FEARS are growing that this year's Winchester Festival may be the last.

The search for a major sponsor in 2006 has proved elusive and without cash support the event will not go ahead in its ninth year.

This year's programme promises to be one of the most popular with many high-profile names including Sheila Hancock, Max Hastings, Martin Bell, Jon Snow and Dame Judi Dench.

Festival chairman Sir James Butler said: "Despite strenuous efforts by the trustees and the Board of Music at Winchester, we have not been successful in our attempts to secure a major sponsor for the festival in 2005."

Mr Butler added: "The county council has informed us that, although it is supporting this year's event, its grant for 2006 will be the last and would be half of what we received this year.

"Existing resources, the council grant and the ongoing generosity of small sponsors have enabled us to stage this summer's event. But without ongoing support the festival cannot continue."

Organisers could not find a sponsor for this year's event but were able to use existing funds.

John Miller, artistic director, said: "At our first festival in 1998, the county council came to us and offered financial support for which we were extremely grateful and without which we could not have continued for the next seven years.

Therese Evans, culture portfolio holder at the city council, said: "It's very sad. Many events sell out so there is a demand for this sort of thing.

"The problem is there are no major businesses in Winchester. I hope it can continue in some form."

Tickets go on sale from today at the box office in Upper Brook Street.