Adventures in the Town of Books

We had a wonderful time in Hay-on-Wye. The weather was gorgeous – which we never would have counted on in Wales in early April – and it was a treat to get out into the countryside. Even though there were road works on the main route through Hay and a house under construction across from our Airbnb property, it was so quiet most of the time. Most often we only heard sheep and pheasants in the fields or songbirds flitting around the garden. We’ve been back to normal life for a few days, but the contrast between Hay and our terraced street’s noisy neighbors and frequent car movement has remained stark. Also, I greatly enjoyed the time off work, and struggled to clear 200+ e-mails the day after we got back.

Early bargains came from the Oxfam charity shop (a box outside with paperbacks at 5 for £1, plus various nearly new copies at 99p each) and the ‘honesty’ shopping areas around the castle (50p paperbacks and £1 hardbacks). Each day my husband’s and my rival stacks kept growing.

In the end we purchased 41 books, averaging £1.48 each: 3 gifts (alas that we couldn’t do better in this respect) plus another 19 books each. All very equitable! My husband focused on nature and travel, including some rare and novelty insect books.

Some of my prize finds were a vintage copy of the next book in Doreen Tovey’s cat series, a copy of the Joyce Carol Oates novel I intend to make my introduction to her work, and Marilyn Johnson’s book on obituaries. As a bonus, three of the books I bought are ones I’ve already read: Vikram Seth’s travel book on China, How to Age from the School of Life series – a total bargain at 50p!, and Posy Simmonds’ Tamara Drewe, an update of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd and one of the first graphic novels I ever read and loved.


Of course, I didn’t end up reading very much (or any) of many of the books I took with me. I glanced at The Rebecca Rioter, but didn’t find it at all interesting; I forgot to look at The Airbnb Story; and I seem to be stuck fast just two chapters into Our Mutual Friend. On the other hand, I’ve been enjoying Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill, of which I read over half, and I made good progress in George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo.

We sought out “The Vision” farm we found on the map, which presumably inspired Chatwin.

I took Lincoln in the Bardo for a jaunt up the road to the Cusop churchyard; it seemed an appropriate spot.

It’s also been fun to browse Francis Kilvert’s diary entries from his years as the curate in nearby Clyro. In one of my favorite passages, he expresses horror at finding British tourists overrunning Llanthony Abbey ruins. For a minister, he certainly sounds like a misanthrope:

I had the satisfaction of managing to walk from Hay to Clyro by the fields without meeting a single person, always a great triumph to me and a subject for warm self congratulation for I have a peculiar dislike to meeting people, and a peculiar liking for a deserted road.

We went out to Llanthony for the first time on this trip, and paid Clyro’s church a visit, too.

Hay is much less shabby compared to our first visit. Many of the shops have been spruced up, and the pubs can’t get away with serving bog-standard fare anymore. A number of the newest eateries and entertainment venues are only open on weekends, so we’ll be sure to time our next trip to cover a Friday–Saturday. The town has even gained some hipster establishments, like a fair-trade shop and a coffee shop/vintage clothing emporium.

The Book Arts Trail was celebrating the 40 years of ‘independence’ of Richard Booth’s kingdom of Hay this year, and I expect we’ll still find the place going strong at 50.


Which of my book purchases tempt you?

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18 thoughts on “Adventures in the Town of Books

  1. I had quite some trouble deciphering your purchases from the photos. Never mind. I might have stolen the Posy Simmonds. I never thought of her as a graphic novelist, but of course she is. Perhaps I do like graphic novels after all, then. So glad you had a fulfilling week.

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  2. Ahhh, yum. What a lovely break! Glad you enjoyed Kilvert and Saunders (though sad about Our Mutual Friend—though I’ve only ever been able to handle Dickens in the cold winter months. Maybe that has something to do with it.)

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  3. This sounds like a lovely trip, Rebecca. We stayed in a cottage at the foot of the Black Hill on the Herefordshire side last year. The weather wasn’t so kind to us – I’m glad you fared better

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    1. It was all we could have wanted from a holiday, but with the bonus of absurdly good weather!

      I bought Ingenious Pain and Talking to the Dead (50p from Honesty shelf!) on your recommendation 🙂

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    1. Me too 🙂 I started reading the Elizabeth Hay novel I picked up for 20p right away. I gather it’s not one of your favourites by her, but I like it a lot so far (page 60). You don’t often see her books over here, so I snapped it up.

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      1. I’m glad you’re liking it! It’s actually the only book by Hay that I’ve read so far – I liked it, just didn’t love it. I don’t know why it’s taking me so long to get around to another one – I own several – but that’s just how it is sometimes… sigh…
        (I just realized that you got Hay in Hay!)

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  4. Great to hear you had such a rewarding and refreshing trip, Rebecca. My one visit to Hay must be about twenty years ago now; I really must try to get back there. I love the reading of books in appropriate places; it always adds something to the experience for me. Your extract from Kilvert made me smile 🙂

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