John Clare Society website

to promote a wider and deeper knowledge of the poet, John Clare

The Festivals


Read more about past festivals below. You don’t have to be a member of the Society in order to attend – and we are a very friendly bunch!

The Importance of Tradition (15 – 17 July 2022)

After the disappointments of the previous years, we were finally able to return to Helpston for the John Clare Society Festival. Speakers included Robert Hamberger (reading from his book A Length of Road: Finding Myself in the Footsteps of John Clare) and Professor John Goodridge. The Saturday evening concert was given by Milton Keynes based folk band and dance group Innocent Hare.

The 2020 and 2021 Festivals

Sadly, due to Covid, we had to cancel both these festivals, with our AGMs taking place electronically. However, there were some celebrations held in Helpston at the time the 2021 festival should have gone ahead.

Birds and Words (12 – 14 July 2019)

There was lots to see in the village, with magnificent open gardens, a sculpture exhibition, folk dancing and music, book stalls, and many more. The popular folk group Pennyless provided the entertainment on Saturday evening, and Richard Astle from the Langdyke Trust gave a fascinating talk (accompanied by bird song!) in the afternoon. New to festival, we ran a ‘Beginner’s Guide to John Clare’ mini workshop on the Sunday – which sold out very quickly.

The Wood is Sweet (13 – 15 July 2018)

Another great weekend! The afternoon speaker on the Saturday was Fiona Stafford, author of The Long, Long Life of Trees, and pupils from Leicester Grammar School thoroughly entertained us at the evening concert.

Influences on John Clare (14 – 16 July 2017)

On the Friday, we held the Midsummer Cushions ceremony in the churchyard in the afternoon, and the evening saw us all gather in the front room of the Bluebell Pub for the folk evening.

The Saturday was a day of entertainment around the village. The Barn had its usual array of stalls, with more stalls near the Memorial. The Morris Men, and the Peterborough Dance Group entertained outside the pub and the church; and a recorder group played in the garden of the Cottage. Carry Akroyd gave her Presidential Address, and Professor John Goodridge was the afternoon speaker.

The evening concert was provided by The Decent Scrapers, with a packed out church for the occasion.

Digging and Delving – Unearthing Clare (15 – 17 July 2016)

This was again a wonderful weekend. It began on the Friday with the children parading down from the John Clare Primary School to St Botolph’s Church, carrying their midsummer cushions. A special one was laid in commemoration of Peter Moyse. This was followed by the children’s poetry awards and a reading by the Peterborough Poet Laureate.

On the Friday evening, the back room of the Blue Bell pub was packed for the folk evening. It is really a very popular event. Saturday is always the main day of festival – with book stalls and exhibitions in Botolph’s Barn, the AGM, Presidential Address, and guest speaker talk in the Church – along with poetry readings, and a church tour. We are now selling a commemorative booklet (containing articles and a map) on the three oak trees planted for us by Langdyke Trust at Swaddywell (£2 per copy plus p&p). These were planted as a tribute to John Clare, Edmund Blunden and Ronnie Blythe. The afternoon talk was by Margi Blunden, Edmund’s daughter.

In the Saturday evening, we had the pleasure of seeing the Big Fiddle Band in concert. They are a community fiddle group from Northampton but were more like top class professional players. They really were excellent.

To conclude on the Sunday, there was the usual Clare-related service in the Church, this year led by Canon Haydn Smart.

John Clare and the Seeds of Change – July 2015

We were hoping to reflect on how change affected Clare in the early 19th century and how we cope with massive changes to our lives today. The Festival began, as always, with the Midsummer Cushions at the Church on Friday and the results of the children’s poetry competition.

On Friday evening, Pete Shaw organised his folk evening, in the front bar of the Blue Bell in Helpston. This was absolutely packed out – a very popular event. On the Saturday, there were books stalls and exhibitions, folk dancing, and the much anticipated President’s talk.

The talk in the Saturday afternoon was given by Dr Robert Heyes, a long-standing member of the Society and the Committee. His talk focussed on our general theme. We also arranged a village trail and quiz, and our aim was to provide an interesting and informative festival, whilst also allowing time to relax and just meet and talk to fields old and new. The evening concert was in the Church, given by Chris Harrison.

On the Sunday the Revd Dave Maylor, vicar of St Botolph’s, presided over a Clare-related church service, followed by with light refreshments.

Excellent turnout in 2014

In 2014, we brought the Saturday evening concert forward, and made it just an hour long.  This gave those travelling on public transport the opportunity to attend – and we had an excellent turnout – listening to the Greenwood Quire. They could not fail to impress.

The Friday folk gig in the Blue Bell pub (newly reopened) was bulging at the seams.  We were packed in really tightly but it was such an enjoyable evening.

On the Sunday, we held a dedication of the new headstone at Clare’s grave.  This is a clearer version of the wording on the grave (which is so heavily covered with lichen that it can be difficult to read).

Bumper crop of book signings in 2013

In 2013, we had a bumper crop of book signings, including, hot from the press, the Society’s latest production – a companion book to The Wood is Sweet (This Happy Spirit), edited by Kelsey Thornton, with wonderful illustrations by Carry Akroyd.

The festival weekend opened with the Midsummer Cushion Ceremony at St Botolph’s Church, at around 1pm, on the Friday. The children paraded down from the John Clare Primary School with their midsumer cushions to lay them around Clare’s grave in the churchyard. This was followed by a short programme of music and the results of the children’s poetry competition.

On Friday early evening (6 – 8 pm), there was the Torpel Summer Festival, taking place on Torpel Manor Field.  Events included:

– music from the fabulous folk duo, Pennyless
– open air drama from the Your in Control Theatre Company
– the annual John Clare Poetry Smackdown competition – live and competitive poetry reading
– an exhibition of art and photography by local people including Tony Nero, Shaun Pitchers, David Snodgrass and others
– displays from the John Clare Cottage and Langdyke Countryside Trust
– talks and walks from Stuart Orme of Vivacity
– displays from the Torpel history project.

Afterwards (at 8pm), there was John Clare’s Birthday Music and occasional song session at Clare Cottage.  Free admission and licensed bar, including real ale.

The Saturday events were split between the Church and the School. Early starters were able to get tea and toast in Botolph’s Barn at 8.30 am. The School hall was then open with all the usual stalls (books, tourist board goods, Clare related items, membership renewals/event tickets) from around 9am. The AGM took place at around 10.30am in St Botolph’s Church, followed by the Annual Address by Ronald Blythe (our President).

Food was available around the village (in the Village Hall, the Blue Bell pub and Clare Cottage), and there was folk dancing in the village during the lunchtime period, from the Peterborough Morris Men and the Peterborough Dance Troupe. At 12 noon, the Chelsea Flower Show award winning Clare garden was unveiled at the Cottage.
At 1.45pm, Dr Sara Lodge gave the annual lecture in St Botolph’s Church – John Clare’s Sonnets: Talking Back to Tradition. After the talk there was an opportunity to either take a (ticketed) coach trip around the local countryside (looking at Clare’s flora, commentated by members of the Langdyke Trust), or listen to The Greenwood Quire singing in the Church from 3pm to 3.30pm, or visit Clare Cottage, or browse the bookstalls, or pop into Annakin’s wonderful art gallery in West Street. There were also artists in Botolph’s Barn, and the wildlife artist and illustrator John Davis was to be seen sketching around the village. In place of the village walk, there was a wildflower and poetry trail. Afternoon tea was available in the village hall, and John Goodridge organised the traditional poetry readings in the Church at 5.15pm.

The Saturday evening concert featured harpists Mark Harmer and John Dalton, with Stef Conner on vocals, in an original performance of songs and music from John Clare’s songbook.