It was warming up for The Festival here, the annual pilgrimage for a quarter of a million (or so my landlady tells me) literary, arty, philosophical types to the Kingdom of Hay. For so it was declared by Richard Booth, the instigator of the global fame of this book-centric town and its ‘largest arts festival in the world’. Over the next week or so the population of around 5000 will be swamped by incomers and I hope they have fat wallets, for this pretty town deserves it. With its river, derelict but hopefully being rebuilt castle, a cheese hall, more pubs than you can shake a stick at, even more restaurants, cobbled streets, high-class delis and knickknack shops it has a lot going for it. People on early morning walks even say hello to you.
I think the closest I can get to a one word description is ‘genteel’, although in a positive life affirming way. It feel safe, happy and comfortable in its skin.
I’m in Wales but the local accents don’t give it away – or perhaps I have yet to meet a true local, for this is certainly the sort of place likely to fill with a well-off middle-class eco-warriors. Throw a stone across the river with a strong arm and it would land in England. I know this because I read it in a guidebook.
Did I mention books? Since Richard Booth’s first bookshop – and by the way his original is beautiful, airy and well-organised and with a cafe that encourages encourages you to stay even longer – over 30 more followed. It takes very little research to recognise that way over 1 million second-hand books are offer in this small town. You name it and you can buy it here. From publishers’ overstocks to antiquarians (aren’t they just old books?) and even a whole shop devoted to books about railways. This is book porn without the porn books, although it would not surprise me to find a little corner somewhere selling early- or high-class porn as well. As for me, I headed to the cookery sections and found everything from the ubiquitous Jamie through Anton Edelman to vintage professional kitchen guidance tomes. A mere £12.50 released three into my possession and not only will they occupy a few hours happy reading but two of them (Picnics by Claudia Roden and Creative Cuisine by the aforementioned Edelman) will even prove useful in my own culinary adventures.
The Thursday market was due the morning after I arrived. Advertisers as from 0800 onwards I guess I should have expected that it might not have been up and running as early as a French equivalent would be but nonetheless it, and a smaller flea market the following day, added colour to the already interesting streets. Some of the flea market vendors even had sufficient bravado to have a few second-hand books on offer. I resisted the temptation to buy one of Nigella’s early oeuvres.
So, lasting impressions. Pretty place in a gorgeous setting, amazingly friendly and helpful locals (one, when I asked directions, even came down from his ladder and went inside his house to get me a free town guide before giving precise and detailed directions to my dinner venue), shops and activities that will surely keep everyone occupied. What’s not to like? I will be back.