Guide to being a steward at the Hay Festival

Last month I did one of the best things I’ve ever done: I was a steward at the Hay Festival. Now I want to tell you all about it, and inspire you to do it too!

being a steward at the hay festival

What is the Hay Festival?

The Hay Festival is the biggest literary festival in the world, and it’s held each year at the end of May/beginning of June in a small town in Wales, Hay-on-Wye. Hay is known as the ‘Town of Books’ because it has so many secondhand bookshops, so it makes sense that it plays host to such a major event in the literary calendar. I’m incredibly lucky that it’s within (relatively) easy travelling distance from Bristol.

The festival is actually held on a site just outside Hay. It’s a ten-minute walk from the centre of the town, and it’s in a field, but the organisers know all about the Welsh weather, which is why the whole festival site is made up of covered boardwalks and industrial-sized tents capable of seating up to 1,800 people. There are two bookshops on-site, a children’s activity area and a big selection of food shops. The festival lasts for 10 days and there are dozens of talks going on all day, every day with authors, scientists, politicians, artists… There’s even music and comedy in the evenings. It’s just 10 days of watching fascinating people say fascinating things.

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I’d been to Hay a few times before as a visitor, but this year I signed up as a volunteer steward, got accepted and packed my bags for six days of books, talks and camping in a Welsh field. Unfortunately my visit did coincide with some rather spectacular lightning storms, but somehow even that couldn’t ruin my fun. Without a doubt, being a steward at Hay was one of the best things I’ve ever done, and I want to give you an insight into what it’s like just in case you fancy trying it too.

Why steward?

Stewards are the glue that hold the festival together. They manage the queues for each event, tear tickets, answer questions from the public, make sure everyone gets a seat, pass microphones around during questions-from-the-audience sessions and generally act as the friendly face of the entire festival. They have to deal with a lot of people, and chances are they will spend all day on their feet. And they’re all volunteers.

So why would anyone volunteer to do this? In short, because it’s extremely fun. As a steward you get to meet loads of interesting people (the vast majority of the public are having fun, so they’re in a good mood) and you get to see all sorts of talks, for free, that you might not have seen otherwise. Every talk at Hay is ticketed, with prices ranging from free to around £20, and the average event will cost you 7 or 8 quid. But as a steward, once you get the audience in and the talk begins, there isn’t too much for you to do. Of course, you do have to be on alert just in case someone needs help, but for the most part you can sit or stand at the side and watch to your heart’s content. At the end of my time stewarding I calculated how much I would have had to pay to see the stuff I saw for free: £111. Now that’s worth it.

There are other perks too. You get a staff discount in the main festival bookshop (10%?), you get a free meal in the staff tent for every shift you work (and free breakfast if you’re camping), and you get to wear that striking yellow vest which, I won’t deny, makes you feel Very Important. If you’re looking for a way to do Hay Festival on the cheap, stewarding is a no-brainer.

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Becoming a steward

Volunteering to be a steward is very easy. Slots open in January, and you go to this page to find all the details. I filled out a form about myself, my interests (books) and my previous experience (almost nil), and I was accepted pretty quickly. They send you a few pages of information about stewarding, and then you don’t hear from them again until just before the festival starts.

When you arrive, you have an induction. The Head of Stewards walks you around the site, showing you where everything is and telling you how it all works. That takes about an hour, and then you’re ready to be a steward!

How it works

The system for stewarding is incredibly relaxed. You’re a volunteer, so you aren’t obliged to do anything, but they do ask that you work a minimum of eight shifts while you’re there. A shift is a morning, an afternoon or an evening, and you can spread them out however you like. Come for the whole festival and do one shift a day if you like, or start stewarding in the morning and stay all day. It’s totally up to you.

There are lots of different tents on the Hay Festival site where all the talks take place. The tents are different sizes: the largest is Tata, which seats up to 1,800, but most of them hold a few hundred people. You usually work a whole shift in one tent, and if you’re a first-timer they encourage you to move around so you can see what they’re all like. I think people who steward every year find their favourite tent and stick with it, but I had a great time tent-hopping because they each have their own atmosphere and way of doing things.

Each tent is run by a Venue Head, and you can either go to the Steward’s Office and ask them to assign you to a tent, or you can just turn up, talk to the Venue Head and see if they’ll let you work a shift there. I tried both of these approaches and ended up working at Tata, Baille-Gifford, Wales and Good Energy. Each tent had a different style: some had very clear procedures and the Venue Head would walk you around at the beginning and tell you what to do, while others were more laid-back and relied on you taking a bit of initiative. Work a few shifts in a few different places and you’ll pretty quickly find your favourites.

So can you choose where you steward based on what you want to see? Yes and no. If there is something you really want to see, you’re advised to buy a ticket and not work that shift – that’s what I did with Margaret Atwood this year. I did get to see a few talks I had circled on my programme by rocking up at the venue and asking to steward, and the Venue Heads will often ask if anyone desperately wants to be in the tent for a particular talk, but it’s by no means guaranteed so don’t rely on it. Also, it’s important not to take the piss – you are a volunteer, but you’re also there to work, so don’t assume that you can just go where you want, when you want. You might be sent for lunch during a talk, or assigned to a different tent. That’s part of the beauty of it – you’ll end up seeing things you might never have chosen to see yourself!

being a steward at the hay festival

The crowd to see Margaret Atwood in the Tata Tent.

Accommodation

If you’re going to be a steward, you’ll need somewhere to stay. Bear in mind that this is a massively popular festival, and lots of places fill up even a year beforehand. As a visitor, I’ve stayed at a hotel in Hereford and travelled into the festival each day on the shuttle bus, but that does take around an hour and the buses aren’t frequent, so it could mess up your shift plans if you miss it.

I chose to camp. There are loads of camping options in the fields around Hay: glamping yurts, sites for camper vans, pre-pitched tents and, the cheapest of the cheap, the backpackers’ section. That’s what I went for: £7 per night in a field literally over the road from the festival site; bring your own tent; portaloos, showers and a drinking water tap are provided. It’s seriously no-frills, but if you’re planning on spending all your time on the festival site earning three cooked meals a day, you really don’t need anything else.

My number one piece of advice if you do decide to camp is to bring wellies. I thought my leather ankle boots would be up to the job, and maybe any other weekend they would have been, but during my time at Hay there were yellow warnings for rain nearly every day and my boots pretty quickly started to let the water in, as did my tent. It was OK, it just meant that I had to pack everything up at the start of every day and put it in the middle of the tent so it didn’t get wet. Even then the tent was quite … drippy, but as long as your sleeping bag and pyjamas are dry, you can get through anything. I bought wellies a couple of days into my stay and let me tell you, there is no joy like the joy of not having wet feet.

So yeh, take wellies, and preferably a tent that isn’t as old as you are.

being a steward at the hay festival

My childhood tent’s last outing. It’s heading for the bin now!

Behind the scenes

Of course, one of the most fun parts of being a steward is that you get a peek behind the scenes. Each tent has a dedicated stewards’ area where you can sit during a show, have a cup of tea and read the book you’ve inevitably bought from the festival bookshop. There’s also the staff dining tent, which is the real hub of a steward’s life (or at least it was mine!).

The staff dining tent serves three cooked meals a day (vegetarian option included), and there’s also a salad bar, boxes of fruit, a pretty great selection of desserts, and free teas and coffees on tap. Seriously, you might be on your feet all day, but you can easily put on weight stewarding this festival. The food options were different almost every day (yes, there was a roast on Sunday!), and it’s all good quality and generous portions. For the first few days I didn’t even realise there were desserts, so I had to start choosing lighter meals just so I could fit in the cheesecake afterwards.

There’s also a really friendly atmosphere in the dining tent. Every day I was able to sit down next to someone new and strike up a conversation; everyone is willing to have a chat, and because you’re all there for the same 10-day book holiday, you can guarantee you’re going to have at least one thing in common with everyone. As time goes on people do start to form into groups – e.g. all the stewards from one tent – but I was there for the first half of the festival and I found that people were willing to chat and invite you to sit with them all the way through.

That’s really one of the best parts about being a steward at Hay: you make friends really quickly with lots of people, until you can walk around the site and nod hello to almost everyone in a yellow jacket. People come from all over to steward (the woman camping next to me was also a steward, and she came from Australia!) and they’re all really friendly and welcoming. By the end of my week I felt like I’d made some genuine friends, and if (when) I go back next year, I’m sure it’ll be like slipping back into that strange, brilliant, bookish world as if no time had passed at all.

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I really can’t recommend stewarding at Hay enough, so hopefully I’ve inspired you to give it a go. Don’t forget, you can sign up for next year’s festival from January 2019. Maybe I’ll see you there!

2 Comments on “Guide to being a steward at the Hay Festival

  1. Oh, Clare, if I’d known you were there (probably at about the same time I was – although I only stayed that first Bank Holiday weekend), I’d have said hello! I was a visitor rather than a steward but you are so right, it does sound like a great way to be part of the festival.

    • Oh no, I was definitely there when you were! Ah well, there’s always next year :)

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