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“Hay-on-Wye — is that some kind of sandwich?” This is the question the great American playwright Arthur Miller is supposed to have asked when invited to appear at what is now Britain’s best-known literary festival.
Miller’s appearance was in 1989, the second year of the festival’s existence. Back then, it was a much smaller affair than the mighty encampment of grand marquees that now springs up each year in late May on the outskirts of the small town of Hay-on-Wye, perched in glorious countryside on the Welsh-English border.
Hay was already known as the “Town of Books” because of its many cavernous and fascinating second-hand bookshops. Miller also set the pattern for an annual visitation by glamorous literary names such as John Updike and Tom Wolfe. One year, Bill Clinton put in an appearance — describing the Hay festival as “the Woodstock of the mind”.
Even such a spattering of stardust would not be enough by itself to account for this festival’s powerful reputation. Rather, it achieves the trick of appealing to all-comers with a line-up that not only encompasses novelists, poets, dramatists, biographers, and historians but also artists, musicians, philosophers, chefs, celebrity gardeners, TV travellers and more.
The Hay experience makes for a very enjoyable few days, either as a couple or with a friend, or solo. Accommodation can be in short supply in the small town, but picturesque B&Bs in the surrounding country are a lovely alternative.
The literary festival phenomenon is a relatively recent one. Until the 1980s, poets would stand up in the back rooms of gloomy pubs to intone their works, but that was about it. The idea has rocketed away, however, and there are now many dozens to choose from — as with music festivals — to suit all tastes.
If Hay is too big for your idea of literary sampling, there are plenty of niche alternatives. Small Wonder is the name of the festival that takes place every autumn deep in the heartlands of the Bloomsbury Group itself. It is held at Charleston in Sussex, the former home of Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry. It focuses, as its title suggests, on short stories and their writers, attracting superb names from across the world.
The setting is not only resonant but very beautiful; the Charleston Trust has made improvements to the house and garden without sacrificing its atmosphere, and the house’s famous painted doors and fireplaces never disappoint.
Looking at other special-focus literary festivals, If poetry is your passion, try Ledbury, in the Malvern Hills near Hereford. Somehow, festivals seem to thrive in small and pretty towns, and Ledbury hosts a glorious 10-day early-summer immersion in poetry of all sorts, with a good international line-up of names to savour and discover. The atmosphere is quieter and perhaps more intense than at Hay; definitely recommended for devotees.
Similarly, if it’s crime that wields its dark attraction, then Harrogate might be your destination come July. Its crime writing festival has been running for 15 years, and in a suitably evocative location — the Old Swan hotel, where Agatha Christie took refuge under a false name when she strangely “disappeared” in 1926.
Another ravishing setting for a wide-ranging festival of literature and ideas is Dartington Hall, in south Devon, a set of medieval buildings around a large courtyard, all surrounded by dreamy gardens.
There for 10 days in July, the Ways With Words festival hosts writers, thinkers, politicians and others in Dartington’s Great Hall, with its immense ancient beams and high-arched windows. For the full experience, visitors can stay on-site in comfortable bedrooms within the old buildings. There is something reminiscent of an Oxbridge college in the architecture, and in the sense of being secluded from the world to concentrate on writing and thinking. However, the content is thoroughly contemporary.
There is a plethora of other British literary festivals: the most prominent include those in Cheltenham, Oxford, Port Eliot in Cornwall, and, above all, Edinburgh, where a giant tent in the New Town — running concurrently with Edinburgh’s music and theatre festivals — always offers a strong programme, and shares in the city’s late-summer party atmosphere.
But don’t forget that you can combine literary festival-going with more exotic travel. Hay has inspired connected literary festival outposts in Cartagena, Colombia (home of the late Gabriel García Márquez), at Querétaro in Mexico, Arequipa in Peru and Segovia in Spain.
In Brazil, the historic coastal town of Paraty, near Rio, has a fine literary festival whose fabulous setting makes it a favourite among authors, and in Rajasthan, the Jaipur literary festival has become a giant, glittering event that sees crowds flocking to the ravishing city to hear world-class writers.
Who, after all, would turn down the chance of Rajasthan in January?
Jan Dalley is the FT’s Arts Editor
Oxford: March 17-25. oxfordliteraryfestival.org
Hay-on-Wye: May 25-June 4. hayfestival.com
Ways with Words: July 6-16. wayswithwords.co.uk/festivals
Ledbury: June 29-July 8. poetry-festival.co.uk/
Harrogate: July 19-22. harrogateinternationalfestivals.com/crime-writing-festival/
Port Eliot: July 26-29. porteliotfestival.com/
Edinburgh: August 11-27. edbookfest.co.uk
Small Wonder: September 27-October 1. charleston.org.uk/small-wonder/
Cheltenham: October 5-14. cheltenhamfestivals.com