Hay- on -Wye, Herefordshire

The town of Hay-on-Wye sits at the foot of the Black Mountains, on the south bank of the River Wye and on the border of England and Wales. The name Hay is derived from the Latin haia or the Norman haye meaning hedge or enclosure. The Welsh name Y Gelli comes from gelli, a grove.  There is no historical basis for the change of the name of the town in 1947 to Hay-on-Wye (see A History of the Hay by Geoffrey L Fairs). As Henry Skryne wrote in the Eighteenth Century: ‘We entered a romantic corner of South Wales near the Hay where the broad and transparent river Wye emerges from its native mountains and approaches England through a broad and fertile vale. I was conducted... to several points of view that confirmed me that we need not have gone to Scotland in search of the most striking beauties with which nature has endowed a country’.

Hills around Hay

As you approach Hay-on-Wye, coming down the hill from Clyro, you see the town dominated by the castle. The early history of Hay is really the history of the castle which was built by the Normans as part of a chain of Marcher castles along the English Welsh border. It was first built in c 1100 by Walter Revel Bernard Newmarch (one of William the Conqueror’s war lords) ; in 1216 the castle was destroyed by the English  King John; in 1231 the castle was burnt by the Welsh prince Llewelyn ; rebuilt in c 1233 by King Henry III it was reduced again in 1265 by Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester and  in 1322 it was captured by the King’s forces and confiscated by the Crown; in 1402 it was sacked by the Welsh Owain Glyndwr, repaired in 1454 and then destroyed in 1460 by Welsh rebels. So, attacked by both ethnic groups, it must have been a frightening place to live.    

In c 1650 a manor house Jacobean mansion was built adjacent to the ruins of the Norman castle and both these stand today. For the history of the years until Hay became known as the town of books, we refer the interested reader to the above book by Geoffrey L Fairs and then also Book of Hay by Kate Clarke. By the time Richard George William Pitt Booth (b 1938) started to feature in the annals of Hay-on-Wye, Hay had succumbed, like many post second world war small towns, to a long, slow decline.  Many shops were empty and its best days as a market town with its unmissable   weekly market and twenty or so pubs were behind it as the acquisition of cars enabled people to travel further afield for essential items. In 1962 when Richard Booth was 23 he bought a small shop from the local vet for £600. This one act marked the beginning of Hay’s phoenix like rise to becoming the largest trading centre for second hand books in the world .

Honesty Bookshop, HayRichard Booth proceeded to buy up many of the empty shops in the town and fill them with books so that, by the time of our arrival in 1974, he had created a bibliophilic empire and his innate eccentricity and talent for publicity had created a media interest. By 1977 he had acquired the castle and on April 1st 1977 declared himself King (King Richard Coeur de Livre) in a ceremony on the castle walls, complete with loyal subjects (ourselves included), a choir formed from the women in the local grocery store, a national anthem (released on record), crown, ermine gown, ball and sceptre and had produced  his own currency and passports.  He declared Hay independent from both England and Wales. This caused a frenzy of media interest which had a very positive effect on the cashflow in the town. Many independent booksellers, either having worked for Richard previously, or arriving from elsewhere set up shop in Hay . From then on, ‘King Richard’ promoted the idea of ‘Book Towns’ as ways to regenerate rural towns and many artificial book towns, Wigtown, Blaenavon and many abroad have since been created following his template. He was made an MBE in 2004 for his services to tourism.

Castle Street, Hay on WyeA new chapter has now opened in Hay with the acquisition of Hay Castle, Richard Booth books and Summerhill Golf Course by Elizabeth Haycox, an American, who appears dedicated to enhancing the arts in Hay-on-Wye and is building a theatre, has started a cinema, a wonderful restaurant and has renovated the dusty Richard Booth books. The yearly Hay Festival at the end of May each year has also become world famous and attracts luminaries from all spheres of intellectual life. 

In conclusion, as well as the obvious benefits of visiting Mostlymaps, the area of Hay-on-Wye offers wonderful mountains to climb or ride in on horseback; early churches to visit; canoeing on the river Wye and lots of bookshops to browse in and , these days, innumerable clothes shops to shop in.  Also, in a building next to Hereford Cathedral, some 23 miles away is housed the Mappa Mundi : Christopher de Hamel, a leading authority on medieval manuscripts, has said of the Mappa Mundi, '... it is without parallel the most important and most celebrated medieval map in any form, the most remarkable illustrated English manuscript of any kind, and certainly the greatest extant thirteenth-century pictorial manuscript.'

Why delay, book a trip to Hay today...