Sir John Betjeman
“Nothing but the best” was the maxim adopted by Ruth, Lady Fermoy when she organised the first King’s Lynn Festival in 1951. It all began as a celebration of the restoration of the Guildhall of St George when Lady Fermoy arranged a week-long event programme of music and arts which she hoped could be the foundation for an annual event.
It was thanks to the inspiration, determination and generosity of one man that the 15th century building was saved from demolition. The Guildhall is the largest surviving Medieval Guildhall in England and is said to be the oldest theatre in Europe. Shakespeare is reputed to have appeared on its stage.
Cleo Laine and
After the Second World War, the building was used to store scenery, but when the business ceased, the dilapidated building was put up for sale. A motor engineering firm was interested in buying the property and clearing the site so it could be developed as a garage. In 1946, publicity about this proposal attracted the interest of Alexander Penrose of Bradenham Hall, Norfolk, who bought the property privately for about £4000 to save it from demolition. He later gave it to the National Trust.
Mr Penrose, wealthy, cultured and civic minded, had the vision to see through the dilapidation the potential for an Arts Centre. He talked about his ideas with Lord and Lady Fermoy. Lord Fermoy was a former MP and mayor of Lynn, and his wife an accomplished concert pianist who had studied in Paris. Lady Fermoy, who moved to West Norfolk in 1931 as a bride, quickly fell in love with the town. She demonstrated her affection by organising lunchtime concerts to give local people the chance to hear professional music.
Mr Penrose asked Lord and Lady Fermoy to help raise funds for the restoration of the Guildhall and they formed a trust which Lady Fermoy chaired. Lord Fermoy shared his wife’s enthusiasm for the ambitious project and he found generous friends on both sides of the Atlantic. In America he collected 100 guinea subscriptions entitling donors to reserved and inscribed seats when the building reopened.
The Gates of St Nick's 1965
To mark the restoration of the Guildhall and to compliment the Festival of Britain, Lady Fermoy organised a triumphant Festival. She was a close friend and lady-in-waiting to the Queen – later to become Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother – who agreed to be the Festival’s patron and in July 1951 officially opened the newly-restored Guildhall. The Queen Mother was an enthusiastic and active supporter who remained the Festival’s patron until her death in March 2002.
The King’s Lynn Festival grew out of celebration of the re-opening of the Guildhall of St George, and whatever the future might hold for the Festival, Lady Fermoy was determined that its hallmark would be one of excellence. She single-handedly lined up a programme which read like a 'Who’s Who' in the world of music, with artists including Benjamin Britten, Kathleen Ferrier, John Betjeman, Peter Pears, Peggy Ashcroft, Osbert Sitwell, Shura Cherkassky and Peter Ustinov.
It says something of the speed with which the Festival achieved its stature that the BBC Home Service broadcasted live the official opening of the Guildhall. The whole festival was a huge success and went from strength to strength, quickly earning international renown.
The active interest of the Queen Mother and her frequent visits gave the event great prestige. Each year she stayed at Sandringham House in July, so her visits to the Sandringham Flower Show also coincided with the festival. The Queen Mother’s last visit was with the Prince of Wales to St Nicholas' Chapel in King’s Lynn in 2000.
One of the features contributing to the Festival’s appeal is the range of beautiful buildings which provide the setting for top-class performances. The Guildhall remains a venue at the heart of the Festival with other historic Lynn buildings also creating stunning backdrops including St Margaret’s Church, the Town Hall and St Nicholas’ Chapel, refurbished in 2015. The Corn Exchange has always been used and has become a fine venue since its refurbishment in 1997. Concerts have also been held at Holkham Hall, Westacre Theatre, Park House and a number of West Norfolk churches.
Lady Fermoy was closely involved with the Festival for 25 years and since she handed over the reins. Those entrusted with staging the event have always sought to maintain the tradition of excellence. Classical music continues to provide the cornerstones of the programme and a succession of world-famous orchestras, ensembles of international renown and big-name soloists have continued to draw audiences to King’s Lynn from far and wide.
Pianist Freddy Kempf, who is enjoying a meteoric career, is a vice-president of the Festival and has become a favourite with audiences. Successful competitors in the BBC Young Musician Competition, violinist Nicola Benedetti, pianist Benjamin Grosvenor and cellist Guy Johnson have delighted concert-goers, as have established names such as pianist John Lill and violinist Tasmin Little, and Historian David Starkey has informed and entertained audiences.
Festival organisers aim to cater for every taste and recent years’ programmes reflect the huge range of entertainment on offer with top names who have attracted increasing numbers from all over Britain and abroad. They have included legendary names such as pianist Alfred Brendal and soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, the Stars of the Bolshoi Ballet, singers Lesley Garrett and Aled Jones, actors Tom Conti and Corin Redgrave, percussionist Evelyn Glennie, cricket commentator Henry Blofeld, the Black Dyke Band, Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, and famed folk duo John Tams and Barry Coope.