Maker, which is a curated online directory of makers and galleries and a craft-based business school. There’s also a podcast series The Capital of Craft which features interviews between Sarah and British makers who talk about their life, work, and inspiration.

‘Craft Festival Bovey Tracey is the go-to event in the craft calendar.’ says Amelia Lawrence, sector support manager at the Craft Council. ‘It’s the driving force in the world of craft in the UK today. It has a powerful reputation in the sector. Makers can rely on the team to create brilliant events, and this builds maker confidence to apply to exhibit. It’s friendly and warm reputation makes it a favourite in the craft calendar for makers and customers alike.’

Since the event’s inception, MAKE Southwest, based at Riverside Mill in the town, has been a dedicated supporter of Craft Festival.

Great British Life: Setting up the festival was 'an amazingly imaginative thing to do' says Brett Payne. Setting up the festival was 'an amazingly imaginative thing to do' says Brett Payne. (Image: Photo: Ben Boswell)

‘We both champion the best craft in the region and it’s wonderful to have such a fabulous event on our doorstep each June,’ says Laura Wasley, chief executive officer of MAKE Southwest. To celebrate the anniversary, MAKE is hosting an exhibition, Twenty Years in the Making, which features 20 award-winning makers who have attended the festival over the years.

Helping the small team of organisers is a legion of dedicated, warm, and welcoming local volunteers.

Julie Vella has helped over many years. ‘The volunteer training before the event is always informative and is a great way to meet like-minded people,’ she says. ‘You will always find something new to inspire and enjoy, interesting knowledgeable people to talk to, opportunities to learn new craft skills, and inspiration for future projects, which is why I keep coming back.’

This year, 500 professional makers competed for one of 200 coveted exhibitor places. Returning exhibitors include some who have taken part many times, like silversmith Brett Payne, who is making the trip south from his home in Sheffield. He remembers the first time he came.

‘I got an email from Sarah out of the blue about a new show, but it wasn’t in London, Paris or Berlin – it was going to be in Bovey Tracey! I thought, well that’s an amazingly imaginative thing to do. New ideas need support, or they don’t happen, so we applied. That was 20 years ago, and we’ve secured a place at every event since.’

Great British Life: Jewellery by Claire Lowe, who will be making her sixth visit to the festivalJewellery by Claire Lowe, who will be making her sixth visit to the festival (Image: Claire Lowe)

Jeweller Claire Lowe from Exmouth will be returning to exhibit for the sixth time and will be showing her new Arc collection of geometric form jewellery.

She says: ‘The quality of work at Craft Festival is extremely high. You’re amongst peers with great designs who are pushing boundaries, creating exciting new work. Meeting the makers and discovering their process is a great experience.

‘Over the years I’ve sold my work to visitors, found new gallery stockists, and been invited to take part in exhibitions. Great introductions have come my way.’

Some exhibitors travel a long way to the festival, including Doug Finch. Doug is originally from Crediton and is now one of the country’s leading slipware potters. He runs Finch and McAndrew with his wife and fellow potter Hannah, from their studio in Scotland. They will be making the trip with their potter’s wheel, and most of the contents of their studio, to demonstrate their craft at the show.

Doug first exhibited at the festival in 2004, it was his first event as a professional maker.

‘I was living in Devon at the time, and I’d not long set up my business. I heard that the Craft Festival was happening, and it was going to be much more than a local village-hall style craft event. I applied and was accepted. It was all a bit crazy!’ he says.

Great British Life: Local maker Teresa Green Textiles, award winner from the 2023 show, will returnLocal maker Teresa Green Textiles, award winner from the 2023 show, will return (Image: Jim Wileman)

Another returning maker is textile designer Teresa Green, who is based near Exeter and has been exhibiting at the event for about 15 years. She was awarded the Best Maker in the Southwest accolade at last year’s event.

Craft Festival has been the launchpad for many new maker’s careers. Last year local ceramicist Kitty Ward from Salcombe took part for the first time in its StartUP business feature. This year, in the face of tough competition, she has been selected to exhibit in the main marquees.

‘I knew of the event before becoming a potter, as it has a great reputation. It was a big step for me last year, I felt like it was my coming out as a professional maker. The event went way beyond anything I could have hoped for – the experience helped build my confidence and worked well for me commercially too. I’m excited to return. Craft Festival is also such a fun, sociable show,’ she says.

Craft Festival Bovey Tracey runs from June 7 to 9. buy tickets online in advance to save on the entrance ticket price.

Twenty Years in the Making runs until June 22.