Hay-on-Wye, a Bookworm’s Paradise

Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye
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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.

Bookshops of Hay-on-Wye
The streets of Hay-on-Wye are full of secondhand and antiquarian bookshops

Britain’s Town of Books

We 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”.

Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye
Hay-on-Wye’s bookshops have thousands of books to choose from

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.

Richard Booth's bookshop
Richard Booth’s bookshop

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!

Timbuktu Trail sign
You can follow the Timbuktu Trail around 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.

Hay Castle
The old Norman castle of Hay-on-Wye

But when we emerged from the shops with our piles of secondhand books, it was still raining. So we decided to leave the countryside for another time. We went in search of a traditional Welsh pub instead.

Looking for accommodation in Hay-on-Wye? Check out the recommendations on Booking.com.

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12 thoughts on “Hay-on-Wye, a Bookworm’s Paradise”

  1. That was fascinating. How did you discover this town? People like Richard Booth do so much for rejuvenating towns. So neat that Booth’s store is the largest scone hand bookstore in the world but even more amazing that 80,000 people show up for the literary festival!

    1. Actually because I’ve always been a bit “bookish” I’ve know about Hay-on-Wye since I was a student. But I think a lot more people know about it now that they have the Festival.

  2. I went to the Hay-on-Wye Festival one year, years ago and as well as the quaint book shops, they had stalls in the street and castle, such a community feel! It’s great fun, and as you say, really quirky.
    Shame about the weather: it would’ve been great to sit in a tea shop and have an English Cream Tea amongst the books.

  3. I visited Hay-on-Wye this past October. It is a lovely town. I’d like to go back sometime for the Literary Festival but it is hard to imagine 80,000 people in this small town.

  4. Thanks for the introduction to the “Independent Republic of Hay-on-Wye!” Your photos show a town that looks like a fun place to visit and browse through the interesting little shops. Online e-books are a boon (to travelers especially) but there’s nothing like the anticipation of walking into a bookshop or library and finding a hefty book just waiting to be transport you to somewhere else!

  5. Since I migrate to secondhand stores wherever I go, I’ll have to make a point of getting to Hay-on-Wye. It’s a little amusing that the stores were initially stocked by books purchased from U.S. libraries, when we find the British Isles such a treasure trove of antique books!

  6. We are traveling to Wales next week and will look for Hay-on-Wye if it’s not to far from our way. We’ve been visiting book towns in the Netherlands and in France. It’s always a great experience. #BoomerTravelBloggers #Hay-On-Wye #Wales

  7. A whole town of second-hand bookstores? This sounds like heaven! 🙂 If Lisa has anything to say about it, we’ll be planning a trip to Wales just to visit Hay-on-Wye – sounds like a delightful place to visit. Thanks for sharing!

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About Karen

WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren. I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 60 countries at the last count). I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica (I still hope to get there one day…), and my current favourite destinations are Italy, Spain and North America. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way.

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