Literary Festivals and the Town of Books

hay winter weekend 2016Mid November and after a stunning show of autumn colour, most of the trees have now lost their leaves.  In the orchard, the apple trees reveal, among their bare branches, glossy wreathes of mistletoe, studded with glistening berries. The last of the apples and pears have been gathered and a few windy days have brought down the bright yellow quinces, previously out of reach. It is the time of year for making chutney from green tomatoes and bruised fruit, to preserve the tastes and memories of autumn, through the winter.

In November, we try to resist the encroaching dark by lighting bonfires, setting off fireworks, dressing up as ghosts and in this part of the world, celebrating literature at the Hay Festival Winter Weekend.  (25th- 27th November 2016).  For those of us who love reading and live quietly on the Welsh Borders, both the main Hay Festival at the end of May, and the small-scale Winter Weekend, represent the highlights of our year.

The Winter Weekend is based in the town of Hay-on-Wye, unlike the tented-city of the summer Hay Festival, which is held a mile out of town. In contrast, the venues in late November include a hotel function room, a church, a castle and a bookshop. The gatherings are relatively small, the talks and readings seem friendly – the authors more approachable.  This year there will be a talk about the Danish concept of Hygge by Louisa Thomsen Brits. Her book, The Book of Hygge, should be particularly attractive to readers at this season, since Hygge translates as the feeling of belonging and warmth, comfort and contentment. There will also be concerts with The Ben Baddoo Afrobeat Band and The Flauguissimo Duo, comedy from the Scummy Mummies and an interview on Saturday 26th with the local poet and novelist Owen Sheers. Many other interesting events and talks will cover history, science, natural history and local railways.

I have warm memories of past Winter Weekends.  Seeing and listening to one of my favourite authors; TC Boyle, wearing brightly-coloured sneakers, in a shabby hall, now demolished –  a long way from his native California. On another occasion, I heard Andrew Miller reading from and discussing his novel, The Optimists, after which he chatted to everyone, as he signed copies of his book.

Writing about this small winter version of the Hay Festival reminds me of a time when the summer festival was heldhay festival in Hay Primary School, near to Hay Castle and to all the shops.  In those days there would be a large tent in the Castle grounds for talks, lectures and concerts by artists such as Macy Gray and Bob Geldof.  For several years another tent would house the magnificent Giffords Circus, adding to the excitement at Festival time.  Royal visitors arrive by helicopter, but the year that Bill Clinton spoke at the Hay Festival will be remembered by all the locals, with the police lining the streets, as his fleet of limousines drew up beside the main carpark.

Hay comes to life over the Hay Festival Winter Weekend – the cafes are buzzing and the bookshops fill with customers.  The Hay Food Festival takes over the market square in the centre of the town, selling local products from handmade chocolates to cheeses and honey.  The Christmas lights are switched on and there is a general  atmosphere of expectation and infectious optimism.


Love of Roses

rose-february-goldAs somebody who had twenty-eight different addresses before deciding to settle down in Herefordshire, I now feel that I am beginning to belong here. Creating a garden is one way of making a claim to a place and planting roses is the way that I stake my claim. Obviously, I will never be accepted as a local, but from my own point of view, this feels like home at last. As further proof that this is the right place for me, it seems that my ancestors lived near by.  Since moving here I discovered that I am living only a few miles, as the crow flies, from the place where my maternal grandmother’s family originated. The Foxley estate was owned by the Price family, the most famous of whom, Sir Uvedale Price, was author of the Essay on the Picturesque.  Unfortunately, bad speculations in the 19th Century caused financial ruin and the estate was sold. The big house was pulled down after World War Two, but the small church, once part of the estate, survives, as do the grave stones of the Price family which, although extremely overgrown, were just about decipherable and partially legible, a few years ago, when my first-cousin Liz and I explored the wilderness of the churchyard.

Putting down my roots here in Herefordshire has given me the chance to plant plenty of roses, in the Rose Cottage rose bushgarden, as well as in my own garden.  The house name is Rosebank, but apart from one vigorous cream-coloured climbing rose with a thick, gnarled trunk, there were no roses in the garden so I have had plenty of scope for new planting.  That ancient rose tree perished in the winter of 2015 and sadly, I was unable to identify it, so cannot find a replacement.

Although a very amateur gardener, I have always loved reading about and choosing roses from glossy catalogues – usually attracted by the names – but also, where possible, choosing scented roses.  I planted roses in the garden of the house in Bath, where my children grew up and I still remember the velvety Ena Harkness and other highly scented dark red roses that I selected.  My boldest experiment with roses in the Bath garden was an attempt to create a rose barrier between our garden and the next door neighbours, by planting a row of Queen Elizabeth floribunda roses. Queen Elizabeth roses grow very large and have pretty pink blooms, but they are also very leggy and, in a small garden, they did not make a successful hedge.

american pillar rosePlanting roses to climb up into trees is one of my great pleasures and I chose to plant a Kiftsgate rambling rose in this orchard where it grew up into a large pear tree.  This idea dates from my early married life when we rented an old cottage in Devon with a small orchard, where roses climbed up into the apple trees and gave the impression of a second round of blossom.  This also worked very well in my pear tree which would fill with white roses in June, mimicking the pear blossom of a few weeks earlier.  Unexpectedly, in the garden, a shrub rose called the Ballerina has decided, all by itself, to climb into an ornamental cherry tree – where the pink flowers light up the branches, all through the summer.                                                                                rosamundi

Certain roses remind me of special people in my life.  I have two American Pillar roses, a great favourite of my mother’s who also loved The Fairy, Gertrude Jekyll and the extra vigorous, scented rambling rose, Wedding Day, which she trained over an arch. When my daughter got married, I gave her a Wedding Day rose, which is rather too exuberant for a small garden in Bristol, and a dazzling pink rose which flowers for almost the entire year – called The Bride. Several roses in my garden were presents from friends, some of my favourites, such as the clove-scented Rosamundi, were recommended to me and I have also planted roses in memory of others.


Putting Down Roots

rose cottage An arch cut into a high yew hedge, affording a magical glimpse of a secret garden, was my first impression of the house I now call home.  A previous purchase had fallen through and I heard that a house with some land and planning permission for a “Granny Annex” was available at the same price.  My recently widowed father, although determined to stay independent in his flat in Bath for as long as possible, offered to pay for the ruined Victorian greenhouse to be converted into a comfortable bungalow.  As my father was already in his late 80s, there was no time to waste and work began that first Spring.  The annex, which is the present-day Rose Cottage, grew up out of a field – which has now become a private driveway, a secluded garden and a productive orchard.

Before my father agreed to move into Rose Cottage on his 91st birthday, the cottage stood empty and a friend and I had an idea for a Women’s Retreat Centre.  I provided the accommodation and my friend gave instruction in meditation techniques and offered spiritual guidance to our clients.  Most of the women liked the idea of total peace and quiet, away from the noise and chaos of family life, but some found that being alone with no distractions at all, was too difficult to bear.  On several separate occasions, the door bell would ring and a disconsolate figure would plead to be allowed in for some company and a chat. My involvement in The Women’s Retreat Centre idea did not last long and my friend bought a remote cottage, with no access by road, up a steep slope in the Black Mountains and carried on her work there.

Still looking for a project which would absorb my time and attention, I decided to plant a vineyard.  My son had widevineyard experience of wine making and vineyards in Europe, Australia and New Zealand and together we researched the best grape varieties for this damp climate by visiting the Three Choirs Vineyard near Newent in Gloucestershire.  The Three Choirs wines had a good reputation and were winning prizes at the time, so we took their advice and bought three German varieties which we hoped would be resistant to mildew.   In the early Spring, a group of us planted the vines in a field that had been an orchard in the past, but where only a stately walnut tree and a magnificent cherry remained.   The volunteer planters had spent the previous week working at the Wine Challenge in London and brought down spectacular wines which we enjoyed with our evening meals while throwing out pretentious, wine tasting comments. My helpers then left and I had sole responsibility for watering the tiny vines and keeping them alive through the summer.  Each vine was protected from the rabbits by a plastic bag, designed to disguise wine labels, during blind tastings.

The Vineyard flourished for several years and I learned about pruning, spraying and cutting back the leaves to allow the sun to reach the bunches and by the end of each summer we usually had a good crop.  Unfortunately, the warm summer would inevitably be followed by a wet early autumn, so that, year after year, mildew would cause ruination and a total failure of the harvest.  Another hard lesson for me to learn – vines should be planted on a south facing hillside to maximise the sunshine and to allow breezes to blow through.  Our vineyard was south/southwest facing, but on a flat field which meant that the vines would always be prone to mildew.

walnut-treeThe Vineyard was eventually grubbed up and has become pasture for the neighbour farmer’s cherry treesheep, once more. The wine and cider making equipment has been sold on EBay and will be collected by a couple from West Wales this weekend. Wildlife has taken back the space. The walnut tree, in the centre of the field, offers copious amounts of nuts to the squirrels, while the birds devour every ripe cherry on the venerable cherry tree, before I can reach it.  Next to the cherry tree is a small pond, home to the occasional wild duck and a perfect habitat for tadpoles, frogs and newts. The pond is also a welcoming pool, in hot weather, for the two spaniels and any visiting dogs.  In place of the vines, more trees have been planted; several young apple trees, two rowan trees, a horse chestnut and my favourite – a copper beech. Memories of the Vineyard will soon fade, but these trees will reach maturity and live on.