Rumour has it that Hay Festival started in 1987, thanks to a bloke called Peter Florence (with a little help from his folks, Rhoda and Norman). Taking place from late May to early June each year, in the Lilliputian town of Hay-on-Wye, this Welsh book bonanza is celebrated as one of the world’s biggest and best literary festivals. With a knockout line-up of speakers from the arts, music, comedy, science and current affairs, we decided to head on the M4 and see what all
the fuss was about.

With winding cobbled streets, bunting and more beards than Stoke Newington, Hay itself welcomes the deluge of book lovers with open arms. The town’s cafes are full to bursting, the pubs are groaning at the seams – but what surprised us more than anything was the swarms of tote bag swinging types London weaving in and out of the numerous book shops. The place is bloody full of them! You’re never more than 6ft away from a ye olde style shoppe with creaky
wooden floorboards and wall to wall fusty paperbacks – some on sale for a quid a pop. We were hooked.

With shoulders straining under the weight of cut-price second-hand coffee table books on David Hockney and other British icons, we wandered up towards the festival – a temporary site on the outskirts of town made up of gigantic marquees and a network of covered walkways. Thankfully, the Great British Summer had broken with tradition – we had unbroken blue skies, beaming sunshine and a gentle breeze. Ideal conditions for watching the likes of Stephen Fry talking about cricket (more about that soon).

There’s a timetable of events spanning eleven days and each one is packed to the rafters with people who are there to listen and learn. Bill Clinton once said that it was the “Woodstock of the mind” and wandering around, you can sense why. There’s Dame Judi Dench rubbing shoulders with Sara Pascoe. Michael Heseltine in jumbo cords and smart cardie with an entourage of blondes with Chelsea blow-dries. Chino-wearing Book-Tokkers (it’s a TikTok thing, so we’re told) influencing the masses with their streamed content waxing lyrical about the latest releases. Everywhere you look, there’s someone raising a glass (or an iPhone) to the printed word.

Hay Festival feels like a compendium of contrast. In one respect, it’s a librarian’s convention overspill, with chintzy wipe-clean tablecloths in the food tent and more non-ironic Jesus sandals than you can shake a Gideon’s bible at. But then in another respect, you’ve got the sound of Geri Halliwell’s chopper overhead as she’s airlifted in from London wearing billowing white chiffon and 6 inch cork wedges – 20 mins before giving a talk about ‘Positivity & Professionalism’. Part nerdy, part naughty, it’s the archetypal summer shindig.