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Hay-on-Wye: How to spend a weekend in "the Town of Books"

BY Jade Braham

22nd Feb 2023 Travel Guides

Hay-on-Wye: How to spend a weekend in "the Town of Books"

As an “independent kingdom” dedicated to books and literary festivals, Hay-on-Wye is a town like no other, and you can find your next favourite bookshop with this guide

With its position on the border between Wales and England, Hay-on-Wye—commonly known as Hay—is an unusual market town with a distinct personality.

For one, it’s surrounded by the best countryside Wales has to offer, including the brooding Brecon Beacons National Park, and the quiet lull of the River Wye for which the town is named.

"An unconventional bookshop owner pronounced himself the 'King of Hay' and declared the town independent of the UK"

Also, in 1977, an unconventional bookshop owner, Richard Booth, pronounced himself the “King of Hay” and declared the town independent of the United Kingdom. From then, Hay acquired over 20 independent bookshops, and an internationally renowned, star-studded literary festival, and revamped its Norman castle and medieval market.

Here’s what not to miss.

Hay-on-Wye the town of books—interior of a bookshop

Browse the bookshops

The narrows streets of Hay are where you’ll find the delighted squeals and subsequent mournful phrase of, “I really shouldn’t buy another copy of this book!”

Such scenes are thanks to Richard Booth, who opened a second-hand bookshop in 1961, before establishing a bookshop realm. Today, the Richard Booth’s Bookshop extends over three floors stocking everything under the sun, from newly published novels to medieval classics like Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. This labyrinth also has a café and cinema.

The Murder and Mayhem shop is the most immersive, displaying a chalk outline of a dead body on the floor, along with bestsellers like Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes. Opposite is Addyman Books, with burrow-like rooms featuring £1 books and an eclectic range of art, photography and music reads. My favourite, The Addyman Annexe, has grand, leather-bound anthologies.

Market stalls in Hay-on-Wye

Explore the town

With no high-street chains, shopping in Hay is about discovering family-run businesses, eco-friendly homewares, and off-the-wall products. Set within The Craft Centre is Otherworldz, an emporium inspired by the hippy era and stocked with festival essentials like natural incenses, multi-coloured clothes and zodiac jewellery. There are, likewise, several galleries, including The Lion Street Gallery, which was rated one of the best in Wales by Culture Trip.

There’s also an ancient market that’s been trading for over 700 years. The Hay Market Day is held every Thursday from 9am to 2.30pm, and it’s here where Hay’s community spirit is at its best! You can purchase artisan arts and crafts, vintage wares and antiques, but it’s Alex Gooch Artisan Baker that you should be looking for! His stall has freshly baked breads crafted from plant-based ingredients. 

View from the castle tower in Hay-on-Wye

Climb the castle’s tower

Casting a shadow across the entire town is an impressive Norman castle with Jacobean and Victorian architectural elements, along with beautiful Dutch gables and brick chimneys.

As the story goes, the castle was built in a single day by a Norman noblewoman called Matilda. Apparently, she was a giantess who hurled stones from the Wye to build the castle. Throughout its history, Hay Castle has seen turbulent times, including housing Matilda’s husband who murdered his enemies in “a Games of Thrones style”, and several attacks from Welsh princes and English kings. In the 1960s, Richard Booth bought the castle and added a bookshop in its moat. Today, all these books are less than £1!

"Climb the tower of Hay's Norman castle for panoramic views or purchase a peerage to become a lord or lady of Hay"

Following its multimillion-pound, ten-year restoration project, the castle has been opened to the public for the first time in 900 years. You should climb its tower for panoramic views or purchase a peerage to become a lord or lady of Hay. 

Hay-on-Wye's clock tower

Attend the Hay Festival

For almost two weeks in May and June, this sleepy town comes alive with the world’s largest literary festival—Hay Festival.

"This year the town's literary festival, Hay Festival, includes Booker Prize winner Margaret Atwood and musician Dua Lipa"

Its timetable of live music, theatrical performances, live debates, literary readings and talks bring national treasures like Stephen Fry and Benedict Cumberbatch to the town. This year, look out for Booker Prize winner Margaret Atwood and musician Dua Lipa!

Grab a meal

With a focus on supporting local, independent businesses and produces, Chapters Restaurant is a must-try! Its wholesome five-course menu is amazing; and, since it was awarded the Michelin Green Star for sustainability, you can indulge without having a guilty conscience!

For dessert, head to the award-winning The Old Black Lion—which also has rooms—and the most delicious chocolate, rum and coconut torte and sticky toffee pudding with date puree. The Blue Boar likewise serves the best traditional ales.

Alternatively, Tomatitos Tapas Bar offers Spanish-inspired dishes, including albóndigas en salsa de tomate, which features the most tender pork and herb meatballs!

The throne of the independent booktown Hay-on-Wye

Go beyond Hay

No trip to Hay-on-Wye is complete without hiring a canoe to glide down the River Wye—the UK’s fourth-longest river. If watersports aren’t for you, then head on a guided walk.

There’s also lots of walks in the Brecon Beacons and at Offa’s Dyke, which follows the ancient border between Wales and England.

All photos and banner photo: Jade Braham

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