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Hay Festival 2018: How the poker-funded early years turned into Bill Clinton's 'Woodstock of the mind'

The Hay Festival opens to readers in Hay-on-Wye, Wales.
Over 120,000 readers will descend on the town of books over the next 11 days Credit: Marsha Arnold

Sat at a kitchen table in 1987, Peter Florence discussed plans for a literary event with his parents Norman Florence, a theatre manager and actor, and Rhoda Lewis, an actress. Just a year later, in May 1988, the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts was born; the festival's 31st year begins today and runs until June 3.

Held at the British Legion and garden of Kilverts Pub in Hay-on-Wye, Wales to over 2000 attendees including playwright Christopher Fry, the first event is believed to have been funded by winnings from a poker game - although Florence has never confirmed or denied this.

Yet before the establishment of the festival, the Welsh town was already famous in the literary world. In what was hoped to help the rural economy, Richard Booth opened his second-hand bookshop in the town in 1962. Hay was soon filled with bookshops and by the 1970s, it was commonly known as the “Town of Books”.

The quaint book-selling town is clearly the perfect home for Florence’s literary festival and it is no doubt the public demand for its debut in 1988 led to a return in the following year, with American playwright, Arthur Miller, as star guest.

Barnabee Books, a basement shop in Hay-on-Wye, Powys.  Credit: Jay Williams

Hay became closer to fame after physicist and author, Stephen Hawking, made an appearance at the festival in 1998, along with writer and comedian, Stephen Fry, and food writer, Nigella Lawson. But this was only the beginning for the festival.

The town was suddenly brought to the world of politics when President Bill Clinton made an appearance in 2001. He referred to the Hay Festival as a “Woodstock of the mind” and it didn’t take long for other political figures to follow suit with visits from US presidential candidate, Al Gore, in 2006, former prime minister, Gordon Brown, in 2007, and President Jimmy Carter, in 2008.

From what was just a tea time topic for Florence and his parents has grown to become a significant part of British culture and beyond, with the Hay Festival expanding not just in Wales but also in 20 other countries around the world, including Spain, Kenya, Mexico and Colombia.

Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cornwall talking to Peter Florence, Festival Director, at the Hay Festival 2017. Credit: Clara Molden for The Telegraph

Held for literature and art enthusiasts, the Hay Festival brings together writers, poets, comedians and readers alike, to share their innovative ideas and thoughts across 11 days in May and June.

Unlike a typical music festival, where you’re trapped in a mosh pit and are forced to camp in a damp, not-so-glamorous tent, the Hay Festival offers attendees the chance to let their imaginations wild and become enriched in creative writing and free speech.

From Russell Kane’s stand up comedy to discussing health and lifestyle with the Telegraph’s very own, Bryony Gordon, there are hundreds of sessions, workshops and talks set to be held at this year’s literary festival and there is something to suit every attendee’s interests.

Alternatively, pulling up a deck chair for some quiet reading and thinking time with the sunshine beating down on your face is something that must be done when visiting the festival site. We can only hope the UK’s warmer weather stays put.

Bryony Gordon with Clemency Burton-Hill at the Hay Festival 2016. Credit: Jay Williams

Not only do the sessions on offer provide entertainment, many prove an educational experience, particularly for younger attendees. With free educational workshops for those in full-time education, the Hay Festival could make the perfect school trip or help eager students looking to launch a career in literature, learn from others’ experiences and discover how they can make the most of their wild imaginations.

It’s easy to forget that the home of the Hay Festival has other interesting tourist attractions and beautiful scenery that could be visited if you’re looking to extend your time in the Welsh town.

From Hay Golf Course to the River Wye and the Black Mountains, there is plenty to see – and if you can’t get enough of your literature, you could pay a visit to one of the many bookshops in Hay.

If you’re left in awe by the world of literature or simply looking for an escape, the Hay Festival is an opportunity not to be missed.