Heaven on Earth for Bibliophiles of All Sorts
THERE IS ONLY ONE reason people make their way to this remote village on the Welsh border: books. The village of 1,800 inhabitants exists for books, and shares its narrow streets with nearly three dozen second-hand bookstores—housing, cataloging, buying and selling them by the millions. The Cinema Bookstore on the corner near the village car park boasts more than 200,000 volumes in inventory. Some are smaller specialist shops devoted to genres such as murder and mystery, natural history or science fiction. A number of the stores are virtual biblioarcades, however, warehousing, sorting and inventorying wholesale buys from estate auctions and private sales all over the country.
Make Way to the Wye Valley
Alas, there is no convenient way to get to the out-of-the-way “Town of Books” apart from vehicle or other wheeled transport. From south Wales, take the A470 through the Brecon Beacons. From the east, route through Hereford on the A438. Or cross the Severn on the M4 and head north on the A449. The town is well accustomed to throngs of day visitors and accommodates with a large pay and display car and coach park on the village edge.
Hay-on-Wye is very doable, however, by public transport. The train can get you easily from London as far as Hereford. Local busses run to Hay. Check timetables at www.stagecoachbus.com. Plan to spend two nights in Hereford and a day trip to hay.
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Books, Glorious Books
Books emerged as hay-on-Wye’s defining attraction in the 1970s. One entrepreneurial showman drew worldwide attention by declaring the municipality independent and himself King of Hay. King Richard Booth has apparently moved to Spain, but the respected bookshop bearing his name remains, as does a “royal” legacy that the town stills plays upon.
Perhaps the secret of Hay-on-Wye is that it has something for every variety of book lover. In the walled Castle Garden, take any book or books you like off the covered shelves lining the courtyard and just drop a pound per volume in the honor box at the gate. At Addyman Books, Richard Booth’s or the Hay-on-Wye Bookstore, though, call on a clerk to open the display case protecting a leather-bound first edition of Thomas Hardy at a somewhat higher price tag. For serious bibliophiles, it’s the thrill of the hunt that’s fun: finding a little known or out-of-print gem at a good price.
The Hay Festival, founded in 1988, is the year’s premier event, held for 10 days in late June. Now a world-class literary festival, this year’s Hay Festival President is Stephen Frye. Prepare well ahead, or avoid Hay in late June.
To Spend a Night or Two
The place to stay in Hay is The Swan at Hay, but make reservations ahead of time. This lovely three-star former coaching inn offers all the amenities just steps from the village center and its bookshops. Other in town and nearby options (and a complete information source for visitors) can be found at www.hay-on-wye.co.uk. Plenteous accommodation choices, too, lie not far east in the Marches cathedral city of Hereford. Hay-on-Wye makes an easy daytrip, though, from Worcester, Gloucester, Ross-on-Wye or the South Wales Valleys.
The thrill of finding an out-of-print gem or unexpected treasure
For Reviving Food and Drink
Not surprisingly, a small town that draws all these visitors meets the needs they bring. There are a number of small sandwich shops, delis and takeaways, and half a dozen pubs do a brisk lunchtime trade reviving book shoppers. The Blue Boar on the High Street offers good pub grub in a central location.
When the daytrippers and coaches have departed and Hay’s bookshops shuttered for the night, Hay becomes again the small town that belongs to its locals. If you are staying over at The Swan or one of Hay’s several smaller inns or guest houses, now is the time to venture forth and visit with locals at the pub.
Other Treasures Worth the Taking
The Wye’s the thing. After all, you are right on the banks of Britain’s most popular scenic river. The Wye River Valley meanders to be explored. The wild and desolate Brecon Beacons are nearby as well, and Brecon Cathedral in the small old city at their heart. Follow upriver to the quiet resort town of Builth Wells, or take the A49 south and trace the river to Symonds Yat, Tintern Abbey and its mouth at historic Chepstow. If your way leads to Hereford, don’t miss Hereford Cathedral, home of the elegant Mappa Mundi and Europe’s finest medieval chained library.
Along the Way
Hay also makes a great stop if you are charting an itinerary through the Marches. Begin in Chepstow and from Hay follow the A49 north to Ludlow and Shrewsbury. Of course, first you’ll have to cross the one-lane wooden toll bridge over the Wye at Witney. Ancient charter preserves the rights of the privately owned bridge. Passage will cost you 80p.