Our Travel blog
Wednesday 25 May
After a long drive and a slightly fractious end to our journey to Hay on Wye we rolled up at our site in the evening and sorted out our dinner after doing all those odd jobs we do when we arrive somewhere new, which usually start with finding the kettle closely followed by switching on gas, finding the toilets and then remembering the kettle was on and now needs to be boiled again, giving us plenty of time to perform other tasks and forget about it a 2nd time.
We're staying at a tidy little campsite 10 minutes’ walk from the Hay Literary Festival site, where we'll be working for the next few days. It’s compact, clean and rigorously controlled. Most caravans are unhitched at the gate and parked by the owner. We were escorted in and told that Mavis was to stay put for the duration (which we'd agreed to when booking). Several VW campers have rolled up during our stay, at least one hired from a specialist company by people who clearly think its cool to be seen driving a lump of ill-tempered German engineering at 30 miles an hour and to sleep in a space the size of your average shower cubicle. Fortunately they seemed happy enough. One family even erected a white picket fence around theirs, possibly to warn unsuspecting passers-by that Jeremy, Philippa and precious little Tristan were in town for the Hay Festival and would love to bore you about how bright 5 year old Tristan is, that Jeremy does something dull 'in the city' and Philippa’s thinking of volunteering at the local Oxfam book shop once little Trist's at university next year. I made that bit up by the way - although sadly not the bit about the white picket fence.
Hay-on-Wye sits on the river in a valley overlooked by green hills divided by irregular hedges. At intervals are clumps of tightly packed trees and fallow fields of golden buttercups shimmering in the breeze. Behind the hills dark mountains rise, faintly menacing, their barrenness in contrast to the verdant fields of the valley. Hay is centred on the castle, a blend of medieval ruins and Jacobian mansion fused by myriad reworking’s, repurposing and a couple of relatively contemporary fires, the last in the 1970s. Below the Castle the town's market square is surrounded by shops and houses lining narrow streets that fall away to the river and farmland beyond.
Hay is well known for its bookshops. In fact it is pretty near impossible to go anywhere in Hay without seeing a few dozen tatty paperbacks for sale. The cafes and I suspect the banks and even the chandelier shop all have them. If having a chandelier shop doesn’t tell you what sort of town it is then the shops around the market area will. Those that don't specialise in books sell 're-purposed' or 'vintage' or worse still 'pre-loved' items mostly in various states of decomposition. Imagine the contents of your nans garage given a cursory dust and an elaborate price.
What Hay really is though is the epicentre of middle England - in Wales. It is almost the very definition of aspirational middle class. If a meteorite hit Hay during the festival season you'd probably never hear the word organic again or meet children named after classical Greek poets. Its where the coriander and Burberry set come to play. It’s not hard to see what brings them here though. The town is pretty, the homes well-tended and it’s just the right side of twee. The shops are welcoming and mostly independent; the food good quality and plentiful, even if it leans towards the craft beer and organic falafel variety and the local garage sells unleaded diesel and gluten free petrol. And of course the town is charming and surrounded by pleasing views.
The Hay Festival, and its brash upstart competitor "How the Light Gets In' attracts enormous crowds. But the town appears to embrace them and - ahem - 'makes hay' while the sun shines. The 10 minute walk from town to festival is lined with gazebos and stalls selling wares in front gardens, from wood turning to chutneys, ice creams and charity collections, buskers and crafts, every other house seems to be engaged in a little light commerce. It is actually quite pleasing in a cheery 'we might as well make the most of it' way and certainly beats the junk on sale in parts of the town centre.
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