Hay-on-Wye, Powys, Wales
We left northern Wales and made our way to Heathrow Airport via Hay-on-Wye, in southeast Wales on the edge of Brecon Beacons National Park.
A Town of Books
Hay-on-Wye is in Powys County, Wales, on the south side of the River Wye, just over the border from Herefordshire, England. It’s about 175 miles from London.
The town’s name comes from the Norman word haie, meaning ‘enclosed place’. The Welsh version, Y Gelli, means ‘grove’. There was settlement in Hay-on-Wye in the 8th century, and the town has its share of castle history, including a 13th century castle destroyed and subsequently restored.
Today Hay-on-Wye is a market town with winding streets, an old butter market, and a Victorian clock tower. It’s best known for its 30+ second-hand and antiquarian bookshops and annual literary festival.
Tourist Office Services
Normally we know where we’re spending the night when we travel, as I wrote in ‘A Passion for Travel, Part 2: The Master Trip Calendar’.
If we don’t have a reservation ahead of time, I start worrying we’ll have to spend a lot of time looking for a motel or B&B, especially when we’re headed to a touristy area on a weekend.
One of the best ways to find accommodations in this situation, as many travellers know, is to go directly to the local tourist office, something we usually do anyway.
Tourist offices often provide a central accommodations service for a nominal fee. The woman at the Hay-on-Wye Tourist Information Bureau gave us several choices of B&B’s whose owners had rung to let her know they had vacancies. Within minutes, we were confirmed at one, a 5-minute walk from the town centre. The booking fee was £2.
We picked up a number of free brochures at the tourist office, including ‘Hay-on-Wye Secondhand and Antiquarian Booksellers, Printsellers & Bookbinders’.
Then we went exploring.
Booth’s vision came to fruition, and today Hay-on-Wye gets over 500,000 visitors each year.There’s a bookshop for everyone here, with specialties ranging from Dickens to antique maps to children’s books.
Shops are located in places like the castle, the old cinema, and a fire station, with names like The Sensible Bookshop, Outcast Books, Murder and Mayhem, and The Poetry Bookshop. In addition to serving customers in person, many of the bookshops also do business over the Internet.
Acknowledging one person’s trash is another’s treasure, I sometimes have difficulty distinguishing ‘antiquarian’ from junk. I know it’s subjective, and there’s the possibility of making a lovely discovery, as we did when we found a first edition of ‘Cheer Up, Little Noddy!’, a 1960 book by children’s author Enid Blyton.
Noddy and Big-Ears
Clive introduced me and my son to Noddy and Big-Ears several years ago, finding a gap in our literary education because we hadn’t heard of them before.
The conversation was about political correctness, and Clive said, “Another example is ‘Noddy and Big-Ears’ having to be rewritten because it was considered suspicious they shared a cup of hot chocolate in bed.”
Noddy and Big-Ears? My son and I thought the names were hilarious. We learned Noddy is a toy and Big-Ears a brownie, an elf-like creature I also hadn’t heard of. They live in Toyland.
Admittedly, Noddy looks like a boy and Big-Ears an old man, with his white hair and beard. The first book about them was published in 1949. Since then, various modifications have been made to Blyton’s original stories, to remove golliwogs (subject for another post), and words like ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ used with their original meanings.
Along with millions of children in England (and Australia), Clive read the pre-modified Noddy books. He remembers them as typical innocent, entertaining children’s stories of the time.
Until we went to Hay-on-Wye, I hadn’t looked through a Noddy and Big-Ears book. I think the characters are adorable, and because of my fond memory of Clive making me and my son laugh so much, we bought the book as a souvenir/collectible.
Bookshops Old and New
In ‘Travel and Books, Part 4: No Two Bookshops Are the Same’, I wrote about what makes a bookshop great for me.
As much as Hay-on-Wye is a booklover’s paradise and we enjoyed exploring its variety of shops, I prefer bookstores with more current publications, whether large chains or small independents. For me these are just as much a source of discovery and treasure as second-hand bookshops.
I also realised, as we went into one shop after another, I don’t always feel comfortable in bookshops with narrow, crowded aisles, books piled to the ceiling, and staircases leading up or down to other enclosed spaces. Sometimes I feel like I’m walking through a fire hazard, especially when I’m in an old building and smell the old, old paper. Other times I just feel hemmed in and claustrophobic. I had the same feeling when we went to Shakespeare’s in Paris.
There are a few bookshops selling newer books in Hay-on-Wye, but the majority are devoted to older books. Along with their specialty focus, virtually every bookshop also carries hundreds and often thousands of books on other subjects. The only exception we noted was the The Poetry Bookshop, which from what we could tell sells only poetry books.
We started our visit to Hay-on-Wye impressed with the man whose original idea spawned this town of books. We left thinking there’s just a little too much self-promotion going on.
In addition to owning several bookshops, Hay-on-Wye’s founder initiated a publicity stunt in 1977, declaring independence from the British Isles and proclaiming himself King of Hay. In 2000, he established the Hay House of Lords.
Perhaps publicity from these activities keeps tourist numbers high. And perhaps I’d be more positive if we hadn’t had to pay 20p for a half-page write-up by and about this ‘colourful character’ when all the other brochures at the tourist office were free.
We think Hay-on-Wye has enough going for it without contrived antics that, for me, anyway, detract from the real commercial heart and natural appeal of the town. Among other activities you can do in Hay-on-Wye are biking, canoeing on the River Wye, and walking.
After exploring the bookshops, we were delighted to find one more walk to do in Wales.
The Wye Valley Walk
This is a short loop around the outskirts of the town, along the River Wye. It gave us an opportunity to stretch our legs one more time, before flying out the next day.
There’s something about a river valley and a footpath along the water that makes a walk special for me. We saw a few canoes on the river but had the footpath to ourselves.
The Hay Literary Festival
Unfortunately we just missed theguardian Hay Festival.
Over dinner at the Blue Boar pub, we pored over the 82-page festival catalog, picking out author readings and panel discussions we wished we could attend.
The New York Times referred to the festival as “the most prestigious literary festival in Britain and one of the most interesting anywhere.” Among many notables who have spoken there are J.K. Rowling, Bill Bryson, and the late John Updike, along with former President Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Paul McCartney, who read poetry.
This year’s speakers included Edna O’Brien, Alain de Botton, Adam Nicolson, Antonia Fraser, Robert Kennedy, Jr., and Stephen Fry. There were so many sessions we would have liked to attend.
During breakfast at the B&B, we met a young Argentinian woman, living in London, with a PhD from Yale, who was spending two weeks in Hay-on-Wye, writing and then attending the festival. Lucky girl.
The next Hay Festival is scheduled for 27 May to 6 June, 2010.
A World of Booktowns
Travel is nothing if not educational.
If we hadn’t visited Hay-on-Wye, we wouldn’t have picked up the tourist office brochure listing twenty-two ‘Booktowns in Europe’, including Bredevoort, Netherlands; Bécherel, France; and Fjaerland, Norway. Nor would we later have discovered there’s an international organisation of book towns, on whose website you can read about these and many others.
The obvious result of this new information is that our ‘someday/maybe’ travel list has become much longer. Clive’s reaction was, “Oh, dear.”
My Favourite Things
I loved visiting Hay-on-Wye, notwithstanding Mr. Booth’s self-promotion. Bookshops are its prime attraction, but it also has a beautiful setting on the River Wye, walks and other outdoor activities, and a renowned literary festival. And I love our Noddy and Big-Ears souvenir.
Thanks again, Sam, for a wonderful tip.
I think it’s fair to say if you love books, you’ll love visiting Hay-on-Wye.
Farewell to Wales
We highly recommend Wales as a fantastic destination for individuals and families of all ages.
Thank you, everyone who read and/or commented on my posts about this beautiful country.
Thank you, Wales, for an amazing visit. We hope to see you again.
My next two posts will complete my Passion for Travel series, covering managing personal business while away and coming home.
Travel and Books – Series
Croeso i Cymru: Welcome to Wales
Serious about Language in Wales
Y Ddraig Goch, the Welsh Red Dragon
Coastal Walking on Ynys Mon, Isle of Anglesey, Wales
An Accidental Walk: Lakes and Slate in Snowdonia
The Ffestiniog Railway and the Great Little Trains of Wales
Wrexham, Wales: A City in Transition with a Yale Connection
Whimsy or Disney? Portmeirion, Wales
An Exhilarating Experience: The Great Orme, Llandudno, Wales