Twin festivals in Leyburn this month expect to bring many foodies and art lovers into the much-loved Dales village, as Terry Fletcher reports. Photographs by Joan Russell

What could be better to kick start the holiday season than a festival? Except perhaps two of them. That’s what is happening in the Wensleydale village of Leyburn this month when the now well-established Food Festival is joined by a new art extravaganza.

Swaledale artist Sue Dewhurst, who came up with the idea, said: ‘By now everyone knows about the food festival, which has been going for more than 10 years so we hope the art events will bring in a whole new group of visitors and that the two will support each other and highlight the number of artists working in the area as well as the food producers.’

If it does half as well as the food festival everyone should be delighted. That began life in what was thought would be a small way in the centre of the village in 2002, the year after foot and mouth disease had devastated Dales farming and the local tourism industry. The brainchild of two local couples, Gerald and Ann Hodgson and Keith and Margaret Knight, it began as an idea to give visitors something to come for and to provide a shop window for local producers.

It succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams and over the three-day May Bank Holiday weekend an estimated 15,000 people crammed into the village for the inaugural festival.

The only real problem was that it was such a success that it quickly had to leave the village centre for a new home on the outskirts, slightly diluting the benefits for the rest of the community. The festival administrator, Sandy Carter, said: ‘We get people who come back every year and some who organise their visits around the festival. Last year we had about 12,000 people, including everyone from serious foodies to people who just want to know a bit more about the farming in the Dales and local produce, so we put on something for everyone.’

There are plenty of stalls selling food and drink from the Dales and further afield as well as livestock displays. The 200-seater cookery theatre, where top chefs demonstrate their skills preparing recipes from local ingredients, dish out tips to impress your friends and answer questions from the audience, is another popular feature.

Sandy said: ‘Changing the chefs every year helps to keep the festival fresh and we are always getting new exhibitors who see the festival as a great way of gaining exposure for new products. If you are interested in food there is always something new to see.’

Sue Dewhurst reckons the same is true of art. ‘There are so many artists in the Dales but often they work alone in isolated studios and people are unaware they are here. In fact, through organising the festival I have come across people who I did not know were here. We have everything from painters and sculptors to willow weavers, photographers, beaders and felt makers as well as artists who are working with children and other parts of the local community.

‘Because we are starting off much smaller than the food festival we will be in the centre of the village, which is a good way of brining people back in and there will be buses for visitors to get between the two so they can enjoy both events.’

But although the twin festivals will make up Leyburn’s biggest weekend of the year there is plenty to see at any time of year. Although it is peaceful now the earlier inhabitants were a more quarrelsome lot and the village is ringed by three impressive fortresses, which were inhabited by some of the key players in English history.

The nearest, though not by much and just across the River Ure is Middleham Castle, now in the care of English Heritage. This was the northern stronghold of Yorkshire’s own king, Richard lll, when he was Duke of Gloucester and defending England’s northern borders. After the War of the Roses it fell into Tudor hands and was allowed to rot.

West of Leyburn is another impressive tower, the tall keep of Bolton Castle, still largely intact and once the prison of Mary Queen of Scots as she waited for her half sister Elizabeth to decide her fate. According to local legend the beauty spot escarpment of Leyburn Shawl is named after a garment she is said to havedropped during a vain attempt to escape.

The third fortress is just up the road in neighbouring Richmond where the keep is one of the tallest and best preserved in the country.