Regular readers of my blog will know that I’m a big fan of Hay Festival, and I was devastated when it was announced that this year’s festival wouldn’t go ahead. I understand – and fully appreciate the necessity of – this decision, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not absolutely gutted.
I first attended Hay Festival in 2013. I’d wanted to go for a long time before that, but never quite made it happen. It’s a 3-4-hour journey for me, and hotels get booked up well in advance. I’d relegated it to that vague wish list of things I’d love to do but might not get round to. What finally enabled that first visit in 2013 was, somewhat bizarrely, a tweet from Johnny Vegas. Johnny Vegas was at Hay that year, talking about his book, Becoming Johnny Vegas. I forget the exact wording of the tweet, but he highlighted that Snoozebox – portable accommodation made from recycled shipping containers – were at the festival that year, and that they had “rooms” to spare. And that was it. I booked my accommodation that same day and began scouring the festival programme. I had a brilliant time. The weather was fantastic while I was there and, by the end of the bank holiday weekend, I was already making plans to return in 2014.
Snoozebox never returned to Hay Festival, but that didn’t matter. By 2014, I’d acquired a tent and was ready to brave the elements. A good job as it happens – 2014 turned out to be one of the wettest Hay Festivals ever, or so the locals told me at the time. The weather was so bad that the first thing I did after pitching my tent was to go and buy wellies, one of the shrewdest purchases I’ve made. Suitably attired, I spent another fantastic weekend at the festival, and I’ve returned every year since, always packing sunscreen as well as wellies and waterproofs.
Hay Festival always puts on a broad range of events, and I love reviewing the programme when it’s released. I will happily spend a whole evening reviewing the programme, highlighting the events I want to attend, and checking I’ve got time to get from A to B, factoring in a visit to the onsite bookshop to get a book or two signed on the way. And the events are extremely varied. I’ve attended talks given by some of my favourite authors, including Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell. I’ve also discovered new authors who I might not have come across were it not for the festival. From a science perspective, I’ve learned about the difficulties of cloning a mammoth as well as how the zebra got its stripes, and I’ve been to comedy events from the likes of Dara Ó Briain, Sara Pascoe, and Bill Bailey.
My other half – at the risk of making it sound as though he’s escaped from an Ian Fleming novel, I’ll refer to him as M – has different interests to me, and will usually attend talks on economics, politics, and AI. We overlap on the science and comedy, but there are days when we part ways in the morning and don’t see each other again until the evening. Hay Festival isn’t a bad place to be on your own though – in my experience, festival goers are invariably friendly, and always happy to exchange a word or two while queueing for an event.
I’m also a big fan of the setting – Hay-on-Wye is a lovely small town featuring many wonderful bookshops. The surrounding area is glorious and great for walking. I usually try to leave myself at least half a day free to wonder around Hay itself, perusing the bookshops and adding to my book collection. Needless to say, it’s incredibly busy at festival time, but I’ve always found everyone to be extremely welcoming. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that the Festival is hugely beneficial to the local economy, even if it is exceptionally busy.
I have a lot of memories associated with Hay Festival. There’s the Festival itself, the events, and the large stack of books that I invariably take home with me. There is also the location and exploring Hay’s many (many!) bookshops. But there are also the smaller, more personal moments, like the year that M and I managed to set the tent of fire while making breakfast. It wasn’t serious, and we patched up the small hole (about the size of a ten pence piece!) when we got home. Even the rain, which has taken on biblical proportions at times, has come to be an amusing anecdote for us. That’s not to say that the weather is always bad when I’ve been to Hay – it isn’t, and I’ve had as many weekends with good weather as I have bad. I’ve many photos of me sipping a glass of Veuve Clicquot from the champagne bar while sitting in the sun and losing myself in a new book 😀
With no physical festival this year, I was delighted when the organisers announced a digital festival. This isn’t unique, and many literary festivals are turning to alternative means to share content during this global pandemic, but, as I’m sure you’ve realised, Hay has a special place in my heart. I’ve had so many good times there, and I hope that it will return in 2021.
Please do take a look at the digital line up, and maybe consider a trip there in future years.