Hay on Wye is a little village in Wales of about a thousand people just over the border from England. What has made it famous around the world and brought me to it, is books. About 30 years ago, an enterprising man named Richard Booth bought a falling down mansion on the hilltop of Wye which he grandly called Hay Castle and he proceeded to stock it with second hand books. It was an eccentric beginning but a very successful one. Hay-on-Wye now has 26 second hand book shops and hosts a world famous literary festival each spring where the Canadian likes of Margaret Atwood show up.
It seemed like the right place to end our long tour through Europe. Hay itself is a beautiful place with a couple of pleasant pubs, a small market place and a fine old church in the centre, but it is the books which make it. You can browse for hours through the stores. I found everyone from the autobiography of the Globe and Mail’s John Doyle to authors I’d never heard of like Ethel Mannin who had published 87 books over the course of her life, novels, memoirs, travel books. It was both fascinating and humbling to discover prolific authors who are as new to me as the day.
I bought her last book ‘Sunset over Dartmoor’ for fifty pence. It’s not often you read a book by someone who is 84 at the time of writing. Her observations of growing older were instructive and quite moving, not for anything that she said, but because of her quiet independence. This is a woman who didn’t make a big deal out of it, but lived to the beat of her own drummer, an accomplishment that the older one gets, the more one appreciates.
Through the miracles of modern communications, I also had the good fun of watching Wales battle it out with France in the World Cup Rugby semi-final in the Swan Hotel. It was a great game with all the drama and athletic skill the highest level sport can bring. It was tough, if you’re a Wales fan which I am, to see the boys lose by a single point, but what comes around, goes around as France would go on to the final but lose to New Zealand by the same difference.
Transit was, of course, a big part of our tour through Turkey and Europe because we travelled everywhere by tram, train, subway, bus, bicycle and foot and it was a big part of our trip to Hay-on-Wye. The only way to get to there is by a local bus that winds through the hills from the train station at Hereford. What I learned from shop owners in Hay was that since ‘petrol’ prices had increased in Britain, the number of visitors through the store doors had dropped off and they all bemoaned the fact that the Thatcher governments had not only shut the rail line down but had torn up the bridges and sold off the real estate making it impossible to ever bring back.
Again, I was struck with the difference between France and Britain. In a similar village, Limoux where we stayed in France, there was a twenty minute rail trip from the nearest large centre, Carcassonne and the service was being reinstalled further out into the hills. You simply walked across one track to the other, waited for a bit and off you went on a comfortable ride to Limoux. The Hereford/Hay connection was such that there were only locals and ourselves on it, not a single visitor.
The French commitment to small farmers and rural services contrasted with the English approach that small farmers are inefficient and rural rail lines be uprooted like noxious weeds couldn’t have been more vivid.
On a happier note, I found a leather bound, 1911 edition of Evangeline by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for our youngest granddaughter, Evangeline and headed back for Canada with fifty pounds of books and no clothes.
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Read more of my articles from Europe posted on Spacing Ottawa