The other weekend, my very good friend Harriet and I took a trip to the medieval town of Hay on Wye, renown of course for its annual literary festival and unusual number of second hand book shops. For someone like me who adores real books, this is something of a Mecca, yet curiously I didn’t enter one of them and more striking managed to leave the town without purchasing a single book!
The town itself is just in Wales in Powys, a couple of miles north of the Black Mountains and within the Brecon Beacons National Park and adjoins the county of Herefordshire in England. It sits along the River Wye, as its name suggests and there is a marvellous road bridge that carries you across this shallow but fast flowing river and offers excellent views, either on foot or by car.
What is curious about Hay on Wye, apart from the bookshops and the vast number of independent shops and obvious lack of chain stores, is the fact that there are two castles. Firstly there is the remains of the earthworks from the Motte and Bailey castle close to St. Mary’s Church on the western side of the town, the bailey now under tarmac and a large car park. It would have been built as part of the push into Wales after the Norman Conquest. If you were not aware of its existence, as I suspect many people are not, it is easily missed. The second castle, more dominantly, sits high up on in the centre of town, sadly now in stone ruins with a more recent mansion house attached.
It is not a terribly large town and doesn’t take long to transverse its higgledy-piggledy streets, which probably remain very much as they developed in the middle ages when they served their Norman Lordships, but there is a beautiful collection of architecture to encounter. If like me you like to look up above the shop fronts and plate glass windows of the ground level, you will enjoy a terrific feast of old buildings, sagging rooftops, chimney, gabled ends, dormer windows, cornices and finials, cobbled together in a way that only British towns seems to do. There is an excellent example of a butter market made up of Doric columns of classic Roman or Grecian design, unfortunately locked when I visited.
As to what shops I did venture in, well, Harriet took me in to buy some clothes from some excellent independent businesses and I was very thrilled with my selection. I will have to go back again and take a large wallet of spending money to purchase a big stack of books.