Mon, 28 Nov 2016 16:07:00 +0100

Oliver Balch reports back on his Winter Weekend run with ‘Footnotes’ author Vybarr Cregan-Reid:

To the best of my knowledge, Francis Kilvert was not a runner. The Victorian diarist would be far happier in a pair of sturdy walking boots, staff in hand, than he ever would in jogging pants and base layers. Still, as we set off for a morning jog across the fields from Hay-on-Wye to the nearby village of Clyro, I had a palpable sense of following in Kilvert’s footsteps. It was a route the writer knew well, after all. Curate in Clyro from 1865 to 1872, Kilvert spent much of his time traversing his parish on foot to meet with parishioners – a practice he rather delightfully referred to as “villaging”. So when our little group of Hay Festival Winter Weekend joggers crossed the bridge out of Hay and branched right along the Wye, he’d have quickly recalled the river “surging broad yellow and storm” after one particularly tempestuous March night. A little later, meanwhile, as we turned to climb back up the hill to Boatside, I can well imagine his mind turning to the recent suicide of Meredith’s sister – the eddies of the scandal still swirling midstream. 

From Boatside to Clyro was very much Kilvert's home turf. Ahead, over several sloping fields, lie the scattered rooftops of his one-time home. Forested hillsides swoop down upon the village from above as though in a celebratory bow. Kilvert thought Clyro at its prettiest from this easterly vantage, the church spire cushioned beneath an ocean of sky, the dotted houses washed by a ‘tender blue haze’. Once we reach the village itself, our gaggle of runners stops for a breather. Beside us, just across a brook that runs beneath the road, is Ashbrook House, Kilvert's old lodgings. We stop just long enough to clock the window of his bedroom and imagine him jotting down his day’s events by candlelight. And then we’re off again, past the church, the old vicarage, the castle tump and back down the road towards Hay. Just beyond Peter’s Pool, the village rubbish dump in Kilvert’s day, we swing right along a track that takes us back towards the Wye - Wordsworth's 'Wanderer in the Woods'. Before we reach its banks, however, we climb up through a steep copse along the Wye Valley Walk that eventually brings us back onto the Hay-Clyro road above the bridge. Burrowed among the trees above the far bank stands Hay, the Town of Books, framed by the bouldery bulk of the Black Mountains behind.

Running is a way of getting in touch with the complexity and super-connectivity of the natural world, argues Vybarr Cregan-Reid who, later the same day, would give an enthralling talk about his new book, ‘Footnotes: How Running Makes Us Human’.

Cregan-Reid is, I sense, a Kilvertian at heart. A man who knows what it’s like to melt into the natural world, to feel kinship with its primeval throb, to have it prick his senses and enliven his mind. Kilvert walked, Cregan-Reid runs, but the pair embrace the same “kinetic empathy” with their surroundings. As the latter writes in his delightful new book:

“We runners know that once you settle down deeply into pace, you settle just as deeply into landscape; you huddle into it. The reason that the experience of landscape can be so intense is that you become part of it. What you are feeling is an analogue of what the place is feeling as it feels itself, and you.”

Kilvert couldn’t have said it better.

Julian of Norwich

Sun, 27 Nov 2016 22:44:00 +0100

Janina Ramirez was electrifying: she brought Julian of Norwich’s C14th vividly to life and demonstrated how relevant her work is today. Her book has been the festival’s bestseller so far this weekend.

She began by decoding the understanding of piety and its context. The C14th was a time of great change - of death with the Plague and burning at the stake of the Lollards. Janina explained that as an exact contemporary of Chaucer, Julian used a vernacular Middle-English for her writing. She chose to become an anchoress at the age of 43: she received the last rites and then had herself walled up in a cell in which she lived for 20 years.

Wanting to get to the point of death to understand Christ’s passion, was a tradition well understood at that time - and the embracing of extreme physical distress in order to achieve a transcendental experience is a state familiar to all versions of mysticism in all cultures around the world. Her study, wisdom and visions made her a celebrity of the day and she was consulted through a small window on busy King Street, Norwich, by many, including Margery of Kempe. Other than that, we know little about her life. Was she the sister of Thomas Erpingham? Was she married and a mother? The imagery in her writings suggests a life lived in the outside world rather than life as a nun. Perhaps her children had grown and this was the time to devote to study. 
Whatever her circumstances, her writing is not autobiographical but centres on a meaningful exploration of mysticism. She never betrayed Church laws and kept her writing secret but when it was discovered after her death it was clear that her reflections challenged the core of Church teaching. Her central themes are of Mercy, of God as multidirectional and maternal, and of unconditional love.

Her writing survived, copied by scribes and treasured by her followers, and is known to us today thanks to Gertrude More, the great great great granddaughter of Thomas More, who kept Catholic texts through the Reformation and saved them from destruction. The texts lay in the British Library under ‘Folklore’ until Grace Warrock from a Scottish Presbyterian background found them and translated them, with all their idiosyncratic East Anglian Middle English words, at the turn of the C20th century. Janina Ramirez reports a conversation with Rowan Williams where he suggests that mysticism is a way in which the church can re-engage people, and that now is very much Julian of Norwich's time.

Hay Winter Weekend Bestsellers

Sun, 27 Nov 2016 22:29:00 +0100

1. ‘Julian of Norwich: A very brief history’ by Janina Ramirez

2. ‘Land Rover’ by Ben Fogle

3. ‘Footnotes – How Running Makes Us Human’ by Vybarr Cregan-Reid

4. ‘DKfindout! The Solar System’ by Sarah Cruddas

5. ‘The Shipping Forecast’ by Nic Compton

Andy Hamilton

Sun, 27 Nov 2016 22:28:00 +0100

Comedian Andy Hamilton, of the TV series ‘Outnumbered’, ‘Drop the Dead Donkey’, and ‘Have I Got News for You’, entertained the Hay audience in a double act with ‘QI’ writer John Mitchinson. The Swan Ballroom was packed with fans of all ages, who heard about Hamilton’s new novel, ‘The Star Witness’, about a TV star’s tabloid disgrace.

Where Poppies Blow

Sun, 27 Nov 2016 22:25:00 +0100

John Lewis-Stempel signed copies of his second book in a year, ‘Where Poppies Blow’. The author of ‘The Running Hare’, the subject of his talk at Hay Wales in May, and of ‘Meadowland’, for which he won the Wainwright Prize in 2015, writes about British soldiers in the First World War and their relationship with nature. The flowers, plants, animals and birds around them were reminders of home, and also symbols of the possibility of enduring the bullets and the blood.

Queen Victoria

Sun, 27 Nov 2016 22:24:00 +0100

“Before I read Queen Victoria’s diaries, I thought of her as a boot-faced old bag in a bonnet,” said Daisy Goodwin, creator of the successful ‘Victoria’ TV series (commissioned for a second edition) and author of ‘Victoria – A Novel of a Young Queen’. There are 62 million words in the diaries, some of them personal and intimate, as in the entry for 3 November 1839: “Albert wore tight white cashmere pantaloons with nothing underneath and high boots.”

We have the impression of a nation constrained by rules and restrictions, but Victoria was passionate and open about how much she enjoyed sex, Goodwin said. When her doctor advised that she should refrain after her month child, she was outraged. She was interviewed by Francine Stock, and extracts from her book were read beautifully by actress Anna Wilson Jones, who played Lady Portman in the historical drama.

The Solar System

Sun, 27 Nov 2016 15:35:00 +0100

Astrophysicist Sarah Cruddas caught the imagination of children this morning in her excellent, illustrated talk on the solar system. The author ran through the history of Space exploration and shared statistics that convey its scale to future astronauts: 12 humans have walked on the moon, 550 have been to space in a population of seven billion. No one guessed that it would take 700 years to fly in a plane to Pluto.

The audience learned that Europa, an ‘ice’ moon of Jupiter, is thought to have water underneath the surface and so may produce life. Cruddas shared insights into the priorities of the International Space Station, her work with NASA and the possibility of a moon village, which is a project being researched by The European Space Agency. She also referred to funding, explaining that when governments retreat from this, global businesses such as Amazon step in to invest in the next stage of human exploration of the unknown.

Sending a human to Mars is the current goal, because it is from there that we can discover more of Space.

Her book ‘DK Find Out! Solar System’ was snapped up after her talk by young people whom she had inspired to consider a career in Space.

The Spirits of Christmas

Sun, 27 Nov 2016 15:31:00 +0100

“Do not buy British wine,” was the surprising advice from viticulturalist Judith Dudley of Parva Farm, Tintern. Supermarkets are selling the stuff at very low prices and because it has a Union Jack on the label, we assume the grapes have been grown in the UK. But the content is imported and diluted, and basically undrinkable. English, Scottish and Welsh wines, however, are getting better and better and are now competitively priced. There are more than 400 vineyards in Britain, and although we are familiar with successful brands in the south-east of England, the Welsh source is less well known. Judith and her husband grow more than 4,000 vines, and are particularly proud of their sparkling variety, which knocks spots off some of the French alternatives;

Charles Martell from Gloucestershire is a renowned cheesemaker, whose Stinking Bishop (named after a local pear) won international stardom in a Wallace and Gromit film 10 years ago. He diversified into distilling vintage fruit spirits when he discovered an ancient distillery on his farm and kitted it out with a state-of the-art copper still. The plums, apples and pears come from the orchard he planted in 1972, in a bid to revive traditional varieties;

John-James Savage is also a cheesemaker, whose Teifi range has won top awards. He and his father diversified into whisky to celebrate the millennium and gave the brand a Gallic name, Da Mhile (pronounced Da Vayley) which means 2,000. They commissioned it from Campbelltown in Scotland, using their own barley, and later decided to construct their own distillery on site, in Ceredigion, and produce both whisky and gin, from source to shop. Artisan gin is very on trend, and while Toby Fairbrother in The Archers is making his in a dodgy, haphazard way, the Da Mhile offerings of botanical and seaweed gin, containing around 15 herbs and spices, are meticulously prepared and work very well with Welsh specialities such as shellfish and mussels, and also in martinis;

Singing Carols and comedy with Mark Watson

Sat, 26 Nov 2016 21:51:00 +0100

Hay Castle packed with good cheer and carols, mulled wine and fires, followed by Mark Watson at his hilarious best - a great way to end the first day of the Winter Weekend that has been full of wonders. Nos da.

Up early tmrw for a Sunday morning run with Oliver Balch - clock tower in Hay at 9.30.

The Shipping Forecast

Sat, 26 Nov 2016 21:45:00 +0100

Nic Compton, sailor, photographer, former boat builder and man of the sea, spoke to a dedicated fan base about his new book The Shipping Forecast.

The name Captain FitzRoy, later Vice-Admiral FitzRoy, is known to us as Captain of The Beagle who sailed to South America with his companion Charles Darwin. As Vice-Admiral FitzRoy he set up the Met Office, and first used the word forecast, in response to the massive storm and loss of life in the Irish Sea in 1859. Setting up 15 stations around Britain, he used barometers in fishing harbours around the UK to produce a daily report printed in The Times from 1861.

Changes to the names used over the years have been hotly contested and are based on the names of sandbanks, rivers and estuaries, islands, sea areas, headlands and two towns.

The poetry of The Shipping Forecast is dearly loved and the strict 350 words, three-minute length, is what we have been able to hear three times a day on BBC Radio 4 since 1978 in its format of gale warnings, general synopsis and area forecasts following the country clockwise from Viking. The full version with reports from 20 coastal stations and inshore waters can run for another 10 minutes of sheer seafaring poetry, although Nic was very clear that life and death decisions are made by it.

As Zeb Soames said of The Shipping Forecast, “It’s part of the fabric of this intangible thing called Britishness. Just like red telephone boxes, Wimbledon, the chimes of Big Ben, the smell of cut grass, scones and jam.” ‘The Shipping Forecast’ by Nic Compton is this and much more - packed with history, maps and poetry it’s a perfect winter read.


Sat, 26 Nov 2016 18:21:00 +0100

The 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster was commemorated at Hay Festival Winter Weekend by poet Owen Sheers, whose film poem ‘The Green Hollow’ was shown on BBC in October, and by journalist Louise Walsh whose book ‘Black River’ investigates the media coverage of the community event that became global grief. Neither writer was of the generation that experienced the tragedy, and both remarked that at times they felt they were intruding on a whole village's memories.

Walsh’s work is a blend of fact and fiction, compiled through extensive research in library archives, and through talking to journalists who had reported at the time (and all claimed to have got there first). Sheers’ tour de force took seven months of liaising with the film’s director, adding layers of visual imagery to his poem of many voices. A positive outcome of the current publicity surrounding the 50th anniversary is that it has prompted survivors to speak out for the first time.

Odd Dog Out

Sat, 26 Nov 2016 18:20:00 +0100

Rob Biddulph, winner of the 2015 Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, entranced the children (and their parents) at Hay with his story of a dog that doesn’t fit in. As he drew his new character in ‘Odd Dog Out’, he explained how a picture-book is created, and inspired budding author-artists who may be vying for prizes in the future.

Scummy Mummies

Sat, 26 Nov 2016 18:19:00 +0100

The Scummy Mummies’ hilarious celebration of parenting confessions had us weeping with laughter - from an update of The Red Book (that terrifyingly authoritative book given to new mothers) to their song ‘Just Stay Away from the School PTA’, to the scumometer, comedians Helen Thorn and Ellie Gibson won the hearts of Hay today. They co-host a podcast voted by ‘Woman’s Hour’ one of the best of 2016 and have a book out in March - but if you have the chance to see them live, do go!

Christmas Lights

Sat, 26 Nov 2016 18:17:00 +0100

Ben Fogle lit up Hay last night with 2,000 revellers in the market square enjoying the new, and spectacular Christmas lights. Then he enchanted a packed audience at The Swan Hotel with tales from his book Land Rover - a fan's homage to the boxy and beloved 4x4.

He sees The Defender as quintessentially British - a leaky, bumpy, inelegant and highly functional adventurer; unglamorous and harking back to postwar ambitions and hopes. A durable, resilient and classless classic. The car version of a Labrador - the subject of his last book!

He told a lovely story about a Scottish landowner hurtling the King of Saudi Arabia around the estate at the wheel of a long-base Land River Series 3. Her Majesty making a clear point about women drivers to the ruler of a country where they are banned.

Hay Festival Winter Weekend

Fri, 25 Nov 2016 14:56:00 +0100
Our Hay Festival Winter Weekend begins - please join us to share stories, music, great company and to conjure some warming and joyful festival spirit.

We'll be posting live updates here during the course of the weekend.  Please check back soon for updates...