For a town of 1,500 inhabitants, Hay-on-Wye punches well above its weight. Famed as a booktown ever since ‘King’ Richard Booth opened the first secondhand bookshop 50 years ago, the launch of Hay Festival 29 years ago by the Florence family earned it a place on the literary and global map.
Dreamed up around a kitchen table by Peter Florence, his father Norman and mother Rhoda Lewis, both actors, the Festival began in a few marquees in Kilvert's pub garden, then moved to the primary school during the half-term break, and in recent years to a large tented village on the outskirts of town with 10 venues, pop-up cafes, shops, restaurants and installations.
These days it attracts 100,000-plus visitors over 11 days to listen to and engage with the world’s great writers, poets, philosophers, historians, storytellers, comedians and musicians. It has been called ‘Glastonbury for bibliophiles’, and like the famous music festival, the weather may be unpredictable, but nothing dampens the atmosphere.
The two opening days of the festival are devoted to free sessions for state schools throughout Wales and Herefordshire, supported by the Welsh Government. As coaches converge of the site, shrieks of delight from primary and secondary school children get the festival off to a flying start.
A children’s festival, HAYDAYS, runs alongside the main event, and in addition to 100 sessions with iconic authors such as Jacqueline Wilson, Michael Morpurgo and Cressida Cowell, there is a host of activities that families can enjoy together: workshops, ‘make and take sessions’, and their own HAYDAYS courtyard.
Teenagers are well catered for in the Young Adult fiction strand, which this year features Patrick Ness, Malorie Blackman and Melvin Burgess. Students aged 16-25 are welcome in the Compass tent, where they can quiz academics about options in further education and watch films covering the essentials of core subjects, in just three minutes, delivered by specialists in the field from leading universities.
Between sessions, visitors can relax in deckchairs on the village green, browse and buy at the stalls and visit the festival bookshop which stocks 55,000 titles by visiting speakers. Evenings are devoted to music, comedy and film, so from morning to night there is entertainment for all ages and interests. The site is free to enter, and the majority of tickets cost £7.
Woman in the Sunshine at Hay Festival by hayfestival.com
A short shuttle bus ride or a 10-minute walk takes you into Hay itself. This thriving border town, with independent stores, two dozen secondhand bookshops, antiques emporia, crafts and art galleries, pushes the boat out at Festival time. Bunting criss-crosses the streets, there are buskers, a food fair in the castle grounds, guided walks, and plenty of activity on the river Wye, where canoeists and kayakers can meander down gentle rapids and picnic at The Warren, a conservation area with a shingle beach.
The ancient trail of Offa’s Dyke passes through Hay, and while you may not have time to walk the whole 200 miles that roughly marks the border between Wales and England, you could follow in the footsteps of Francis Kilvert, the 19th century clergyman and nature writer, who described the area in his famous diary. A climb up Hay Bluff is rewarded by views right along the Wye Valley, and if the ascent looks daunting, you can drive halfway and walk the remainder, admiring the wild ponies en route.
Hay attracts walkers and cyclists all year round, to explore the stunning scenery of the Brecon Beacons. Whatever your taste or budget, there’s no shortage of good B&Bs, campsites, pubs with rooms, self-catering cottages and country hotels where you can relax after a day in the great outdoors.
For more information about Hay Festival and to book tickets, visit hayfestival.com or ring 01497 822629. The nearest railway station in Hereford, 21 miles away (34 km), with the 39 bus route leading to Hay, on the A438. For help with accommodation during the festival, contact the bedfinder service, email@example.com.