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  • Writer's pictureRoyston Nicholls

Hay-on-Wye - The Town of Books!

Hay on Wye

Hay (as it is generally known) is a small market town in Wales, close to the English border. Its Welsh name is Y Gelli Gandryll, though the English version of its name has been used since the 12th century. It is a pretty town, with narrow streets, a medieval castle, which is part 17th century mansion, and many fine Georgian and Victorian buildings.

If you are touring the Welsh Marches it is a good base to explore the Golden Valley (see previous Blog), the Wye Valley, the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains. A few miles to the south, and overlooking the Wye and Hay itself, is Hay Bluff, a 677m hill at the northern tip of the Black Mountains.

Hay Bluff

The Black Mountains are an extensive upland massif that straddles the border between Wales and England. To the South West are the Brecon Beacons, a mountain range, and National Park. The River Wye, the fifth-longest river in Britain, runs south from the town, and for much of its length is designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The river runs through Hereford (the only city on the River Wye), Ross-on-Wye, Symonds Yat, Monmouth and Tintern, meeting the Severn estuary just below Chepstow.

The Wye Valley

It is most famous, though, as a ‘book town’, with more than 20 bookshops, many selling specialist and second-hand books. This tradition was started in the 1960s by Richard Booth, a second-hand bookseller, the self-proclaimed ‘King of Hay’ (as a publicity stunt he declared Hay-on-Wye to be an 'independent kingdom' with himself as its monarch and a new National Anthem), who opened a bookshop in the town. His example was followed by other booksellers, so that by the 1970s the town was known as the ‘Town of Books’. And if you are a fan of ‘who-dunnits’, one bookshop is devoted entirely to crime fiction!

Hay Bookshop

Books are everywhere!

Since 1988 the town has been home to the Hay Festival of Literature & Arts, an annual literary festival. Held every year for 10 days from May to June, the festival draws more than 80,000 visitors during the 10 days, and some of the most eminent authors attend the festival. Bill Clinton famously called it, ‘the Woodstock of the mind’, and the British politician, Tony Benn, said that ‘in my mind it has replaced Christmas’. Sadly, the festival was cancelled this year, but hopefully it will be held next year.

Hay Festival

For all its fame as a literary town, Hay is off the usual tourist routes and frequently gets overlooked. Public transport is not easy. There is a train station in Hereford (22 miles away), with a limited bus service to Hay, so it may be best to hire a car in Bristol and drive up the beautiful Wye Valley. Whichever way you travel, Hay on Wye is well worth the effort and certainly deserves a visit. A warning though, if you decide to visit during the festival and want to stay in the town, book well in advance!

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