Have you ever visited a place for the first time and felt instantly at home? Entering the white-tented compound of the Hay Festival – the annual 10-day literary (although these days it also has comedy and music) event – was like that for me.
Even though Wales is a fair old trip from Norfolk, we have made the pilgrimage west across the border to Hay-on-Wye, via Birmingham, each May for many years – and it was worth every single stop at a grubby service station toilet.
I’ve lost count of the fabulous people – well-known or not – who I have listened to and learned from over the years. They have included the hysterical Paul O’Grady, the swoon-worthy Rob Lowe (seriously, he looks just as good now as he did in the 80s) and the humbling Thomas Buergenthal, who shared haunting stories of being a young boy at Auschwitz.
I was also able to talk to, and have my book signed by, one of my green heroes, James Lovelock, originator of Gaia theory, but even if I didn’t attend a single event, the atmosphere alone would be inspiring enough (plus there is an on-site book shop).
I have my mother-in-law to thank for introducing me to it because although I knew of it, I never really thought about going until I met her. We got talking about it at our first meeting (she had been by herself that year) and made a plan to go together, just me and her – even though I had only been seeing her son for a few weeks. I remember wondering whether she would still be friends with me if the relationship didn’t work (thankfully, I didn’t have to find out).
We did go together that first time the following year and had a blast – so much so that the next year our partners wanted to come too and ever since it has been a family trip.
No matter how many times I visit, there is something special about Hay and we plan to go back when Freya is older as it has an amazing children’s programme. For this year, as I’ve seen the chaos she causes at Bounce and Rhyme in the library, we will be staying at home.
However, that hasn’t stopped me eagerly perusing the new event guide and pondering who I would see. It’s a great line-up again including Stephen Fry, Nigel Kennedy, Texas and Kazoo Ishiguro – although I would think those tickets sold out fast.
We’ve been lucky to get in to see some of the big names in the past but I always like to include a few unknowns in terms of subject matter, and there is plenty on offer, which might take me out of my comfort zone – I think that’s part of what Hay is about. Former US president Bill Clinton apparently called it: “The Woodstock of the mind.”
Anyway, I thought I’d share my five top tips for anyone planning to visit this year’s event, which runs from May 21 -31, for the first time.
Tickets for the events are usually between £5 and £19. We only ever went for two days over the bank holiday weekend because of work and I think the maximum number of events we did in a day was five. It was very tiring though and can be a lot to digest (at least for my little brain anyway).
If you have the time, why not also take in some sights outside of the festival. There is an up to date guide to the town of Hay here (you can download PDFs) and it is within the Brecon Beacon National Park.
I was so enthralled on my first trip to Wales that I took photos of everything even remotely Welsh (and I mean everything. See!) Coming from flat old Norfolk I was also amazed, and slightly daunted, by the rolling green hills. Driving up and down them took some getting used to.
They say, if you want to write, read, but I would add “and go to Hay” on the end. You can’t fail to be encouraged by so much talent in one place. And if you simply love books, well, in my opinion, there can be no better celebration of them.
Have you ever been to Hay or are you planning to go this year for the first time? I’d love to know.