Hay-on -Wye has been many things - a disputed river crossing on the war-ravaged border between England and Wales, a small town dominated by a Norman castle, and a sleepy agricultural community. Now, this tiny Welsh town, hard under the flanks of the Black Mountains in the Brecon Beacons National Park, has re-invented itself - again!
Richard Booth once own a bookshop in Hay (it only became Hay-on-Wye in 1948), and he also owned the ruined Norman keep - built by one William de Braose, who came to a very sticky end - and the attached, severely fire damaged, Jacobean manor house, dating from 1600 (see previous diaries). Richard was an amazing visionary. He styled himself 'King of Hay', and began promoting the main commercial activity of the town, namely, bookshops. Pretty soon, he had helped to establish a major literary festival, which drew speakers and visitors from all over the world. This annual event is now the main economic engine of Hay, and is not to be missed. Sadly, Richard sold both his bookstore and the castle on the market in 2011. It was quickly purchased by a newly-formed charitable body, the Hay Castle Trust, who have wonderful plans for the building, and the town.
The narrow, winding streets are FULL of bookshops. I counted over 20 of them, and there were probably some I missed. There are also numerous tearooms, pubs and cafes catering to visitors and locals, alike, and it is easy to look at your watch and find that you have spent seven or eight hours in a happy bibliophilic haze!
However, perhaps the most unusual and delightful 'emporium' lies in the very center of the town. To reach it, you follow the Mediaeval wall surrounding the castle, until you come across a wooden door (quite likely Mediaeval) which is grey with age. Push firmly, and you will find yourself in what was likely the courtyard of the castle, now mainly laid to grass. In front of you, there is a wooden staircase leading towards the ruined castle, and an ancient retaining wall, so rickety that it is buttressed with massive old oak timbers. Against the wall is a notice which says:
Pay at Box
HAY CASTLE TRUST
As you are standing there scratching your head you notice - set in the aforementioned ancient wall - a red-painted square of metal, which obviously forms the front of the famous 'honesty' box, for there is a slot in the front, and a white card sign which says, 'Pay Here' !
It is then that the mystery is solved, because you suddenly realize that you are minus a brother and sister-in-law. They are already sampling the delightful stock arrayed behind you, on shelves placed under some timber-framed structures, which are hard up against the castle boundary wall. The stock is MOSTLY protected from the strong sun, but obviously not from the humidity (NOT a good thing in Wales!). The books are what I would describe as 'literature by the yard', and indeed, can be bought like that at auction. However, is never too wise to condemn, for amongst such novels as 'Mer de Glace', Alison Fell, Metheun, I found the delightful 'Dickie Bird's "Britain" - One Man's View Of Britain', Dickie Bird, Hodder & Stoughton. I fell on this like a ravening wolf. Why? Dickie Bird was one of my heroes, a first class cricketer, an international cricket umpire, and a real Yorkshire eccentric. I played cricket for 21 seasons (semi-pro), and knew I had found a good read for the long 'plane journey back to Boston. There was also a very scholarly work by Rowan Callick, 'Comrades & Capitalists - Hong Kong since the handover', University of New South Wales Press, 1998. This promised to, 'cover the contentious hand-over to China and the effect in its people - including their chance for democracy'. Another find.
The Honesty Bookshop is a truly lovely place. I can honestly say that I have never used a door so old to gain access to any book-selling establishment, nor have I found one so free of staff AND formalities! I think that this place has to be right up there in the top ten list of eccentric book stores.
Bucket list, ladies and gentlemen; and bring your own bookbag!