Hay-on-Wye, Herefordshire

PUBLISHED: 23:26 08 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:59 20 February 2013



The town of Hay-on-Wye is known the world over for its literary connections and this month will attract a stellar line-up to Britain's biggest celebration of the written and spoken word. Rachel Crow puts pen to paper.

Herefordshire's majestic landscape has inspired wordsmiths since time immemorial. Apt, then, that Hay on- Wye the 'Town of Books' is nestled within its gentle hills.

Although with the nearest train station 30 miles away, it
remains an unlikely setting for what has been described by the New York Times as 'the most prestigious festival in the English speaking world' - the annual 10-day Guardian Hay Festival.

This sleepy border town which feels virtually untouched by the modern world has a population of only 1,500 yet boasts more than 30 second-hand and antiquarian bookshops - a veritable bibliophile's paradise. You can happily leaf through tomes of all subjects and description and get lost in a sea of prose spanning the centuries.

The self-proclaimed 'King of Hay', Richard Booth is credited with fashioning Hay into the 'biggest market for used books in the world'. Or rather he attributes the idea to his uncle, a keeper at the British Museum who saw that: "Only an economy of poverty can have an enormous international influence. The second-hand book is an economy of poverty."

Now in semi-retirement having sold all but his Hay Castle Bookshop, Richard opened his first bookshop in 1961, gradually buying more premises and filling them to the brim with tomes collected from around the globe at the same time attracting other individual booksellers to move to the town and adopt it as their home. Much of this former market town is now given over to the trade: the old cinema, houses, shops, as well as the ramshackle castle, a fire-damaged former Jacobean Mansion built into the walls of a 13th century fortress.

You can spend hours in the quaint, musty bookshops with their creaking floorboards and labyrinthine interiors, where limited first editions nestle against well-leafed paperbacks. Dotted within walking distance from each other among the winding narrow streets rising from the river to the Castle
hillside, it's easy to lose a day as you trip from one to another. And this unusual specialism has added a touch of quirkiness to Hay.

"Historically we've had a lot of quirky people come into Hay. So we are accepting, if you like. We're not a corporate town: it is small independents and I think that's what gives it its uniqueness," says Derek Addyman, owner of three bookshops in the town and the only "born and bred bookseller in Hay".

Derek and his wife, Anne Brichto have been running their bookshops since the late Eighties, starting with Addyman Books, then Murder and Mayhem, a distinctively decorated shop specialising in detective fiction, true crime and horror, and finally The Addyman Annexe housing some of the rarer, expensive volumes. For Derek the allure of bookselling is:
"Like the line by Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, 'I love the smell of napalm in the morning', for me it's the smell of the bookshop and that feeling when you walk through the door. And being able to handle books that have changed the world and changed people's thinking, whether a novel or poetry or a science book. Bookselling is almost like a hobby that pays for itself.

"When people who would normally never go into second-hand bookshops walk in, they don't know what to expect," he continues. "The trouble is today a lot of people go into shops and everything has got to be right on tap. Second-hand bookshops aren't as regimented but that's the joy of
them. They are a bit like a Tardis: they just go on and on. You can lose yourself for an hour or two and people do, and then they might come out with something and that's
the great joy."

Not all of the attractions of Hay come printed and bound. There's plenty more to discover by way of independent stores, boutiques and galleries selling all manner of giftware, arts and crafts, homespun produce, clothing and antiquities and fripperies of all description. It has rejected the homogenisation of big business and chain stores and its traditional shop frontages and unusual pickings make a refreshing change.

Then every summer upward of 100,000 visitors converge on this tiny town to attend the Hay Festival. This year running from May 21 - 31 and now in its 21st year, it consistently attracts many leading authors, politicians, comedians, musicians, poets and commentators.

The brainchild of the current festival director, Peter Florence and his father, Norman, although the format of the festival has changed over the years and where once
held in venues in the town is now in a tented village on the periphery, Peter believes, in essence, it has remained the same. "Although now it's a lot bigger. The idea, though, that it's a bunch of friends getting together and hanging out together is exactly the same as it always was, it's just we have a lot more friends now," he notes.

With its inevitable embrace of celebrity and past festival guests including the likes of Bill Clinton -this year welcomes Hollywood legend Tony Curtis - it has been criticised from some quarters as eroding what was unique about Hay and 'dumbing down' what was originally about celebrating great literature.

But Peter disagrees. "It was never really was just about books and literature. Books are at the heart of it because everything you think of is being written about and discussed and the best of that discussion finds its way into
printed books. It's always been about conversation and about great use of language. And it's about storytelling and that can be in song, in screenwriting, in journalism or
fiction and poetry, or in just conversation. Great use of language and sharing ideas and stories is what we are about."

Alongside the plethora of popular authors, writers and poets appearing including Sarah Waters, Carol Ann Duffy, Michael Morpurgo and Jacqueline Wilson, each year throws up something a little unexpected. This year it will be a focus on faith. "We've always been a bastion of (Richard)
Dawkins and (Christopher) Hitchins's antitheism until the point where that's almost become a kind of orthodoxy, so in true contrarian spirit you have to look at the other side of the coin," says Peter.

"We have leading figures in faith appearing. We have the Chief Rabbi, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Desmond Tutu, as well as some incredibly smart academics and theologians coming to put the case for God and that's something we've never done before.

"We are also studying the recession and have some of the world's leading economists talking about the root causes and possible ways out of where we are. The politicians and bankers have clearly screwed it up so let's have some deep
thinking on this."

There will also be a mixture of comedy and musical entertainment; this year with appearances by some of the world's greatest jazz musicians including South African liberation legend, Hugh Masekela.

"But with all of that the most brilliant British entertainers are taking part as well," notes Peter. "Stephen Fry, Alan Bennett and people who are so ingrained into the British
consciousness and the idea of pleasure and entertainment that, however serious Hay gets, it's also great fun."

Peter concludes by summing up the festival. "It's like a big picnic where you can take a bit of a bite of everything and hang out with your friends. And if you're very lucky the sun will shine... but remember you're in Britain!"

For a full programme of events at the Guardian Hay Festival visit www.hayfestival.com

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