On the border of England and Wales, Hay-on-Wye is world famous for its literary festival, which runs in May and June. But this sleepy, charming town deserves a visit at other times too.
What’s extraordinary about Hay-on-Wye is that you can spend hours out in the wilderness of the rugged Black Mountains, with only sheep and shaggy ponies for company. And then sample the delicious local food that’s coming out of the thriving culinary scene, before passing the evening discussing philosophical questions or listening to live music at one of the town’s regular events. It’s a truly unique place that has lured me back several times.
The one downside is that, being in Wales, you have to expect at least a little rain on your trip to this town, but I’m very much a believer in hiking regardless of the weather. I think there’s something invigorating about being out in the wind and rain, though I know not everyone would agree with me. For those that would prefer to remain indoors when there’s a gale outside, there’s a whole host of activities to keep you entertained. So here are my tips for soaking up the nature and culture of Hay-on-Wye.
Take the scenic route
It’s best to go to in a car, and whichever direction you’re coming from, I’d recommend taking the more scenic route through the Brecon Beacons National Park. From the East, start at Llanvihangel Crucorney and travel along the narrow, mountainous valley road over Gospel Pass. If the skies are clear, you’ll have a stunning view across the border of England and Wales. It’s at the mercy of the weather though! On a misty day you might only be able to see one to two metres in front of you, but even then it does feel very atmospheric to be up among the clouds. The only other traffic you’re likely to meet is a few sheep.
Work up an appetite
There’s a whole array of beautiful walks that you can do from Hay-on-Wye. One of my favorites is the trail from the town to Hay Bluff and then on to Twmpa, a mountain also known as Lord Hereford’s Knob that’s featured Allen Ginsberg’s LSD fuelled poem Wales Visitation. The walk should take you a few hours, so follow it up with lunch at The Blue Boar. It’s a lovely traditional British pub that’s covered in ivy and has hearty food and a log fire.
Browse the high street
After lunch wander around the town browsing the high street. There’s lots of unique and independent businesses and there are no chains whatsoever. My absolute favorite place to visit is The Old Electric Shop, which has the very fitting description ‘A Marvelous Shop of Great Stuff’. I couldn’t agree more. You can spend hours whiling away time in this eclectic lifestyle store, which hosts everything from home and vintage sections to a café, events and an arcade of old gambling machines. You can’t leave Hay-on-Wye without going to a book shop, and Richard Booth’s is a treasure trove for literary fiends. Interestingly, the man after whom the shop is named, Richard Booth, seems to be a somewhat controversial figure in Hay on Wye. In 2009, local booksellers dressed up in costumes and executed an effigy of the self-proclaimed ‘king of books’.
Visit the Globe
Want to show off your singing skills? Play with Lego? Talk about the meaning of death? Practice needle-felting? Dance at a supersonic disco or ceilidh? Campaign for the environment? You can do all of these things and more at The Globe, an independent arts center that runs a mind-boggling array of different events. It’s the perfect location to spend a rainy day or to relax after a delicious dinner.
Dinner at St John’s Place
St John’s Place serves the most innovative food. The short menu changes each week, but you’ll be sure to encounter some unusual combinations and at least several words on the menu that you don’t understand. Beetroot canederli with hispi cabbage for main? For more traditional fare, head to The Old Black Lion, an acclaimed cosy 17th Century Inn. Again the menus change regularly, but expect to find dishes like marmalade-glazed leg of lamb with bubble and squeak or Wye Valley organic beef with triple-cooked chips. Yum.
Spend the night at Llanthony Priory
Stay the night in a hotel at the site of Llathony Priory, which is a short drive away from Hay on Wye. Painted by JMW Turner, this beautiful medieval building is in Vale of Ewyas. It was first built in 1108 by a couple of hermits. Today all that remains are evocative ruined arches.
The four poster beds, mist and and the wild and secluded location of the hotel may make it feel a little spooky, but it’s all part of the experience. One of the best things about the hotel is that there’s no televisions, no mobile phone signal and no wifi. So you can just switch off and enjoy the surroundings. Near to the priory, there’s an old cow shed which has been converted into a bunk house, with a wood burner and gas stove. It’s a great alternative if you’re looking for cheaper accommodation. Speak to the owners to hire horses and go riding in the mountains.
In the morning, take a moment to wander round the priory and experience the seclusion and wilderness. And if it’s raining, look out for the hoards of flat-shelled snails that sneak out from the old stone walls surrounding the priory.
Have you ever been to Hay-on-Wye? Any cool things to do or places you’d recommend visiting?