I first discovered Ways With Words several years ago. I came across a slightly blurry, monochrome advert for it, in a newspaper that had just been used to soak up an accidental flood of red wine. Carmine-stained pages had rippled into dunes and dales and a puddle of transparent wax was creeping towards it, but the great clock-tower and huge gothic windows of Dartington Hall were still visible. I squinted through the gloom at the disintegrating text (the overhead bulb in our student kitchen had blown, hence the candles), and pulled my laptop towards me.
After a little digging I unearthed the treasure that is their bursary-student scheme. Although you still need to pay for your own accommodation and meals, should you be 17-25 and among the lucky chosen you can attend, completely free of charge, any of the 100+ talks scheduled over the ten days the festival runs for. The equivalent for grown-ups would be a ten-day rover ticket costing £350, and individual talks are £10 per ticket, so it’s a wonderful opportunity.
Seeing as my mum actually studied at Dartington in the 70s, back when it was a prestigious performing arts college, there was no way I was going to let this one pass. I emailed off a frantic plea, not expecting any bursary places to be left so late in the game, and was absolutely delighted to receive a positive reply. You’re not getting any details out of me about the first time I visited, but suffice to say it was one of my favourite undergraduate experiences! We were an eclectic group who made the most out of our time there, attending several talks a day, gleefully interrogating the authors, and having midnight, alcohol-fuelled picnics in the grounds of the estate. A sedate Secret History if you will.
If you are aged 17-25 you should be here. It helps if you like books, of course, but the opportunity to listen to authors, poets, actors, broadcasters, film producers and explorers talk about their experiences is incomparable. I was showered with the most wonderful writing and life advice from the writers I approached, and also managed to bully cajole the then-Literary Editor of the Telegraph into giving me work experience. Sorry about that Sam, you were a good sport!
This time, nearly ten years later, I took my husband. Another English graduate (we have five English degrees between us so far, so that’s a lot of books read), he attended Hay-on-Wye earlier in the year, so was curious to see how WWW would compare. Favourably, I’m happy to report. More relaxed, more beautiful. We could only spare a couple of days so we chose the Rural Writing: Wild Ways day, and the opening of Journeys. The Great Hall talks are eclectic and the Theatre Barn’s are themed, but there will be something for everyone I promise. A day or a week of reading books in the sunshine, surrounded by medieval buildings and stunning gardens, listening to their authors tell all the stories not sufficiently PC to go into print, and acquiring signed copies and a few precious minutes of their time afterwards. “I’ve done some terrible, terrible things, but I’m quite clever so I’ve got away with it” was my favourite comment (from Springwatch presenter Martin Hughes-Games.)
A tiny, one-room chapel just behind the main hall
Bursary scheme aside, if you are enrolled on one of the hundreds of English degrees around the country then shame on you for not attending a festival like this. English Literature is by its very nature interdisciplinary, and broadening your perspective at Ways With Words can only be a positive. The limited attendance of the under-35s is shocking, in all honesty, and I would like to see every university and every A-Level English department encouraging their students to attend. Likewise parents – your children deserve to experience a festival like Ways With Words, but I only saw one child the whole time we were there. He even asked a question of one of the speakers, in front of a whole audience, so well done you young man. The summer holidays needn’t be an intellectual vacuum. Get yourselves to Devon, and prepare to be inspired.
It’s on for a couple more days, until 12th July. The programme is available here for 2015, but Ways With Words runs every summer if you miss it this year. Maybe I’ll see you there in 2016!
Does anyone else have any festival memories?
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