The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted many celebrated events, be it the renowned music festival Glastonbury or the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. However, the pandemic was not able to get in the way of the Hay festival, a popular event running through late May with the focus of celebrating literature and arts. 


The Hay Festival, founded in 1998 by Norman, Rhoda and Peter Florence has since become a global event with people from all continents travelling to the heart of Herefordshire, where a small picturesque town named Hay-on-Wye stands. The festival has a great range of topics, for example, in the 2016 year there were talks from US Senator Bernie Sanders and from the Pussy Riot band member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, an inspiring Russian activist who served time in prison having been convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” after a concert in a Moscow Cathedral. The festival also annually attracts thousands of people and families. Bill Clinton, a previous American president, hailed the festival the “Woodstock of the human mind”. 


This year the world faced a problem like never before: the coronavirus pandemic. And so, the much loved Hay festival had to close its physical doors for the first time in just over 20 years. Instead, the festival was held virtually, with the majority of speakers and authors still being able to deliver an array of interesting talks.


Some of the performances to feature on the first day were the soloist of the Royal Ballet, Fernando Montaño. He danced the ‘Death of the Swan’ from his lockdown studio in Los Angeles with this captivating and delicate dance accompanied by readings from his memoir ‘A Boy with a Beautiful Dream’. Another presentation was that of the famous polymath Stephen Fry, who spoke about the third part of his Greek trilogy. Normally in most talks, the audience would be allowed to ask questions and it was very impressive to see the use of the chat function which allowed the virtual audience to present their questions. 


The next few days followed with numbers of intellectually stimulating talks. Some which were particularly interesting were that of Dame Sally Davies, who was the Chief Medical Officer for England between 2011 and 2019. Dame Sally spoke about how the discovery of Penicillin, by Sir Alexander Fleming in 1928, has proved influential in overcoming many medical problems in the form of bacterial infections. However, it has been over 20 years since we last discovered a new class of antibiotics. In this time, bacteria has gained resistance to commonly used antibiotics. This is a key threat to future generations.


A further intriguing talk was David Spiegelhalter’s talk on the Art of Statistics. A principal focus was to highlight how we can use statistics and data to gain crucial knowledge and understand the world better. I found this particularly pertinent to our lives as, at the moment, all we see is charts and figures documenting different aspects of the coronavirus, may it be death rates for different countries or how sharply cases are inclining or declining. Being able to understand and interpret this is crucial not only for our comprehension but also our mental wellbeing. For example, recently (as of mid October 2020) coronavirus cases have accelerated to 3 times what they were in the ‘peak’ in May. However, if we compare this data with the number of tests implemented on a daily basis, we can clearly see that this data is much less alarming as now there are many more tests conducted each day. 


The Hay Festival finished on Sunday the 31st of May after just under 100 talks. This lockdown highlight was shared between thousands of people all over the world, all united in a festival to celebrate the beauty of arts and literature. Looking forward to future events, there is set to be a three day winter programme in late November and the grand summer 2021 event is still scheduled to happen, albeit there is uncertainty over whether it will be conducted physically. But one thing is certain, the Hay festival 2020 was a hidden jewel of the endless lockdown period.