Hay dude

Hay is the place to go for a literary harvest


This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Every summer for the best part of twenty years, my old friend Simon Gordon and I have headed for Hay-on-Wye and its bookshops. We stand in the big car park on Oxford Road, look out over the verdant treeline and the banking hills rising to the distance dotted with hill farms, breathe in the fresh air and sense that peace is upon us.

Not for me the Festival. Better, far better, to go on a weekday in late August when Hay is on holiday with walkers but not engulfed by the glitterati and their gawpers.

Lion Street, Hay-On-Wye, with bunting on a sunny day during the book festival. Included are Richard Booth’s bookshop and the Victorian clock tower.

When the sun (one hopes for sun, but it is Wales) throws shafts and casts shadows down its narrow lanes and passages, Hay is at its best. Step into the Old Black Lion or Three Tuns (mind your head) for quenching cask ale and homemade food. Have cakes for tea, or any manner of ice creams at any time of day at Shepherd’s Parlour on High Town.

Potter around the Antiques Market on Market Street for bric-a-brac or The Haywain just up the road if your taste is toward traditional Georgian and Victorian polish. Explore the byways of the old town and the fl int and stone walls on Belmont Road where pink hollyhock sway sweetly in the breeze. But best of all, of course, are the books.

The late Richard Booth, soi-disant “King of Hay”, kicked off its craze for second-hand books half a century ago. He acquired the defunct fire station and began importing American library books bought at basement prices. Richard lit a lamp to lure more antiquarian moths to his flame and by the 1980s Hay had become a literary “destination”.

Now alongside the refurbished Booth emporium, there is the Addyman Annex on Castle Street (very good for first editions as well as history and literary biography), the Poetry Bookshop on Lion Street and the Cinema Bookshop, a cavernous construction wherein you will find anything and everything. It is also conveniently close to the carpark should you make purchases of industrial quantity.

Over the years Simon and I have lined our bookshelves with a Hay harvest, although I fear that his languish in storage awaiting renovation of his house in Devon. If you like little leatherbound luxuries or possessing out-of-print prose then Hay-on-Wye, indeed just about any small town with a second-hand place, is worth a visit. From such shops I have unearthed A Durable Fire, the letters between Duff and Diana Cooper edited by their granddaughter Artemis; The Shooting Party, Isabel Colegate’s elegiac essay on the death of a man and of a way of life as the sun set on Edwardian England, that last autumn before the trenches; Noel Coward’s diaries of the 1950s — witty, waspish and forlorn for a world he and his friends were losing and which is lost utterly now. And I have been able to collect the biographies of an assortment of forgettable US Presidents from John Tyler to Warren Harding. None of this has broken the bank at Monte Carlo.

If you like little leatherbound luxuries or possessing out-of-print prose then Hay-on-Wye is worth a visit

In a world which is wiki’d and wired where seemingly everything can be found “virtually” and without effort, there must remain a place for the physical volume — the weight, the touch and the smell of old paper and binding — and the pure pleasure of its discovery.

Those of us worn enough to remember the Yellow Pages commercial featuring “JR Hartley” will recall his painful pursuit through many dusty bookstores in search of a copy of Fly Fishing. His joy in at last finding a copy — to borrow from John F Kennedy — was not because it was easy but because it was hard. Things that come too easily can never be truly appreciated. Modernists may cry “the Kindle is King”. I say God Bless the King of Hay.

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