One of the world’s biggest and best literary festivals happens every summer in the little borders town of Hay on Wye.
Dreamed up around a kitchen table by Peter Florence and his parents 30 years ago, the first Hay Festival was held in the modest surroundings of a pub garden. These days it attracts 100,000-plus visitors over 11 days to engage with the world’s great writers, poets, philosophers, historians, scientists, comedians and musicians. It’s moved to a large tented village on the outskirts of town with 10 venues, pop-up cafes, shops and restaurants.
Between sessions, visitors can relax in deckchairs on the village green, browse the stalls and visit a festival bookshop which stocks 55,000 titles by visiting speakers. Evenings are devoted to music, comedy and film.
When it’s on
The Hay Festival runs for 11 days around the summer half-term holidays. In 2019 it’s held from Thursday 23 May to Sunday 2 June.
How to get tickets
Entry to the festival site is free: you just buy tickets for the events you fancy. Tickets start from £5, although there are some free events and workshops. Sign up to the mailing list and they’ll let you know when tickets are released, usually at the beginning of April: see the Hay Festival website, or call the box office on 01497 822 629.
The big names sell out pretty quickly, but if you sign up as a Friend, you’ll get a chance to book early and, at each event, priority admission.
Even so, there are always tickets knocking around on the day for the less well-known sessions. In fact, some of the most interesting things we’ve seen have been by serendipity: just turn up and take a chance.
There are around 700 speakers at 800 events, with hour-long sessions running every 90 minutes or so. Your day might begin with a 10am grilling of a cabinet minister, then a Nobel prizewinner before lunch, a mid-afternoon dip into the mind of a global best-selling author, and teatime in the company of a Hollywood star.
It’s easy to get carried away and book too many events, so you come straight out of one and join the queue for the next, not leaving time to eat, drink and think. Four events per day is about right, plus whatever you fancy in the night: there are plenty of music and comedy gigs.
It depends entirely on your taste. The line-up is so diverse, there’s always something that appeals to every possible interest and age-group. The 2018 guest-list featured Margaret Atwood, Richard Dawkins, Chelsea Clinton, Jilly Cooper, Rupert Everett, Germaine Greer, David Walliams, Bear Grylls, Salman Rushdie … among hundreds of others. One of the most popular slots in recent years has been Letters Live: readings of notable correspondence by the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Fry, Olivia Colman, Jude Law, Maxine Peake and Tom Hollander. In 2019 there'll be similarly starry Speeches Live and Diaries Live events.
Is it good for children?
Yes, very. There’s a great kids’ programme and lots of events with broad family appeal, and a whole section of the festival is devoted to toddlers and parents. A children’s festival, HAYDAYS, runs alongside the main event, featuring iconic authors and workshops. Teenagers are well catered for with the #HAYYA programme, while students can enjoy educational events for free. The two opening days of the festival are devoted to free sessions for state schools throughout Wales and Herefordshire, supported by the Welsh Government.
Where to stay
There’s no shortage of camping, glamping, pubs-with-rooms, country hotels and B&Bs. Top spots tend to get booked up year on year by regular visitors, but Visit Hay lists anyone with a spare bedroom within 40 miles. First port of call is the festival’s accommodation pages on the Hay Festival website.
Where to eat
On-site, there’s a massive food hall with all kinds of concessions serving street-food-ish fare, plus a decent restaurant, and bars and coffee shops sprinkled throughout. Hay itself is a foodie town, whose excellent pubs and restaurants are boosted by several pop-ups that appear in all kinds of odd places, from tents and galleries. Booking ahead is a good idea.
What’s the town like?
Hay-on-Wye itself is a thriving border town, with independent stores, two-dozen second-hand bookshops, antiques emporia, crafts and art galleries, and plenty of pubs and restaurants. The town 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.
What to do locally
This is one of Britain’s most scenic spots, with the full array of country pursuits (walking, cycling, riding, adventure sport, etc) on offer. The ancient trail of Offa’s Dyke passes through the town, and a climb up Hay Bluff is rewarded by views right along the Wye Valley and surrounding Brecon Beacons. Keen cyclists take note: the road up to Hay Bluff is known as Gospel Pass, the highest public road in Wales.
Festival buses run to and from the nearest railway station at Hereford, 21 miles away (34 km). Traveline Cymru has timetables for the regular bus services from Hereford and Merthyr Tydfil. There’s plenty of parking (and park and ride) around, and disabled car parking can be pre-booked on the festival website. It’s a 10-minute walk from town to the festival field, with shuttle buses running all day.
For more information and to book tickets, visit the Hay Festival website or ring 01497 822629.