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Why Hay Festival is called 'Woodstock of the mind'

The literary festival takes place in a town called Hay-on-Wye in Wales, UK. That this quiant town should host the festival isn't surprising as it has, for long, been the mecca for bibliophiles and was the world's first book town.

brunch Updated: Apr 19, 2014 17:49 IST
Namrata Bhawnani

When most travellers pay their respects to London annually, they are quite content to potter around locally. Some make it to the hallowed halls of Oxford and Cambridge, others get out to Stonehenge and Bath. The more adventurous even find themselves in the Scottish countryside. For some reason, Wales is a blimp on the radar of many travellers – what a shame.


Wales is a prettily packaged surprise. The Welsh are friendly, have an understated sense of humour and are known for their hospitality. The coastline is stunning and castles litter Wales.
Booked for life: Hay-on-Wye is the world’s first book town (above).

The Welsh also put up a good show at the annual Hay Festival in Hay-on-Wye, which has proved to be such a success that it’s now also held in Bangladesh, Colombia, Kenya, Ireland, Lebanon, Mexico and Spain.

The festival was started in 1988 by Peter Florence (a young actor then) who felt that this destination, with its antique and second-hand bookshops, would make for an ideal venue, and he funded the first edition with the winnings of a poker game.

This gathering of novelists, philosophers, thinkers, poets, filmmakers, historians, environmentalists and scientists makes the Hay Festival, to quote Bill Clinton, ‘the Woodstock of the mind’.

Scheduled from May 22-June 1, this year’s line-up includes heavyweights like the Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison; founder of The Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington; the wickedly witty Stephen Fry; satirist PJ O’Rourke and others. While entry is free, the talks are ticketed and sell out early.


Hay-on-Wye is a charming village situated on the English-Welsh border. You don’t have to stay in boring hotels. Go glamping, or glamorous camping, instead. Your tent has a comfy bed, futons and a hot firewood tub.


At the fest, you’re spoilt for choice, as you won’t find just ordinary tents here. Stay in a yurt, a geo dome tent, a bell tent, a teepee, Bedouin tent or even a luxurious dome tent.

The campfire sessions make it easy to meet interesting people. Or you could simply pitch your own tent at the longest running campsite, Tangerine Fields, or hire their pitched tents.

That a literary festival should spring up in Hay-on-Wye is hardly surprising, given that this quaint town is the mecca for bibliophiles and was the world’s first book town (its economy is supported by its large number of used book or antiquarian book stores). There’s a store that sells only murder mysteries called Murder and Mayhem, complete with a chalk outline of a body on the road.

You can buy books everywhere, including the Hay Castle, which also has an Honesty Bookshop. No one mans this stall, you just honestly pay for what you pick up. And it seems to work pretty honestly.

It’s easy to want to pitch a tent here and not move for the rest of your vacation. As the town is situated on the east bank of the River Wye inside the Brecon Beacons National Park, you can enjoy the park’s many lakes, caves, crags, waterfalls, mountains, moorlands and castles.

There’s much to discover in and around Hay-on-Wye. After all, how can you resist a town that was declared an ‘independent kingdom’ on April 1, 1977 by book enthusiast Richard George William Pitt Booth, who nominated himself its monarch while wielding an old toilet-plunger as a sceptre? You could even pick up a novelty low-cost ‘peerage’ here.


Getting there: Take a coach from London, Victoria or Heathrow, or train from Paddington, London or Cardiff to Hereford station. Connect with drivers with spare seats on GoCarShare.com

Bicycling and walking tours: Hire bikes at Drover Holidays. Bike trail information can be found through Mountain Biking Brecon Beacons and Mountain Biking Wales

Accommodation: Use their Bedfinder service.Campsites: Wye Meadow Camping (Peak-performance-consultancy.co.uk/haycamping); Gypsy Castle Camping (Theradnorarms.com), Tangerine Fields (Tangerinefields.co.uk) | For a comprehensive list of accommodation, log onto Hay-on-wye.co.uk. Or stay in Cardiff, it’s only an hour’s commute from the charming city

From HT Brunch, April 20
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