It owes its existence to a postal strike, but, from its humble beginnings, Ilkley’s Literature Festival has blossomed into a major event of international standing.

Now, 35 years on, the festival has gained a reputation as one of the top three in this country and is seen as an important venue for international writers.

So it’s hard to beleive that it traces its roots back to a dispute in the postal service.

The idea of a festival in Ilkley was dreamed up in 1971 by Michael Dawson, a former resident of the town and the first director of the then newly formed Yorkshire Arts Association.

Its present director, Rachel Feldberg said: “It was during the postal strike and he wasn’t getting any other letters. He had put a whole pile of leaflets to one side to look at one day. And now, because he wasn’t getting any mail, he started looking at them.”

One of the pamphlets was about the Cheltenham festival which, at that stage, had been running for only a few years and was the only festival of its kind in the country.

So the idea of setting up a festival in Ilkley was born.

A grant of £750 was provided by the Ilkley Urban District Council and the first chairman of the management council, Molly Renton, spoke of their desire to “swamp Ilkley in literature” for six days.

From the very outset, the intention was to make the festival more than just a regional event – and the very first one certainly lived up to their aims.

A celebratory book launched ten years ago to mark 25 years of the festival, edited by Brian Lawrence, details the turbulent history of the event.

The inaugural Ilkley Literature Festival featured no less a figure than W H Auden, along with Angus Wilson, Chester Kallman and Sidney Nolan.

J B Priestley was unable to attend but backed the event: “Judging from the Ilkley programme in front of me, I think Michael Dawson and his colleagues really have worked at it. Writers of genuine distinction appear on the programme; the items are nicely varied and festival club is licensed. Like Malvern – and very, very unlike Edinburgh – Ilkley is the right size for a festival town. It is large enough to provide various amenities and small enough to stroll around and run into everybody.”

A tribute to W H Auden was part of the event and the literary great read from his own work in what turned out to be his last public performance.

But as prestigious a start as it was, Germaine Greer declined to grace the event with her presence. She refused to take part in the symposium on Women and Literature because she felt, after looking at the other invited guests, that the issues would not be debated seriously enough.

Jilly Cooper, who had also been invited to take part but was not able to attend, agreed.

“She’s quite right. I am not on her intellectual level at all,” she told the Times.

The whiff of controversy sparked by Ms Greer’s rebuttal did the fledgling festival no harm at all and the event as a whole was seen as a big success.

The Ilkley Gazette of April 1973 espoused the view: “To achieve a success is indeed a remarkable and unusual accomplishment; to have achieved it in a town on the remote borders of the republic of letters and not one noted for its enthusiasm for novel enterprises, is a triumph.”

Michael Dawson’s dream had become reality in a very short space of time. And, although in the early days the festival was only held once every two years, it had got off to a remarkable start.

The 1975 festival provided its own heady mix of drama when Ted Hughes’s powerful new poem, Cave Birds, was given its world premiere. According to reports at the time, a woman in the audience had to be led out after giving a blood-curdling scream and vomiting.

Again the event, which was still in its infancy, managed to attract literary heavweights, with appearances by Conor Cruise O’Brien, John Braine and Auberon Waugh.

The big names for 1977 included Marguerite Duras, Melvyn Bragg and Lord David Cecil.

But it was the physical attributes on a large bronze statue of the Minotaur that caused the biggest stir.

The shocking sight of its private parts prompted a petiton for its removal to be started. The national press pounced on the story.

Ilkley Festival had succeeded in making an impact in a number of ways but the organisers could not afford to rest on their laurels.

By the 1979 event, audience figures were down by almost 50 per cent – even The Evening with Emmerdale Farm did little to draw in the crowds.

But if there was any temptation to give up, it was firmly resisted. Instead, organisers were determined to keep going.

To gain more funding, the festival had to become an annual event and it began a difficult juggling act in trying to satisfy conflicting views: that it was trying to widen its appeal too far, or wasn’t widening it enough.

Riding over a series of highs and lows, it continued, often in the face of adversity.

During the uncertain economic times of the 1980s, the future looked bleak. The 1984 event was described as the “Last Chance Saloon for the Ilkley Festival.”

The decision was taken to return to the orginal aims of the event.

Speaking to Wharfedale Newspapers in 1984, Michael Dawson said: “ When it was started, the festival was meant to throw the spotlight on writers, giving them a chance to talk about their work. Inevitably, there has been pressure in recent years to widen the scope, to include music, drama and television, but this has not always drawn the expected crowd.

“I just want to assemble as many good poets, novelists, playwrights, biographers and critics as Ilkley has ever seen.”

There have been many obstacles to overcome in the intervening 24 years but today the Ilkley Festival can be proud of its position in the literary sphere, not just of this country, but around the world.

Rachel Feldberg said it was now seen as one of the top events and widely viewed as being on a par with Cheltenham.

Initially an enthusiastic member of the audience, she worked as a steward and read some of her own work at the festival, before becoming its director in 2003.

Originally a theatre director and theatre writer, she said:”I have a great love of writing and of reading – it is an ideal job for me.

“I am incredibly lucky to have such a major literary festival on my doorstep.”

She said: “My job as a director is to persuade authors they would like to leave the safety of London and come to Yorkshire.”

While some are not so keen, many are more than happy to journey north. And so strong is the reputation of the event that some will put themselves out to an even greater extent.

This year, Mohammed Hanif is flying over from Pakistan to be at the event. It has become quite usual for authors to travel from around the globe to visit Ilkley.

And when it comes to deciding which authors to invite, local people have their say.

“I ask everyone who they would like me to invite,” Rachel said. “People are brilliant at doing that. They will stop me at the supermarket and suggest names.”

She said: “I am incredibly lucky. I have inherited a festival that has a good reputation for authors and publishers.

“People always say our audiences are wonderful because they are really enthusiastic and ask extremeley intelligent questions.”

She described as “absolutely incredible” the fact that a relatively small town like Ilkley should be seen as the intellectual and artistic equal of festivals such as Cheltenham.

And it is a position they fully intend to maintain, with their emphasis on looking for the best authors and the most exciting ideas in science and philosophy.

Ilkley holds an important place in the international literary world.

“We are known as a small town that links to the rest of the world by inviting authors from around the world,” Rachel said.

“We are seen as being a place that international writers come to.”

l Ilkley Literature Festival: October 3-19.