KIT SALISBURY travelled from the USA to visit a town she had only read about, and discovered that it boasts a newly-refurbished four-star hotel
Nestled in the verdant Welsh Marches between Wales and Herefordshire, Hay-on-Wye offers everything this traveller could want: a charming, walkable town with points of interest at every turn, a tea room or two, and 30 (yes, I did say 30) bookshops.
What’s the first thing an American bibliophile and Anglophile does when she arrives in Hay-on-Wye? She checks her pulse to see if she might have died and gone to heaven while she wasn’t looking!
But, first things first: where to stay? We were lucky enough to find ourselves at The Swan at Hay, a recently refurbished oasis of civility and calm – a perfect place to relax and refresh between forays of exploration and shopping.
This beautifully-appointed, four-star hotel has been newly refurbished and is perfectly situated on the edge of the town centre, a few miles down the road from its big sister, the grand country house hotel Llangoed Hall.
Boasting a two-rosette restaurant and two bars, the menu at the Swan prides itself on creative uses of locally-sourced ingredients and serving seasonal Welsh dishes; so expect Welsh sausage, fresh vegetables from neighbouring farms, smoked salmon caught in the Severn and Wye rivers, and scrumptious Coedcanlas honey.
We enjoyed dinner on the terrace, overlooking a garden that would be perfect for a quick round of croquet. We watched swifts swooping and pirouetting through the evening sky, chasing their own dinner of (locally-sourced) insects.
The grade-II -listed Swan has 19 spacious bedrooms but no lift, which may be a challenge for the less fit. However the fresh, stylish decor ranging from powder blues and pinks in the comfy bedrooms to bold cerise in the dining room makes it cooling for stays in summer and warm and cosy in winter.
Ideally located for walkers being on the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park, Hay is a delightful market town that has found a way to survive in the 21st century: and become known as the “Town of Books.”
Unlike many small towns and villages in the US and UK that have succumbed to the promised convenience of chain stores, only to have their local family-owned businesses go under, Hay has planted a firm foot in the ‘no, thank you’ camp.
According to my new friend, Jonathan Buck, owner of Forge Framing & Gallery, Hay residents were offered a Tesco store nearby but wisely voted it down, opting instead to support their neighbours. On my walks around town, I found inviting displays of fresh produce at greengrocers and a bustling trade at the butcher's.
I was also heartened to find a hardware store that still sells everything from a handful of nails to rolls of chicken wire, and see visitors and locals enjoying lunch at local eateries.
Even on a sleepy summer morning, there was still lots of browsing being done at every bookshop I entered – which was, I confess, nearly all of them! In addition to promoting a culture of books, Hay also hosts the renowned annual Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts, bringing writers, performers and celebrated speakers together in late May from all over the world.
After 30 years of building the festival’s profile and presence, the organisers report that ticket sales now hover around 250,000, an amazing feat for this modest town. We booked our visit just after the festival so we could enjoy a more typical weekend without the hustle and bustle.
As for those fabled bookshops, we found something, quite literally and literarily, for everyone. I tried to estimate how many linear feet of shelf space it must take to support this cottage industry but lost track after a couple of miles.
With an estimated one million books at any one time in this tiny town, you can find everything from those green (or orange)-and-white Penguin Classics to breezy new best sellers to venerable antique volumes bound in fine leather. Every genre of prose and every iamb of poetry is on display. And non-fiction subject matter?
Try cooking, the Himalayas, fly fishing, mythology, period costumes, aviation, political theory and, as Bedlam Books enigmatically lists it, “obscurities.” My musical travelling companion found so much sheet music for viola at Hancock & Monks Music, she had to make two trips.
Fleur de Lys, in quintessentially English fashion despite their French name, focuses on books on transportation, the railways and rail memorabilia. For rare and out-of-print children’s books, you must visit the flower-bedecked Rose’s Books.
And then there was my personal favourite, Murder and Mayhem, specializing in hmmm, let’s guess! Oh, and the books aren’t only on shelves, they’re stacked in teetering piles on every flat surface imaginable: floors, benches, stair treads. The sheer acreage of books in these shops can seem overwhelming and yet the displays are often playful and, at times, ingenious.
These people clearly love their books and want to share that love with one and all. My only word to the wise: don’t expect the inventory to be computerised.
Most of the shops I visited simply had too many volumes coming in and going out, plus shared consignment display space with smaller vendors, so computer tracking just wasn’t feasible.
On our last day, after I’d visited Hay Cinema Bookshop and come away with a new volume on the battle of Bosworth Field and one on Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last king of Wales, I celebrated with a visit to The Fudge Shop. A sweet end to a decidedly tasty visit!
B&B at The Swan at Hay is priced from £125 per room per night. www.swanathay.com /01497 821188.