I love autumn, but I always feel nostalgia for the summer, and a little stab of apprehension about the dark days ahead. It feels important to have something to look forward to. And it's hard to imagine a better way to spend a few dark winter days than at the Hay Festival Winter Weekend.
When it’s on
The Winter Weekend festival is a feast of conversations, storytelling, comedy, music, and family workshops, and is a smaller version of the main Hay Festival which is held in spring. It runs for five days in November, with events taking place in venues in the centre of the town. The 2022 event takes place between Wednesday 23 and Sunday 27 November.
The town’s atmospheric market square is a focus of festivities. On the Friday, the Hay Christmas lights are turned on, transforming the town into a winter wonderland brimming with festive cheer.
What to do locally
A few years ago I was given a wonderful opportunity: I was accepted onto the Hay Writers At Work scheme, a workshop which nurtures and supports emerging writers. Here, at the festival, I started writing my first novel, and made friends and memories to last a lifetime. I got a bit lost too, in a good way. I went to events not only to see people I knew I loved, but others who I had never heard of, who talked about things I'd never thought of. All of which taught me something new.
The Hay Festival holds a special place in my heart. It's a place where the magical and unexpected happens."
Wander. Get a bit lost. Search for treasure, in the town as well as at the festival. This is a small town with a huge heart, with over twenty bookshops. There's the gorgeous Richard Booth's Bookshop with its rich-red wooden interior, or the labyrinthine Hay Cinema Bookshop, the largest in the UK, or shops that deal in specific genres such as the delightfully named Murder and Mayhem. Search for vintage clothes and vinyl, jewellery and trinkets. Stop for lunch or drinks in the The Old Electric Shop and browse its grotto of curiosities and delights.
My 2021 festival highlights
Every year the festival programme is beautifully curated, with a wonderfully eclectic choice of events. The conversations that happen at the Hay Festival will play out in your head long after the event is over. Here are my highlights from the 2021 Winter Festival: you can watch these and hundreds more on Hay Player (currently £15 per year subscription).
There's something comforting about being in a place where all these conversations are taking place, talking about the issues that keep us awake in those night-time hours when we are alone. Race, racism and bias of all sorts was a prominent theme this year. Discussions with John Barnes, Emma Dabiri, Jessica Nordell and Anita Rani called on people to examine and challenge their own bias.
Climate change is the most urgent issue of our time. Environmentalist Jonathon Porritt, in discussion with Hannah Martin (co-executive director of Green New Deal), talked about hope, and without action it is merely banal rhetoric, and how it is our actions as citizens and not as consumers which will be transformative.
As a lover of so-called creepy-crawlies, I couldn't resist Vicki Hird's talk with Kitty Corrigan on her book Rebugging The Planet. As the head of farming at Sustain, who campaign for better systems in food, farming and fishing, this book is her homage to insects and what we can all do to help them: 40 percent are now threatened with extinction. She gives advice on how even those of us with the smallest spaces can provide an environment for them to thrive, and sends out a plea for us to rebug our attitude to them.
Here, at Hay, we're not alone, and it feels hopeful. But it's not all serious at the festival: there's fun too, and plenty of it. Jeanette Winterson's reading of two ghost stories from her upcoming book The Night Side Of The River was a delicious end to a busy day, as was Father Richard Williams' live organ accompaniment to the silent horror The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. This event is the only one of the above that cannot be watched on Hay Player, but do look out for his film nights at future festivals.
And finally, the party. On Friday evening, over music and mulled wine, Miriam Margolyes switched on the Christmas lights at the Cheese Market. This year, 2021, was special – the first in-person programme for two years, following restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, so the lights coming on in the darkness seem more symbolic than ever.
The Hay Festival holds a special place in my heart, the place where my dreamed-of novel writing career became a reality. It's a place where the magical and unexpected happens. I remember Amanda Palmer coming to talk to us at Writers At Work. She was warm and generous – and then she said she wanted to sing. She put a call out for a ukulele, and to our surprise and delight a ukulele duly arrived. She sang for us, and then we all sang ‘Perfect Day’ together.
Which seems like the perfect song for this festival.
How to get tickets
If you aren’t able to join in-person, you can watch from the comfort of your own home, as most events will also be streamed online.
Tickets will will be available to purchase from the Hay Festival website, where you can sign up to the newsletter to find out the latest information about the 2022 event.