Wirksworth is an historic Derbyshire market town. Lead was mined here in Roman times and the parish church, which dates from about 653, is sited on the junction of at least five ancient trackways.
In 1306 Wirksworth was granted a charter by King Edward I to hold an annual 3-day fair in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary to whom the parish church is dedicated. This still sets the dates for today’s Wirksworth Festival.
The ancient ceremony of clypping (an old English word meaning ‘embracing’) the church takes place on the first Sunday after September 8, the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. Everyone is welcome to join in as townspeople link hands around the outside of the church.
Wirksworth Festival – a two-week celebration of arts and creativity by and for the local community – began in 1979. It was started on behalf of the Town Council by Councillor Charles Richards who remained Festival Chairman until 1997.
Musician, composer and long-time resident, Colin Humphreys remembers the Festival’s early days. ‘The programme was a single blue sheet of paper folded in half. The Town Council gave us free use of the Town Hall and a grant of £1000 – we thought we were rolling in money! There was no trail then. There was a big focus on local talent, it was a celebration of the many different groups in the town. A small committee of eight or ten people did everything.’
In 1995 a group of local artists decided to show work in their own homes and invite artists from outside the town to join in – the Art & Architecture Trail was born.
The small committee has expanded to a core of 30 to 40 people swelling to an army of up to 150 volunteers over the Festival period. The Town Council still gives a grant to the Festival and the use of the Town Hall.
In 2005 the Festival received 3 years of development funding from Arts Council England, followed by a further 3 years funding. This enabled it to initiate an ambitious programme of contemporary visual arts, increase support for emerging artists through partnerships with regional universities and increase work in schools and within the community.
The Festival that has evolved today has grown to host over 150 artists from all over the world and welcomes thousands of visitors, but it still remains firmly rooted in the local community. Wirksworth and the surrounding area is home to a range of innovative and talented companies and individuals and has an unusually large creative community, (around 5% of the population, or 8.8% of the workforce, is employed in the creative industries.) The Festival is part of this community, and continues to reflect and support the economic and creative life of the town.