Hay on Wye used to be a byword amongst book lovers and book collectors as the center of the universe when it came to second-hand book collecting. It was a place of pilgrimage for bibliophiles who could browse for days in the Cinema bookshop (an old cinema converted into a massive bookstore, not a shop devoted to books on film, in case you were wondering), in Richard Booth’s magnificent shop, in the Castle bookshop where shelves and tables full of books braved the weather in the grounds of Hay’s Norman castle or in one of the many other bookshops dotted about the small market town. But these days, Hay has much more to offer than second-hand books.
Hay on Wye: A Town in Transition
Hay on Wye is a town in transition in more ways than one. Since 2002, the Hay Festival has taken place in late May and early June, drawing both speakers and audiences from all over the world. The Festival’s success has been so great that it has become a global brand, with Hay Festival events taking place in Spain, the Maldives, Africa and the Middle East (to name but a few of its locations).
The Festival has wrought a change in Hay, helping to make it a town at the cutting edge of all sorts of arts, crafts and alternative lifestyle initiatives. Recently, Hay held “Hay Day”, in pursuit of its ideal of becoming a new sort of Transition Town, defined as “a town where the local community pursues ways of living which can cope with the inevitable decline in the supply of oil and also reduce the consumption of resources to a level which the planet can sustainably produce”.
The town is still full of bookshops, but now it has a bustling local market (held on Thursdays) and a great variety of independent retailers as well as the more traditional country shops, including old-style ironmongers and ladies and gentlemens outfitters. It is well worth visiting Hay if only to see what an English market town used to be like, with not a MacDonald’s, a New Look or a Starbucks in sight. Think “Last of the Summer Wine” or “Open All Hours” or even the novels of P.G. Wodehouse, although you probably wouldn’t find a Nepalese boutique or a shop selling crystals in any of these fictional locations.
Interesting Shops and Eating Places
Hay on Wye is a pocket-sized town, easy to explore on foot. The town car park is located on the right-hand side of the main road as you drive into town (just past the Cinema Bookshop, the Garden Bookshop and a new little complex of craft shops, galleries and coffee shops).
From the car park, it’s only a very short walk through Back Fold lane into the center of town. Back Fold itself is home to several interesting little specialty shops, including Wool and Willow, a cooperative venture specializing in wool and exotic blend yarns produced locally.
The main street itself has a wide variety of clothes shops, coffee shops, cookshops and other specialty outlets all housed in retail premises which retain all their original charm and are delightfully free of plate glass and piped music. Bedecked, a shop specializing in buttons, fabric, beads, trimmings and specialty wools is well worth exploring to find that special set of buttons or the length of ribbon you’ve never managed to find before.
The main street leads towards the castle, the Butter Market, the town square and then on down to the banks of the River Wye. As you explore, you will find the Granary Bistro (delicious local food), the Old Stables Tea Room, the Jigsaw shop (ridiculous amounts of jigsaws) as well as (of course) a wide variety of second-hand book shops.
A Different Way of Life
Hay on Wye has so much more to offer than just second-hand bookshops. It’s a town that harks back to a more leisurely way of life but also looks forward to different and more sustainable lifestyles. It offers a glimpse of a rural idyll, but it also has a cutting edge. It offers a vision that is not perfect by any means but is thought-provoking, fascinating and well worth a visit.