I have been on hiatus, as I was overseas! I had the great fortune to attend the Hay on Wye Lit Fest in Hay on Wye Wales, UK. Sadly, this event is not publicized in the US; I happened to come across it when looking for literature events online six months ago. The scale of the event is massive: 10 days of nonstop speakers in the arts, humanities, politics, music, etc. that draws some of the biggest names in the world. Margaret Atwood (more in a minute) for example, and Bill Clinton many years back. The scope and scale of the event is simply stunning, and I can’t think of a single event to the United States that compares.
The Festival: Dubbed “The Woodstock of the mind” by Clinton, it is indeed a massive, Woodstock-like festival set up in a small village of “tents” in a dairy meadow with walkways between them (in reality, it is really a small village that happens to be covered by very sturdy, structured, tenting material with several auditoriums). The festival, I was told, draws tens of thousands of people, and there is an actual office there that deals with tickets, logistics, etc. as well as a security check. The festival office and staff at the event are extremely professional and organized; they make things run smoothly (which is not an easy task, given the scale of the event. Kudos to everyone involved.) There is a massive food hall that features everything from British cuisine to Spanish to organic vegan to Indian and more. It is a truly socially progressive environment, as they compost and promote a sense of positive energy (one of the stages for events is called the “good energy stage!”)
One of the perks for students like me is that you get five free tickets to events (the festival wisely does not charge a flat rate admission fee, but rather just for the events you attend.) Accommodations book up even a year in advance, so those interested would do well planning far ahead, as many people come from both the region as well as elsewhere in the UK. Many people are repeat visitors, and it is easy to see why.
The Town: The festival is set just outside the town of Hay on Wye, a charming, beautiful little Welsh village that has over 20 bookstores (for real), a book town like you cannot believe — imagine one bookstore dedicated entirely to poetry! Richard Booth’s bookstore is the landmark and I was told the largest secondhand bookstore in the world. Unfortunately, I did not have much time to spend in this beautiful village, but it is definitely worth coming back to. The surrounding areas are gorgeous and hilly, and a bus ride to my inn after dark was simply magical. Foyles of Glasbury (in Glasbury, a neighboring village) is simply my favorite place at which I have ever stayed. A charming inn with just 12 rooms, the beauty, coziness, and also the staff made it a wonderful experience, especially as I was ill for half a day.
It is tricky to stay outside the village of Hay without a car, as though there is a shuttle to the festival, it is not very frequent. I would recommend travelers to hire a car if possible, for it will also allow them to explore the surrounding areas.
Overlapping with the Hay Lit Fest, simultaneously over one weekend, is another festival called How the Light Gets In that focuses on philosophy and music, and attracts such luminaries as Noam Chomsky. Unfortunately, I did not find out about this until right before I left for my trip, so I did not included as part of my plans. I hope that they too will publicize this event in the US.
Constructive Criticism: One of the logistical drawbacks is getting there. Though only 160 miles from London, it can take over 3 1/2 hours to get there by car, and over 5 1/2 hours to get there by two trains and a bus ride. This is very exhausting, and it is unfortunate that the festival does not run some sort of coach service from London and other big cities. Trying to coordinate accommodations and transportation is quite difficult. There is a local tourism office that is certainly quite helpful, but what is missing is some sort of online forum or chat page on which those of us who are coming from overseas could get in touch with other visitors and try to organize travel plans. It is, frankly, not so well set up for international visitors. The festival organizers would do well to try to make it easier.
My other main criticism is the complete lack of diversity among the festivalgoers. I was there from a Sunday-Tuesday (with Monday being a bank holiday), and while it is possible that people in their 20s-40s were not able to take off the time to go there, to my eye, the typical festivalgoer was older (possibly mid-50s and up), very white, and I am guessing very educated middle to upper-middle-class. There were hardly any minorities in the audiences or events I attended: I hardly saw anyone in their 30s and 40s or younger, with the exception of a couple of college students here or there. There were a few families, as the festival does have quite a number of events for children. The lack of ethnic diversity was really quite surprising to me, and I think the festival organizers really need to work on their outreach. The speaker lineup is wonderfully diverse, however. Given that the speakers are really the cutting edge and forefront of arts and culture, I expected the audience to be. I cannot guess with certainty how many writers there were in the audience, but my impression is that the audience were more literature and culture lovers rather than makers. That said, I did meet some incredible festivalgoers, such as an international AIDS expert surgeon-turned-priest Dr. Anne Bayley, and a London-based Indian woman who is a fiber artist and weaver, Rachna Garodia.