WHAT began as a modest attempt to celebrate a Dales market town's artistic versatility has snowballed to become a ten-day festival which organisers admit has taken them by surprise.

Masham has never held a programme of its own before, but next month it will host a mix of amateur and professional shows and exhibitions, attracting some names used to much bigger venues.

A concert by Fairport Convention in the Town Hall has already sold out, while world music band, Elephant Talk, will arrive in the town fresh from performances at Glastonbury and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

"It's just grown out of all proportion," said spokeswoman and co-ordinator Josie Beszant.

"The idea of a festival came about as it seemed there were quite a few people around the town who felt it ought to be doing something to celebrate the breadth of artistic talent in the area. It just grew from there.''

Today, there are 17 people on the committee helping to arrange the programme and an army of 70 volunteers waiting to swing into action when the festival begins on Friday, October 24.

"We invited professional artists to apply for a slot on the programme and we had about 50 replies. However, we wanted to make sure local people can show off their talents alongside them as well,'' said Ms Beszant.

Masham Players will perform during the festival, and there will be workshops with local artist Ian Scott-Massie and sculptress Hilary Burt.

Work by international fashion photographer Michael Dunne, who has a home in nearby Ilton, will also be on show along with work by artists Emerson Mayes, Sim-on Palmer and Guliana Lazz-erini.

A performance by the Old Rope String Band, the Free Hand Theatre puppet team, medieval music with the York Waits, and numerous workshops for children are also planned.

It is also hoped a centrepiece may be an interactive sculpture by Johnny White, which will reflect the town's history and environment.

"We've also been very fortunate with sponsors - the Scarman Trust, the Ripon Community Fund, the Arts Council, Rural Arts and the National Lottery's Awards for All - as their financial support means we can keep ticket prices down," said Ms Bes-zant.

Full details of the festival can be found online at www.mashamshire.com/ peculiervision