Hay-on-Wye, the Book Capital of Wales
By Gregory Kruse
Have you never heard of Hay-on-Wye? This tiny town located in the Wye River valley, in the shadow of the Black Hills of Wales, has many claims to fame. Most notably, it is home to one of the greatest festivals of wit and wisdom on earth.
By the time Bill Clinton called it “A Woodstock of the Mind” the Hay Festival of Literature had already become a global phenomenon. For several days in late spring, literary figures, scientists and politicians from around the world come to speak, offer workshops, and engage the crowd. And what a crowd! It attracts about 100,000 visitors to Hay, a little market town of less than 2,000 inhabitants. Interested? See ww.hayfestival.com/ for the program.
However, Hay has more to offer than a few days of culture-fest in late May each year. It is also famous as the first Book Town, and the surrounding area is one of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is a paradise for anyone who enjoys a good read or a long walk in the great outdoors, or a good read in the great outdoors. But to really enjoy all the town and the surrounding countryside have to offer, it’s probably best to avoid the festival, or at least find some time before or afterwards to wander when townspeople are willing to talk to strangers. (see www.hay-on-wye.co.uk)
Merry Old England (and Wales)
Hay-on-Wye is an ancient market town in the Welsh marches, the border country between England and Wales. The town is at least a thousand years old, and the area was famous for warring armies and bloody battles when Offa, sometimes called the first King of England, built Offa’s Dyke along this frontier in the 8th century to keep the Welsh rabble out of England.
The castle in ruins in the center of Hay, perhaps the oldest Norman tower in Wales, dates from the 11th century. It was destroyed more than four centuries later, testimony to the tenacity of the Welsh rebellions.
A Dreamscape Countryside
Drive through this countryside in spring or summer and you will see why they fought over it so tenaciously. Winding country roads, picturesque villages, rolling green hills and lazy rivers, and amusingly deceptive road signs (are we there yet?) go on forever. A top-down driver’s paradise only a few hours from London, it offers a wonderful escape for any traveler passing through the UK. Make your hotel reservations on-line, rent a car at Heathrow and you’re on your way! You Americans, please remember to drive on the right side of the road. That is, the left side. Right? Got that?
Getting out and about is easy in spring and summer and in fall before the snow begins. The area around Hay is a paradise for walkers, cyclists, horseback riders, canoeists, kayakers, climbers and abseilers. High green rolling hills, forests and fells, winding country roads, stonewalled villages, medieval chapels and castles surround Hay. Much of the region is formally classified as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
It’s a wonderful place for a long walk, and for meeting fellow walkers along the many footpaths in the area. Many country inns cater to walkers, and you can arrange to have your luggage forwarded from stop to stop. Some options for walking include:
• Brecon Beacons (www.breconbeacons.org) National Park is famously scenic and wild. Here you can literally walk for days. The Beacons Way is an eight day hike, or the Taff trail will take you 55 miles through the beacons and down to the sea at Cardiff. Or go wandering in Waterfall Country.
• Offa’s Dyke Walk (www.nationaltrail.co.uk/offasdyke), steeped in history, runs for 177 miles all along the Welsh marches, including a stretch through the market center of Hay-on-Wye.
• Wye Valley Walk (www.wyevalleywalk.org) takes you 136 miles along the riverbank, the length of the river.
If you prefer to drive, you can find fascinating country roads nearby.
• Hay Bluff – On the hillside south of Hay, accessible only by a winding hedge lined single lane road (drive carefully), is a scenic windswept bluff of the Black Hills overlooking the Wye Valley and the town of Hay. Leave Hay on the road to Brecon, and just out of town, follow the signs to Abergavenny and Capel-y-fin for a long wander through rich farmland and pastures leading up to the bluff. Good luck making friends with the sheep and the Welsh ponies you will meet along the way.
And after a long walk or a leisurely drive, you can enjoy a pint of bitter and a fine meal in a centuries old pub or coaching inn at the end of the day.
Pubs and Restaurants and Places to Stay
No Welsh village would be complete without its pubsThe Three Tuns (www.three-tuns.com ) – Hay’s oldest pub, established in the 16th century, is now Michelin rated as one of the best dining pubs in Britain. Friendly, cozy, with a courtyard for sunny days and heavy rafters and ceiling beams in the interior, the menu is changeful and creative. They offer some great local brews in addition to their fine wine list.
There are literally dozens of local Inns and B&Bs in the area around Hay. Two with fine restaurants:The Swan (www.swanathay.co.uk) – a traditional coaching inn with quaint and cozy furnishings offers fine dining in their bar/bistro, in a formal dining room, and when the weather is fair, in the garden. Within easy walking distance of the town center of Hay.
The Three Cocks (www.threecockshotel.com) – A 15th century coaching inn, a few miles outside of Hay in the village of Three Cocks, newly refurbished with nicely appointed en suite bathrooms. Roy Duke, the proprietor is a fine cook. Do try the Welsh rack of lamb – yes, lambs are cute, but they are delicious, too!
Hay is famous as the first Book Town. Its first second hand bookseller, Richard Booth, pronounced himself King of Hay-on-Wye, and declared Home Rule for Hay on April 1, 1977. But he was serious; no April fool he. A true rebel at heart, King Richard had little use for the bureaucracy in the UK and its many efforts to “develop” rural areas of England and Wales.
He brought the town to international prominence with his concept of the Book Town. There are now more than a score of Book Towns in Europe, North America, SE Asia and the Far East. (see www.booktown.net/)
This novel (pardon the pun) approach to economic development of bucolic farming communities has proven effective at bringing significant income to remote rural towns without much affecting the character or the charm of the local community.
Hay is the oldest and largest Book Town in the world, a book lover’s dream come true. New, used, popular, scholarly, ancient, illustrated, children’s books, detective fiction, poetry and plays, literature and texts of every genre will be found among the estimated 10 million volumes on display.
Serious booklovers will be pleased with the quality and prices of books on offer, and the sophisticated merchandising and friendly service of Hay booksellers. No rummage resale of frayed dirty pages and tattered bindings here, most of the stock looks like new, but prices are often only a quarter of retail. Booksellers of Hay include:
• Richard Booth’s Bookshop (http://www.richardbooth.demon.co.uk/) – Self-proclaimed King Richard of Hay-on-Wye was the first used book seller in Hay. His is the largest used book shop in Europe, with the largest annual turnover of any used bookshop in the world.
• Rose’s Books (www.rosesbooks.com) – If you like children’s books, especially old editions with fabulous illustrations, this is the place for you. A specialist in rare and out-of-print editions, the collection is a delight to browse.
• Murder and Mayhem – Not for the faint of heart, even the décor is macabre. Wonderful collection of detective fiction from all the greats of the genre.
• Addyman Books (www.hay-on-wyebooks.com) – Across the street from co-owned Murder and Mayhem, a friendly staff will guide you through the extensive collection of fine literature, popular fiction and non-fiction at truly amazing prices.
• The Poetry Bookshop – The only bookshop in the UK devoted exclusively to poetry and literary criticism and biography. Original editions in many languages.
• And that’s just the beginning, because there are 30 bookshops in Hay-on-Wye!
While you are in Hay, remember to practice your Welsh. All signs in Wales are first in Welsh, then in English. Just trying to pronounce the words on the simplest of signs can be quite entertaining. Remember Dylan Thomas’s little town in his radio play Under Milk Wood? Llareggub? Say it backwards.
Gregory Kruse currently residing in Nairobi, Kenya, has been traveling all his life.
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