The town of books: where to eat and what to do in Wales's Hay-on-Wye

I may not have grown up in this literary spot, but it's where my ancestors were born, my parents live and my heart belongs

The town of Hay-on-Wye is home to Hay Castle, as well as myriad bookshops. Getty Images
The town of Hay-on-Wye is home to Hay Castle, as well as myriad bookshops. Getty Images

It is, quite charmingly, nicknamed the Town of Books, but there’s much more to Hay-on-Wye than Penguin Classics. The Welsh town, nestled close to the border with England, is slightly shy of a four-hour drive from the UK capital of London, and well worth a trip for those venturing to Britain. Here’s what to cram in your itinerary, whether you make a fleeting visit or a leisurely long weekend of it.

My top time to visit

If you prefer lazy strolls unperturbed by crowds, then avoid the town come the end of May, when it blossoms into a flurry of activity thanks to the annual Hay Festival, established in 1988 and known as the Woodstock for bookworms. However, if Q&As with world-renowned writers, politicians and activists, and intimate sets with top comedians are your thing, this is the time to visit. The get-together unites a crop of revered names – this year’s iteration welcomed Stephen Fry, Bill Bailey and Sandi Toksvig –with budget-friendly ticket prices, a lush setting and plenty of pop-ups from local restaurants and cafes.

My shopping hotspots

You can’t come to Hay and not peruse the many specialist, second-hand and bestseller-stocked stores – there’s even one devoted to crime and detective novels – but the best-known is Richard Booth’s Bookshop. Three storeys of creaky wooden floors are crammed with thousands of well-thumbed spines. The store’s eponymous owner, who died earlier this year, was credited with turning the town into a bibliophile’s utopia; it also houses a tiny cinema and an exceedingly good cafe (try the Welsh rarebit – essentially cheese on toast – with slaw and chilli jam).

The town also has an array of curio shops; my picks are the cavernous Hay Antique Market, a cavernous space where you can pick up everything from vintage suitcases to timeworn homewares, and fair trade boutique Eighteen Rabbit, a fair trade boutique that stocks everything from vegan accessories to ethically sourced cotton throws.

My favourite eats

Sorry, Spain, but I firmly believe the best tapas in Europe can be found at Tomatitos, which fuses traditional dishes with locally sourced ingredients. Much of the menu changes daily based on what’s in season but if the calamari rings served with a punchy garlic mayo are there, make sure you order a dish. Foodies should also consider passing by The Old Black Lion for seasonally influenced, gourmet takes on pub classics and The Old Stables Tea Rooms for a raisin-studded scone slathered in jam and clotted cream. No meal is complete without a sheep’s milk mint-choc chip from Shepherd’s Ice Cream Parlour, a quaint glass-front dessert bar with a prime view of Hay Castle, which dates back to Norman times.

My top tips

While it’s easy to while away a day in Hay’s bookstores, do make time to visit the surrounding areas. The town is within easy reach of the Wye Valley, the Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons National Park, all scenic landscapes offering an abundance of picturesque walks. For those seeking adventure, South Wales’s highest peak, Pen y Fan, is a mere hour’s drive away. I’d also recommend the nearby town of Crickhowell, named the best high street in Britain in 2018 thanks to its mix of independent boutiques and cafes, and the arresting ruins of Llanthony, a priory founded in 1108.

Published: November 9, 2019 07:00 AM


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