FORMER US president Bill Clinton, following a visit to the eclectic and energising Hay Festival in the enchanting border town known as Wales’ Town of Books, described the event as a “The Woodstock of the Mind”. It would be hard to disagree with him.
Established in 1988 in Hay-on-Wye – Y Gelli Gandryll in Welsh – in Powys, the annual ten-day festival was intended as an English language companion to the National Eisteddfod’s literary activities. Originally concentrating on the written word, it has since expanded to encompass a plethora of arts and lifestyle activities and goes by the formal title of the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts , held at the end of May and early June.
It offers readings, interviews, concerts, book launches, trade stands, yoga, arts and crafts and exhibitions, proffering a laid-back bohemian vibe for the literati who enjoy their good times in the slower lane of life, mixing arts with fine dining and good wine. Not that you’ll lack for a burger and a pint if that’s more your style. Broadcasters worldwide flock to its open-air tented site that’s within easy walking distance on the outskirts of town, somewhat reminiscent of a Bedouin camp, or to various other indoor venues that are utilised.
And it certainly attracts some of the world’s top stars from the world of literature, politics and raconteurism. Those taking to its myriad stages over the years have included Clinton and his daughter Chelsea, Michael Morpurgo, Helen Pankhurst, Martin Amis, Shazia Mirza, Salman Rushdie, Boris Johnson, Stephen Fry, Germaine Greer, Ian Rankin, Michael Ignatieff, and firebrand socialist politician the late Tony Benn, who famously declared of the festival: “In my mind it’s replaced Christmas”.
Indeed such has been its impact that it’s spawned countless other copycat events globally actually carrying the name “Hay Festival”, including siblings in Denmark, Kenya, Mexico, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, the Maldives and Northern Ireland, to name just a few.
And it has also set up its own four-day Winter Weekend festival every November to accommodate those who just can’t possibly wait for twelve whole months between their cultural fixes. Its commencement coincides with festivities surrounding the switching on of the town’s Christmas lights, and includes the Hay Food Festival with its choice of winter produce, and an artisan Christmas arts and crafts street market.
Not that the town doesn’t have anything to offer the drooling bibliophile every other day of the year. It truly merits its title as Wales’ Town of Books. It boasts an amazing twenty or so bookshops – some massive, some specializing in particular genres – and a number of other intriguing shops selling antiques and ephemera, in an otherwise sleepy place of just 2,000 souls. Visitors amble peacefully from shop to shop all day long, bags heaving with books, popping into a coffee shop or bar every now and then to feed and water themselves as they dive into the wonders of their latest purchases.
You’ll find hundreds of thousands of books of all genres, both new and used, on the miles of heaving bookshelves propped up throughout town. I’ve spent hours upon eyeball-numbing hours thumbing through a shelf’s volumes looking for bargains or treasures, or preferably both, only to realise that is just one shelf out of hundreds.
Look out too for the unusual open-air second hand bookshop – where payment is made voluntarily via an honesty box – in the grounds of Hay Castle. The castle is in reality an imposing 17th century Jacobean mansion house, built on to the remains of a 12th century Norman defensive structure right on the border that was sacked by Llywelyn the Great’s forces in 1233. The castle was undergoing renovation work on our last visit, so admission wasn’t possible.
It was once the home of the late, somewhat eccentric, socialist entrepreneur Richard Booth. When he inherited the castle and his uncle’s Brynmelyn country estate in the 1960s, he pondered hard on how he could bring some much-needed prosperity to the area. He decided to open a huge second-hand book shop in the old fire station, a Grade II listed building, importing thousands of books from libraries in the USA that were being closed down. Countless others soon followed his inspired leadership, with book shops cropping up like mushrooms throughout town.
In 1977 in a markedly successful publicity stunt Booth proclaimed the town to be an independent kingdom, started issuing passports and bank notes, and appointed Goldie his horse as prime minister.
It is a fitting memorial that Richard Booth’s Bookshop on Lion Street is just one of many still drawing in the masses, also incorporating a compact cinema, café and well-being studio. It offers the very essence of what makes Hay-on-Wye what it is.