Mid 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 held 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.