For me no trip to Wales would be complete without a visit to Hay-on-Wye. Not just because it is a pretty border village with history, country walks and a few quirks. But also because this is Britain’s Town of Books, its streets crammed with secondhand book shops.
Britain’s Town of Books
I turned up on a drizzly Monday morning, but fortunately there’s no shortage of things to do in Hay-on-Wye on a wet day. There are more than twenty secondhand and antiquarian booksellers here. You can find both general and specialist shops, with subjects ranging from music and railways to “Murder and Mayhem”.
It all started in 1962 when Richard Booth, a local resident, was looking for ways to regenerate his home town. It was a time when many large libraries in the United States were closing, and he recruited several fellow townsmen to travel with him to America to buy the abandoned books and bring them back to Wales. This was the foundation of Richard Booth’s shop, which now claims to be the largest secondhand bookshop in Europe. It was not long before he persuaded other booksellers to join him. The “town of books” was born; by 1977 around forty other shops had opened in the town. The booktown model was later copied by other towns around the world.
In recent years the secondhand bookshop has become something of an endangered species. The Internet has encouraged online sales, and e-readers have reduced the number of physical books bought and sold. Hay-on-Wye has not been immune to this trend: it has fewer shops now than it had in 1977. However, there are still enough shops to satisfy the most avid book hunter, and the town remains a place of literary pilgrimage. Its reputation is further secured by the annual Literary Festival, held at the beginning of June, which attracts an estimated 80,000 visitors.
Independent Republic of Hay-on-Wye
The town has other curiosities apart from books. By establishing the Town of Books Richard Booth brought Hay-on-Wye to the world’s attention and revitalised its economy. As a publicity stunt on 1 April 1977 (April Fool’s Day) he styled himself King of Hay and declared independence for the town. The event was picked up by the media and it caught the public imagination. Even today, forty years later, the town is often referred to as the Independent Republic of Hay-on-Wye!
Another quirk is that the town is twinned with Timbuktu, the fabled town in North Africa. In fact, the twinning is not as unlikely as it might seem. Timbuktu chose Hay-on-Wye as its twin because of a shared history of the written word (Timbuktu is famous as an ancient centre of Islamic learning, and it has a vast collection of medieval manuscripts). As you walk around Hay-on-Wye you can follow the Timbuktu Trail, designed to highlight the similarities and differences between the two towns.
What Else Can You See and Do in Hay-on-Wye?
Even without the bookshops Hay-on-Wye is worth a visit. It is a medieval town, founded by the Normans in the 12th century. You can explore the narrow winding streets, passing the old castle and the Cheese Market. Or head outside the town for open countryside, the beautiful Wye Valley and the historic Offa’s Dyke Trail.
But when I emerged from the shops with my pile of secondhand books, it was still raining. So I decided to leave the countryside for another time. I went in search of a traditional Welsh pub instead.