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Hay on Wye: Book town in the heart of wales

I arrive Herefordshire, the nearest train station to my destination  and have missed the last bus going to Hay on Wye. “It left at about…

I arrive Herefordshire, the nearest train station to my destination  and have missed the last bus going to Hay on Wye. “It left at about a quarter to six,” an elderly woman says to me. It’s a little over six pm and I seem to be the only one heading that way at this time of the day. So, I catch a taxi which cost me six times more than the bus fare.

The taxi driver regales me with stories of the literary and cultural history of Hay.” Are you going for the arts  or literary festival?”  I tell him I am going for the latter.” Oh, the literary festival is huge,” he says, “but you are a tad early. It’s in June.” I explain that there is a Winter edition.

This edition of the literary festival is described by the Hereford times as the “much smaller, more intimate sibling of the Summer Edition.” Everyone I ask tells me Hay is a little Welsh market town full of books which attract 500,000 tourists annually. No one  is able to fully describe the town adequately and I immediately understand this difficulty once I arrived Hay that evening. It’s not quite a city and it is hardly a fully fledged town. With a population of about 1,900 people, it looks like a place straight out of Alice in Wonderland. By night, it is quiet, at rest, serene and friendly. By day, I fell in love. Hay on Wye seats resplendent on a lush green countryside with spectacular sites of great scenic beauty. Apart from how beautiful it was and how friendly the people were, I was completely bowled over by the number of bookshops in such a small space, earning it the title of the world’s official “Book town.” There are about forty bookshops in all. The roads are narrow, just enough for one car at a time, and two if you manoeuvre properly. One can walk round the entire town in thirty minutes.

As for serenity, Hay dwellers tell me, it does not stay this way all year round. A storekeeper in a bookshop says, “In the Summer, there is no room. It becomes a Mecca to the worlds literary community. During this period,” he continues, “all rooms are taken up and  are often booked for upwards of three months. So, if you are coming in June, you better make your booking in April.” I believed him, but I was later to find out that I had to book for longer. My accommodation  was at a nice little inn owned by an eighty year old man and his seventy five year old wife, who were not Wi-Fi  compliant and directed me to a pub where it might be available. It was not. However, I liked the inn so much, I asked the couple if I could book it for the June literary festival.”Oh sorry,” they said to me smiling at each other, we have writers who come here year after year for the summer literary festival and they always stay with us. So, we cannot give you their rooms.” “So, what do visitors  who have no prior booking do when they come in the summer?” I asked, curious about how they manage guests in June, a period  I am informed  attracts about 70,000 writers, musicians, artists, literary agents, authors,  booksellers, publishers and creative persons. “Oh you can hire a tent  out in the fields, fully functional with its bathroom, a lot of writers stay in the tents,” he said, pointing at a low mountainside of greens. The winter festival , although paired down, is still packed full of guests who have come  from different parts of England to enjoy a spectacular literary weekend.

I decide that before the events begin in earnest, I should visit the bookshops  and get familiar with the beautiful town. I start with the Hay administrative headquarters ,in the city centre. Its windows and doors  are replete with posters of the  festival. Inside the office is a beehive of activities and huge display of pictures of past speakers.  There are Hay memorabilia including mugs, notepads, branded pencils, limited edition short stories of famous writers and even beach reading chairs. At the community centre, is  the official bookshop to the festival, the Pemberton Bookshop,  which has on display, books of authors on the programme. I go round the event venues and I am glad that although four venues would host  events, including a talk by BBC Security correspondent, Gordon Carrera, on  his new book, a children’s literary event, a session with  ManBooker prize winner, Carol Birch, they are all within minutes of each other .I  stop at a quaint bookshop and  the shopkeeper recommends, Kafka’s Last Love. I purchase it for four pounds which I thought was ridiculously cheap for a hardcover book. The shopkeeper agrees and reminds me that Hay is famous for second hand books, although the book I am holding looks brand new. And therein lies the story of Hay.

The literary tradition of the town started with Richard Booth, a graduate of Oxford university who returned to his hometown, Hay,  to open a second hand bookshop in 1962.He followed this up with media related events which  attracted the world to Hay and set the tone for one of the world’s biggest literary festivals . The Richard Booth bookshop lies in the centre of town  and is the largest, with all sorts of books and an incredibly alluring ambience. I go in there, I buy a book, have a bite and I returned there the following day as it is a venue for at least five of the events at the festival. The festival website  declares, “For more than twenty years, Hay festival has brought writers, thinkers, musicians, filmmakers and scientists together around the world to cross cultural and genre barriers, and foster the exchange of minds…” Past speakers  at Hay have included former president, Bill Clinton, Germaine Greer, Margaret Atwood, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ben Okri who describes Hay as an” almost magical experience”. I cannot agree  more.


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