Hay Festival - Every booklover’s dream destination

ByTeja Lele
May 30, 2023 06:59 PM IST

The small town of Hay-on-Wye in Wales, UK, is buzzing as it hosts the 36th edition of Hay Festival, one of the world’s top literary events

Every year, in late spring, a small Welsh town that straddles the border between England and Wales wakes up to new words, ideas, and philosophies.

The Hay Festival, a book-focused event in the Welsh countryside. (Courtesy Hay Festival) PREMIUM
The Hay Festival, a book-focused event in the Welsh countryside. (Courtesy Hay Festival)

I was a lowly sub-editor whose responsibilities included producing the international page of a leading Indian newspaper when I read about the Hay Festival, which brings together readers and writers to “inspire, examine, and entertain”. For the next two years, I included a story on the literary festival on my page. This was a time when my editor promised me a company email address as a perk, when the internet was not the all-pervasive being it is today, and the Jaipur Literature Festival hadn’t been conceived.

It seemed natural to me to develop a hankering to attend what seemed like a dream: a book-focused event in the Welsh countryside.

Hay-on-Wye,, which has been hosting an annual festival of literature and ideas for the last 35 years, is overrun by colourful tents, wispy buntings, and avid bibliophiles every year. (Courtesy Hay Festival)
Hay-on-Wye,, which has been hosting an annual festival of literature and ideas for the last 35 years, is overrun by colourful tents, wispy buntings, and avid bibliophiles every year. (Courtesy Hay Festival)

Years later, this summer, I finally made it to Hay-on-Wye, the book town that has been hosting an annual festival of literature and ideas for the last 35 years and is overrun by colourful tents, wispy buntings, and avid bibliophiles every year.

Hay-on-Wye, better known as Hay and which lies on the banks of the River Wye, wasn’t always known as the “town of books”. Bookseller Richard Booth, the self-proclaimed ‘King of Hay’, opened the first second-hand bookshop here in 1962; since then, books have become the lifeblood of the small market town.

Y Gelli Gandryll, as it is known in Welsh, has been designated the National Book Town of Wales, and now boasts of almost 30 bookshops – serving a population of barely 1,600 people.

The launch of the festival was serendipitous. In 1988, local resident Peter Florence and his parents, Rhoda and Norman, were sitting around the kitchen table when they conceptualised the idea of a literary festival. The first edition, held in a pub garden, was famously funded with winnings from a poker game and attended by about 1,000 people.

Since then, the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts – as it was called earlier – has been held at a variety of venues in town, including the local primary school, until 2005 when it moved to a large tented village on the outskirts of the town. The festival, which now has over 250,000 attendees over 11 days, transforms the small town into a buzzing hub of literary activity, with events across multiple venues.

Hay Festival has successfully put Wales on the global literary map and has attracted a range of writers, poets, philosophers, historians, scientists, comedians, and musicians over the years. It has become a cornerstone of British culture, with sessions often being recorded for TV and radio.

Woodstock of the mind (Courtesy Hay Festival)
Woodstock of the mind (Courtesy Hay Festival)

Famously called the “Woodstock of the mind” by former US president Bill Clinton, the 2023 edition from May 25 to June 4 has more than 500 events, including talks, debates, book signings, workshops, music performances, comedy nights, and film screenings. A children’s festival, Hay Fever, is also organised alongside the main festival.

The organisers have promised “11 days of different”, with Hay Festival CEO Julie Finch saying Hay Festival will be a space “where great minds won’t always think alike, and where imaginations are free to roam”. Entry to the festival site is free; tickets need to be bought for the events one fancies.

Finch has called this year’s edition a beacon, “an international symbol of hope for the collective, creative imagination and a better future”.

The 2023 lineup is impressive, and includes Margaret Atwood, author, The Handmaid’s Tale, who will discuss her short story collection Old Babes in the Wood. Others slated to make an appearance include Turkish writer Eli Shafak, American author Barbara Kingsolver, English satirical writer Jonathan Coe, British Ghanaian writer Caleb Azumah Nelson, Connor Allen, Children’s Laureate Wales 2021-23 , and more.

Notable guests include author Richard Osman, travel writer Isabella Tree, and historian Simon Schama. Atwood, Shafak and Douglas Stuart will host a joint event to mark the launch of Salman Rushdie’s new novel, Victory City. First-time fiction authors, such as Alice Winn, Liv Little, and Santanu Bhattacharya, will be showcased in the 'Debut Discoveries' series.

The talks span a gamut of issues: Nobel Peace Prize-winner Oleksandra Matviichuk on the global fight for democracy, journalist Jeremy Bowen on the making of the modern Middle East, and journalist Lyse Doucet with historians David Olusoga and Sarah Churchwell on politics and hope.

“Our latest programme offers 11 days of different… During the day, our conversations will grapple and engage with the world around us, seeking solutions to some of the biggest challenges of our times while inspiring the next generation of world-changers. And in the evening we’ll laugh, dance and exchange stories in a place like nowhere else,” she says.

The evenings are likely to see as much action as the days.

Much awaited is anthologist Allie Esiri’s celebration of her book, Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year, with a cast that includes Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Goodman-Hill, Jessica Raine, and Sir Tony Robinson. The event marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s First Folio.

Performances by musicians Dua Lipa, Stormzy, rock duo The Proclaimers and poet laureate Simon Armitage are part of the highlights. Rapper Stormzy is also scheduled to participate in an event to celebrate five years of #Merky Books, his publishing imprint. Meanwhile, Dua Lipa will be joined by Booker Prize-winner Douglas Stuart for a special live recording of her podcast, Service95.

This year, the Hay on Earth Forum will explore food production and climate change, and include a range of activities aimed at dealing with the festival’s negative environmental impacts. A new series, Planet Assembly, will focus on solutions that can help regenerate the planet.

The large tented village that hosts many events as part of the festival. (Courtesy Hay Festival)
The large tented village that hosts many events as part of the festival. (Courtesy Hay Festival)

Hay Festival also has a partnership with Lviv Book Forum, Ukraine’s biggest book festival, which runs co-curated events that focus on Ukrainian storytelling and the present state of that country.

Clearly, Pulitzer Prize-winning Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz said it all when he called Hay Festival “one of the finest, most thought-provoking literary gatherings I’ve ever attended”.

Sister festivals take place at Querétaro, Mexico; Segovia, Spain; Arequipa, Peru; and Medellin, Jerico, and Cartagena, Colombia. Cristina Fuentes La Roche has served as the International Director at the festival since 2005. But the Hay Festival in Wales is the most celebrated.

Hay-on-Wye, located on the northernmost point of the gorgeous Brecon Beacons National Park and on the southern side of the River Wye, provides the most idyllic setting for a book festival. The south and west parts of town are set against the imposing Black Mountains. Across the river, to the north, the green hills of Radnorshire capture the eye while the east looks out over the Golden Valley.

Apart from the bookstores, the thriving border town bustles with indie stores, antique emporia, crafts and art galleries, pubs, and restaurants throughout the year. But there’s a magical air during the festival with buntings criss-crossing the streets, buskers/street performances taking over corners, and plenty of guided walks and impromptu picnics in The Warren, a conservation area with a shingle beach.

The tented city set up for the festival is a hotbed of activity. It includes a large bookshop, with books and signings by all authors attending the festival. The Hay Festival Shop, a new addition, is the perfect place to pick up a few souvenirs: pens, pencils, notebooks, T-shirts, and hoodies. If you are looking for anything local, the many exhibition stands offer handcrafted/ vintage clothing, local art and crafts, Welsh textiles, lavender products, jewellery, prints, and more.

There’s food for thought, yes, and more than ample variety for the tummy. The restaurant and food hall promises to satiate whatever craving you have: breakfast, light bite, coffee, baked treats, lunch or dinner, or a three-course sit-down meal. The menu offers a range of options from across the world, and includes Welsh delicacies like cawl, a slow-cooked lamb and leek broth; Glamorgan sausage, which interestingly replaces the meat with cheese; bara brith, the traditional afternoon teacake, and Welsh cakes, small, circular pancake-like treats that are dusted in sugar.

The event now has over 250,000 attendees over 11 days. (Courtesy Hay Festival)
The event now has over 250,000 attendees over 11 days. (Courtesy Hay Festival)

What if you can’t make it to Hay-on-Wye this summer? Buy an online festival pass for £55 and get frontrow access to dozens of specially selected events. It’s possible to watch them live, or replay them at a time of your own choosing. An annual subscription to Hay Player - available for £15 – lets you play footage from thousands of recordings from Hay Festival over the years.

Hay Festival also runs a mini-festival, Winter Weekend, at the end of November, bringing together international stars from stage, screen, and radio. This year, it will be held from November 23-26.

The festival calendar is busy through the year: Royal Welsh Show, a top event in the British agricultural calendar (July 4-27); Brecon Jazz Festival, an annual summer jazz festival (August 6-20); Steam and Vintage Rally, an exhibition of vintage steam engines, cars, and vehicles (August 13); and Herefordshire Art Week, a nine-day art trail (September 2-10).

But the large-scale feast of conversations, storytelling, comedy, music, and workshops that one can enjoy at Hay Festival is unlike any other. Make sure you don’t miss the best part –Letters Live, a celebration of the “enduring power of literary correspondence”. Readings of important correspondence by the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Olivia Colman, Jude Law, Stephen Fry, and Tom Hollander are not to be missed!

Teja Lele is an independent editor and writes on books, travel and lifestyle.

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