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Write On! Features: Birchington Literary Festival… More Than Words – A Volunteer And Founder’s Perspective

 Julia ‘Jules’ Szczepanski And Geraldine Watson tell us about Birchington Literary Festival, taking place on 17-18 June.

To set the scene, Birchington-On-Sea is in Thanet, east Kent. We’re a large coastal village of around 10,400 people, where more than 60 per cent of our population is over 50 years old, and we sit almost next door to the trendy hotspot of Margate.

Principally, Birchington is a quiet, friendly and community-active hub, with a lovely (sandy) Blue Flag beach, and a busy ‘high street’  – it’s a road and I have often been admonished for calling it a high street (forgive me, community!) – and locals who will talk to anyone about anything.

About two years ago I gave up my very varied legal career to become a full-time carer for my mother, who has dementia. Although I had a home in Birchington several years before leaving my career and London, I had never joined in, or joined up; it was just a place near the sea. I knew that, for my mental well-being, I had to do something other than care for my lovely mum.

So, what next? I love reading, so why not find a book club? I did, and it was great. I was lucky enough to find a group of women who all wanted the same things: a good read, companionship, a lot of laughs… and the odd glass or two of wine. Still, not enough, I decided to write to the Parish council and see if there were any volunteer roles for which I might be useful. Yes, there was; in fact, the timing couldn’t have been better, as it was explained to me that a local community interest company (CIC), ‘Birchington Together CIC’ (BT CIC) was deep in preparation for Birchington’s first literary festival, so, would I like to meet Geraldine Watson, the event’s founder? Perfect!

Geraldine lost no time in setting up a meeting with me and, getting straight to the point, asked if I would like to set up the pop-up bookshop at the event. So I roped in members of my book club to help. It was kismet that I’d just met and joined a book club who then became expert book shop volunteers, and now we were part of a fun weekend of literary festivities.

Geraldine had managed to engage over 30 literary contributors, including well-known Daisy Buchanan, (her novel Careering was thereafter shortly serialised on BBC Radio 4) and Amber Butchart who I’d recently seen on an episode of the BBC’s Sewing Bee. As someone remarked to me…how did ‘lil ol’ Birchington manage to attract those names?

That was last year, so what happened next? Shortly after the festival, and following lessons learned, Geraldine and fellow director Ron Castle knew that, in order to get a bigger audience, BT CIC (which had only been in existence less than two years at the time of the inaugural literary festival) needed to engage better with residents, local businesses and surrounding communities.

Ron came up with the idea of establishing a BT CIC newsletter, and I was asked if I would like to produce it. I used to write legal articles, and I was the publisher of The Lawyer magazine, so I said yes, because I like a challenge, and the Birchington Buzz (the Buzz) was born. I had no idea what I was doing, but, as one of your former article contributors said about self-publishing, I just got on and did it.

Writing is something I love doing, but writing in a relaxed, friendly and informal manner for publication was something I really had to think about. My writing training had been, for the most part, stylised to meet the exacting requirements of the legal profession, which is unemotional and unambiguous. But I soon found that I could write in my voice, which seemed to work well. Eight issues later, and the newsletter has quite a following, being hailed as refreshing, uplifting and bringing the community together. BT CIC is now better known, liked and trusted within the community.

So, here we are, promoting and preparing for BirchLit 2023. I asked Geraldine to share her insights into how it all started, and what lessons have been learned.

“The  idea of a literary event for Birchington worked on so many levels. I wanted to bring something new to the village, to bring everyone together, including visitors from further afield, by offering a wide variety of events and activities and giving the whole village a sense of occasion. It’s also great for our economy, as our local shops benefit from the increase in footfall.

When thinking about the audience we wanted to attract, it would have been easier for us to have two separate events: one for children and one for adults. But for a small village, that means double the costs and double the volunteers required, so we do our best to combine both demographics. This year, we’re bringing children’s entertainment in and around the literary venues in order to create an almost ‘carnival’ ambiance, which I think will appeal to everyone. We’re creating an occasion.

I’ve learned many lessons from our first literary event, including: ‘You’re not going to please all of the people all of the time!’ Joking apart, it’s so important to get local businesses on side, as they’re an invaluable support in helping to publicise the event, share posts on social media, sponsor prizes or the programme, help with the booking site, and more. There’s pretty compelling evidence to suggest that people are more likely to use a shop or a tradesperson that gets involved with community activities, so it’s a win-win situation, as we are very mindful of keeping our local economy flowing.

There’s a huge amount of work that goes into planning an event like this over many months, so volunteer commitment is key, but can be challenging. We’ve been faced with situations where people have offered to take charge of a whole section of the event and have then pulled out when the level of commitment required becomes apparent. So, you do need to stress what’s involved, and its importance, from the outset. Creating a team spirit is essential.

Funding the festival is important to us, as we wanted to keep it a ‘free of charge’ event, but, again, it’s challenging. I start submitting funding applications at least ten months before the event. Some funders ask for a lot of information and some require a telephone interview before a decision is made, so it can be a long and time-consuming process. Attracting local business sponsors in a small village environment is also tough, but through the closer relationships we now have with our local businesses, we’ve managed to convince a few more to sponsor this year’s event. This will get easier for us as the event becomes more established.

It’s also important to forge good relationships with your local or Parish councils, as there are so many technical aspects to putting on a public event that you will have to deal with and get public support on, such as venue hire if owned by the council, health and safety, and trading regulations. We’re lucky in that we have a very good relationship with our Parish council (I used to be a Parish councillor), as it recognises the social inclusion and financial benefits the event brings to the village and its residents. There’s an element of trust between us, which means we can get things done more quickly and easily.

Having a theme for our literary event was something we considered but, to a large extent, the direction of the festival is steered by the guest speakers we can attract (to every ten or so authors or presenters we approach, we may only hear back from one or two). We’re, therefore, very fortunate to have enlisted the support of Sir Roger Gale, MP for north Thanet, as patron of our festival. Sir Roger has provided not only his encouragement for the event, but also some of his connections, including Michael and Sandra Howard, and Alex Leger (who produced a prolific catalogue of television programmes, including the iconic Blue Peter). I also look for press articles about authors and new books, keep up to date with guest profiles at other Literary Festivals, speak to bookshops about their contacts and which books are selling well, and ask for suggestions from guests already booked.

Sometimes you just don’t know when or how a good speaker will emerge. For example, Tate Britain is running a dedicated exhibition (April – September) on the Rossettis (Dante Gabriel, his wife Elizabeth, and sister Christina). Gabriel Rossetti (poet and painter and founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) became very ill and in February 1882 he came to Birchington to take in the sea air, on the advice of friends. However, his health quickly deteriorated, and he died in April 1882. He was buried in Birchington Churchyard and has a memorial window dedicated to him, designed by Frederick Shield, in the Parish All Saints Church. The Buzz was invited to the exhibition’s press preview, and it was then that Jules, our editor, invited Carol Jacobi, the exhibition curator, to speak at our literary event, which Carol has kindly agreed to do. An association of that nature has proved to be a bit of a talking point in the village!

This year, we also have some activities and events designed to include neurodivergent performers and speakers (e.g. those with autism, mental health challenges, dyslexia and ADHD) and one of our guests, the lovely Wilfred Jenkins, will provide some signing, so celebrating diversity and inclusion is a very important part of our event this year.We are also featuring activities and events designed to include neurodivergent performers and speakers and, one of our guests, the lovely Wilfred Jenkins, will provide some Makaton Sign Language. As you can see, celebrating diversity and inclusion is a very important part of our event this year.

You also need to be very patient and detail-oriented, as you will be dealing with myriad speaker requests, and ensuring every speaker timeslot request can, where possible, be met. Scheduling speakers, and ensuring we have enough volunteers to cover every aspect of the event, are the two most complicated parts of the literary event planning process. We’ve broken down the volunteer roles this year into four distinct time sections, so that we can plan a little better. And, of course, when we pair up a guest speaker with their interviewer, we inevitably then find they’re not available at the same time. It’s a bit like trying to do a 5000-piece jigsaw with no picture to follow!

Our literary event is run solely on the goodwill of our volunteers and is very much a team effort, but I would like to give a special mention to my colleague and co-director. Ron Castle works tirelessly to put together the marketing plan and co-ordinates the design, printing, ticketing and distribution of all the promotional material, here in the village and to the wider community.”

On Saturday 17th & Sunday 18th June 2023. You can book here:


Julia ‘Jules’ Szczepanski: Birchington literary event Volunteer, and Editor of the Birchington Buzz newsletter

Geraldine Watson: Director of Birchington Together CIC and Founder of the Birchington Literary Festival

Useful Links:

Birchington Literary Festival 2023  – online guest programme:

Birchington Together Community Interest Company Facebook:

Birchington Buzz newsletters:




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This year, we’re bringing children’s entertainment in and around the literary venues in order to create an almost ‘carnival’ ambiance, which I think will appeal to everyone. We’re creating an occasion.