Edinburgh book festival urged to shift dates and move indoors to protect historic garden

The Edinburgh International Book Festival is facing calls to shift its dates and move events indoors in future to protect the historic garden where it has been held for nearly 40 years.

Charlotte Square Garden was still in a muddy mess in February after the staging of the 2019 book festival. Picture: Neil Hanna

Organisers are being urged to end the annual staging of the event in the 200-year-old Charlotte Square Garden as part of a drive to improve the environmental impact of the summer festivals and their recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

Director Nick Barley said it was essential for the event to remain in August because many authors would not travel to Edinburgh at another time of year, but said the festival was open to ideas over how to reduce its impact.

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All of the city’s August festivals were officially called off in April, but have rebooted with online only programmes. The literary celebration, which got underway yesterday, features a programme of free events, some of which are being filmed at pop-up TV studios in the city.

The Cockburn Association, the city’s long-running heritage watchdog, has called for the book festival to move to September from next year so it can be staged across venues which are hosting other festival events in August.

It wants Edinburgh to “spread the load” of its festivals, which attracted an overall audience of more than 4.4 million last year, to help alleviate pressure on the city’s transport network.

It is also arguing for a ban on events being staged in Edinburgh’s parks, after both Charlotte Square Garden and Princes Street Gardens suffered serious damage and flooding problems earlier this year.

The book festival, which has admitted it is “very concerned” about the gradually declining condition of the New Town garden, where it has been staged since 1983, says it had become “a victim of its own success” there.

Cliff Hague of the Cockburn Association said: “Edinburgh has a great opportunity to experiment with a new way of doing its festivals. Necessity is the mother of invention.

“We now need to have a broad civic conversation about future festivals. We should spread the load so that some of the events that take place in August are spread throughout the year. This would mitigate overcrowding and benefit hotel occupancy over the shoulder period.

“Ideas that might be worth exploring include shifting the book festival to September, when indoor space would be available, so removing the problem of damage to Charlotte Square Garden.

“Whilst not a public garden, its disposition is fundamental to the outstanding global value of the New Town.

The Edinburgh International Book Festival has been staged in Charlotte Square Garden since 1983, but has gone online this year.

"The recent visual scarring of dead grass and muddy furrows was a blight on Charlotte Square, acknowledged to be one of the finest neo-classical urban squares in the world.

Mr Barley said: “The book festival is all about discussion, debate, dialogue and listening and learning, not starting from a position of ‘we’re not willing to change.’

“What the Cockburn Association may not know is that we already do events throughout the year. That’s perhaps telling about the impact of bringing together for a really concentrated three-week period. That will always be important to audiences and authors.

“The fact that we do it as a great big peak of activity makes it possible to bring people to the festival who simply would not come at other times of the year.

Val McDermid in conversation with Dame Joan Bakewell on the opening day of this year's online book festival.

"They appreciate the extraordinary, unique moment that happens in Edinburgh, not just at the book festival, but with all the other festivals happening at the same time. In my opinion, August remains the best time for the city, for participants and for audiences.

“In terms of Charlotte Square Garden, the festival is a victim of its own success there. We’ve known for some years that we have to reduce our impact there. We had plans to invest in better infrastructure, which we’d like to implement if we can.

“I’m hopeful we will be back in Charlotte Square Garden next year. But from now on, the festival will be a hybrid event.

"We will reintroduce audiences at a rate that is appropriate. We now know we’ve got an opportunity to reduce its impact because we know we’re going to have smaller audiences.

It’s an opportunity to treat this important site better, use more of George Street and try to reframe how to deliver a physical and online festival.

“We are in a moment of reinvention, reimagination and resetting of the festivals. This is our moment to try to make good ideas happen and listen, rather than pontificate about what we think the answers are."

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