Books, fairy tales, and letters: Hay Festival 2018, 2nd June

Hi all! How is everyone this weekend?

Today’s post is all about my trip with Nia from Novel Observations to Hay Festival yesterday.


For those who may not be familiar with it, the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts was established in 1988 by Peter Florence and his parents, Norman and Rhoda. The town of Hay-on-Wye had become known as ‘the town of books’ during the 1970s – following the popularity of Richard Booth’s bookshop in the early 1960s, many others also opened, and so this little Welsh town became a popular destination for book enthusiasts.

The Hay Festival is now an internationally renowned festival – many print and television broadcasters have been involved in showcasing, and even sponsoring, the event, and writers, activists, and performers from around the world have visited to take part. It’s an incredible venue for discussing literature, music, and performance, as well as their roles in exploring the most pertinent issues in our world today. There’s a lot of focus within the Festival of promoting children’s literacy, with a dedicated programme for young people running every year.

Novel Observations and I have been to the Hay Festival before (to see discussions with Toni Morrison, Neil Gaiman, and many others), and we were incredibly excited to secure tickets for the Tales of Wonder: Magic, Resistance, and Hope panel discussion and Letters Live this year.

I’ll be writing about the Tales of Wonder event in more detail later this week – it was a wonderful, informed discussion that deserves more exploration – but I’ll give a brief outline of it, and Letters Live, here too.

Chaired expertly by Hamish Fyfe, Tales of Wonder featured:

  • Jack Zipes, one of the foremost scholars of folklore, fairytales, and children’s literature
  • Marina Warner, mythographer, scholar and author of Stranger Magic, Fly Away Home, Once Upon A Timeand Forms of Enchantment
  • Philip Pullman, eminent author of speculative fiction including Clockwork, the His Dark Materials trilogy, La Belle Sauvageand Daemon Voices

The discussion focussed primarily on the work of Jack Zipes – its influence on scholars, writers (Warner and Pullman included), and the perception of folklore and fairy tales in wider society. The role of these stories in shaping cultural understandings of gender or social mobility, defining the tone and outlook of communities, and how such stories have adapted (and continue to adapt to) revolutions in storytelling were among the main ideas being explored. It was a truly fascinating event that I’m very glad we got to attend.


2018 is the fifth year that Letters Live has been put on. As an avid follower of all things Hay Festival, the praise and enthusiasm for this event has been difficult to miss, so the fact that Nia got us tickets for it is something I will always be grateful for. Inspired by Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note anthologies and Simon Garfield’s To the Letter, Letters Live celebrates the wisdom, joy, pain, and intimacy of this literary form. Each year, a live audience is treated to performances of notable letters from a diverse cast, ranging from actors to singers, to activists.

This year, letters from soldiers, novelists, playwrights, annoyed customers, political leaders and activists, among others, were read with all the warmth, wit, and emotion imaginable, conveying to us the human voices and stories captured by the words within them. The cast of readers were: Louise Brealey, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones, Angelique Kidjo, Rose McGowan, Clarke Peters, Prasanna Puwanarajah, Jessica Raine, Tony Robinson, and Jordan Stephens. Moving from laugh out loud hilarity to heartbreaking anguish, the letters displayed in this event simultaneously showed how unique these moments were to those writing and receiving them, and how the emotions and ideas expressed can transcend those moments and speak to us right now, in 2018. Letters Live is a fantastic event, so if you ever have the chance to attend, I completely recommend it.


The Festival site itself has a vibrant, dynamic atmosphere that really is joyous to witness and be part of. As I walked through, passing clothing stands, writing and craft workshops, the gallery, the Food Hall, and the Festival Bookshop, what struck me most was how relaxed everyone seemed in spite of the huge crowds. People can just enjoy themselves here. What I think I loved most was seeing so many visitors taking moments to read – seeing others finding room for themselves to just sit and enjoy a book. It felt homely.

The town of Hay-on-Wye itself has a similar vibrancy – it may be relatively small and remote, but that adds to its lively character. Once we had travelled by bus from Hereford train station to the town, we had some time to enjoy exploring it, browsing stationery shops, the street food market in the Castle grounds, and most importantly, some of the many bookshops.

Richard Booth’s Bookshop is a beautiful building that, across three floors, sells both second-hand and new books across a fantastic array of genres and subject matters. I particularly love the First Floor (and not just because it is home to the Literature section. The layout gives it a grand, bright, and spacious feel – a genuine palace for books. You can see the books I bought from here in the picture below:


Addyman Books felt like a classic bookshop, with little steps and corridors between rooms. They have a great selection of Penguin paperbacks that both Nia and I browsed for a long time.

Hay-on-Wye Booksellers has an incredible selection of second-hand books – it was difficult to resist buying most of them (maybe on my next visit). They also have lots of newer releases and a clearance section so it caters for lots of readers.

We could only visit on this one day, and while we explored a few places, I definitely think it’s worth staying in Hay for a few days to really make the most of what the town and the Festival has to offer, especially as Hay itself is a stunning rural location with spectacular views.

I can’t wait to get started on my new books, and to hear who’ll be part of the Festival Line-up for 2019!

Thanks so much to you all for reading and supporting my blog! Were any of you at the Hay Festival this year? What have been your favourite literary festival events to attend?

2 thoughts on “Books, fairy tales, and letters: Hay Festival 2018, 2nd June”

  1. I adore this write-up of our beautiful day in Hay and at the Festival, you have such an engaging way with words. I’m sure this post will encourage lots of people to visit! I can’t wait to go again next year!

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