a wandering woman writes

Monday, September 04, 2006

Running away to Wales - Hay on Wye

When the course that led me to England mysteriously lost its charm, I thought of an article I'd read in El País. Hay on Wye, the Welsh "town of books", was inhabited by less than 2000 people and more than 30 bookstores, according to El País. My kind of town.

I left Oxford and ran away to Wales.

Hay-on-Wye borders England on its eastern and northern boundaries, and rests at the crossroads of two long distance footpaths - Offa Dyke's path, which runs the length of Wales, tracing the line of a barrier built by King Offa in the 8th century, and the Wye Valley Walk, which meanders its way through the spectacular Wye Valley along the course of the Wye River.
The tiny stone town is surrounded by glorious green countryside.

Hay on Wye earned the "town of books" title when a local man, Richard Booth, returned from college determined to create the largest second-hand and antiquarian book-selling center in the world. He succeeded.

He has since bought the town's crumbling Norman castle and crowned himself both "King of Hay" and "Emperor of the Book Towns of The World". Hay-on-Wye now lives from books, old maps, antiques and tourism, and Richard Booth owns the world's largest second hand book store.

I chatted at Oxford with an aspiring writer who had attended this year's Guardian Hay Festival of Literature, during which local townsfolk open their homes to the visiting speakers and authors. I've added the fest, held over a week in early summer, to my travel wish list.

I went to Hay to walk, and read.

Hay's streets are indeed lined with bookshops: a few bright, modern, well-organized shops scattered amongst tiny pieces of Wandering Woman heaven, those dark, cool bookshops smelling of dust and dampness, where you blissfully fear for both your life and your book budget as you squeeze between overburdened bookcases, fruit crates full of yet-to-be-shelved treasures, and teetering stacks of magazines strewn about the floor. Inevitably the shop comes equipped with an bespectacled owner who can pull any book out of the chaos, instantly.

Even the walled grassy courtyard below the Castle is lined with book shelves. You won't find an attendant, just a a sign instructing you to leave your payment in the metal box, should you decide to take one of the weatherworn treasures home with you.

At an "honesty bookshop" housed in a metal lean-to just above the castle, I listened to a Spanish couple read English story books to their surprisingly rapt sons.

I looked up during a walk though town my first night and chuckled. A young woman was sitting on her window sill about the Murder & Mayhem mystery bookshop, window open, reading. A couple was reading in the brilliantly lit front room of their home, just a few houses down from my hotel. Great marketing or a lifestyle? I never did decide.

Books are everywhere. Two bookshelves grace the entrance to the rest rooms at Oscar's Cafe, where I feasted on cold poached salmon two days in a row. "These books are for sale", the sign tells customers impatient to advance in the rest room line. "Please pay at the desk." A woman recruited me to watch the books she'd chosen at my table, while she returned to her place in line.

Hay gave book-loving, walk-craving me far too much for a blog post. Here are a few scattered images from my 5-day stay:

The rain the Spanish called llovizna: a soft mist that wets you everywhere, but to my mind makes perfect walking weather.

A very wise barman at the Swan at Hay Hotel, who looked over at my pub table for one, out at Wales' unusually clear skies, then back at me before making a brilliant decision. He ordered me to the garden and ordered the waitress to serve my dinner there. And so I enjoyed a delicious dinner and a tasty pint of the local Butty Bach while watching the sun set from an aromatic garden in Wales.

The pastor of Saint Mary's church, whose steely blue eyes, dark curls, and long black cassock looked straight out of The Thornbirds. He gave me a big friendly wave as I wandered his churchyard, snapping pictures of gravestones and stone figures. When he passed me in the street later that evening, he warmly invited me to visit the church and take all the pictures I'd like. A moment later I was "outed" when I pronounced "cemetery ". "The what?" he asked. "Ah, the cemetree. America is it?" He grinned at his friend. "I've heard of it. America. Somewhere abroad, yeh?"

Market day, complete with a portable fish store and a red-faced fruit man barking "Everybody try a peach! EVERYbody try a peach" at the top of his lungs. "Spectacular Peaches! Everybody step up and try a peach!" He was right; they were spectacular.

In a fun coincidence, although I won't be able to get there, Segovia is hosting its first Hay Literature Festival in late September.

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  • Wow, amazing. I can't believe I'd not heard of this place before, but now that I have I will add it to my long travel list! Thanks!

    By Blogger wheylona, at 6:24 PM  

  • Wow!, you do manage to get to some interesting places, don't you?.

    By the way, nice photos.

    By Blogger Alfacharly, at 8:21 PM  

  • Loved this ... the photographs, the images that you wrote up. Thanks, it was delicious.

    By Blogger woman wandering, at 11:04 PM  

  • Lovely photos, as always... :D

    By Anonymous AdriftAtSea, at 7:55 AM  

  • Thank you, all. :) Funny I have to thank El País for introducing me to an English language book town...

    By Blogger wandering-woman, at 1:01 PM  

  • Oh what a delightful post! So glad you blew off Oxford. Good instincts!

    By Blogger Laura Young, at 3:01 PM  

  • Sounds like a fabulous time! Thanks for sharing glimpses of your journey. When you were in Oxford did you go to Blackwell's? I spent most of one morning there, browsing.

    By Blogger paris parfait, at 3:53 PM  

  • I do hope you're putting all these posts into a collection for a travel book. You write about these places brilliantly!

    My favorite nephew is in Cardiff; I'm sending him a link to this post. Thanks!!

    By Anonymous Kate, at 4:06 PM  

  • Oh, Kate your favorite nephew isn't far! Lucky nephew. I loved Wales....for lots of the same reasons I love Ireland. Lucky, lucky nephew!

    Paris, I didn't get to Blackwells. Long story, but I got very little free time while I was there. I'll have to go back just to visit. :)

    By Blogger wandering-woman, at 8:31 PM  

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