Making Plans for April & a Return to Hay-on-Wye

In April I’ll be busy with the last three books on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist. I’m nearing halfway in Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes, have just started Siddhartha Mukherjee’s dauntingly dense The Gene, and am still awaiting my library hold on David France’s How to Survive a Plague. With the shadow panel’s decision due by the 23rd, it’s going to be something of a struggle! If push comes to shove, I’ll have to leave Dickens aside for next month and call Mukherjee and/or France my doorstopper for April.

As to other planned posts for the month…

  • I read my second Margaret Laurence novel a little while back and just need to find time to write it up.
  • I’m taking part in a nonfiction blog tour for a bereavement memoir on the 11th.
  • I’m working on four review books, including two offered directly by the authors.
  • I’ll try to round up a few recent or upcoming theology titles for an Easter post.
  • If I get a chance, I’ll preview two or more recommended May releases.

Luckily, it’s a quieter month for me in terms of work deadlines. I’ve been working like a fiend to get ready for our short break to Hay-on-Wye, leaving Monday and returning Thursday evening. Tomorrow I’ll be submitting four completed reviews and scheduling a Wellcome Prize post for while we’re away, and then I’ll be able to breathe a big sigh of relief and allow myself some time off – always a difficult thing for freelancers to manage.

This will be our sixth trip to Hay-on-Wye, the Book Town in Wales. Our other visits clustered between 2004 and 2011; I can hardly believe it’s nearly six years since we’ve been back to one of our favorite places! Yet it’s a bittersweet return. On four of our previous trips, we stayed in the same B&B, a gorgeous eighteenth-century house with extensive gardens. It’s where we got engaged in 2006. It also served the finest breakfast known to man: organic Full English PLUS homemade cereals and jam to go with warm croissants; local single-variety apple juice PLUS all-you-can-drink tea. Around 2013 we toyed with the idea of going back, but didn’t make a serious enquiry until 2014. Alas, they’d closed temporarily while the hostess underwent breast cancer treatment. We wished them well, hoping we’d get a message when they reopened for business. Instead, we found her obituary in the Guardian last year.

So, although Hay is still our special place, we’re sad the experience won’t be quite the same. We also noticed that more shops have closed since last we visited, but there are still about 12, a lot for a town of its size. Some of these are top-class, like Booth’s, the Cinema Bookshop and Addyman’s. There will certainly be no dearth of tempting shopping opportunities. I’m not going with much of a plan in mind. Our general strategy is to start with the cheapest shops/bargain basements and then move on to more expensive and specialist ones.

Hay is better for browsing than for concerted searching for particular titles – for that you’re better off going online (many of the shops do Internet sales). It’s also not a place to go for cheap paperbacks – for that you’re better off at your local charity shop. So although I’m taking an updated list of books that are priorities to find, I don’t expect to make much of a dent in it. I’ll just wander and see what catches my eye. We’ll also visit Llanthony Priory and Clyro Church, go for a good country walk, and have lunch with a friend in the Brecon area.

Taking books to Hay is rather like taking coal to Newcastle, but it must be done. I’ve picked four topical reads to sample while I’m there: a selection from Reverend Francis Kilvert’s diary – he was the curate of Clyro from 1865 to 1872; Bruce Chatwin’s 1982 debut novel On the Black Hill, set on the England–Wales border; the obscure classic The Rebecca Rioter, about the Rebecca Riots against tolls in rural Wales in 1839–43; and a Kindle copy of The Airbnb Story, since we’re renting an Airbnb property this time.

But that’s not all. I need to make progress in at least some of the books I currently have on the go, too, so I will be loading up a book-themed tote bag with the following:

I call this my Hay-stack. Geddit? In progress on the Kindle are a poetry book and two religion books.

Now, the last thing I needed just before a trip to Hay was an influx of secondhand books, but I couldn’t help myself. This afternoon a local green initiative ran a swap shop where you bring things you don’t want anymore and go home with things you do want. I donated a couple of household items and a few books … but came away with 13 books. Good travel and literature finds. I’m particularly pleased with Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems and a Dave Eggers novel I’ve not read. It’s fun to think of the journeys these books have been on: John Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel (which I have already read, but would like to have around for reference) is an ex-library book all the way from Westborough, Massachusetts! I left my details so I can get involved with future local greening activities, too.

The one not pictured will be a gift.

I know a number of my readers are Hay regulars, or have at least made the trek once. If you have any up-to-date recommendations for us in terms of shopping or eating out in the area, do let me know (by tomorrow night if you can – we’re away from Monday morning).


See also: My review of Hay local interest book Under the Tump by Oliver Balch, and my Bookkaholic article on Book Towns.

Enjoy my Sarah Moss review while I’m away, and I’ll see you back here on Friday!

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21 thoughts on “Making Plans for April & a Return to Hay-on-Wye

  1. Good heavens. I’ve actually read some of these. Francis Kilvert’s Diaries and Jim Crace’s Quarantine, both read ages ago, I would highly recommend. Though it was also a long time ago, I remember being willing to lob Kitchen Confidential right across the kitchen …. but I can’t remember why, beyond the fact I was irritated. I’d love to read the John Sutherland too. I may look out for it. Have a great break at Hay-on-Wye.

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    1. I’ve only read one Crace novel (Harvest) and I’m looking forward to trying more. I can’t promise to read the Kilvert cover to cover, but I’ll dip in and sample bits, especially on the day we go to Clyro Church.

      My dad’s a big Bourdain fan and has all his books, but I’ve never read anything by him. If I don’t like his writing, well, it was free and I’ll pass it on to a charity shop!

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  2. Go very appropriate to take the Bruce Chatwin to Hay cmsidering it’s set in the location and if I re,em read correctly us one scene in Hay. You’re right about the drop in the number of bookstores there – a lot of,retailers just found the business rates too high so went on line instead. I should take note of your recommendation since he last few times I’ve gone with specific ideas in mind I’ve been disappointed, better to just browse.

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    1. I like finding reads suitable to the setting when possible, so I hope I get on well with the Chatwin. You must know the area well. When we first went to Hay in 2004, I’m sure there were more like 30-40 shops! Little ones in every nook and down every alleyway. I guess only the large ones that can do a sideline in online sales of rare and collectible books have been able to survive.

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  3. Kilvert’s totally lovely—you might find yourself drawn into reading the whole thing!—and, amazingly, your copy is EXACTLY the same copy I have. Mine came from a secondhand book stall in a bi-weekly market in Oxford’s Gloucester Green.

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  4. I read Kilvert’s Diary many years ago, having come across it in the local library in Haverhill, Massachusetts. It was a fascinating look at life in that era. I frequently felt bad for the man, as his life seemed rather difficult, and not just because of the lack of amenities in his time. A couple of things that stuck with me were his having to break the ice in his wash bowl in the mornings, and trying to cope with a sinus infection in the days before antibiotics. Life was a lot harder in some ways, but also a lot more beautiful and peaceful. Oddly enough, this book popped up in my memory recently, and I had been wondering where I could find it again, if I could remember the name, which I couldn’t. So this was a very fortuitous post for me. I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did.

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  5. Have fun in Hay! I love that place though it is ruinously dangerous. I will be spending four days at Hay Festival at the end of May (staying in Hereford however) and a I travel by train will have to be very careful in the book shops.

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    1. I’ve still never been to the festival. I can’t imagine how busy the town gets. I think we like having it to ourselves a bit more 🙂 The first time I went to Hay I traveled by train and bus (with a broken foot!), but every time since we’ve gone by car so don’t have to limit our purchasing for that reason at least.

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  6. Don’t miss the Hay Book Arts Trail, curated by my talented friend, Ellie Garraway! Leaflets in all participating venues. I think you’d like it.

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    1. We think it’s more like 15-18 nowadays. Some of the specialist shops have moved outside of Hay, or are purely online sellers now. But there’s still plenty of great browsing to be had. And YES, Shepherd’s ice cream is still going strong. We went twice in four days 😉

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  7. What fun! I hope your return introduces you to some new finds (beyond the page I mean, it’s too bad your previous hosts have had such sadness and have been unable to continue as you and they would have hoped to be the case). I’ve never been, but I would love to, and periodically we discuss the possibility in a very someday-ish way. But then it would be very costly to ship back all the books that I would want to bring home!

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    1. Do you know if Canada has any book towns? Hay is the first and best, of course 😉 But I know other countries have jumped on the bandwagon too. Getting all your purchases back surely would be a challenge. It’s a lovely little place to visit anyway, though, for an example of a small British town set in the hills. And there are decent literary travel opportunities nearby, too, what with Kilvert, Chatwin, and the chained library at Hereford Cathedral.

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      1. Not to my knowledge. *sniffles* I’ve made some pilgrimages to individual writers’ homes (mostly to stand on the sidewalk, longingly) but even a city the size of Toronto seems to have difficulty supporting its indie bookshops unfortunately. So, Hay-on-Wye remains on my list of travel destinations! (Despite the impracticality.)

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