Today is the start of Hay Festival, bringing together great writers and thinkers from around the world in the staggering beauty of the Brecon Beacons. To mark the occasion, we invited writer Horatio Clare to look back at his memories of the festival and it's hometown of Hay on Wye.

A little border town in the rain, offering caverns of books, Hay on Wye in my childhood was a quietly eccentric squib of a place, damply alternative.

"You can't come here to swank around," Peter Florence, who had persuaded some writers into tents by a carpark, told a journalist in 1998, "It's not the Groucho Club on leave."

Three years later Bill Clinton gave the keynote; a decade after that the Groucho was in the castle. Swanking is still foolish. You may be the one on stage, but the attentive figure in the hat in the fourth row might be a philanthropist, a farmer or, as last year, Benedict Cumberbatch.

The phenomenal success of Hay changed literature and leisure. Hay's formula of writers, artists, thinkers and doers mixing with audiences on equal terms works everywhere from Cleckheaton to Chengdu.

Its secret ingredient is centuries old. Hay was a fort and a market, drawing people in to meet, eat, trade and gossip. Courtship, friendship and feuds accompanied them. Hay is one of those places where people and nature are still in equal balance, where a few small streets and meeting places magnify the chance of encounters. The festival merely substitutes some of the foremost thinkers of our time for livestock and fortune-tellers (though you will still find these, reading trends instead of cards) puts them all in tents instead of pens, and appoints every visitor a judge.

From first book shopping trips with my parents, through the acquisiton of universtiy reading lists, to producing radio programmes, to appearing as a writer, I grew up with Hay. I love its collision of the cerebral and the simple. The year Clinton spoke I was working for Radio 4. My girlfriend and I went swimming in the Wye on a golden evening, then ran, smelling of the river, with our underclothes wet in a bag, arriving in time to find the Hay audience slow hand-clapping the 42nd President. He was late. They wanted their show. On the tape you hear him asking incredulously, "Are they upset?" When he came out they burst into wild applause. Clinton looked relieved. And not for one second, in the next hour, did he swank.

Words by Horatio Clare

Horatio Clare's latest book is Down to the Sea in Ships,based on voyages around the world on cargo vessels, currently shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year. His work has been listed for many prizes, winning the Somerset Maugham Award and the Foreign Press Association Travel Writer of the Year.

This weekend, follow the activity from Hay Festival, photographed by Chris Buxton on our instagram account @TOASTtravels

Add a comment

All comments are moderated. Published comments will show your name but not your email. We may use your email to contact you regarding your comment.