Making Hay with young ones: A parent’s survival guide to Hay Festival

May 22, 2017 by

A literary festival might conjure up images of lofty ideas being aired in draughty tents, grey hair and Pimm’s on the lawn.

But they aren’t just for grown-ups, honest.


mum and son


Many literary festivals offer a great balance of attractions and events suitable for all ages. Hay Festival is a case in point. With its dedicated Haydays programme, it does a great job of making it possible to have a mind-expanding experience for the whole family, minus the chemicals (although Bill Clinton did call Hay “the Woodstock of the mind”).

I’ve been going to Hay with my ten-year-old son, James, for the past three years, and love how many opportunities the festival offers to engage curious young minds.

I’m evangelical about the joy of losing ourselves in a world of words for a few days, and it’s become an annual trip we both look forward to immensely. But I’ve learned a few lessons about making the most of the experience along the way.

Here is my essential survival guide for parents aiming to make Hay with small people this bank holiday.


Camp it up

Unless you’re lucky enough to live nearby, Hay can be a tiring daytrip involving a lot of car time for impatient little ones. We prefer to make a holiday of it, by camping for a few nights on the site opposite the festival. The site is spacious, safe, has great facilities and never gets too busy, so is ideal for families.

This means we wake up when the sun comes up, enjoy sausage sandwiches and a warm cuppa for breakfast, and take a leisurely stroll over the road to the festival site. The gorgeous rolling hills make the ideal backdrop for reading your new festival purchases in the evening, and there are always plenty of friend-making opportunities for kids and adults alike.




We also pack a cool box full of ingredients for packed lunches, so we save on the on-site catering options – which although great, can really add up over the course of a week. There’s nothing like hunkering down in a sleeping bag under the stars after a day of stretching the grey cells, and it takes away all the stress of parking and festival traffic. For us, it’s the ideal way to Hay and it makes it much more of an adventure.


Plan smart

Hay is a much better experience when you master the art of smart booking.

I’ve been known to overbook events to the point where we’ve been racing from tent to tent, with barely any time to breathe (never mind a toilet stop). I won’t make that mistake again.

My top tip is to build in plenty of “white space” into your schedule. The festival site is ideal for lounging around on deck chairs, which is a real treat if the weather is sunny.


desk chair


One of my favourite times at Hay was an hour spent writing a poem called “If all the world were cheese…” with James, inspired by a children’s poet we’d seen that morning.

Why not use chunks of time between events to discuss the author you’ve just seen, do some reading, and soak up the festival vibe?

If you’re too busy haring around, you don’t really experience the full beauty of Hay. Plus, the less you spend on tickets, the more you can spend on books. Bonus.


Share the love

As a single parent, Hay is very much a tag team effort for my son and I. This means I have to plan carefully, and book a fair balance of adult and children’s events.



Pamela Butchart



David Baddiel


Also, don’t be scared of booking children’s authors they haven’t read yet. We’ve been to see lots of ‘unknowns’ that have turned into new favourite authors.

Make sure there’s plenty to keep you both entertained and you’ll have a happier little human on your hands.


Use bribery wisely 

I’m a big advocate of a strategically-deployed bribe. In the case of Hay, I budget to buy one new book a day for the little man, dependent on good behaviour. We make a trip to the festival bookshop at the end of every day, and he loves spending time reading the blurbs and choosing his daily treat.

The key to success is letting him choose whatever he wants, as long as it’s from the children’s section. He feels free to make his own choice, with no interfering from mum.

We love whiling away the pre-bedtime hours reading together outside our tent. I’m not sure how long I have left before this strategy of shameless blackmail wears off, but I’m determined to squeeze at least a few more years out of it.

Even big kids are susceptible to some light bribery, right?


Pack smart 

Here, in no particular order, is a list of the things that are on my Hay ‘must-pack’ list. Some are obvious, some less so, and some are for campers only. But trust me on lots of these. You’ll be grateful:

Head torches; clip-on night light for books; plenty of snacks; playing cards; rechargeable battery packs for electronic devices and USB cables (I swear by the Pebble); plenty of notebooks and pencils; layers; first aid kit; a cool box; water bottles; rucksack; tote bag for book purchases; ear plugs; a ball of some description; wet wipes; sunscreen; coat; picnic blanket (the deck chairs go early) and sensible, mud-proof shoes.




Get off site

Hay is about so much more than the Festival itself. The town of Hay-On-Wye is a delight, and wandering around its many bookshops is an adventure in itself. There are also many great places to eat, from hearty homemade fayre to Indian cuisine. So be sure to build in time for exploring beyond the festival gates. There’s a regular shuttle bus between the festival site and the town, or it’s a lovely walk if the weather holds.




For more information on the Haydays programme click here:

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