‘Imagine the world,’ declares Hay Festival’s motto, and from its green fields on the outskirts of Hay-on-Wye in the Brecon Beacons you can travel to all corners of the Earth, and even the far reaches of outer space – so broad are the books and subjects it covers.
Here, Hay Festival regular Rachael Stiles shares her favourite things to see and do at the festival, which takes place from 24 May to 2 June
Hay encourages visitors to cast their mental net wide in thinking about the world and imagining how it might be – inviting writers that employ literature, science, art, nature, philosophy and more to explore its myriad problems and suggest open-minded solutions.
Hundreds of events over 10 days cater to all interests, with everything from guided tours of local farms to talks by astronomers and fiction writers, to workshops for kids. There are almost always lively audience Q&A sessions at the end if you have questions.
Entry to the festival site is free – so you can go in to browse the stalls, enjoy a pint in a deckchair and soak up the atmosphere – but the events are ticketed, and some sell out super-fast.
This year the hot ticket is Margaret Atwood, while regular favourite Letters Live, featuring performances from an ensemble cast of national treasures like Stephen Fry and Olivia Coleman, always goes quickly. If you miss out on something, it’s worth putting it on your wish list in case more tickets become available. Sometimes a second date is added if demand is high. Or on the day, check the notice board in the box office, where people leave spare tickets that you can have for a donation.
The extensive programme can seem slightly daunting, so here is one Hay fan’s top picks and wish list from this year’s line-up.
Free BBC recordings
If I could get up early enough, I would love to have the surreal experience of listening to the presenters broadcast Radio 4’s flagship Today Programme live in a tent, instead of from my kitchen. (More doable you’re staying locally.)
Failing that, there are plenty of other events at more civilised times. Find out what goes on behind the scenes of the world’s longest-running radio soap opera, The Archers. Tonight at Hay will round-up the daily highlights you couldn’t fit in, broadcast on BBC Radio Wales and presented by the editor of GQ, Dylan Jones. Events are free but ticketed.
Patrick Barkham – Islander
The journalist and writer ventured, sometimes with family in tow, to some of the smaller of the UK’s 6,291 islands that comprise our archipelago, to bring back stories of the people, wildlife and lifestyles he encountered, from puffins to nuns and island utopias.
Mark Cocker – Our Place: Can we Save British Wildlife Before it is too Late?
We Brits seem to cherish our countryside even more than most, and yet many of our birds, mammals and wildflowers are declining at an alarming rate. Naturalist Mark Cocker delves into issues like landownership, green policy and the huge popularity of institutions like the National Trust and RSPB to unravel this paradox, and seek a solution where there’s enough habitable space for all of us.
These four-hour tours around different farms allow visitors an insight into farming today. See how the milk is made and have a go at milking before tasting some cheese; learn about making cider (and have a tipple) with an agronomist; or find out about lamb and arable farming, including demonstrations of working sheep-dogs and wool spinning. (Search for ‘farm walk’ on the Hay website for more details.)
American academic meets Welsh dry-stone waller at a festival. American promptly moves to rural Wales, drawn by the stone, the work, life in the countryside, a lonely hillside and a man 33 years her senior. A great example of the lives you can peek into at Hay that sound completely made up but are intriguingly true.
Jonathan Drori – Around the World in 80 Trees
Sanctuary, inspiration, wildlife habitats, building materials, aspirin, oxygen, maple syrup – where would we be without trees? Jonathan Drori, a trustee of The Woodland Trust and The Eden Project, uses plant science to take us on a global journey of trees, from the sacred to the useful, to illuminate the integral role they play in our lives.
A good double-bill with Patrick Barkham’s Islanders – why not compare the complexities of life on the British Isles with those of the islanders of the Pacific and Indian Oceans? These peoples have lived in some of the most marginalised places on Earth, but this expert in world history reveals their lasting impact on modern life, from politics to culture.
Curlew Moon – Saving Our Most Endangered Species
Approach the curlew, Britain’s largest wading bird, from different angles with this panel of curlew-lovers: an author who will be giving an illustrated talk on her new book, the RSPB’s Global Conservation Director, and a member of the National Assembly for Wales who is also a champion of this iconic and endangered bird.
New for this year is Hay’s ‘wayfaring’ series, nine walks led by writers, naturalists and experts in the outdoors. Explore some of the locations that have inspired the myths and legends of the Brecon Beacons; go on an art and story landscape workshop (sketchbooks and pencils provided); or learn how to navigate the natural landscape using your sixth sense with a walk along Offa’s Dyke. (Search for ‘wayfaring’ on the Hay website for the full list – some are already sold out.)
Jasper Winn – Water Ways
If you have an interest in canals, slow travel or transport, this is for you. Once essential links between rural and urban areas that transformed lives and local economies, modern transport has seen Britain’s waterways become the domain of pleasure seekers looking for some peace and quiet. Writer and slow traveller Jasper Winn explored the country’s 1,000 miles of ‘wet roads’ to get the rest of the story – wildlife, adventure and a different way of living.
The UK’s Future Food and Nature Post-Brexit
Minette Batters, the first female NFU President in its 110-year history, and rural commentator Rob Yorke thrash out our impending divorce from the EU through a green filter. What is bound to be an impassioned debate will tackle big subjects like food production and how we will protect the environment as we adjust to the new political landscape.
Sam Lee – Singing with Nightingales: Live
If you’ve never managed to hear a nightingale in the outdoors, this might be the next best thing. Folk singer and naturalist Sam Lee weaves together music, atmospheric lighting and a live audio of the evening chorus, fed directly into the tent, to create an immersive experience. As the chorus fades with the light it is replaced by performers joining with the nightingale’s song in a celebration of nature and this much-loved bird.