Note: This post featured events from the 2016 program. To view/book events for the 2017 Festival running 25 May – 4 June, click here to for current offerings and up-to-date information.*
It’s early morning and I woke to the crash of thunder and a crack of lightning. Perfect.
The weather is spot on to match my mood, because my hopes to be at Hay Festival this week were dashed by airfare prices, and I love my firstborn just enough to not sell him for passage. (Damn you, British Airways and your blackout periods for using air miles.) The stereotypical wet Welsh weather is falling here while lovely Hay-on-Wye is experiencing lovely weather.
It’s been three years since we’ve moved back to the US and every spring when the online Festival schedule comes out, I optimistically fill my shopping cart with events: authors, musicians, historians, scientists, poets – the options abound. The little town of Hay-on-Wye, located on the Welsh Borders, swells to about 150,000 people; the B&Bs and hotels are bursting at the seams, every free room let out, and in fields around the town camp grounds pop up with Yurts and tents and all forms of camping and glamping.
The Festival grounds itself are a sight to behold. A veritable tented village grows from a vast field at the edge of town, complete with covered raised walkways should the Welsh rains fall, dampening the grasses and the soil but not spirits.
This year, Hay Festival runs from 26 May to 5 June, 11 days of magic, in my opinion. If you’ve not been to the Festival, let me give you some reasons why you should.
You Love To Read
The Festival program is overflowing with authors from all genres talking about everything from their newest books to the impact of authors and literature to celebrating favorite authors, such as this year’s focus on Shakespeare, Emily Bronte and others. Tracy Chevalier, Mark Haddon, Lionel Shriver, Patrick Ness, Salman Rushdie, Edna O’Brien and Germaine Greer are among the many to be speaking this year.
You are fascinated by the world around you
Be it art, architecture, the environment, politics, law, or fashion, there is something here for everyone. Hay Festival has always been about sharing ideas and introducing different ways of thinking. Be it Melvyn King, the former Governor of the Bank of England, talking about causes of the financial crises, the former Finance Minister of Greece discussing origins of the European financial collapse, to talks on consumerism, climate change, slow travel, health, human rights, social media, immunotherapy, depression and emotional health – there really is something for everyone.
The Festival is not just about sitting back and listening: it’s about learning and experiencing. There are workshops for drama or writing, learning to set letterpress, drop in sessions with university speakers and lecturers on topics ranging from geography, economics, political science, biology and life sciences, to english literature and even art workshops with students from the Hereford College of Arts. This year one workshop that looks really intriguing is Saci Loyd’s “Anti-Apathy Bootcamp”, described as taking a “witty look at how apathy works and how to combat it”.
This is a conference, at its core, about making change with small steps and big ideas.
It’s great to expand our minds, but there is plenty of pure entertainment here too. Music and comedians fill the evening sessions, so grab a glass of wine and kick back in a big tent. Comic Dara O’ Briain is back again this year and never fails to disappoint. Suzanne Vega and Laura Marling are included in this year’s musical lineup along with a host of other talent.
I’m fortunate that my kids share my love of reading (one perhaps more than the other) and they also share my love of writing. What is the best way to expose children to literature? The HAYDAYS festival site within the Festival does the job best by introducing the authors and letting them work their magic in person. The authors and illustrators of both favorite books (and soon to be favorites) talk about their characters and somehow the tents fill with the magic of the stories.
From Q&As, to Gareth Jones’ ukulele, to Julia Donaldson (a perennial favorite) and crew dressed up to entertain, there is no shortage of fun to be had. Francesca Simon, Jacqueline Wilson, Philip Armagh, Andy Stanton, and Holly Smale can be found on the list of authors at the festival as well.
The Make and Take tent has crafts and the Mess Tent hosts workshops and drop-in sessions for the kids. (But please, hang around and supervise your little angels, because this is not drop off babysitting…although I will confess I had on occasion brought a babysitter with me to hang with the kids while I dashed to a session.)
HAYDAYS has expanded their offering for Young Adults in recent years and offered both highly popular filmmaking workshops and writing workshops along with their author sessions.
That the Festival is hosted in the Town of Books should be enough of a reason – a host of bookstores, ranging from themed – children’s books, poetry books, natural history and botany books, or even the delicious “Murder and Mayhem” bookshop, featuring horror and detective novels, to the larger generalists that allow for browsing of all types. Just walking through town is a danger – I speak of this from experience, moving home with about six additional boxes of books. I might suggest packing an extra suitcase.
There is no shortage of good food to be had in Hay. From Shepherd’s for a coffee, sandwich or an ice cream, Red Indigo for Indian cuisine, The Old Stables Tea Rooms (do not pass up the warmed chocolate cake, I beg you), The Three Tuns or the Old Black Lion for a lovely lunch or dinner (say a big “hiya” to Dolan for me at the latter), and Richard Booth’s Bookshop Cafe always has interesting offerings (I recommend the ploughmans). My son would lecture me if I didn’t mention the Sandwich Cellar, located on the pavement, as it was a ritual for he and his dad to stop weekly, post football match. (I’m a bit of a sucker for the bacon and brie, the likes of which sadly cannot be found in the US.) Grab a sandwich and find a sunny place to sit and people watch.
The town itself is charming with interesting shops and engaging people, and the environs of the town of Hay are lovely – a walk to the Warren by the River Wye, walks in the surrounding fields – there is so much to see and explore should you want to break away from the crowds, so be sure to pack walking shoes or wellies.
Getting to Hay
I confess, it isn’t the easiest to get to. It’s not on a train line, and it’s a good three hours from Heathrow and maybe two hours from Birmingham. Your best bet is to drive, or you can take the train from Paddington Station or from Birmingham to Hereford and then catch the bus.
What to Pack
If, when you hear “festival” you think Lollapalooza, Glastonbury or Coachella…yeah, this isn’t it. If you want to pack your hipster clothes, go ahead, but throw a waterproof jacket, wellies, sunglasses, and layers, because late May can be cool and rainy, or lush and sunny. While there is a lovely shuttle to run you from the Festival site into town, comfortable shoes are your friend. Oh, and as I mentioned, you’ll want to leave room in your suitcase for books, trust me.
If you CAN’T make it to Hay Festival this year, follow their tweets at @HayFestival, and start making plans to go NEXT year – it’s the 30th anniversary. The 2017 dates are 25 May to 4 June, and you should start looking for your hotel or B&B….oh, now is good.
If all goes well, you’ll find me there, too.