35th Charleston Festival opens with visit from Queen Camilla, celebrating the magic of children’s literature

Queen Camilla attended as the surprise guest at Charleston Festival’s opening event, ‘The Power of Reading’, which celebrated the magic of children’s literature with a star-studded line up of actors and authors. The event was attended by 200 local schoolchildren and teachers.

Her Majesty gave an opening speech, reflecting on the importance of reading, and talked about a memorable book from her childhood, ‘The Secret Garden’. An extract from the book was read by ‘Call the Midwife’ and ‘The Railway Children’ actor Jenny Agutter.

Her Majesty said: “…Now, Frances Hodgson Burnett was someone, like all of us, who understood the incredible thrill of reading. [She]…famously, understood the enticing mystery of secret gardens, just like the one here. After all, books and gardens have an awful lot in common. Frances knew this, as did the famous authors who lived here at Charleston. They knew that books and gardens are faithful friends to whom we can always turn to. They both have the ability to comfort, to cheer and to connect us with people and nature, reminding us that we aren’t alone. And they both exert a powerful magic over our imaginations.”

In conversation with Waterstones Children’s Laureate Joseph Coelho, actor, writer and comedian Lenny Henry, children’s author Jacqueline Wilson and ‘Horrid Henry’ author Francesca Simon, also selected and performed readings from their favourite childhood stories. Several children had the opportunity to ask questions of the speakers.


Photographs by Steven Hatton, and Emma Croman

Lenny Henry read from Dr Seuss’s ‘The Cat in the Hat’. He said: “I like that The Cat in the Hat is chaotic. My childhood in Dudley was like that. Dr Seuss has these extraordinary, evocative, weird characters, they have spiky fur and they’re quite punk rock. The magic of books is it’s not just for one person, they’re for everyone.”

In response to a question about what stories authors could write more about, Henry said: “They could talk about space, I love space or children that like lots of sweets – a chocolate factory. Did anyone write about that?!”

Jacqueline Wilson read from Noel Streatfield’s ‘Ballet Shoes’, saying “I absolutely loved this book. This book is about three adopted sisters who go to stage school. They have very much inspired me and my writing. Noel Streatfield’s children are real, you can imagine them – they squabble, they worry at times. This is a book that keeps on holding you. This book still works its magic.”

In response to a question on who Wilson feels strongly connected to, she said: “I feel connected to all three of the Fossil girls. Pauline loves to be on stage showing off – maybe there’s a bit of Pauline in me. Petrova is an odd one out and, certainly at school, I was often an odd one out. Posey, well I’m not a great dancer, but Posey knew what she wanted to do and always and I always wanted to be an author.”

And Francesca Simon read from Edward Eager’s ‘Half Magic’, she said: “I had never read a book like this. I love that it’s about magic but with ordinary people. It’s about four squabbily children with a mum that works, they’re really booky, and magic comes into their life – I was in heaven. That book filtered through, and I remember it more than some books I read last week. It’s wonderful, funny, and imaginative and shows all of us can have magic in our lives.”

Simon said if she could be any character from a book she would be: “Pippi Longstocking – she has a monkey, she’s strong, she goes on adventures – her dad is a pirate captain. She’s funny, unconventional and doesn’t care what people think – we can all be like Pippi Longstocking.”

An additional question was posted to Queen Camilla from a schoolchild: “What imaginary book world would you live in?” Her Majesty answered: “One place I’d love to go to is Hogwarts – I’d hop on the Express and sit in that wonderful hall...”

During the visit, Queen Camilla was given a tour of the iconic house and studio. Home to Virginia Woolf’s sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, and fellow artist Duncan Grant, Charleston was a gathering place for 20th century’s most radical writers, artists and thinkers, known as the Bloomsbury group. The Queen met the team responsible for conserving the house and caring for Charleston’s world-class Bloomsbury collection.

Joseph Coelho, Waterstones Children’s Laureate, said: “I am delighted to have been asked to host this very special event at Charleston Festival this year with a particular focus on reading for pleasure. We have heard readings from a wonderful line up and I can think of no better way to get inspired to take time out of your day, every day, to read.”

Nathaniel Hepburn, Director of Charleston, said: “We are thrilled to have opened this year’s anniversary edition of Charleston Festival, our annual festival of art and ideas, with our very special guest – our Patron Queen Camilla. The Power of Reading event, attended by local schoolchildren and celebrating the importance of reading in childhood, is the perfect kick-off to what promises to be our most extraordinary festival yet. Charleston was home to a group of people for whom art in all its forms – literature included – provided the means to imagine society differently, and it is in this spirit that we strive to create memorable events that inspire everyone who attends.”

Mrs Vivienne Burch Y2 & Y4 Teacher, South Malling CE Primary said, “Everyone at South Malling school realises the importance of reading and how a love for reading helps shape a child’s future. We are certain today will play a huge part in building up their love of literature further. We were very excited to see and hear from Joseph Coelho too, as his poetry books feature heavily across our school, and poetry performances now feature every year in our poetry slam competition.”

Her Majesty’s appearance coincides with the confirmation of her ongoing Patronage of Charleston, the independent arts charity operating in Lewes district since the 1980s from its home in Firle, and now its new cultural centre in the heart of Lewes.

Now in its 35th year, Charleston Festival presents one of its most ambitious lineups to date, bringing together today’s most exciting artists, thinkers and changemakers from across visual arts, literature, politics, music and more. Featured this year are Nick Hornby, Judi Dench, Grayson Perry, Helena Bonham-Carter, Don McCullin, Omari Douglas, George Monbiot, Eleanor Catton and Emily Maitlis.

The 10-day festival of art and ideas at Charleston in Firle continues until Monday 27 May.



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Event details

Power of Reading

Charleston Festival, 16–27 May 2024