Perhaps Britain’s best-known arts event, Hay is so often thought of as Hay Literary Festival, but it’s so much more, something you only realise when you visit. The 2024 hay festival, ending June 2, was the 37th in an illustrious history that has been praised by everyone from Bill Clinton to Tony Benn. This year there were more than 600 events with authors being quizzed across eight stages over 11 days.

The site, Dairy Meadows, is a 10-minute walk from the pretty border town that has always been known for its wealth of second-hand bookshops but which in recent years has taken on a polished Cotswolds air… pretty much a café for every bookshop, interspersed with gourmet bakeries.

hay festival for family and individuals

Hay is a great place to spend a couple of hours before heading over to the festival

The town comes alive during the hay festival, street food stands filling the area outside the castle and even coffee trucks serving – with seating – on people’s driveways along the road to the festival.

What is surprising – well, at least to me – is that the festival is free to enter. Despite more than a quarter of a million visitors each year, the modest queues are simply for bag checks – no bag, no wait, just walk in.

The events organizers charge each person individually, usually between $10 and $20 for regular events and $7 for family events. Tickets sell out quickly, so it’s best to buy them in advance before the festival.

hay festival - Kirsty Lang on the Global Stage

Marian Keyes, right, with Kirsty Lang on the Global Stage

What’s also surprising is the scale and the level of construction. This isn’t a grassy field with a few marquees, there’s a raised aluminium, carpeted boardwalk around open spaces linked by mostly hard-walled venues. A rock concert-worthy flagship Global Stage seats hundreds on several tiers, leaving even the festival’s biggest stars momentarily speechless. Irish author Marian Keyes has sold 35 million copies of her amusing books such as Watermelon and the latest, My Favourite Mistake, that are often seen as easy-going female fiction but which also feed in serious subjects. She can talk and despite the fact that it’s only her and her interviewer, Kirsty Lang, the BBC broadcaster, the perky chat goes on nearly an hour.

Hay Festival Crowd for Marian Keyes

The crowd for Marian Keyes…

One of the notable points about Hay is that the interviewers are of a quality. I watched Welsh broadcaster Huw Stephens, a name on on Radio 1 and Radio 6 Music alongside Welsh programming, talk about his musical history book Wales: A Hundred Records. No lightweight chat, this, with Oxford Professor Sarah Hill, a California with a doctorate in ‘Welsh-language popular music and cultural identity’. It’s something that manages to take celebrity appearances from simply being book plugs (although the queues at the near-perpetual signings are hefty).

Everything kicks off at 8am, if you’re ready for yoga, and goes on until 11pm, finishing with comedy or music. There are some free, minor events – small choirs singing around a piano, a chance to watch chainsaw wood carving, things for children (lots of pizza making) – although it could maybe do with a few more publicised things such music interludes or poetry readings.

Hay Festival - Radio 4 tent

Just One Thing in the Radio 4 tent

The Radio 4 open-sided tent offers the only free regular spot, with its sequence of podcasts and live broadcasts. I crammed in for Just One Thing, the usually whiplash 15-minute podcast with Michael Mosley finding ways to improve your life but this was Just One Long Thing, an hour-long chat with a psychologist with the outcome ‘know yourself’. After half-an hour you knew you wanted to stretch your legs.

Many people come simply for the atmosphere, food and drink along with copious stalls, like at a garden festival, selling clothes, art and local food, and others promoting environmental causes. Then there are the books – a massive tent devoted, largely, to hay festival attendees, plus a large Oxfam bookshop with classic Penguins (£3.50) and plenty else including classy CDs.

Hay Festival - literary celebration

The (pouring) downside of a literary celebration in the Welsh hill country…

The great thing about the set-up is that while the festival is perfect in the sunshine – plenty of deckchairs and benches so you don’t need to bring your own, it also has bad weather covered, literally. On our first day, it was a sun trap; the second, the heavens opened for a thrashing 30-minute deluge. Yet despite grassy areas looking like a swamp, no one had to venture from under cover and the raised walkways saved everyone’s shoes.

The names

A roll-call of well-known names touching on everything from social awareness and the environment to cookery, gardening to comedy… Clive Myrie, David Nicholls, debut thriller writer Rose Wilding (interviewed by multi-award-winning Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit writer Jeanette Winterson), Ed Miliband, astronaut Tim Peake, Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell, War Horse creator Michael Morpurgo, comedians David Baddiel and Paul Whitehouse, Labour golden boy Wes Streeting and a Ruby Wax evening comedy performance.

Children had a good deal with Lenny Henry talking about his books for young ones while actor Stephen Mangan and designer sister Anita lead a write-and-draw-along event based around their book The Day I Fell Down the Toilet.

The problem is that there are so many that you need hours to go through the 150-page programme and even then you end up missing a name you like (although, unless you’re making this your annual holiday, they were probably on a day when you weren’t).

The outside

There are festival walks with experts. Hay sits in Bannau Brycheiniog National Park and park guides lead groups around the hilly town outskirts. There’s a look around nearby Snodhill Castle, featured in BBC’s Digging for Britain, and Hay’s own castle, strolls to look at ancient trees and to take in a cider orchard. And there’s even wild swimming sessions in the Wye.

Where to stay

Outside, of course. The festival in 2024 worked with four campsites from bring-your-own next to the site to Fred’s Yurts down the road and including Tangerine Fields, on the banks of the Wye.

Getting here

Fields along the road from town sprout cars, hundreds of them with parking from £4 a day. Nearest station is Hereford, 20 miles away, and there’s a £14 return festival bus from there. https://www.hayfestival.com/home

Hay Festival Family Fun

Fun in the sun for all the family at Hay

Source : https://www.thetravelmagazine.net/hay-festival-hay-on-wye-wales-uk/

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