Once it was a sleepy market town famous only because Francis Kilvert, the diarist lived nearby for nearly two decades in the mid nineteenth century. There was also a local solicitor who got rid of his wife in the early twentieth century by putting weedkiller in her breakfast.
In the 1960s, a young man, Richard Booth, bought Hay castle and declared the town an independent state with him as king. With his cardboard crown, and a sceptre made from a ballcock, he set out to put the town on the map. Improbably, he succeeded. He made it world famous as ‘the town of books’.
Today Hay-on-Wye – or Y Gelli Gandryll as it is known in the Welsh language – is friendly, lively and vibrant and, unsurprisingly for a town with such individuality and literary associations, is twinned with Timbuktu, which itself has the oldest Islamic library in the world.
Hay is used to welcoming visitors drawn by the books and by its annual literary festival. President Clinton, speaking there in 2001, called Hay ‘the Woodstock of the Mind’. There are dozens of second-hand bookshops. There is also a good range of practical shops as well as antique and high-quality art and craft shops, plus high fashion boutiques and practical country wear shops. On Thursdays the market stalls scattered about the town do a roaring trade and the streets are full of groups of people exchanging news.
Tourist gift emporiums full of trinkets are mercifully absent as are one-way-through-traffic systems and multiples. Any number of pubs, cafes, restaurants and take-aways can be found and there is a wide choice of accommodation in the town and surrounding countryside.
Hay-on-Wye has more energetic attractions. It’s a good base for serious walking in the protected countryside of the Brecon Beacons National Park – Pen-y-fan at 886 metres is the highest point in southern Britain. Offa’s Dyke Path, which extends 173 miles along the England-Wales border between Prestatyn and Sedbury Cliffs near Chepstow, runs through Hay. Then there’s canoeing on the Wye, sailing on nearby Llangorse Lake, off-road mountain biking, rock climbing, caving, fishing and gliding.
Transport facilities are limited but with the regular bus services you can plan one-way walks. In summer there are special Sunday and Bank Holiday Beacons buses for walkers and the whole area is electric car and bicycle friendly.
And when the sun goes down the sky is dark, the stars come out and you can actually see them. That doesn’t happen in many places nowadays.