Essence of England | Chapter 10 ~ Anna Hayward


Florence Robson


In our Essence of England series, we speak to values-aligned creatives, entrepreneurs and familiar faces from across the South West about their lives, work and what ‘Englishness’ means to them.

Every September, VERVE Festival brings a celebration of health and wellness to the Wiltshire countryside. Now in its fourth year, VERVE is returning to Hatch House this autumn with a few new touches, including glamping under the stars and a luxurious spa nestled in an ancient beech wood, complete with sauna and cold water plunge pools.

VERVE isn’t all about yoga and breathwork - although there’s plenty of that. The 2023 programme includes talks on topics like sober living, navigating the menopause and finding your purpose, a cacao ceremony, gong baths, fitness and dance classes, tarot, DJs, and even a True Grace candle making workshop. The festival also has strong green credentials: it was one of the first in the UK to be zero waste. 

After spending 20 years in London working as a Sales Director for the world’s best hotel brands, Anna Hayward moved to South Wiltshire and founded VERVE with her neighbour, Charlotte Cummings.

We met Anna (and her dachshund, Alan) for coffee at the Beckford Arms to chat about starting a festival from scratch, why hotels are like theatres and her penchant for cold water swimming.

When did you first get the idea for VERVE?

Charlotte, my co-organiser, and I live next door to one another. One Friday morning we were walking to a yoga class in our village and we were both saying how exhausted we were from our corporate day jobs and how much we’d love to do something fun that encapsulates our love of yoga and the countryside. Then, quite by chance, I was talking to someone a few days later who mentioned that his friends run a wellness festival. My ears pricked up immediately! At the time wellness festivals weren’t really a thing so I began researching what it involves.

The following week Charlotte came over to my house and we sat there with empty notebooks mapping out how we could make our own wellness festival happen.

How did you go about putting together the first festival?

It helps that we both love a challenge! In the beginning we literally didn't have a clue so we had to work it out step by step. Luckily, it turned out that we’re the perfect team. Charlotte is brilliant at logistics, operations and finance whereas I enjoy programming, sales and marketing. We’ve also got a wonderful Director of Yoga & Meditation, Megan Romilly. She is our yoga teacher who helped us during our first festival and continues to play a huge role in VERVE’s success.

We were both quite new to the area when VERVE started out so we asked a lot of people for advice and help on which local suppliers to use (now we tend to work with the same people every year).

“It’s so important to support the people and businesses on your doorstep.”
— Anna Hayward

What are some of your favourite VERVE memories?

I’ll never forget how amazing it felt when we opened the gates in year one and people started arriving. We’d been planning VERVE for a year and a half – literally living and breathing it – but it had all been in our heads until that point. Suddenly people we didn’t know were arriving with their kids and camping gear. It was quite overwhelming! 

We had to cancel the 2020 festival due to the pandemic but in 2021 we put on a small festival to keep things going and the tickets sold out within days. It was amazing – proof that people were desperate to be together again. The festival itself felt very special because everyone spent the entire time hugging!

Then there are loads of smaller cool memories, like last year when 300 people lay down in the sunshine for a gong bath, and also when the legendary Huey Morgan played a DJ set on our main stage.

How do you incorporate sustainability into VERVE?

Right from day one we decided that we wanted VERVE to be a zero waste festival – we were actually one of the first zero waste festivals in the UK. We recycle 100% of waste so that nothing ends up in landfill, source all our food and drink as locally as possible, minimise plastic and reuse our festival signage, bunting and equipment year after year. We also choose to work with small, like-minded businesses, many of whom are from the local area. 

We’re so proud that we’re the only wellness festival in England that’s in both an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a Dark Sky Reserve, so we feel it’s our duty to protect our beautiful environment.

How have you incorporated wellbeing practices into your own life?

VERVE has definitely changed me in some ways. I’ve become more spiritual and am on a journey of learning about new ways to enhance my wellbeing, like breathwork and reiki.

I do yoga every day, whether that’s a full practice in the garden or a stretch at the end of a workout. I also meditate every night before I go to sleep. It can be hard to find the time for these things but I think it’s worth committing to something you really want to do, even if it’s just ten minutes a day.

I also love cold water swimming. All through the winter, a neighbour and I would take regular dips in the icy river that runs through our village. We did our first one on Christmas Eve and carried on for six months until the water levels got too low and the tadpoles and hemlock took over. We even went in when it was minus six degrees outside!

Your day job is Head of Sales for THE PIG Hotels across the South West. What do you love about working in hospitality?

Being in hotels is all about working together as a team to create amazing experiences for people. THE PIG's philosophy is all about the spirit of generosity and going the extra mile for our guests  Everyone in the business genuinely cares about that, and it shows. Whether it is remembering what coffee someone likes at breakfast or suggesting a bottle of wine based on a previous conversation, it’s those tiny things which make a huge difference overall.

When I worked at The Dorchester, it was always fun to sit in the staff canteen with the doormen, housekeepers, concierge, etcetera, all in their fancy uniforms – it’s like a cast of characters with the hotel as a stage and their raison d’être is to give guests the best possible experience.

“We’re the only wellness festival in England that’s in both an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a Dark Sky Reserve”
— Anna Hayward

You seem to take a deeply collaborative approach to your work. Is that something you’ve tapped into since moving to Wiltshire or has it always been part of your approach?

I think there's so much magic to be found from being around people and the energy that comes from gathering together. I’ve always been a people person (you need to be to work in sales) but since I’ve moved to Wiltshire I’ve had a lot of fun collaborating with other local, entrepreneurial people. It’s so important to support the people and businesses on your doorstep.

What should be on the agenda for a weekend in the South West?

Apart from wellness, my other passion is food and wine, and we are lucky enough to have a few award-winning vineyards right on our doorstep. Bluestone is based just outside Salisbury and is run by brothers on a family farm.  They will have a fizz bar at VERVE, too, which I will be making a beeline for on the Saturday evening! There is a really exciting food scene emerging locally too; from Margot Henderson's new pub The Three Horseshoes to the Chickpea Group who have several brilliant 'Country Boozers'.  And of course, THE PIGs are always worth a visit with their kitchen garden food, 25 mile menu which uses local producers, and extensive selection of delicious English wine.

What does Essence of England mean to you?

I’d say a village fête captures English eccentricity perfectly. Vegetable growing competitions, dog gymkhanas, brass bands, endless tea and cake – it’s bonkers and brilliant. It’s also such a wonderful example of how a community comes together to create an experience.  You will find me manning the bric-a-brac stall at the Ebbesbourne Wake fête in July!

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