Hay-On-Wye is a quaint and cosy village nestled next to the towering bulk of the Black Mountains, just on the border between England and Wales. Now, in case you didn’t know, Hay is often described as “The National Book Town of Wales” for the fact that it quite famously has second-hand bookshops in abundance. Richard Booth is often credited with creating the world’s first “town of books” when he opened his first second hand bookshop in 1961 and subsequently opened another in 1965. Others followed suit. In fact, on April 1st 1977, he went so far as to proclaim that Hay-On-Wye was an independent Kingdom with himself as King Richard Cœur de Livre. While my French is pretty terrible, I am led to believe that this is a fun play on “Richard the Lion Heart” meaning “Richard the Paper Heart”, but please don’t quote me on that.
While Richard Booth certainly got the ball rolling as far as Hay’s reputation was concerned, it was one fateful evening around a dinner table that brought the famous festival to life. Theatre manager Norman Florence had just worked on the Globe project and wanted to create a new event. He and his wife Rhoda Lewis sat discussing how they could make a world famous event, and what they could possibly base it around. They looked no further than their own beloved village. In 1988 the first Hay Literary Festival was born.
While the festival is fantastically fun, filled with world-renowned authors and intriguing talks, the one downside to it is that you don’t get to experience the town as it truly is, which turns out to be absolutely perfect for booklovers. This may seem like an obvious statement, but I’m not simply talking about the amount of books that are readily available. Have you ever tried actually reading while a festival goes on around you? It’s quite difficult. But everyday Hay makes it so, so easy to get lost in a good book. It’s the sleepy atmosphere, the calm, fresh air that comes from being on the Wye and so perfectly perks you up when you are getting too drowsy from reading for so long. It’s the friendly locals, the pub, the ice-cream parlour. It’s the way in which the quiet is so perfectly quite. Not too quiet you see, because that could get eerie, but just quiet enough so that your book is not interrupted.
Booklovers do quite like to sit amongst beautiful scenery, absorbed in their story. Hay, out of season, is perfect for just that. Reading.
At its peak as a booklover’s paradise Hay was home to over forty bookstores, but sadly the times are changing.
It had been a couple of years since I had visited my beloved village, and when I was finally reunited with it a month ago I was surprised that some of my favourite stores had disappeared. They had turned into cafes, vintage gardening stores and clothes shops. Where was the messy bookshop on the corner of Castle Street and The Pavement, the one in which I always found a P.G. Wodehouse novel to add to the collection that I had accumulated from this very store? Where was BookEnds, the store that introduced me to the wonders of Nick Hornby? One mad rush from the beginning of Castle Street to the middle of Church Street later, I let out a sigh of relief. Both Richard Booth’s Bookshop and the Hay Cinema Bookshop were still there. All was not lost.
Hay, while it may be shrinking, is still the perfect destination for any booklover. Even a day trip can be totally magical in this tiny town if you know where to go, so I want to give you some advice.
The Blue Boar
With a real fire and candles on every table, this cosy, traditional pub lies in the very heart of Hay. The upstairs of the pub often serves as a gallery for local art, and the pub itself is covered with interesting photos of Hay in times gone by. For a real local community vibe and some friendly banter, look no further.
The Old Black Lion
What makes this pub stand out is its history, as legend has it that Oliver Cromwell himself stayed at the Inn while the Roundheads lay siege to Hay Castle. A short five minute walk from the centre of Hay, The Old Black Lions food is some of the most delicious pub grub that you will find for miles around.
This quaint, rustic café offers gigantic portions of food in super speedy timing. While the choice is usually quite slim, you can bet that whatever is on the menu is prepared well, and I’ve never had a meal there that I didn’t enjoy.
Fancy trying some ice-cream made from sheep’s milk? If not, maybe you should reconsider, because the flavours here are amazing.
The Swan at Hay Hotel
This brilliant Hotel offers two different dining experiences. You can choose between the snug bistro which resembles a traditional pub in atmosphere and décor, or you can dine in the evenings in The Garden Room, a large, elegant dining room overlooking the Hotel’s picture perfect lawns. While The Swan can be quite pricey, the food is incredible and you honestly do get what you are paying for.
Richard Booth’s Bookshop
The most famous by far of Hay-On-Wye’s bookstores, Richard Booth’s is probably also the one that’s the most similar to your modern day trade bookstore like Waterstones. The book genres are split over three floors, which Fiction and new releases taking pride of place next to the front entrance of the store. As a Waterstones employee, I have often had to suppress my instinct to separate the Fiction and Non-Fiction Hardbacks that sit snuggled together on the first table display that you meet, but it’s quite impressive how quickly Booth’s gets brand new releases into the store. My only qualm is that they don’t give any discount on ANYTHING at their front of store.
Booth’s children’s section is one of controversy as, while it is decked out in cute decorations and games, the actual range is a bit slim. However, the shop makes up for this by having super comfortable sofas and chairs strewn about each floor in a fantastic, shabby chic, cosy way. But really, one of the top selling points of this famous bookstore is the gorgeous exterior, which never fails to draw in an unsuspecting bibliophile.
I have a bit of a weird love/hate relationship with Booth’s. While it is probably the best arranged bookstore and by far the comfiest, I really strongly dislike the fact that they do not offer any discount on their core ranges. While they sell second hand books, they aren’t exactly for second hand prices. When I visited the store last I picked up a second hand copy of Angelmaker and, while it wasn’t ripped or anything like that, it quite obviously wasn’t new. It was being sold for £7.99. I felt like that was a bit cheeky, to be honest. It also grated on me that Booth’s are now selling ranges of notebooks and stationary from their till point- the very same ranges that Waterstones sell. Now, don’t get me wrong, other bookshops are allowed to stock the same things as Waterstones. No biggie. But they had the EXACT same items laid out in the EXACT same way. It was a bit spooky and, as a Waterstones employee, it gave me the creeps a little bit. Are they trying to become a mainstream bookstore? Will they stop selling second hand books? What will become of Booth’s??
Top Tip: THIS IS SCI-FI HEAVEN. The lowest floor offers a mix of Crime and Sci-Fi/Fantasy, the latter of which is one of the best collections I have ever seen. The range is split between new books and second hand copies, so you can find your favourites from the high street while also browsing some long lost, hard-core sci-fi gems. There is also an extremely comfortable leather swivel chair that you can sink into directly in front of Booth’s own classic comic book display. Bliss.
Backfold Books and Bygones
One of the smallest bookshops in Hay-On-Wye, Backfold Books and Bygones houses a large range of antique hardbacks that you won’t be able to let go of once you’ve picked one up. While it can be a bit pricey, you always know that whatever you are buying it is most likely a rare, and often beautiful, copy in good overall condition. I have found multiple hardback copies of some of my favourite classical texts and if you ever want an antique hardback copy of Dickens then there really is nowhere else to go.
While this iconic style bookstore isn’t the largest in Hay, it manages to fit a huge range of stock into a small space. You can find fiction, non-fiction, new, second-hand and even antiquarian books in this friendly and functional shop. The Hay-On-Wye Booksellers also buy unwanted books, so you can always contact them on their website if you have something particularly interesting to sell.
Fun Fact: The bookshop owners often keep their dogs bed in their window display, meaning that the cute canine can often be seen carefully making his way through the titles, adding to the homely, warming atmosphere of the store.
Murder and Mayhem
This very niche market bookstore is not one to be missed by any fans of a dark literary experience. Specialising in True Crime, Horror and Detective Classics, Murder and Mayhem is a store that could easily be missed by a passer-by. But if you do manage to spot it, take a moment to really take in the exterior of the building and you’ll notice the creatures painted in black along the store front, adding to the stores theatrical charm.
Hay Cinema Bookshop
The biggest bookstore in Hay, The Cinema Bookshop is an unending maze of towering shelving. While there are signs at every turn, it is far too easy to get lost in this labyrinth of a bookstore, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Wandering around the narrow isles in no particular direction is one of the biggest joys of this shop, as you never know where you are going to end up or what you are going to end up buying.
The Hay Cinema Bookshop has by far the most impressive range of contemporary titles, and tends to hold all of the most popular, bestselling authors. Like Booth’s it sells both new and second hand books, but the difference being that even those that are in perfect condition sell at half the price here than what they would at Booth’s. While the sections of the store are a little haphazard and, to a Waterstones employees eye, don’t make the most logical sense, you can’t help but get the feeling that the books are well looked after. While it is a little stuffy at times, like most shops in Hay, the Cinema Bookshop is surprisingly neat, clean and fresh. It is one of the neatest second hand bookstores that I have ever come across, and this makes browsing the wares a really enjoyable and easy experience.
Top Tip: Try not to stand directly under the heaters that appear every so often in the store, they get really hot and can become quite uncomfortable! Also watch out for dips in the floor.
The Honesty Bookshops
While Hay is still home to many fantastic bookstores, my true love lies with the honesty bookshops that are dotted around the little town. You never know what you might find and the idea of trust amongst booklovers somehow fills you with a heart-warming faith in humanity and the bookloverworld.
There is an honesty shop situated directly in front of the Hay Cinema Bookshop which offers a huge range of titles, but which I have noticed over the years is mostly non-fiction.
Another honesty shop sits atop the hill in Hay, connected to the Castle building. This one offers not only books but a wide range of antiques as well, so you can pick up some gorgeous champagne flutes, a hat and a good Wodehouse novel all at the same time. One of my favourite sites in the whole of Hay, the cobbled pathway outside gives a lovely view of some of the other shops and adds to historic atmosphere of the place.
Once you’re done there you can follow the cobbled path round to the front of the Castle, perhaps stopping along the way at one of the new cafes which have opened, and look down upon one of the most famous honest shops in the UK. While the Castle itself used to house a wonderful bookshop, which has recently closed, the honesty shop at the foot of the Castle has one of the most beautiful settings for any booklover. Descend the old wooden stairs until you are about half way down and you will be standing in my favourite spot. In one direction you have the perfectly clipped little lawn and the rows of wooden shelving, holding a mystery of books, but turn the other way and you have the perfect view of the Castle, close enough to see the exquisite detail of the architecture but far enough away to be able to take in the whole thing at once (it’s only little, you see).
While I have so much more to say about Hay, I couldn’t possibly fit everything in. But one last thing I will say is this: Hay-On-Wye is a gorgeous, sleepy town filled with hidden nooks and crannies in which you can hide away and read. Whether it’s in the castle grounds, in one of the pubs, on a bench along the Wye or in a beautiful, rose filled garden, make the most of the peace and quiet with a good book, because that’s what makes Hay truly perfect for booklovers everywhere.
A final fun fact: apparently this tiny town in Wales is actually twinned with Timbuktu. Who would’ve guessed?
This is an edited version of an article I wrote for the Waterstones Blog, which can be found via the Waterstones website.