Literary festivals are among the nation’s favourite cultural activities, though it is curious to consider how comparatively modern a phenomenon they are, with the very first beginning in Cheltenham exactly 70 years ago.

The FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival, now one of the country’s biggest and most prestigious, started in 1997, founded by arts-minded pals Angela Prysor-Jones and Sally Dunsmore, who remains the director today.

The first festival featured ten events over two days. This year sees hundreds over nine (from March 30 to April 7), with headliners including Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro, Darcey Bussell and Mary Beard.

So who, then, has preceded them? Confining myself only to the last decade – the years for which I happen to have kept the programmes – the parade of literary eminences is astonishing.

In 2009, at Christ Church, the line-up included novelists Ian McEwan, A.S. Byatt, P.D. James, Philip Pullman, Joanne Harris and Robert Harris (who is returning this year); the historians Simon Schama (also back), Richard Holmes and David Starkey; and, from the media world, John Humphrys, Jeremy Paxman and Joan Bakewell.

The next year saw a massive concentration on fiction with John Le Carré, Martin Amis and Hilary Mantel (plus Pullman, McEwan, James, Byatt and J. Harris back again). Among highlights of 2012 were Peter Carey, Vikram Seth, William Boyd and crimewriters Ian Rankin and Donna Leon, plus playwright David Hare and former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion.

And so it goes on. To illustrate how few big beasts evade director Sally let’s have a few further names pulled from my programmes. Step forward Seamus Heaney, Ruth Rendell and Antony Beevor (2013), Jan Morris, Alfred Brendel and Margaret Atwood (2014), and the aforementioned Ishiguro, Jessye Norman, Alan Bennett and Melvyn Bragg (2015).

As may be imagined, the food element to the festival, with its talks, tastings and dinners, has proved an ongoing attraction to me. Arranged down the years by Donald Sloan, the former head of the Hospitality Management School at Oxford Brookes, this has given us an impressive parade of major figures, including Antonio Carluccio, Giorgio Locatelli, Michael Caines, Ken Hom, Madhur Jaffrey, Claudia Roden and the American culinary historian (and indefatigable live-wire) Jessica Harris.

The last four – legendary figures all – have become valued pals over the years, friendship cemented by jolly times at The Randolph Hotel, the home of the festival Green Room. One such is illustrated in the photograph above, a remarkable gathering of famous foodies.

So what, looking back down the years, remain my abiding memories of the festival?

One very definitely is of a rain-lashed marquee at Christ Church in 2010 when the rocker Patti Smith told of her youthful relationship with photographer (and gay icon) Robert Mapplethorpe, as described in her memoir Just Kids. There were even a couple of songs to round off proceedings.

Another was the visit in 2008 of Clarissa Eden, the Countess of Avon, the niece of one prime minister, Winston Churchill, and the (much younger) wife of another, Anthony Eden. Lady Avon is still with us today, aged 98, and since the death of Mary Wilson last June, aged 102, is now the oldest surviving prime minister’s spouse.

Her festival appearance was arranged to publicise her 2007 Memoir. This was a book she said would never appear in her lifetime. She changed her mind, however, after meeting the editor Cate Haste and concluding that her “enthusiasm and professionalism could make it happen”.

The book, somewhat pedestrian in style, was parodied amusingly in Private Eye: “In the early 1950s I married Anthony Eden, a politician of above average height, with a prominent moustache.”

Meeting her, however, one sensed her charm and ready wit. It was easy to imagine her holding her own in the company of such noted sophisticates as Evelyn Waugh, Lord Berners, Ann Fleming and Noel Coward.

Unforgettable, too, was the aforementioned 2013 visit of Seamus Heaney, I think the only Nobel Laureate so far to appear at the festival apart from Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk (in 2014). Ishiguro was not a laureate when he last came.

Our greatest living poet at the time quoted from one of his finest short poems, Postscript, which he wrote while serving as Oxford Professor of Poetry (1989-94).

It concludes with lines used to round off one of the most affecting obituaries following his death in 2013: “You are neither here nor there,/A hurry through which known and strange things pass/As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways/And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”