Harrogate International Festivals prepare for 50th anniversary celebrations

8 Sharon Canavar, Simon Theakston and Festival Chairman, Fiona Movley

8 Sharon Canavar, Simon Theakston and Festival Chairman, Fiona Movley - Credit: Archant

Chief executive of Harrogate International Festivals, Sharon Canavar, writes her debut column for us as her team prepares for a very special anniversary

You’ve probably read about the mind boggling mix of surveys this year, where Harrogate keeps coming up top. This year, it was voted as the third most romantic destination in the world, beating Paris, Vienna and Rome. For the second year, it was voted the happiest place to live, prompting stories in the national press investigating the secrets of our joy.

You’d think there was something in our spa water. Or maybe it’s all the booze (back in 2007, Harrogate topped the hazardous drinking hotspots in the UK.) Read between the lines: what makes us so desirable is being at the forefront of the arts.

Some things just go well together, like that old proverbial horse and carriage, or in our case, beer and books. We’ve just finished our 12th Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, and it was one heck of a celebration.

Theakstons has been the headline sponsor for 10 years, in which time it has grown into a world-famous festival. We routinely host household names – Lee Child, Ruth Rendell, PD James - but this year JK Rowling’s only UK appearance (writing as Robert Galbraith, and dressed in a killer suit) was nothing short of spectacular. In 2013, there were over 60 million opportunities to read about the festival. This year, we’d need a wizard’s wand to count the number of headlines.

A few years ago, Theakstons even featured in an episode of the American crime series NCIS. It was official: Theakstons was now synonymous with the crime genre. One of the main characters says: ‘This is Theakston’s Christmas Ale, flown all the way from Yorkshire in England, and brewed like it was in Charles Dickens time.’ The beer didn’t actually exist, but the world-wide publicity the programme generated meant the brewery has since added a Christmas Ale to its range.

Books cross borders. I’ve spoken to some visitors from overseas (and the odd Londoner) who hadn’t even heard of Harrogate, and had certainly never visited, but now sees it as a must-go destination. Point being, we’re perfect partners in crime.

Our burgeoning Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival this year featured star names including Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Kate Adie and Timothy West. It’s another fine fit. Raworths is one of the longest established law firms in Yorkshire and, like our arts organisation, it is part of the community we live and work in.

At the festivals we have many partners and local businesses who give us incredible support. We bring in over £8.2m to the local economy, but it’s more than a cultural economy. Our partners share our values, they realise a life without music or books is an impoverished one.

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Only two per cent of our income is from public money. Our growing success is down to these partnerships. And here we are with a new partner: Yorkshire Life, celebrating the run up to what will be a momentous 50th anniversary for Harrogate International Festivals.

It gives me huge pride that Yorkshire stands shoulder to shoulder, and shows what is possible when we work together, safeguarding the Arts.