THIS year's York Festival of Ideas, which kicks off on June 13, will be tackling the North-South divide head on.

A host of top writers, speakers and thinkers will be descending on the city for the two-week festival.

Author and South Bank Show presenter Melvyn Bragg will talk about his new novel, Grace and Mary, about a son’s attempt to trace his mother's buried family history in a northern town.

Martin Wainwright, The Guardian’s former Northern editor, will explore why the north of England is so often portrayed as grim and dour in literature; and Danny Dorling, a professor of human geography at the University of Sheffield, looks at how the divide between north and south is growing into a chasm.

TV historian Michael Wood will give a talk about King Alfred the Great’s grandson, Athelstan – who occupied York in 927AD to become the first king of all the English; and Guardian columnist Zoe Williams will be among a panel debating the modern welfare state.

It is a debate guaranteed to raise a few sparks, if the title is anything to go by: “Skivers vs Strivers – the implications of re-branding the welfare state”.

There will also be some time for light relief during the festival – with Aardman Animations founder Peter Lord talking about Wallace and Gromit; and students at the University of York giving a performance of “music as architecture”.

All these events – and many, many more – will be staged in York; many at the University of York, but also at other locations.

Joan Concannon, the university’s director of external relations, said: “The 2013 Festival features more than 120 events – most of which are free.

“The aim of the Festival is to bring wonderful speakers and performers to the city. We want the York Festival of Ideas to be the biggest and the best. Most of all we want everyone in the city to come to as many events as possible and to have fun.

“The Festival has grown from a pilot festival in 2011 with just 24 events over nine days to a juggernaut.

“Seamus Heaney, Melvyn Bragg, Heidi Thomas, Michael Wood, Michael C Scott, Judith O’Reilly, Jenni Fagan, Paul Morley, Jonathan Portes, Zoe Williams, Lord Sainsbury and Brian Sewell are just some of the fantastic speakers scheduled to appear.”

The festival kicks off at 6.30pm on June 13 with a free lecture by historian Peter Watson, author of The Great Divide, which delves back 15,000 years into “deep time” to look at another great divide in human history – that between the people of the “old word” (Africa, Europe and Asia) and those of the “new” (the Americas).

Using archaeological, genetic and linguistic evidence, his book traces the journey of early man from Africa through Asia to Siberia, and eventually across a land bridge which had formed during the last ice age into Alaska.

America at the end of the ice age was a land teeming with giant mammals – mammoths and mastodons among them. Within a comparatively short time after mankind arrived on the scene, they were extinct – the result, possibly, of over-hunting, Mr Watson speculates.

He even goes so far as to suggest that the totems and totem poles used by native American tribes, which related to hunting practices designed to prevent over-hunting, may be a folk-memory (and warning) about the dangers of over-exploitation.

A message for our own times, perhaps?

• York Festival of Ideas begins on June 13. There are more than 120 events, many of which are free but may require booking. To find out more, or to book, visit:

Some of the highlights

• North, South, East and West and civilisation – Peter Watson on “The Great Divide”. Ron Cooke Hub, university of York, 6.30pm, Thursday June 13. Free, but booking required

• North-South: from divide to chasm - Danny Dorling, Professor of Human Geography at Sheffield University, on the growing gulf between north and south. Ron Cooke Hub, 10.30am, Friday, June 14. Free, but booking required

• Skivers vs Strivers: debate on the welfare state featuring The Guardian's Zoe Williams, plus Paul Johnson, Harriet Sergeant and David Goodheart. Ron Cooke Hub, Friday, June 14, 4.30pm. Free, but booking required

• The Historic Atlas of York: Dr Peter Addyman on 2000 years of development in York. York Library, Museum Street, Saturday, June 16, 2pm. Tickets £4.

• Brian Sewell in conversation: the art critic on English contemporary art. Ron Cooke Hub, Tuesday, June 18, 6.30pm. Free, but booking required.

• King of All Britain: TV historian Michael Wood on King Athelstan. Ron Cooke Hub, Wednesday, June 19, 6pm. Free, but booking required

• Cracking animation: an audience with Peter Lord, founder of Aardman Animations which created Wallace and Gromit. Scenic Stage Theatre, University of York, June 22, 2.15pm. Free, but booking required

• Minster of Mystery – find out what recent excavations beneath York’s cathedral have revealed. York Minster, Tuesday, June 25, 5.30pm. £10 (but free to York residents), booking required.

• The Yorkshire DNA Project – the history of Yorkshire's people as hidden in our genes. Ron Cooke Hub, June 26, 7.30pm. Free, but booking required

• Melvyn Bragg talks about his novel Grace And Mary. Ron Cooke Hub, Friday, June 28, 8pm. Free, but booking required.