It was a crisp, dark November evening when I first arrived in Hay-on-Wye for the Winter Weekend. I’d previously only known Hay during the glorious light evenings of late May, and the buzz of the big gathering on the green fields beyond the town.

The Festival has created its own season, and a wonderful, vivid one it is, but returning to a much quieter town, in winter, was something entirely different. It felt like I’d stumbled into a secret, snuggling up in The Swan, talking about books with an audience in close-up. It was conspiratorial and intimate.

I’ve been thinking a lot of intimacy over the past three years, during my exploration of some smaller British Isles to write my new book, Islander.

I’m fascinated by the distinctive character of much island life. The historic stereotype is that the periphery of Britain is backward and insular. The past is unusually present on small islands, but I’ve also found that many islands are testing grounds for new ideas, new ways of thinking and ways of relating more deeply to the world.

Island life is not idyllic, it can be just as turbulent as the mainstream, but I’ve also found islands are the very opposite of insular. They are extremely outward-looking places, and they mostly always have been, with their sea-faring traditions. As well as providing a vantage point with a keen sense of the world beyond, small islands also offer us a chance to live more intimately with our immediate community, and with the wild nature in our neighbourhood.

In that sense, over here on the mainland, the Hay Festival is rather like an intellectual island, and we are all the richer for travelling to its shores.


Picture – Barra, Scotland; credit Patrick Barkham

Patrick Barkham is Natural History Writer for the Guardian and author of The Butterfly Isles, Badgerlands and Coastlines. The Financial Times said of his latest book, Islander: “It’s rare to read a book as good-spirited as this, where the narrative voice is so eager, inquisitive but non-judgemental, the worldview so benevolent and open-hearted…Brimming with nature, literature and the eccentric life of the islanders Barkham meets, this is a fitting tribute to the strangeness and beauty of our British isles.”

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