The Hay Festival on a Budget – A Survival Guide for Stewards

hay festival steward lanyardHaving never been to the Hay Festival before, I wasn’t sure what to expect on my first visit in May 2016, but I decided to sign up for the stewarding role, as I had a very limited budget. It was an incredible, addictive experience and I will certainly be going back again this year.

Before going, I decided to do a bit of research online, to see if anyone had written about what stewarding was really like. But there was very little information out there, so here is my own survival guide for stewarding at the Hay Festival, which I hope will be useful for others…   

Perfect for Literature Enthusiasts on a Limited Budget

Early morning sun tent

Sunshine on the campsite

Stewarding means you can sit back and relax, knowing that you’ll be attending a tentful of events, even before the official programme is released. But it’s also completely free – the cost of buying tickets for all the events which I attended last year as a steward would have been £212!

I would recommend camping at Tangerine Fields. It’s the cheapest campsite (you pay for parking seperately & it’s more expensive at the weekends), and has basic facilities (toilets and showers in portacabins, a water basin plus access to hair dryers) but if you’re used to camping it’s fine. It’s actually moving location for 2017, but it looks as though it’s approx. 20-25 mins walk to the festival site, slightly nearer than last year.

camping facilities

The toilets and showers at Tangerine Fields

There is a shuttle bus (free for stewards if you show your lanyard) but it only covers half the journey (festival site to Hay centre). I tended to set off in the morning and not return until late in the evening, as there wasn’t time to pop back during the day.


This is me wearing my very fetching stewards outfit & looking very tired on the last day

The Stewarding Role

Stewarding begins with an induction. Each of us were given a lanyard and a programme, where we were told to write down the venue changes each day. We had a tour of the festival site, and were introduced to some of the venue heads. Each venue has one person who is in charge, and a team of stewards who generally stay with that particular venue.

I was based in the Tata Tent, the largest venue, seating up to 1800 people. There seemed to be a lot of stewards but also plenty for us to do. Tasks involved taking tickets on the door, directing people, managing the queues, taking the microphone round for audience questions and clearing litter ready for the next event. Taking tickets on the door was sometimes a challenge, as people tend to press forward, desperate to get the best seats, but it’s all part of the excitement.

stewarding at hay festival

Spot the steward! There is a lot of queue management involved in stewarding…

Most stewards stay in one venue the entire time (you can stay as long as you like but you have to steward at least 8 sessions e.g. mornings / afternoons). They may allow you to switch to another venue if you’re not happy, or want to try something different.

If you really want to attend a particular event, they recommend that you purchase a ticket for it, as there’s no guarantee that you’ll get to see it. I can see why – as the venues often change at the last minute, depending on ticket sales, and each venue requires some stewards to stand outside and manage the queues for the next event. It’s worth bearing this in mind.

People reading outside the Hay Festival bookshop

Not What You Expect

One of the best things about being a steward is that you get to see some interesting events that you might never have thought of attending. The first event I stewarded for was David Crystal speaking about punctuation. I hadn’t even heard of him, and certainly wouldn’t have picked that event myself, but he was a very entertaining speaker.

Free Food

After stewarding my first event, I was given a meal ticket (you get a free meal for each stint of stewarding that you do e.g. lunch after stewarding for a morning) and had a very filling meal in the catering tent. It is set out with long tables, like a canteen, which I liked because it forces you to chat to people. I had conversations with a couple of drivers, a stage manager and lots of other stewards over the course of the week. The food is filling – things like jacket potatoes.

The stewards canteen tent

The Canteen Tent

It’s worth bearing in mind that you need to ask for a meal ticket – the canteen won’t give you food without one. And each venue does things differently. You may not get to eat at normal meal times, as the events keep coming, so there’s always a need for someone to stay behind and manage the queues.

Good Exercise but Addictive

It turns out that stewarding is very good exercise. In addition to walking from the campsite to the festival each day, it involves an awful lot of standing, and can be quite exhausting. But it is also addictive. Each event is one hour long, with a half hour gap in between. As one event finishes, people are already queuing up for the next one… and they  are often excited and eager to chat whilst they wait. You could easily keep going all day and not even think about taking a break!

hay festival programme

It is essential to carry your programme at all times, as many of the events change venue at the last minute

Some useful things to remember:

  • To lessen the aches and pains of standing up all day, finding a useful door post to lean against really helps (most of the walls are canvas so you have to pick your spot carefully!).
  • It is useful to have a small shoulder bag, to carry your programme, as it is too big to fit inside a pocket but essential to have with you in case of questions.
  • It’s also important (if you’re like me) to plan in some breaks. Make sure you take time out to explore the festival site (especially at the beginning, so you can direct people accurately) and to enjoy the delights of the bookshop.
  • If you’re on a limited budget, it’s also worth remembering that the prices are extortionate on the festival site. If you want to grab a sandwich, buy one in Hay itself as you’re walking through.
  • If you’re on a limited budget, give yourself a budget for books before you go, and try to stick to it. The bookshop is impressive and very tempting.

camping at hay festivalSome essentials if you’re camping:

  • Very comfy shoes (stewarding involves a lot of standing)
  • A torch (to return safely back to your tent in the dark)
  • A pair of Wellies
  • Varied clothing / layers (the festival tents vary, but you can be extremely hot during the day and very cold at night)
  • Water bottle
  • A battery powered lantern to hang up in the tent – useful for reading at night
  • String and a pair of scissors
  • Quick drying micro-fibre towelsresting at hay festival
  • A sitter to keep you warm sitting on a desckchair, unless you get very hot weather…
  • A little stove and kettle, mug and tea
  • Hot water bottle
  • Spare plastic bags

So, there you have it – a survival guide for stewarding at the Hay Festival. Sign up for stewarding by clicking here. And here’s a link to the Tangerine Fields website, where you can book your camping… see you in May!

There are other campsites too – some of them nearer to the festival site, as well as B&B accommodation. Click here to see a list of accommodation links.

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Read more about my Hay Festival experience here:

Hay Festival Highlights – Day 1

Hay Festival Highlights from Days 2 & 3

Poetry at the Hay Festival – From Roger McGough to Sarah Howe

Highlights from Days 4, 5 & 6