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Hay Literary Festival

Literary festivals, it seems, are like buses – you wait forever for one and then two come along together.

This summer, for the first time ever despite having been regular visitors since before the Hay Festival was even born, we were in Hay-on-Wye during its literary festival.

Staying with one of our oldest friends whose family has lived in the town since the 1980s, we wanted to attend a couple of events but the people we most wanted to see were appearing the weekend after we were there. Subsequently, we spent the weekend in the town and at the festival site, soaking up the atmosphere, browsing the thousands of books on sale and enjoying the early summer sunshine.

Hay was buzzing with activity all weekend. Pop-up stalls were selling food, crafts, drinks, art, plants and of course books, and all thronged from early morning until late evening. Known as ‘the book town,’ its multiple second-hand bookshops were magnets for the thousands of avid readers and writers who annually flock to the town for this event. Pubs, beer gardens and restaurants played host to a steady flow of visitors and even its riverside walks were teeming with people.

In short, the town had a carnival feel that was both intoxicating and infectious. Cash registers rang with a constant flow of transactions and just about everybody was wandering around with books tucked beneath their arms or carrier bags in hands, us included.

Dulverton Exmoor Literary Festival

Fast forward to last weekend when we found ourselves at the second of this year’s literary festivals – the inaugural Dulverton Exmoor Literary Festival. Dulverton is a picturesque Somerset market town set on the banks of the River Barle. It has a strong community feel, one or two excellent delis where you can pick up local produce, several independent craft/art shops and two bookshops. On paper (no pun intended), it seems the ideal venue to host a literary festival.

One of the speakers we had wanted to see at Hay was Norman Scott, the man best known for being the subject of an attempted assassination allegedly instigated by Jeremy Thorpe MP. When we discovered from our neighbours that Scott was appearing at Dulverton, we all booked tickets to see him, and to see William Sitwell, the food writer and restaurant critic who regularly appears on MasterChef.

Sunday dawned and we were due to see William Sitwell between 1pm and 2pm, and then Norman Scott between 7pm and 8pm. Dulverton is around 30 minutes’ drive away so, rather than have a very early lunch before setting off, we opted to go with the flow as regards eating. We figured we’d see William and then spend time strolling the town, maybe popping in somewhere for a sandwich and a coffee, browsing the two delis and the bookshops, and perhaps even taking a short riverside stroll. After all, we had five hours to kill between presentations.

It was a cold and rainy day as we parked in the town’s public car park, surprisingly empty given the fact the festival was in full swing. Wandering into the centre of town, the first thing we noticed was that both delis were closed which was disappointing as we were hoping to pick up some of their local marmalade. We popped into what we thought was one of the bookshops to have a browse and discovered it was the library and wasn’t really open. Neither were either of the actual bookshops.

As we wandered the deserted streets, the only place that exhibited life was the Town Hall, venue for the Literary Festival where people were milling in the lobby before William Sitwell’s presentation.

It quickly became apparent that the rest of Dulverton was shut.

Lorna Doone in Dulverton

A Missed Opportunity

With nowhere to while away the time, instead of spending five hours (and no doubt a fair bit of money) in Dulverton that Sunday, we drove home after William Sitwell’s presentation and returned in the evening for Norman Scott’s. On our way from the car park, we tried to book a table for after the presentation in the only village pub that was open, but they were fully booked. The friendly bar staff suggested we pop in on our way back to the car and see if they had a free table which, in the event, they did, and we enjoyed a meal before heading home.

There are clearly huge differences between the two literary festivals. Hay has been established for over 30 years and has become a worldwide phenomenon whereas it was Dulverton’s inaugural event this year. Hay-on-Wye is a much larger market town with multiple bookshops, eateries, and independent outlets, all accustomed to receiving a high volume of visitors year-round whereas Dulverton is a much sleepier Somerset town with a modest tourism income. And I would not wish to change that in any way.

But I find myself questioning the commitment of the town to its literary festival. From our point of view, the event itself was very professionally organised and run. I have no idea how many people attended on the Saturday or how well businesses coped with the extra volume of visitors but on Sunday, it seems to me the town missed out on an opportunity to do some brisk trading. What’s more, the lack of facilities detracted from the customer experience. We live close by so could go home and come back. Those who had travelled some distance were stuck.

I hope they hold more literary festivals in future and if they do, it will be interesting to see how many of the town’s businesses choose to support them all weekend.

Incidentally, the above photo is of Dulverton’s statue to Lorna Doone – the heroine of RD Blackmore’s eponymous and enduring 19th century novel set in the area – which stands alongside the public car park.


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