It seems extraordinary that I’ve never made it to Hay-on-Wye before. An entire town devoted to books and bookshops? Surrounded by glorious countryside, perfect for walking? With a picturesque river running through it, ideal for canoeing? What took me so long?
The Gentleman Caller and I headed for Hay just after Christmas, with the twin aims of walking off some of the excess food we’d consumed and checking out the books. Because we’re masochists who like adventures, we’d decided to take the tent and find somewhere to camp in the Brecon Beacons. Remember Boxing Day? The storm that raged all night, severe weather warnings, floods and gales? Fortunately the tent held up well, we found a relatively sheltered nook to put it in, and no large trees fell on us. But it was a rather frazzled Bluestocking who made her way down into Hay early on December 27, in search of coffee.
We found coffee in a rather nice, if unseasonal, ice-cream parlour. Sadly we were a bit early for the rest of Hay, which had yet to emerge from its Christmas snooze and was mostly closed. So, ignoring the weather, we packed up some post-Christmas leftovers and set off on the Wye Valley walk. Some very kind people in a farmhouse rescued us from the worst of the hailstorm, inviting us in to huddle by the Aga while they gave us tea. They also recommended a fantastic pub, the Radnor Arms in Llowes, which provided shelter from the next hailstorm, and a pint of the local Butty Bach ale. We went back for dinner, too, and ate the best pheasant I’ve had for years.
All in all, by Saturday morning I felt I’d earned a browse around the book emporia, even though the sun was out and I’d already got a substantial stash of books from my Christmas list. There are absolutely loads, so here are my three highlights:
Hay-on-Wye Booksellers, a cheerful two-storey shop that looks like a Tudor cottage, with the pleasing Hay habit of mixing pre-read with new books. I was soon entranced in an early RAC guide to Kent, which showed its age by recommending a visit to Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace. There were plenty of other treasures, and even free books from a selected slush pile.
Hay Cinema Bookshop, a vast warehouse of mainly second-hand books housed in a former cinema, including a section for rare antique editions. I’ve never been in a bookshop with such an enormous travel section before. History was good too – I finally plumped for a copy of David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain, the first in his social history of post-war Britain.
Richard Booth’s Bookshop is the absolute jewel in Hay’s crown. Walking
through the doors felt like entering a cathedral of books. This lovely building has an ecclesiastical feel, with church furniture (as well as comfy sofas), a busy cafe, a model railway running through a town of books in the window… and then there are the books. The ground floor welcomed us in with a table of the most beautiful new hardback editions of classics. Each desk or shelf seemed to hold more perfectly selected editions, old and new, all calling out to be read. Poetry, science, natural history, philosophy, history – I wandered in a daze, picking things up and (sometimes) putting them down again. The ones that stuck to my hand and made it home were Mark Cocker’s Crow Country (terrific, I’m roaring through it) and Owen Sheers’ A Poet’s Guide to Britain.
It’s not just bookshop heaven, either. I was rather taken with the independent shops in Hay’s town centre, including a picturesque greengrocers, numerous antique/vintage shops and lots of outdoors equipment stores. I even found myself a rather natty tweed jacket at a shop called (rather provocatively for Wales) The Great English Outdoors. Then there are the local pubs and restaurants – we stayed at The Swan, after our solitary night camping, which was far more civilised and did a very decent breakfast. And the countryside is wonderful. A bright, cold day was just perfect for a hike up to Hay Bluff, where shaggy ponies and fluffy sheep dotted the close-cropped turf and ice crisped over pools. I’m sure we’ll be back – perhaps in summer this time, with the canoe.