Hay-on-Wye is a charmer of a village, nestled on the bank of the gently rolling River Wye in the valley that shares its name. It is much-beloved by visitors, having earned the moniker “town of books”, and is renowned for its annual Hay Festival, a literary mecca of sorts that I have yet to have the pleasure of experiencing. It seems like every time I go back to Wales, I end up stopping in Hay, and this time was (thankfully) no different.
Hay is easy to see by foot, and with all its lovely little lanes and alley ways, why wouldn’t you? Located right on the English border, Hay has retained its identity as a market town, and if you’re lucky enough to come by on a Thursday, you can see the thriving market for yourself. Stalls sell everything from socks to freshly-caught fish and plenty of local crafts in the square. If you want to sit down for a bit to eat, The Granary is a rustic tearoom serving no-nonsense fare in cozy ambiance. Their hearty, warming soups are an especially good idea.
Perusing the storefronts and browsing the shops is an activity unto itself in Hay. Get lost wandering the aisles of the gorgeously-restored Richard Booth’s Bookshop, or even settle into one of the comfy armchairs with a new read. Addyman Books and Murder and Mayhem are also worth poking your head into, rather than just admiring their admittedly photogenic facades. If children’s literature is your thing, Rose’s Books has a collection that takes you back to a bygone era, with delicately-illustrated items and unique editions. Or you can stop by one of the many open-air free libraries tucked away in surprising places all over town. You may find you have to impose a book limit on yourself (I did).
There is much to love for bibliophiles in Hay. I recounted on this blog once my continued, failed attempts to secure a hand-bound journal from The Black Mountains Bindery. They are crafted so lovingly, with such detail in their simplicity, that I desperately wanted one when I first visited the Black Mountains Bindery three years ago. The gentleman working there regretfully told me that purchases could only be made in cash and I, despondent but determined, promised I would come back one day. A year and a half later, much unexpectedly, I was back at the Black Mountains Bindery, only to find that he had sold his last few books and had yet to make more. He told me his paper suppliers had gone out of business, but that, having been around for 400 years, they had made a good run of it. So on my most recent visit, we had barely left the car in the car park when I was marching my way back to Oxford Street, to the Black Mountains Bindery. What would it be this time? Would he be out to lunch? Would he have gone out of business? The shop is so dim that, from the outside, I thought it was indeed closed. You can imagine my relief and sense of vindication as I walked in.
“I have been coming back here once a year for the past three years,” I said with no preamble, to the startled man who obviously did not recognise me. “And each time I haven’t been able to get a journal, but I love them so much. Do you have any today?”
I could have jumped for joy when he said yes.
Although Hay-on-Wye was only a brief stop on our Great British Roadtrip, had we stayed the night, I would have happily revisited The Old Black Lion. I have boarded here once and eaten on numerous occasions, and if you are looking for a historic inn with a ghost and high-end country fare, this is the place for you. An inn that dates back to the 17th century, The Old Black Lion was reported to have hosted Oliver Cromwell himself. Its inhabitants are notably cheerier these days, save for the ghost who purportedly haunts room no. 4. The lamb they serve remains, for me, the best lamb I have ever had, and the butter they bring out with the bread is to die for. I didn’t know butter could be so flavourful, earthy and salty and creamy all at once, before I had theirs. It’s also nice to cozy up by the crackling fire in the dining room, but watch your head on the low ceiling beams!
Hay-on-Wye is a joy for foodies, bibliophiles, and outdoorsmen alike. (There are many outfitters along the river for canoe/kayak trips, and the Wye Valley Walk and Offa’s Dyke Path are both nearby.) It is also a place with much significance for me and Matthew, so it was the perfect stop to kick off our Great British Roadtrip!