Hay-on-Wye, Herefordshire

PUBLISHED: 16:21 08 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:12 20 February 2013

Books in every nook and cranny of the town that is surrounded by wonderful scenery. PICTURES: CHRIS POOLE

Books in every nook and cranny of the town that is surrounded by wonderful scenery. PICTURES: CHRIS POOLE

Hay-on-Wye's unlikely pairing with a Saharan land of legend and fable is proving an education for the people of both far-flung communities, says Chris Poole.

Hay-on-Wye's unlikely pairing with a Saharan land of legend and fable is proving an education for the people of both far-flung communities, says Chris Poole.

In the window of Addyman Books in Hay-on-Wye a miniature hot-air balloon is suspended; poised, it seems, to depart for an adventure in distant lands. If you had such a machine and you took off from Hay you could, theoretically, fly due south along the line of longitude 3 07' west. Your flight would take you out over the English Channel, clipping Brittany before crossing the Bay of Biscay. You would need a decent altitude to pass safely over the mountains of the Iberian Peninsular but you would eventually find yourself over Africa. If you were to descend, having followed that same meridian for 2,450 miles, you would arrive in Timbuktu.

A fanciful notion perhaps but some from Hay, have made that journey - albeit in flying machines rather more robust and reliable. When Timbuktu wanted to twin itself

with a British town it set about it by advertising for a partner. Many in Britain might not have known that the African town actually existed - was it not, after all, a place of legend and fable? But it does exist and its twinning ambitions were genuine. Among those who realised the potential was Hay bookshop owner Anne Addyman. The competition was fierce but Hay successfully beat off such eminent contenders as Glastonbury and York to become Timbuktu's twin of choice.

Having established the longitudinal connection between the two towns, there the similarity ends. Hay's scenically stunning location on the English/Welsh border is in stark contrast to the southern-Saharan town. And the glorious River Wye bears no comparison with the sheer scale of the mighty River Niger. But in the two years or so of the twinning so much has been achieved. Julie Grigg, local GP, talks enthusiastically of the various programmes that the two towns have developed. "For a

small town Hay has so much going on that you would think it was a much bigger place. In Timbuktu we found a place similarly endowed with free-thinking people."

Julie has been instrumental in establishing medical connections, concentrating attention on much-needed medical care for women in the African town. Hay consultant Steve Felgate has set up trading links enabling Tuareg artisans to find markets in Hay and throughout Herefordshire (at the Parkfields Gallery in Ross and the Blue Ginger Gallery at Cradley). And Steve Williams, Assistant Head at the Gwernyfed High School near Hay, talks of the impact that school contacts have had. "It has been a fantastic opportunity for kids in both places, opening a new world of issues such as Islam and the French language for us and of our rural culture and the English language to children in Mali," he says. Pupil Emma Brown is one of four children to have made the journey to Timbuktu. Showing confidence and maturity beyond her 17 years, she has vivid memories of arriving in Africa for the first time: "It was a real culture shock. We arrived in Africa at night, it was hot and the smell of heat and sand was unforgettable. I wanted to stay." Of her African contemporaries Emma says: "I've never met such welcoming and friendly people, we now stay in touch regularly by email."

All of this from a town of only some 1,300 people renowned for its books. Even here there is a link with Timbuktu. In the 15th and 16th centuries Timbuktu could boast a university that attracted scholars and writers. There are ancient libraries famed for housing some of the world's earliest examples of the written word. Hidden away in the town's ancient buildings there are manuscripts dating back many centuries. The success of the twinning depends on the vibrancy and buzz that is so evident in Hay. Market day here provides other clues to the breadth and scale of the community's imagination. Renowned landscape and wildlife photographer David Bailey (not the socialite one in London!) shows his work regularly at Hay market and explains: "Customers here are unlike any other market place in the area. They are discerning and they buy work that they like." Next to him beautiful hand-painted silks and wools by artist Shelley Faye Lazar, whose work is inspired by the Wye valley, are on show. Not far away, Phil the Fruit is setting out his produce on the pavement: "Look at this", he says "no supermarket can beat this freshness. Fruit and veg that have been chilled simply can't match it."

There can't be many places where you can find 'handcrafted bread'. In Hay you can. In the shadow of the famous clock tower Alex Gooch is setting out his stall with bread made in the traditional way using wild yeast and organic flour. He explains the significance of his style: "I use only the highest quality ingredients. My customers here in Hay are the many people who appreciate fine food." Hay-on-Wye has a well-deserved reputation as an active town attracting creative, artistic people. The flavour has been captured and documented in an illustrated book by Huw Parsons called Planet Hay (published by Peevish Bee Books). Huw recalls that when he came here: "The town seemed full of exotic people, most were fully paid up members of the alternative society."

The twinning with Timbuktu is an example of what a dynamic community can achieve. For those who think that twinning is a cosy social arrangement, think again. Hay's approach has the character of a development assistance programme. When distinguished Timbuktu visitor Mohammed Lamine ag Hamid spoke at the Hay Festival in 2008 he described the connection with Hay as: "A beacon of light to us".

Support has come from Lions International in the Black Mountains, from the Welsh Assembly through its Wales for Africa programme, from the Hay Festival, from Hay Town Council and from many, many ordinary people in the town. As the links expand with fundraising to match there is a need for more trustees to ensure that both Hay and

Timbuktu derive maximum benefit. More detail can be found at hay2timbuktu.com. The balloon in the shop window might symbolise fantasy and adventure but the people of Hay-on Wye have turned a fairy-tale into reality.

Most Read

Most Read

Latest from the Herefordshire Life