10 Tips for Planning a Successful Visit to the Hay Festival

Hay Festival LettersImagine a whole site dedicated to books – a programme filled with talks by your favourite authors, the biggest bookshop tent ever, deckchairs made for lounging, fresh food from all around the world…well that’s the Hay Festival and if you’re a book lover then you have to add it to your travel plans immediately!

We visited this year after dreaming about it for decades. There always seemed to be an excuse – not enough cash, a small child, other holidays, but now that we’ve been it’s going to be a firm fixture in our family calendar.  This time we only booked a few sessions over three days – Cressida Cowell, Andy Stanton, Joe Todd-Stanton and Judith Kerr – all child-orientated but fun for adults too.  The loose structure also gave us a chance to work out the logistics of the event – not quite as easy as the venue can get VERY busy.  Here are my top tips for making your visit as enjoyable as possible:

  1. Book your accommodation early.   Staying in Hay can be expensive so unless you are camping, it’s best to look outside of the town. We booked a weekend at the lovely Canal Boat Cottage in Crickhowell and were glad of the peaceful surroundings after the buzz of Hay.  Sugar and Loaf have a whole selection of cottages on their website (2019 Hay Festival will run 23 May to 2 June).Canal Boat Cottage Kitchen Crickhowell
  2. Join the Hay Festival mailing list for ticket notifications. We booked as soon as the programme was released as big names sell out very quickly. Prices average at £7 – some more, some less.  If you want to get in before the crowds you can pay extra to become a Friend of Hay Festival.
  3. When packing for the festival include wellies, umbrella, sunglasses and suntan lotion. We saw all sorts of weather during our short stay. Take fold-up tote bags to minimise baggage.
  4. There’s plenty of parking in town, but we booked the parking via the Hay Festival website when we purchased tickets.  It’s more expensive than other options but part of the fee is donated to Macmillan and it’s right next to the venue.
  5. The festival suggests that you arrive at least half an hour before an event, but I’d recommend getting there an hour before if you’re driving.  Traffic can be slow-moving near the town and there are bag checks at the entrance.
  6.  If you need to buy books for signing then visit the shop straightaway and purchase all of them in one go.  The queues can be long, especially after headline talks.  The signings take place in the book tent too so try to get there quickly after the author session has finished.  You can buy pre-signed copies but the big names sell fast!hay book tent childrens
  7. If you have kids then there are free crafting activities available in the Make and Take and Mess tents. Our daughter is 5 and was just old enough to enjoy the experience, but I’d say that kids aged 7+ would get the most out of the programme.
  8. The food hall is fantastic with dishes ranging from pizza to paella to falafel but incredibly busy.  If you decide to go, then try to avoid peak times and find a seat beforehand – either in the tent or under one of the canopies outside then send out a foraging party!Food Hall Hay Festival
  9. If it’s simply too busy to order in the food hall, there are little snack shacks on the road into Hay-on-Wye. There are also water fountains on site so you can fill up bottles.
  10. You have to visit Hay-on-Wye while you’re at the festival.  It has tons of fantastic bookshops and is very pretty.  My favourite is Addyman Books and everyone pops into Richard Booth’s bookshop at least once.  The town is a good 15 minute walk from the venue but you can catch a shuttle outside the festival entrance for £1.50 each way.Hay on Wye StreetWe are already excited to start planning for next year.  Do you have tips that you’d like to share or questions you’d like to ask?

 

Our Phizzwhizzing Day Out at the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre

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When I was younger I loved Roald Dahl’s stories and it’s been great fun to read them again with Martha so our visit to the Roald Dahl Museum in Great Missenden has been on my wishlist for a long time.

The museum is fairly compact. There are 3 main rooms: Boy, which details Dahl’s childhood and contains copies of his school reports, an audio recording of him talking about his childhood holidays to Norway and a dressing up box full of vintage school clothes.  The next area, Going Solo, charts his adulthood, first with adventures in the RAF and then moving onto his career as his writer.  His beloved writing shed takes pride of place in the centre of the space with all his possessions laid out in their original places. These were conserved behind perspex but there was a chance to sit in a replica of his chair in the Story Centre (which I took full advantage of to channel those creative vibes!).

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The Story Centre forms the final major section of the complex. This was the most interesting area for Martha, who at 5, was just below the advised 6-12 age range and couldn’t quite take full advantage of the word games but the crafting activities, videos and dressing-up boxes more than made up for it.

All this fun was thirsty work so we took a much needed break at the cafe.  The prices were surprisingly reasonable (around £4.00 for a toasty or jacket potato) and the drinks were brilliant. I tried the Whizzpopper which was a blend of hot chocolate topped with maltesers, crushed smarties, marshmallows and raspberry coulis – utterly delicious!

Processed with VSCO with l4 presetTo round off the visit Al and I paid an extra £1.50 each to see the archives. This was the best bit of the experience for me as we had an opportunity to see some of Dahl’s handwritten manuscripts (all on yellow A4 paper in pencil), letters to his mama, and telegrams from Walt Disney.  The storeroom is fairly small but it was incredibly exciting to know that some of the most-loved stories in the world are contained in those grey boxes.

Processed with VSCO with l5 presetWe were reluctant to leave, but couldn’t say farewell until we’d bought a book to add to our library. The shop is every bit as enchanting as you would imagine and crammed with Dahl merchandise. We had to restrain ourselves but still came away with a limited edition of James and the Giant Peach which I’ll no doubt be bookstagramming about soon. If you’re into Dahl then you’ll find everything you need here.

Processed with VSCO with l4 presetThanks to all the staff for a wonderful day out. I found the whole experience quite emotional as Roald Dahl’s books have inspired me as both a reader and a writer.  We’re looking forward to visiting again when Martha is older so that we can enjoy it all over again.

If you’d like to spend some time at this amazing place, I recommend that you book tickets online in advance.  General opening hours are:

Tuesday to Friday 10am to 5pm
Saturday and Sunday 11am to 5pm

We didn’t try all the extras, but the museum offers free storytelling sessions and paid workshops, which change on a regular basis. There is a public car park about 5 minutes’ walk away from the centre so it’s very accessible.

Have you been or would you like to visit? Let us know in the comments!

 

How I Choose My Holiday Reads

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I’ve been thinking about this question a lot recently as we’re due to go on holiday to the Isles of Scilly soon and I want to make sure that my travel reads are as satisfying as possible.

It would be significantly easier if I was happy to rely solely on e-books , but the truth is I prefer physical copies – the turn of the page, the weight in the hand. In a perfect world, I’d be able to take a little library of my own – just like the photograph above that I made for my Instagram account, but as that’s not possible, here are some of the factors I’ve considered so far.

Number of Books

First and foremost, I’ve tried to realistically work out how much time I’ll have for reading, but I usually overestimate.  I’m not the kind of person who can lie on a beach for hours – I like exploring so if I’m honest, 3-4 books is probably the maximum that I’ll manage in a week and if I need more I can swap with family or find a local bookshop.

Book Length

Sometimes going away can be the ideal opportunity to finish a huge tome and if so, I’d aim to take one book only (unlikely in practice though!). I like to return home having finished mine so I’ve decided to go for a mixture of medium (300pp max) and short titles. Luggage weight is an obvious factor but I’m more likely to take out clothes than books.

Book Subject

I always try to take one book that’s connected to the area I’m visiting. After that it’s all about mood. Do I want a light, easy experience, or do I want to use the time to drill deep? Sometimes I like a mixture of the two – it totally depends. This year, I’m feeling upbeat so I want to sustain those positive emotions.

E-Readers and Audio Books

Most of the time I’ll take my Kindle as back-up, but I often don’t use it. As a family, we’re starting to get into audio books so will trial listening to one on the drive down the UK.  I’ll aim to share our feedback in future posts.

Final Selection

So taking all the above into account, my first choice is The Life of a Scilly Sergeant by Colin Taylor.  I hardly ever read humorous non-fiction, but I’m up for a laugh and will give me an insight into island living.  Next is Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson because I fancy channelling my inner pirate. For my third, its The Cabaret of Plants by Richard Mabey as this will connect in nicely with a visit to Tresco Abbey Gardens and my current manuscript.  For my final choice, I’m taking Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert for creative inspiration.

The round-up is fairly ambitious, but I’m feeling excited about it. I’ll let you know how I got on when I return.  In the meantime, I’d love to know which books you’re taking on your Easter holidays.

 

 

 

 

 

What to Expect from a Writing Retreat

Going on a writing retreat is pretty daunting if you’ve never been on one before, and doubly nerve-wracking if you’re thinking of going on your own, but don’t be scared!  I’ve been retreating for six years now, and have loved it so much that I’ve volunteered as coordinator for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) retreat for four of those.

Retreats come in many shapes and sizes.  The one that I organise is fairly compact.  It runs for a long weekend (Friday to Monday) and is fully catered in a country house with exclusive use. We invite a maximum of thirty residential guests including industry speakers – most of whom are society members (we occasionally admit non-members if the event doesn’t sell out – which it normally does!).

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A well-run retreat will give it’s guests a chance to meet virtually via social media before the event.  We create Facebook groups to encourage lift-sharing, and arrange a pub venue for lunch beforehand. Children’s writers are a friendly bunch and having a shared interest gives us lots to bond over. The social aspect isn’t mandatory, especially as authors tend to be introverts, but most guests say that being able to talk to other people who are going through the same process really adds to the experience.

The majority of formal writing retreats are likely to have a schedule of events.  In our case, we include workshops, talks and one-to-ones with an author, agent and editor – again, they’re not compulsory, but they offer a rare chance to speak with professionals.  This year, we hosted award-winning author, Sophia Bennett, Amber Caraveo, literary agent at the Skylark Literary Agency and Carmen McCullough, commissioning editor at Penguin Random House Children’s Books. All were hugely inspirational and shared generous advice with both published and unpublished delegates.

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Then of course, there’s the writing.  I didn’t manage to do as much this time because I was looking after everyone (that’s my excuse!) but there’s plenty of space to dream.  We choose accommodation that allows for single-occupancy so that guests can write in their rooms.  We also source properties with communal areas such as libraries and studies, which our last venue, Dunford House had in abundance (sadly it’s closing at the end of March 2018).  If you’re thinking about booking a retreat, make sure you think about the facilities and levels of seclusion that you’ll need as not all events offer the same mix.

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As for what to expect, well a bit of everything! Revelations, friendships, recommendations – a few more words on a page.  Go with an open mind, take a walk, chat to someone you’ve never met before.  Retreating is much more than word count – it’s a way to find creative freedom in a busy world; a time to find the you that’s buried beneath the layers of daily life.

I hope I’ve answered some of your questions here, but feel free to post any other queries in the comments.  I’d also love to find out more about your experiences and recommendations for retreats.