Hay-on-Wye, A Town of Books
The smell of an old book. The feel of a crinkly page.
The welcome excuse of a rainy English afternoon spent lost in a tale of long ago or far away.
It was only a matter of time before the siren song of Hay-on-Wye called to me…and my credit card.
The Mister and I drove into Hay-on-Wye and parked under an architectural jumble of castle and manor house on a main street.
Families sunned themselves on the castle’s steep lawn. A man played bluegrass under a slowly swinging Hay on Wye Booksellers sign. The streets of this famous town were almost empty.
People shuffled along the cobbled streets with drippy ice cream cones and takeaway coffees and stopped occasionally to peer into shop windows. I was tempted to join them, but my mission was the same as it was 20 years ago on my first visit to Hay-on-Wye. Find the bookstores.
This lovely little village sits on the edge of the Brecon Beacons. Bibliophiles mix happily with hikers tromping through town and locals on their daily errands. Most tourists come to Hay, however, for the two dozen bookstores that sell used and antiquarian books.
But this “Town of Books” wasn’t always.
The late 1970’s found the town struggling to modernize without losing its charm and rural identity. A local bookseller, Richard Booth, known for his visionary and slightly eccentric ways, proclaimed Hay an independent kingdom on April 1, 1977. He declared himself Richard, King of Hay and his horse Prime Minister.
His vision as King? To create…
A town of books.
The idea took hold slowly. Bookstores stocked shelves with library throwaways and manor house castoffs. One bookstore grew to a dozen and eventually to forty.
Hay-on-Wye’s influence as a literary mecca grew, prompting a world literary festival. The festival had a modest start but grew to a yearly event so successful 150,000 fans of literature and intellect attend the Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts every year.
But there are worries. Times change and the number of bookstores continues to dwindle. For some of the 23 remaining bookshops in Hay-on-Wye, specialization is the key to survival. For others, diversification.
Rose’s Books, a paradise of childhood memories, specializes in childrens’ rare and out of print books. I have a vague memory of purchasing a full set of Swallows and Amazon in the same shop ages ago. I still have the books tucked away in an attic trunk, waiting for a new generation.
C Arden’s shop is filled with volumes about the natural world.
Murder and Mayhem stocks shelf after shelf of, well, murder and mayhem.
Poetry aficionados find their bookstore home at The Poetry Bookshop.
Other booksellers, such as Richard Booth’s, diversify into peripheral businesses. Booth’s bookstore carries a mix of new and used volumes and a substantial café on the bottom floor that lures customers away from overstuffed sofas and long aisles of wooden bookshelves for an afternoon tea or light lunch. The cinema in back shows indie films, favorites and live National Theatre performances.
If you spend an afternoon in Hay-on-Wye, you’ll find at least one book you’ve been looking for and a dozen you didn’t know existed (but you clearly need). I was proud of myself that I left with
two four books. I didn’t count The Mister’s books.
Other things to do in Hay-on-Wye
While I’m a big believer in Mae West’s philosophy “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful,” excessive bookstore browsing can induce a fog of laziness. Fortunately, the River Wye on the edge of town offers a solution. Beautiful wooded walking paths, open fields and pebbled laybys are perfect for picnickers, passing canoeists and lazy bookstore browsers.
How to end an afternoon in Hay-on-Wye? With a pint or two in one of the lovely pubs before wandering back to your gorgeous little bolthole in the countryside.
Things to Know
Hay-on-Wye is 3.5 hours from London. It isn’t a day trip, so consider a stay in town or in one of the lovely nearby market towns. We stayed at a lovely lux cottage in Craswall, a 20 minute drive. Highly recommend.
If you’re looking for a non-traditional, slightly adventurous meal, try St. John’s Place. Tiny, cash only, book ahead. Take me with you.
The walking path along the Wye is beautiful. Head to the edge of town to the River. Turn left towards St. Mary’s Church (Southwest-ish) and under the old railway line. Don’t turn right or you’ll end up in England! After 500 yards or so the path opens onto grazing land. Keep the river on your right and you’ll find a very pebbly beach and a swimming hole about 300 yards further on. Perfect for an afternoon swim. Locals call it The Warren.
We found a beautiful, modern, lux little cottage 20 minutes from Hay-on-Wye. It had pubs within walking distance and offered great walking and hiking right from the door. You can read more about our stay here.
Next time, I’ll make sure to
Hire a canoe or kayak at Glasbury and paddle our way to Hay-on-Wye. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?
Have you been to Hay-on-Wye? Is it on your UK list of places to visit? Anything I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments below!
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