For us desis, brought up on Blyton and Wodehouse, the idea of England waking up to the power of the written word might seem a bit odd. But no less a personage than Prime Minister Gordon Brown thinks the UK’s “new seriousness” is best exemplified by its surfeit of summer book festivals.
Having realized its greatest export is not Marmite or marmalade, but Shelley, Shaw and Shakespeare (and, okay, McEwan, Mitchell and Banville), the UK now hosts more than 100 jamborees for the bibliophile. Non-readers, despair not, for most of these festivals cater to you too, with walks, events—and the promise of a sighting of notoriously reclusive authors.
If you choose just one, make it the Guardian Hay Festival (22 May-1 June). Held every year in the tiny town of Hay-on-Wye on the England-Wales border, this is Britain’s biggest and most famous literary festival. Former US president Bill Clinton, a participant several years ago, called it “the Woodstock of the mind”. So, put that in your pipe and inhale it.
Clinton called the Hay-on-Wye “the Woodstock of the mind” (Justin Williams)
Hay-on-Wye is well known not just for hosting the 100,000 people who flock here every summer, it is also a unique book town that boasts of some three dozen used-book stores. For a town with a population of around 1,300 people, that’s one bookshop for every 35 residents.
For a measure of its eccentricity, look no further than Richard Booth. In 1961, the Oxford graduate bought the old fire station in the village and opened up a second-hand bookshop. Several others followed, saving Hay from the economic decline of other market towns. By the late 1970s, Hay was internationally recognized as England’s first “Book Town”. In April 1977, after a few too many drinks, Booth declared that Hay would secede from England and become an independent kingdom with himself as its king. It was a joke, but the news made national headlines after the local town council furiously denied it. The attempt at independence went ahead, though: Booth crowned himself king in the grounds of the 900-year-old Hay Castle (which he owns) and his horse was named prime minister of the new Kingdom of Hay.
As a publicity stunt, it worked like a dream. Today, Richard Booth’s bookshop (The Limited), on 44 Lion Street, is Europe’s largest second-hand bookstore. With more than a million titles in the shop, you are bound to find something you like. If you don’t, head over to Hay Castle. On the grounds of Booth’s residence is an open air “honesty bookshop”. Rusty shelves line the old castle walls and, come summer, they are stacked with dog-eared books accessible 24 hours a day. Take what you want—hardbacks are priced at 50 pence and paperbacks at 30 pence, each. Don’t bother looking around for a cashier to pay your bill. Drop your money in a collection box in the wall.
In the narrow, sloping streets you’ll find speciality bookshops catering to every subject, budget and taste. There’s a bookshop selling every book (and they do mean “every”) for £1 (around Rs80), one dealing only in antique and rare books, even one dedicated entirely to jigsaw puzzles. Don’t look for the familiar W.H. Smith or Borders, though. Chain stores can’t cope with the quirkiness of Hay.
The Hay festival attracts some of the biggest names in modern literature. Joining the long list of famous authors at previous festivals, this year’s programme includes Salman Rushdie (a regular, now promoting The Enchantress of Florence), Gore Vidal, Julian Barnes, Manil Suri, chef Jamie Oliver and Garry Kasparov. Former US president Jimmy Carter is scheduled to speak on West Asia: The event is billed as one of this year’s biggest draws. Expect large crowds, muddy fields lined with tents flapping in the chilly Welsh wind and bookstore owners very pleased about the extra business.
Children browse at the Hay festival (Richard Stanton)
When you’re done with the books—or if you aren’t into them—take a day trip into the countryside. In the village of Clyro, a short distance from Hay, lies Baskerville Hall Hotel. Conan Doyle was a family friend of the Baskervilles and stayed here often. During one trip, he heard of the legend of the hound of the Baskervilles—no points for guessing which book that inspired. At the request of his friends, though, he set the book in Devon to ward off tourists from thronging the Baskerville residence. Little did he know that many years later, a book-town nearby would undo his good intentions.
On the south-west coast of England, stop by the Daphne Du Maurier Festival of Arts and Literature in Fowey, Cornwall (8-17 May). The author lived in Fowey for many years and the landscape, houses and people of Cornwall all made their way into her books, including Rebecca. The book tells the story of an Englishman, Maxim de Winter and his (unnamed) bride who come to live in Manderley, a sprawling estate in Cornwall. Mysterious things happen in the house as the new bride struggles to gain the favour of the household devoted to the first Mrs de Winters—Rebecca—who died in a shipwreck off the coast.
The book is a classic. Whether you’ve read Rebecca or not, you may enjoy the Rebecca Coastline Walk led by a guide. Walks along the coastline can be muddy, especially after a spell of rain, so carry your wellies or waterproof shoes along. And if you’re in Fowey this year, don’t miss the fabulously funny poet Pam Ayres reading from her book Surgically Enhanced (13 May).
What makes the Du Maurier festival special? Maria McCarthy, author of The Girls’ Guide to Losing Your L-Plates and festival junkie, enjoys going to Cornwall for the beautiful, intimate setting. She also thinks it is different because it has a strong local identity, where Cornish writers and performers participate with authors from all over the country.
Fowey, home to Du Maurier.
Around 15 minutes away from Fowey is the biggest greenhouse on the planet. The Eden Project boasts of two gigantic biomes—the biggest conservatories in the world—housing more than 5,000 species of plants from every climate. A heads-up for James Bond fanboys: parts of Die Another Day, featuring Pierce Brosnan, were filmed there.
If London is your base, head for the Festival of Asian Literature (12-23 May). If you were able to catch the fascinating The Story of India on BBC recently, you may enjoy a talk by historian Michael Wood about the series and his experiences in India. I am also looking forward to hearing one of my favourite authors, Shashi Tharoor, speak about The Elephant, The Tiger and The Cell Phone—a talk about the changes in India.
Other literary festivals taking place in the UK over the summer include the London Literature Festival (June/July), the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival (17-20 July), the gigantic Edinburgh International Book Festival (9-25 August) and the ominous sounding Festival at the Edge (FATE)?in Shropshire (18-20 July).
So, get those walking shoes out and join the literary trail. Just don’t leave behind the quintessential English accessory: a brolly.
How to get there
Visas: Visit ‘www.vfs-uk-in.com’ for complete visa application process. Visas cost Rs5,700.
Flights: British Airways (‘www.ba.com’) and Jet Airways (‘www.jetairways.com’) connect Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore daily with London. Return fares start from around Rs40,000, including taxes.
Public transport in England can be often unreliable, so plan your journey in advance, wherever possible. Most towns have up-to-date information on their websites, including bus and rail timings. To book train tickets for travelling within the UK, see ‘www.nationalrail.co.uk’ or buy a Brit Rail pass (‘www.britrail.co.uk’). Locally, you are likely to be walking a lot, so pack comfortable shoes.
Getting to the Festivals
– From London Paddington: Take a First Great Western train to Hereford station. Fares for a standard return are around £80. Prices vary significantly depending on type of ticket chosen. Check ‘www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk’ for the latest fares and timings.
– From Hereford: Regular buses take about an hour to get to Hay.
u Fowey, Cornwall
– By air: Daily flights from London Gatwick or Manchester to Newquay Airport (‘www.newquaycornwallairport.com’).
– By train and bus: The main station for Fowey is St Austell. Regular services operate from Newquay.
u Festival of Asian Literature, London
The festival takes place at Asia House, 63 New Cavendish Street (‘www.asiahouse.org’). Take the underground tube service or a bus to either Oxford Circus or Regents Park. The website has a map of the area.
Where to stay
Find a local family-run bed and breakfast (B&B) to stay in for authentic English residences and food. Prices range from £30 to £100 per day, depending on the location. (‘www.bedandbreakfast.co.uk’)
u In Hay-on-Wye
Accommodation during the Hay festival can be hard to find. If camping outdoors is not an option, look for a B&B in one of the surrounding villages. The Hay-on-Wye website (‘www.hay-on-wye.co.uk’) lists available accommodation. Or try the Baskerville Hall Hotel (‘www.baskervillehall.co.uk’)
uIn Fowey, Cornwall
The Daphne Du Maurier festival website offers a selection of accommodation for visitors to the festival: ‘www.dumaurierfestival.co.uk/where-to-stay.php’
Where to eat
Every town and village has at least a local pub where food and drink are available. Enjoy a pint of beer and try a filling English meal. If jacket potatoes and steaks are not your thing, most big towns have other options. In the cities, you’ll easily find a wide range of food from every continent. Don’t expect the same in the little villages. Go prepared in case the local pub doesn’t serve meals on weekends. Menus are usually displayed outside to give you a chance to check prices and options.
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