As a book lover, I’m giddy when my husband and I drive into the small yet charming town of Hay-on-Wye, mid-Wales. Also known as the world’s secondhand book capital, Hay-on-Wye is home to over 30 used and antiquarian bookshops as well as the internationally acclaimed Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts.
A medieval market town on the English-Welsh border, Hay-on-Wye lies just north of the Black Mountains on the east bank of the River Wye. Its literary aspirations began in 1961, when eccentric bookseller Richard Booth opened his first secondhand bookshop in town.
We arrive on a quiet weekday morning. After parking, my husband and I walk over to the Tourist Information Bureau and pick up a map of the town, which lists all of its bookshops. A friendly staff member points out some of her favorite bookshops. She also tells us about the enormously popular Hay Festival, which draws over 80,000 people to the town.
Founded in 1987 and described by former US president Bill Clinton as “the Woodstock of the mind,” the Hay Festival is an annual 10-day literary event with workshops, readings, guest speakers, and book signings. It’s held from late May to early June.
The first bookshop on our must-see list is where it all started – Richard Booth’s Bookshop. Still the largest and one of the best known bookshops in Hay-on-Wye, Booth’s stocks over 400,000 new, used, and rare books. While my husband explores the shop’s numerous nooks and crannies, I happily peruse its excellent selection of Anglo-Welsh history and literature books.
Once we are finished at Booth’s, we walk through the narrow, winding streets to Hay Castle Bookshop, which is located on the grounds of 900-year-old Hay Castle. Built in the 11th century, the castle was attacked many times over the centuries by both English and Welsh troops. In the 1600s, a new mansion was built onto the castle’s north side. The castle changed hands many times over the centuries, until it was purchased by Richard Booth in 1971. He opened Hay Castle Bookshop soon afterward.
Inside the castle’s converted rooms, thousands of books line tall bookcases and tables. My husband and I stroll around browsing the stacks as well as enjoying the castle’s charming archways and large windows. Then we head outside to the Honesty Bookshop, where hundreds of books line the stone walls. The Honesty Bookshop is open 24 hours a day, so anyone craving a late-night read can slip in and grab a book, paying via the collection box.
Next we head to Hay Cinema Bookshop, one of the largest and oldest bookshops in Hay-on-Wye. The bookshop is a large converted cinema with thousands of secondhand, remainder, and bargain books. Hay Cinema also operates an open-air bookshop in their attractive front garden.
When we finish at Hay Cinema, my husband and I walk to several smaller, more specialty bookshops like: Addyman Books for mysteries and science fiction; Hay-on-Wye Booksellers for rare books; and Rose’s Books for children’s books.
As the bookshops close for the evening, my husband and I trek back to our B&B with our haul, tired yet excited with our finds.
If you go to Hay-on-Wye:
Best months to visit: May, June and September because it’s warmer and drier, but less crowded. Visitors looking to avoid the festival crowds should steer clear of Hay-on-Wye from the end of May through the first week of June.
Train/Bus: There’s no train service to Hay-on-Wye. The closest major train station is Hereford, about 22 miles away. Stagecoach (www.stagecoachbus.com) runs daily buses from Hereford to Brecon (via Hay-on-Wye). For train times and fares check with National Rail Enquiry.
Eateries: Old Black Lion, a charming 17th century inn and pub, serves pints and excellent pub grub. Shepherds is famous for its ice cream, but also serves coffee, sandwiches, soups, and cakes. The Granary is a popular café-style restaurant with a tasty home-cooked menu that is both kid- and veggie-friendly.
Written by By Carrie Uffindell for EuropeUpClose.com