Hay Fever

Hay Fever was published in Holiday Cottages magazine
Hay Fever was published in Holiday Cottages magazine

Holiday Cottages magazine

Online book buying is booming, but for many the magic of browsing packed and dusty shelves endures … and nowhere more so than the small Welsh town that’s Britain’s second-hand book capital.

Take a leaf out of my book when visiting Hay-on-Wye, and approach it from the main A438 at the small village of Clyro. At first all you can see are the rolling hills with an occasional glimpse of a mountain, but you should never judge a book by its cover. Suddenly the road crests a hill and there before you, huddled on the opposite side of the river Wye is the little village with more second-hand books than anywhere else in the world.

The great thing about Hay-on-Wye is that it’s open all year. It’s not a tourist attraction that’s only open during the summer, this place can be busy on a winter weekend too. Yet it’s in summer that the place really comes alive, as people flock to the popular Hay Festival at the end of May. When Bill Clinton stopped by, he called it “The Woodstock of the Mind.”

Don’t be surprised if you experience a feeling of déjà vu when you get here. Millions of people have seen Hay-on-Wye without realising, because it forms part of the opening titles to the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow television programme.

It’s best to park in the main 400 space car park next to the Craft Centre, which also house a tempting fudge shop, glass and wood studios, and even a cartoonist. Pop into the Information Centre here and pick up a town map detailing all of the bookshops. Think of this as your contents page, and dive in!

Hay’s life as a booktown began in the early 1960’s when Richard Booth was looking for somewhere to set up his second-hand book business. Hay had been his family home since 1903, but Booth believed that if the whole town specialised in books, it could become an international attraction. So he set up the Hay Cinema Bookshop on Castle Street. Step inside and it’s easy to lose yourself amongst the 200,000 books on the shelves. The last time I ventured inside I had to send my friend a text to find out where in the shop she was!

Other bookshops were opened, some on very specialist subjects. Booth’s wife established the bookshop in Hay Castle, which looks down upon Castle Street and High Town as a reader might peer at something over his or her reading specs. Flick through the books in here and you’ll discover sections as diverse as Ecology, Film, Craft, Fine Art and Collectables and even American Indian books.

Second-hand Heaven

Booth later sold the Hay Cinema Bookshop and bought 44 Lion Street, a mere paragraph further round from the castle. This is now the largest bookshop in Hay-on-Wye, and staggeringly turns over more second-hand books than any other second-hand bookshop anywhere in the world. Many of his assistants have gone on to open their own bookshops, bringing the total number of bookshops in the town to nearly 40. The statistics created over the last four decades are impressive. The town now has one bookshop for every 36 residents, and it buys more second-hand books from America than anywhere else in the world. There are more than one million books in the town and over half a million people visit the place every year.

As I wander from bookshop to bookshop, I discover that they don’t all smell the same. Some offer me the traditional musty aroma of second-hand paperbacks, whilst others tantalise me with an aroma of coffee. There are chairs and stools dotted everywhere to tempt me to take my time as I browse. This is not Amazon.co.uk where one click is all you need to buy. Here in Hay you should savour the experience, feel the books, stroke the pages, smell its wisdom and marvel at its contents.

It is necessary to step carefully wherever you go, I discover. In this town, books are everywhere. Piled up on the stairs between floors inside buildings, or even stacked on shelves down side alleys and under tarpaulins. Some, like those in the Castle Bookshop grounds have to take their chance against the elements, and if you decide to rescue one from here, the shop assistant is merely an honesty box in the wall.

Festival Frivolity

The next chapter in Hay-on-Wye’s recent history began in 1987 with the very first Hay Festival. Although there are literary events, it’s not just about books, there are lectures, talks and chats on a variety of subjects. In a field on the outskirts of Hay, huge marquees are erected to house the events which have attracted guest speakers as diverse as Rosie Boycott, Sandi Toksvig, Jonathan Dimbleby, Kathy Lette, John Mortimer, Simon Schama and Ian Rankin, as well as people like singer Seth Lakeman, politicians John Major and Gordon brown, singer Billy Bragg, comedian Dara O’Briain and even TV’s Columbo, Peter Falk. Bill Clinton visited the Festival in Hay in 2001, less than five months after stepping down as President of the USA, and the 411th event of the 2007 Festival was Bryn Terfel in Concert. Not bad for a community on the edge of the Brecon Beacons with a population of around 1,500.
The Festival brings 80,000 people into Hay for the last week in May and the first week in June, and the event injects on average £3 million into the local economy. Accommodation is immensely scarce for these two weeks, and the festival’s own accommodation booking service opens in January each year. Self catering properties for the festival fortnight are snapped up early.

Wandering around Hay it’s easy to see that whatever your interests, there’s a bookshop in Hay to suit you. Whether it’s Murder and Mayhem in Lion Street where you can track down your next purchase, or the Poetry Bookshop in Brook Street where odes and haikus do battles with sonnets and verse. For the A to Z of languages (Axeri to Zulu) Merijana Dworsk Books in Backfold is the place to get tongue tied.

All Booked Out?

But even if a place of books isn’t your library ticket, there’s more to Hay than books. Nestling in the northeast corner of the Brecon Beacons National Park, it’s a great area for walking. Not only does it give you access to the Brecon Beacons mountains, but the Offa’s Dyke National Trail passes through the town, as does the Wye Valley Walk. And if you’d rather not wander along the Wye, then why not pop along to nearby Wye Valley Canoes (open April to October) and hire a Kayak to drift through some of the most relaxing scenery to be found on the English / Welsh borders?

Black Mountain Activities at Glasbury, 5 miles upstream, offer a range of non-bookish things to do ranging from Climbing and Abseiling, Caving, white water rafting, clay shooting, land carting, archery and mountain biking, whilst those looking for something more sedate along the Wye cast off on their own for a quiet spot of fishing. Permits are available from Golesworthy’s at 17 Broad Street for a single day or longer, offering you the chance to hook a salmon or trout, or have a go at some coarse fishing.

Hay’s border location confuses many, I’ve found. Some people think it’s in England, but it’s actually located in Wales. It even has a welsh name, Y Gelli, which means ‘The Grove’. Back in 1977 Richard Booth took advantage of this uncertainty and on 1st April declared himself King of Hay-on-Wye and proclaimed that the town was independent of the British Isles! Of course, the date of the exercise should have given it away, but several television crews turned up to cover the story.

For many, Hay itself is like a good book. Instead of being something you pull off a bookshelf and refer to from time to time, it becomes a place you go back to time and time again. Ironically, the constantly changing supply of books means that there’s always something new in this second-hand place. Come during the festival, when the place is vibrant and busy, then pop back later and experience Hay when it’s quieter. I promise you, once you’ve been, you’ll just keep coming back for more. It’s one long never-ending story.

Getting There
Hay-on-Wye lies on the Herefordshire / Powys border, just off the A438 Hereford to Brecon road. It is 23 miles from Hereford, 17 from Brecon, 182 from London, 73 from Birmingham, and 60 from Cardiff. The nearest train stations are at Hereford or Abergavenny, 23 and 28 miles away respectively.

Want To Know More?

• Official Hay-on-Wye Website: www.hay-on-wye.co.uk
Tourist Information Centre: Tel. 01497 820144

• Hay Festival Information: www.hayfestival.com
The Drill Hall, 25 Lion Street, Hay-on-Wye, HR3 5AD Tel: 0870 787 2484

• Hay Fringe Festival: www.hayfringe.co.uk
Ice House, Brook Street, Hay-on-Wye, HR3 5BQ
Email: info@hayfringe.co.uk

• Black Mountain Activities: www.blackmountain.co.uk
Three Cocks, Brecon, Powys, LD3 0SD. Tel: 01497 847897

• Wye Valley Canoes: www.wyevalleycanoes.co.uk
The Boathouse, Glasbury-on-Wye. Tel: 01497 847213

Booktowns around the World

When Richard Booth began turning Hay-on-Wye into a booktown, who’d have thought that it would turn into an international project? Booktowns can now be found all over the world, from Norway to the Netherlands and America through to Malaysia. Britain has two other booktowns. Scotland’s National Booktown is in Wigtown, Dumfries & Galloway, whilst Sedbergh in Cumbria has begun to turn itself into a booktown after feeling the economic impact of the 2001 Foot and Mouth crisis.
Wigtown: www.wigtown-booktown.co.uk 
Sedbergh: www.sedbergh.org.uk/booktown/

From Hay to Timbuktu!

Hay-on-Wye successfully beat off 52 other British places to be the official twinned town with Timbuktu in Mali, West Africa in February 2007. Both places have festivals, (Timbuktu hosts the Festival in the Desert), and both lie on the same line of longitude!

(c) Simon Whaley