I reflect upon my first visit to the Hay Festival, the annual celebration of arts and literature, which has been running from 26th May and finishes on 5th June.
Last weekend, for the first time, I went to the Hay Festival, the arts and literary festival in Hay-on-Wye near Hereford in Wales, which was founded by actor Norman Florence, his wife Rhoda and their son Peter (reportedly around their kitchen table), in 1988. Since then, it has aimed – from the end of May to the start of June each year – to provide a place for people to celebrate, talk about and generally immerse themselves in literature and the arts. It has proved very popular, particularly in recent years, with thousands of people flocking to its big white tent to hear celebrated figures talk about everything from novels to film, philosophy, politics, sport, history, technology and, wouldn’t you know it, Shakespeare.
For the three years prior to this one, when the festival had been starting to creep onto my radar, I had been at University in May and June. Hay was a no-go zone. Not this year. This year I delved into it, and took the chance to visit with family, to see what the fuss was all about and indulge my passion for the arts. Over 27th and 28th May, it is safe to say that I was not disappointed.
Just for starters, Hay-on-Wye as a town could not be in a more picturesque position. Surrounded by the rolling hills of the Welsh countryside, it is a beautiful place, and on the two days above when I was there, it was blessed with mostly glorious, sunny weather. It also helped that, given the festival has now been running for over 25 years, the whole operation is very well-organised and runs smoothly.
The festival boasts several different arenas for hosting talks, the largest of which seats around 1,000 people, with some of the more intimate venues having space for only around 200. Everything is covered over by a large white marquee, with pathways for walking across which lead from venue to venue. The complex also boasts a large bookshop and several eateries, plus a great deal of outdoor space for lounging around in a chair with a good book. So, amenities-wise, Hay has everything down to a tee, and, should you wish it, you can be entirely self-contained during whatever period of time you choose to spend at the festival.
But, aside from that, only around 10 minutes’ walk from the festival site is Hay town proper, which is well worth a visit – if you are a lover of books, you will feel very at home here. With over 20 bookshops to choose from, and covering subjects from natural history to children’s books to classic literature, it’s a bibliophile’s idea of Nirvana. A particular personal highlight was the rather simply named Hay-on-Wye Booksellers, which sold second-hand and antiquarian books and was staffed by some extremely welcoming, talkative people.
The best thing about the Hay experience (aside from the talks, which I will come to in a later article), however, was the festival atmosphere, in which, due to the shared interest of everyone there, you felt as though you could strike up a conversation with anyone. I frequently did, whether it was standing in a queue, sitting in a venue waiting for the main attraction to arrive, or in the town itself. This elevated proceedings even more, and only made the whole experience seem more friendly and inclusive than it already was.
In terms of the talks themselves, it certainly helped that the festival’s co-founder, Peter Florence, who was in conversation with the main speakers in three of the seven talks I attended, was very eloquent, knowledgeable and witty, and knew how to get the best out of people when interviewing them. Picking up on cues from the various individuals he spoke to, he often took conversations off on very pertinent tangents, but equally he also knew how to raise laughs from the audience. He was often as much a part of making events enjoyable and entertaining as those who had top billing.
Hay Festival has got the names, the location, the atmosphere, the charm and – necessarily – the passion for arts and culture which draws people back again and again. I have no real doubt that the event will do the same thing with me. After just two days at this year’s event, I know that I’m not done with Hay. I’ll be coming back – it’s just a question of when.