An Insider’s Guide To Hay-On-Wye
Straddling the border between England and Wales, the tiny town of Hay-on-Wye in the UK has always had a slight whiff of anti-establishment about it. But its reputation for a mild form of small-town anarchy was sealed on 1 April 1977 when local bookseller Richard Booth rode his horse through the town and proclaimed Hay an independent kingdom. Wearing a tin-foil crown and carrying an orb and sceptre made from a discarded toilet cistern, he declared himself King of Hay.
Booth passed away in 2019 but, 45 years on, his non-conformist legacy still lingers in the town. Defying the Age of Amazon, Hay is home to more than 20 independent bookshops (in a town of 2,000 residents, that’s more bookshops per capita than anywhere else in the world). Next week, 100,000 visitors will travel to the Hay Festival for literary talks, comedy and music. Once called ‘the Woodstock of the mind’, this year’s highlights include Hillary Clinton, Bernardine Evaristo and Elif Shafak, and a fundraising event for Ukraine headlined by Benedict Cumberbatch. (There are also other Hay Festivals around the world, including Mexico, Peru, Colombia, France and Spain.) Beyond the famed festival, however, there are a wealth of things to see and do in the town. Here is the Service95 ultimate guide to Hay-on-Wye.
Bookshops: It’s impossible to go to Hay and not visit a bookshop. Start with Richard Booth’s Bookshop, a local institution and the largest second-hand bookshop in Europe. From here, just follow your nose. If your idea of a good bedtime read is a grizzly true-crime page-turner, head to Murder & Mayhem. If rhyming couplets are more your thing, The Poetry Bookshop is the only second-hand poetry bookshop in the UK.
Shopping: What Hay mercifully lacks in big-brand high-street stores it makes up for in independent shops. The Old Electric Shop is a rambling bohemian joint featuring industrial furniture, artisan clothing and jewellery, and a delicious veggie cafe. The window displays alone at the wonderfully eccentric vintage store Bain & Murrin’s World Famous Emporium are worth a visit. Get your arthouse fix at the Flaming Lady of Hay, a quirky gallery-bookshop championing female artists.
Eating: If it’s seasonal fine food you’re after, Chapters gives any high-end establishment a run for its money. Set in a tiny former chapel, it was recently awarded a Michelin Green Star for “outstanding eco-friendly commitments”. For a more laid-back vibe, head to Tomatitos tapas bar, where owner Thalia will keep you entertained for hours. For something truly unique, risk getting lost outside Hay and find your way to the unmarked field hosting Off Grid Gourmet, where chef Hugh Sawyer serves up a seriously impressive feast using only a wood stove and a smoker. As he says, “It’s Christmas gone mad.”
Hay Festival 2022, 26 May-5 June
Maria Padget is the Consulting Editor at Service95 and lives in Hay-on-Wye