The biennial Richmondshire Festival was founded in 1965 by Dr A. J. Bull, the retired music organiser for the North Riding of Yorkshire. A week of music and drama in and around Richmond, it was initially scheduled for September in order to attract motorists on their way south from the Edinburgh Festival. Musical highlights of the first Richmondshire Festival included a recital at Aske Hall by the Melos Ensemble with Gervase de Peyer, Cecil Aronowitz and Emanuel Hurwitz, and a concert at the County Modern School by the Northern Sinfonia Orchestra, as it was then known. There were also performances by local school, amateur and scratch groups, tea-dances, talent contests, and military bands beating the retreat.

The 1967 Richmondshire Festival programme lists Arthur Bull as the "Hon. Organiser", and the Marquess of Zetland as Patron. There are no known records for the next decade. In 1969 the Festival moved to a May date, and by 1978 Dr Bull had started to look for a successor.

Pre-history of the Swaledale Festival

Early records of the Festival are patchy, and have only recently (2013 and 2014) come to light. The first event under the Swaledale Festival banner appears to have been on Monday 4 September 1972 when the Delme Quartet performed. A photo of the group in the Darlington and Stockton Times of 2 September 1972 is captioned: "The quartet...recently settled in Muker...rehearsing for their performance in the Swaledale Festival. Its members are Peter Carter and Galina Solodchin, who play the violin, John Underwood, viola, and Joy Hall, the cellist".

The following year (23 July 1973) the D&S ran the following article: "Swaledale becomes a centre for chamber music this week. Six string quartets will be busy in Thwaite, playing in cottages, homes and school halls during this week's second Swaledale Festival and summer school. The Festival is being run by members of the Delme String Quartet, joined by cellist Keith Lovel, viola player Michael Evans, and top pianist, organist and harpsichordist Alan Cuckston. Tuition is being given each day to the 24 quartet players and many other music lovers. Each evening this week, concerts will be given by the quartet in a different village, together with local music groups. Monday's is in Muker with the Silver Band; Tuesday in Low Row with the quartet plus Michael Evans and Keith Lovel; Wednesday features Alan Cuckston in Grinton; Thursday the Richmond Male Voice Choir and Sir Rupert Hart Davis in Marske, and Friday the final concert is in Askrigg with the Summer School Orchestra. Festival organiser and quartet member, Joy Hall, says the event has attracted much attention, and at least two of the players will be attending through grants from the Ralph Vaughan Williams Memorial Trust."

A surviving Swaledale Festival concert programme from June 1978 lists performers as Maureen Smith (violin), Marion Hillier (violin), Noel Broome (viola), Joy Hall (cello), David Munro (double bass), and Brenda McDermott (piano).

Two Festivals in Partnership

In 1979, the violinist Trevor Woolston moved to Swaledale. In 1980 he ran a fundraiser concert for the Sunday School in Fremington; as recently as 2012 that concert was believed to have been the start of the Swaledale Festival. In 1981 Woolston ran an expanded series (ten events, most in St Andrew's Church, Grinton) "as part of the Richmondshire Festival". This included concerts by the Lindsay String Quartet and the Yorkshire Baroque Soloists, who would become regular visitors.

There is no primary evidence that the concerts of 1980 and 1981 took place under the Swaledale Festival banner. However, there being no Richmondshire Festival in 1982, as Trevor Woolston wrote, "a Swaledale Festival was arranged". It now seems clear that over the span of three years Woolston merged his own programming into the already established Swaledale Festival.

In 1983, the Richmondshire and Swaledale Festivals ran in partnership over three full weeks. As far as can be inferred from the available programmes, there was strict demarcation between the two: Richmondshire limited itself to odd years and to the immediate area of Richmond; Swaledale was annual, and went no further down-dale than Marrick.

In 1984 drama and crafts were added to the Swaledale Festival. In 1985 the two Festivals again ran in parallel. In 1986 the 'Swaledale Festival Friends' organisation was formed.

Swaledale Goes It Alone

The Richmondshire Festival folded in 1987, and the Swaledale Festival expanded down-dale into Richmond. In 1988 the Swaledale Festival expanded its geographical coverage again with concerts in Wensleydale. By 1989 the Festival was active from Keld in Upper Swaledale to Bedale in Lower Wensleydale, and Trevor Woolston joked about changing the Festival's name to "The Festival of the Upper Dales, Richmondshire and the Teesside Hinterland". Also in 1989 the Festival gained an "Autumn Encore" - half a dozen events in October and November. Performers that year included the Fitzwilliam Quartet, which would become a Festival regular. By 1991, part-time staff and volunteers had been recruited to look after administration and publicity, and the Woolstons were preparing to retire. The last Autumn Encore took place in 1992.

In 1993 Elizabeth Carter was appointed Artistic Director, a post she would hold until 2000. Trevor Woolston stepped down, though he would continue to appear at the Festival as a performer. Also in 1993, the Festival became a registered charity with a formalised constitution and a Board. The first recorded Chairman was the composer David Blake, a professor at York University and resident in Askrigg; and the first Board members included the daughter of the late Dr Bull - a nice piece of continuity.

In 2001 Philip Parr was appointed Director of the Festival and he remained in the post until 2006. Justin Doyle was Artistic Director for just one Festival - 2007, and in October that year the baton was passed to the present Artistic Director, Malcolm Creese. Malcolm has brought a number of innovations to the Festival, including the Young Artists Platform, the Reeth Lecture and the Stationary Walk. Whilst focussing on high quality, he has broadened the programme to include such activities as astronomy, archaeology, antiques, puppets and even a trip on an iconic steam train. During Malcolm's tenure, ticket sales at the Festival have grown by three times and the Festival has received several local, national and international awards.