Since 1988, Hay Festival has popped up in over 30 physical locations around the world.
In 2021 in response to lockdown restrictions from the Covid-19 coronavirus health crisis, the festival took its entire offering online for the first time in its history.
In 1987, Hay Festival was dreamt up around a kitchen table in Wales by the Florence family. Marrying Hay-on-Wye’s unparalleled offer for booklovers with its ability to throw a great party, the first event saw 2,200 people squeeze into the back room of the British Legion and a tent in the garden of Kilverts Pub to hear from writers and thinkers on the big issues of the day. In 1989, Arthur Miller famously showed up to utter the most repeated joke of the festival’s history, “Hay-on-Wye, is that some kind of sandwich?”
Word spread and the annual event grew quickly. By 2001, the festival was building its own tented village to fit the thousands who travelled to hear from the likes of Doris Lessing, William Golding, Margaret Atwood, Amos Oz, Bob Geldof, Edna O’Brien, Tony Benn, Michael Palin, Salman Rushdie, Joseph Heller, Christopher Hitchens, Ian McEwan, Louis de Bernieres, Helen Fielding, Stephen Hawking, Terry Pratchett, Nigella Lawson, Stephen Fry, Vikram Seth, Paul Auster, Tom Wolfe, Marian Keyes, Bill Bryson, Patricia Cornwell, Gillian Clarke, Kazuo Ishiguro, Martin Amis, and Zadie Smith.
In 2001 Bill Clinton christened it “the Woodstock of the Mind”. And who are we to argue with that?
In 1989, Arthur Miller showed up to utter the most repeated joke of the festival’s history, “Hay-on-Wye, is that some kind of sandwich?”
Over the years, a mission crystalised for Hay Festival: to bring writers and readers together to imagine the world as it is, and as it might be, sharing stories and ideas through sustainable events that stimulated a global conversation around progress.
My own personal first brush with Hay Festival came in 2011, when I visited the town for a weekend of camping and culture. I had no connection to the world of books other than my love of reading, but watching talks that year with VS Naipaul, Javier Cercas, David Miliband and Nigella Lawson within that setting was enriching and life changing, and that’s before I even explored the bookshops.
With the festival’s international reputation growing, invitations arrived from villages, towns and cities all over the world eager to replicate the Festival’s success with their own events. Some of these came to life as separate events that organisers advised on, some as one-off editions, while many took seed and grew into Hay Festival events to complement and enrich the original.
Take Hay Festival Cartagena in Colombia. What began as a pop-up Hay Festival edition in 2006 is now a central part of the region’s literary calendar every January. The most recent edition, which took place online due to the Coronavirus pandemic, reached some 1 million people digitally with events featuring Nobel Prize winner Esther Duflo, economist Thomas Piketty, novelists Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Isabel Allende, Perez Reverte, Emmanuel Carrère, Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo, Joel Dicker, International Booker Prize winner Marieke Lucas, Tiago Ferro, Ken Follett and Andre Aciman, graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi, philosophers Peter Singer and Fernando Savater, nature writer Robert Macfarlane, travel writer Paul Theroux, Colombian scientist Brigitte Baptiste, historian Hallie Rubenhold; and lawyer Philippe Sands.
Colombia, like many other countries, has taken proud ownership of its own Hay Festival. “It’s so big now, there’s even one in Wales,” a writer was heard saying at the 2020 event.
Hay Festival events have now taken place in 30 locations over five continents. In the coming 12 months, there are scheduled editions in Colombia, Spain, Mexico and Peru, and plans for more to follow.
In 2001 Bill Clinton christened it “the Woodstock of the Mind”. And who are we to argue with that?"
A shared approach unites all events. Each festival offers a unique blend of exacting conversations and entertainment for all ages, showcasing the latest thinking in the arts and sciences with curious audiences. These events are organised by Hay Festival together with local teams with programmes that aim to pair the very best international thinkers with the most exciting home-grown talent. Each is accompanied by far-reaching education projects to cultivate future generations of readers, and each works with sustainability and accessibility at its core.
Programming also plays its part in bringing them all together. The Cymrawd Rhyngwladol Cymru Greadigol Hay Festival / Hay Festival Creative Wales International Fellowship sees a Welsh writer travel to each Hay Festival with a project of their choosing. Past writers have included novelist Alys Conran, poet and playwright Owen Sheers and travel writer Dylan Moore. More recently, poet and linguist Mererid Hopwood has been joining each Festival digitally.
In a digital age, increasingly characterized by abbreviated content and algorithmic recommendation, Hay Festival events, wherever they might be, promote discovery through the long-form. They offer a platform for informed conversation and the chance for inspiration to take hold – there is nothing more powerful than sitting around a table, or a picnic rug, and being together, face-to-face.
And that’s where the secret to the global success of Hay Festival lies: irrespective of borders and restrictions, stories travel and we all have a built-in need to gather and share them.
Things to do in Hay
Since joining the Festival team in 2015, I have come to know the place intimately, and my admiration for the community has only grown. Visitors to the area who come outside festival season won’t be disappointed: there are cosy cafes (including Shepherds Parlour, Richard Booth’s Bookshop), breathtaking walks (Offa’s Dyke Path), outdoor adventuring (canoeing down the Wye, biking in the Brecon Beacons), and of course, books. Lots and lots (and lots) of books!
For more information about the Hay Festival and the beautiful town of Hay-on-Wye, check out these articles from the Visit Wales website:
- Hay Festival 2021 - Enjoy the world's festival for big thinkers. It’s all online for 2021.
- Introducing Hay article - Find out what goes on in and around the 'booktown' of Hay-on-Wye during the world famous Hay Festival.
- Exploring the outdoors around Hay-on-Wye - Cathryn Summerhayes' insider guide to activities and adventures in Hay-on-Wye.