A cuppa with Shirley and Nan

Volunteers continue to be the lifeblood of Byron Writers Festival’s connection to community. Tom Wolff, our festival administrator, paid a visit to two of our most treasured to talk about their fifty years in the Northern Rivers and what they love most about Byron Writers Festival.

Shirley Nelson and Nan Pulsford have been attending Byron Writers Festival since its inception over twenty years ago. As well as being strong advocates for arts and culture in the local region, the pair have been a valued part of the Byron Bay community since relocating here in 1970 off the back of a van trip around Australia.

These days Shirley and Nan, both longtime members of the festival, come into the office to help us with the quarterly mail-out of northerly. They always arrive with big smiles on their faces, plenty of stories to share, and usually a thorough review of their most recent reads.

Shirley originally hails from England, where she trained to be a midwife. She then flew out to Australia on a working holiday visa with some friends. After living on the South Coast of NSW on a farm near Berry, Nan moved to Hobart to study midwifery. It was here where Nan and Shirley first met.

In the mid-1960s Shirley, Nan and a friend of theirs – all in their twenties – decided to head off around Australia in a Ford Thames van that Nan’s brother had fitted out so they could all sleep inside.

After their trip around the country, Shirley and Nan decided to move to Byron Bay after thinking that it was a beautiful place to live. ‘We bought a pretty rundown old place on the corner of Cowper and Ruskin Streets.’ explains Shirley. Although it was a little shabby the house had good bones: the previous owners, the Duncan family, owned a local sawmill and the house had been built with a combination of the beautiful rainforest timbers Red Cedar and Teak, combined with Turpentine floors. ‘We paid $6000 for it in 1970.’

The conversation shifts to Byron Writers Festival – a mainstay in their annual cultural calendar for two decades now. ‘I like reading and I loved the group that originally formed the Northern Rivers Writers Centre,’ notes Shirley. Both women attended the festival for a couple of years before jumping on as volunteers in the late nineties and, ‘Well, the rest is history, we’ve been with it ever since.’

Shirley quickly jumped into supervising the Southern Cross University marquee – ensuring fire regulations were met by ushering people out of the walkways and thoroughfares, often met with unimpressed looks. Nan, on the other hand, was the festival medic. She’d roam around the festival attending sessions with a mobile phone in her pocket in case of any emergencies. She’d be the unfortunate recipient of glares from members of the audience any time her phone rang. ‘Eventually someone taught me how to put it on vibrate,” she explains, chuckling. Since then the pair have been involved in all manner of volunteer duties over their time helping run the annual festival.

Every year Shirley and Nan most look forward to two things: Byron Writers Festival and Bangalow Music Festival. ‘They’re our two cultural events for the year – they’re stimulating and we have great memories from going to these events over so many years!’ says Nan, before reminiscing on many wonderful years attending both festivals.

We touch on standout panels or people from previous editions of the festival. For Shirley it was Irina Baranova, a ballet dancer with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo: ‘That was the first time in all the years I’d been at the festival that I’d seen a standing ovation.’ Nan jumps forward to 2022: ‘Kate McClymont this year, she was fantastic!’

After a cup of coffee and a walk through Shirley and Nan’s beautiful and well-kept garden, I bid them farewell, knowing I’ll see them again soon for the mail-out of the magazine you’re now reading. Thank you, Shirley and Nan, for your many years of service. Your tireless contribution is a gift to the community that we all ought to celebrate.

Byron Writers Festival