The 2020 Hay Festival has launched a free digital festival, which is online until 31 May. The festival features novelists Hilary Mantel, Anne Enright, Elif Shafak, Roddy Doyle, Margaret Atwood, Ingrid Persaud, Polly Samson, Ali Smith and Jessie Burton; actors and comedians Stephen Fry, Helena Bonham Carter, Dominic West, Sandi Toksvig, Vanessa Redgrave, Benedict Cumberbatch, Helen McCrory and Jonathan Pryce; and many more.
In honour of our favourite literary festival, we asked a host of speakers and literary lights, “What’s your favourite place to visit in Britain and why?” Here are their responses.
Martin Shaw, author of Courting the Wild Twin (Chelsea Green Publishing, hardback RRP £14.99)
I’m lucky, the place I most love to visit is the place I live, Dartmoor National Park. Dartmoor is amok with 365 square miles of granite tors, swamp, old growth oak forest and staggering views right out over to the grey teeth of the sea near Teignmouth. Be warned, it’s prone to mood swings, and the petrol gauge has a nasty habit of hitting empty at dusk. It has proper, unbridled spook. There’s a pub (the Warren Inn) whose fire hasn’t gone out since the 19th Century, and contains beer as dark and chewy as the inevitable storm overhead.
Brigit Strawbridge-Howard, author of Dancing with Bees (Chelsea Green Publishing, paperback RRP £10.99)
I fell in love with Northumberland on a school field trip, when I was just 13 years old. From the youth hostel in Wooler (still there today), we walked and picnicked in the Cheviots, travelled by boat to the Inner Farnes, and spent a glorious sunny afternoon exploring the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. I have returned since with my husband, my children and my grandchildren, and loved each and every visit. Northumberland has everything: history, walls, puffins, hares, romance, vast empty beaches and skies, castles, hills, rivers, rocks, and wild open spaces where you can breathe, and feel fully and completely alive. Definitely my favourite place in Britain to visit!
Lara Maiklem, author of Mudlarking (Bloomsbury, paperback RRP £9.99)
My favourite place to visit is a village on the Kent coast called St Margaret’s-at-Cliffe. It was my escape from London for years, I wrote part of my book here, and I have good memories of it. There is a small pebbly beach, which is perfect for seaweed collecting and pebble hunting, and a pub with views over the Channel to France, which is tantalisingly close. The walk from St Margaret’s Bay, over the white cliffs to Dover, is dramatic and moving. It is the front door of the nation, so as well as a sense of end there is also a feeling of welcome and beginning.
David Abulafia, author of The Boundless Sea (Allen Lane, hardback RRP £35)
I live in (and prefer) Cambridge, so to say that my favourite place to visit is Oxford might sound like a predictable answer. But it is the difference between the cities rather than their similarity that draws me to Oxford. The palatial grandeur of Radcliffe Square and the nearby colleges and libraries is not matched in Cambridge; nor does Cambridge make nearly as much use of the honey-coloured stone that is one of Oxford’s glories. And North Oxford, with its massive villas, parks and riverside walks, is a different and delightful world away from the crowds.
Miranda Krestovnikoff, author of The Sea (Bloomsbury Children’s, hardback RRP £12.99)
I love the island of Skomer, especially in May where it is washed with indigo as the bluebells emerge. This is also the season to see the puffins – characterful birds with rainbow-coloured beaks, who always seem to be in a hurry. They nest in old rabbit burrows, the same pair nesting in each burrow year after year. Standing in amongst them, you are surrounded by wheeling birds coming in to feed their newly hatched chicks or pufflings, closely followed by marauding black-backed gulls looking for an easy meal. At night, the nocturnal Manx shearwaters return to the island – tens of thousands of them. Poorly adapted to life on land, they land clumsily before waddling to the safety of their burrows. The sights and sounds of such huge numbers of these and many other seabirds is a real wildlife spectacle.
Jackie Morris, author of The Unbinding (Unbound, coming soon)
Two places draw my heart back. Both revolve around bookshops.
The first is Dulverton in Somerset, tucked into steep wooded valleys, where the trees colour the land, bird filled and raucous with rooks. Number Seven is the smallest of shops but so filled with beauty, it’s a real haven.
The second is Grasmere, where I swam in the lake that mirrored the hills. Where a heron in flight almost touched wing tips to fingers. Where I sat beneath a beech tree drinking lavender tea in Faeryland, talking of swans. Where Sam Read books has shelves filled with wonder.
Oliver Bullough, author of Moneyland (Profile Books, paperback RRP £9.99)
I love wild bits of the British coastline, whether that’s northern Norfolk and the seals of Blakeney Point, or Jura and the crazed waters of the Corryvreckan, or the fossil beaches of Robin Hood’s Bay. For me, the best of the lot is the coastline of northern Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion, from Strumble Head, past the Teifi Estuary (with lunch at the market in St Dogmaels), on to Mwnt – with its gem of a chapel, and its tiny beach – and along to Penbryn beach. It’s as good as Cornwall, with a fraction of the crowds.
Stephen Moss, author of The Accidental Countryside (Guardian Faber Publishing, hardback RRP £16.99)
I just need to pop down the road from my Somerset home, to the Avalon Marshes. These former peat diggings, within sight of Glastonbury Tor, have been restored as nature reserves, and are now one of the best places in Britain for birds. In winter, they are home to the famous starling murmuration, and watching these huge flocks as they form patterns against the setting sun is simply unforgettable. In spring and summer, the marshes echo to the sound of warblers, newly returned from their African winter-quarters, while great white and cattle egrets, and the secretive bittern, feed amongst the reeds and pools.
Gavin Francis, author of Island Dreams (Canongate, hardback RRP £20)
As a boy my holidays would be to campsites of Fife’s coast; at night, as I drifted off to sleep, I’d watch the lighthouse on the May Island and dream of reaching it. In the Middle Ages its chapel was a place of pilgrimage; the whole island is now a National Nature Reserve and home to thousands of puffins, auks and gulls. In my twenties, finally, I went there as a volunteer nature warden, and the beauty and tranquillity of those weeks, the simplicity and the satisfactions of living and working there, have been a touchstone for me ever since.
Joseph Coehlo, poet and author of Poems Aloud (Wide Eyed Editions, hardback RRP £12.99)
I’m a huge fan of antique shops and Rye has a tonne of them, I believe around 50 odd. So Rye is perfect for exploring and getting lost and perhaps finding some treasure, or at the very least some lovely tea and cakes. Nearby Winchelsea is also very much worth a visit for the Parish of Winchelsea and its associated ruins. When you’re done with the ruins and antique shops and had tea and cake, the sea isn’t too far away for a paddle.
Mark Haddon, author of The Porpoise (Vintage, paperback RRP £8.99)
Very possibly the Pembrokeshire coastal path from Tenby to Abereiddy or thereabouts, excluding the Milford Haven oil refinery but very much including Skomer and Ramsay Islands. Running sections of it, early on a clear winter morning before everyone else is up and about is a particularly glorious thing to do. Sometimes, if I’m feeling cabined and confined, I will walk a section on Google Street View and even that makes my heart lift and swell.
Jenny Valentine, author of Hello Now (HarperCollins Publishers, paperback RRP £7.99)
I live in the landscape of the Black Mountains in Wales, rich and green, full of light and open spaces, so my favourite place to visit in the UK, for contrast, is my old home, London. I miss crowds and strangers and movement and Art and noise and restaurants and traffic and Film and conversation and histories on that kind of scale. I love the pace of it, the flow and mess and heart and guts. From Hackney to Southbank to Hampstead Heath, as a guest in the city there is always something to see, something to learn, something to get involved in.
Allie Esiri, author of Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year (Pan Macmillan, hardback RRP £18.99)
If you have never been, you may know the north coast of Cornwall as the backdrop to Poldark moodily riding his horse across the cliff tops. The area is protected by the National Trust and is largely uninhabited save for the odd flock of handsome sheep. If you take a boat out you can see the old smugglers’ coves where pirates – as the storylines of Poldark often plundered – used to smuggle in their illicit loot. I love the cliffs, the coves and the beaches and you have to stop me quoting from Kipling’s poem, ‘A Smuggler’s Song’.
If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet,
Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street,
Them that asks no questions they isn’t told a lie.
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!
Five-and-twenty ponies, trotting through the dark—
With brandy for the Parson and ‘baccy for the Clerk.
Laces for a lady and letters for a spy,
And watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!
Running round the woodlump if you chance to find
Little barrels, roped and tarred, all full of brandy-wine;
Don’t you shout to come and look, nor use ’em for your play;
Put the brushwood back again,—and they’ll be gone next day!
If you see the stable-door setting open wide;
If you see a tired horse lying down inside;
If your mother mends a coat cut about and tore;
If the lining’s wet and warm—don’t you ask no more!
If you meet King George’s men, dressed in blue and red,
You be careful what you say, and mindful what is said.
If they call you “pretty maid”, and chuck you ‘neath the chin,
Don’t you tell where no one is, nor yet where no one’s been!
Knocks and footsteps round the house—whistles after dark—
You’ve no call for running out until the house-dogs bark.
Trusty’s here, and Pincher’s here, and see how dumb they lie—
They don’t fret to follow when the Gentlemen go by!
If you do as you’ve been told, likely there’s a chance
You’ll be give a dainty doll, all the way from France,
With a cap of Valenciennes, and a velvet hood—
A present from the Gentlemen, along o’ being good!
Five-and-twenty ponies, trotting through the dark—
Brandy for the Parson, ‘baccy for the Clerk.
Them that asks no questions isn’t told a lie—
So watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!
Explore highlights from past editions at hayfestival.org/hayplayer