Time, in the ‘Town of Books’

The tiny Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye, in the county of Powys, seems to be asleep in the warm sunshine, yet in Middle Ages this was the site of fierce fighting, castle sieges and border wars. Yes, England lies just on the other side of the Dulas Brook – which flows into the River Wye – and this whole area formed part of what was known as the Welsh Marches to the invading Normans. The Marches (Y Mers), were granted to group of noblemen called ‘Marcher Lords’ by the King, in order that they might form a buffer zone against the war-like Welsh. If you were a Marcher Lord, you owed allegiance to the King, but ruled your piece of territory with absolute powers; you enforced the laws and made them, too. This situation existed until 1536, when King Henry VIII (yes, THAT Henry) removed those powers and incorporated the territory into a unified kingdom of England & Wales.

Since the area around Hay was in a great turmoil when Norman forces under William fitz Osbern penetrated this part of Wales in 1070 AD, a motte and bailey castle was erected as soon as possible to protect the river crossing and the border, which runs almost due north and south. Unlike the usual situation, were the ‘temporary’ motte and bailey was replaced by a more permanent stone structure on the same site, the original castle was abandoned, and a new four-storey keep was erected in another part of the little town in approximately 1200 AD.

Hay – it only became Hay-on-Wye (Y Gelli Gandryll) in 1948 – eventually settled down to a quiet, agricultural existence, with local Hereford cattle fattened for the market, and not much excitement in this corner of what is now the Brecon Beacons National Park. The closest city, Hereford, 22 miles away on the English side of the border could hardly be described as a bustling metropolis itself! Wars came and wars went through the centuries, but other than local men who marched away to join the fighting (and sometimes did not march back), Hay continued its sleepy way.

By the 1660s a mansion had been built adjacent to the now-ruined castle keep, and was itself subject to a disastrous fire. In 1977, a local bookseller, Richard Booth, who had set up shop in remains of the mansion, declared himself ‘King of Hay’. This rather jocular declaration of independence generated massive publicity, and led to the eventual foundation of the Hay Festival, a ten day celebration of literature, which capitalized on the many second-hand bookstores – now around 30 – in the town. The Festival, now sponsored by the national newspaper, ‘The Daily Telegraph’, has become the defining achievement of this little community of just under 2,000, and is attended by up to 80,000 visitors. The total number of tourists to Hay is now a staggering half a million per year!

In 1884, the executors of one Captain Brown of Hay laid some ambitious plans regarding his bequest of a Town Clock to the community. Instead of a clock tower for the parish church which the good Captain had wanted, they devised a grandiose scheme for a large public hall, a corn exchange and a clock tower – but in the center of town, nowhere near the church! In the end, this all fell through, with the exception of the clock tower, which was erected at the corner of Broad Street and Belmont Road. Built to the design of architect J. C. Haddon, the structure is in High Victorian Gothic, with some nice flourishes, such as trefoil decoration and mock arrow slits, complete with oilettes at either end. The bellcote is surmounted by an elaborate weathervane, and the final cost came to no less than £600.

The townsfolk naturally seem to gravitate towards the four-faced clock, and many events either begin or end there. The local pack of foxhounds, the Golden Valley Hunt, which are based just across the river in England, meet regularly at the foot of the tower, usually on Boxing Day (26th December) a day which sees hunt meets all around the country. However, following the passage of the Hunting Act, 2004, the fox is now no longer the quarry, and the packs of hounds follow a laid scent trail. I have seen old photographs going back to 1905 of hunt gatherings at the base of the clock tower.

In 1911, there was a large gathering at Christmas time of district members of the Independent Order of Foresters, a fraternal society that provides members with insurance benefits and supports charitable works. In attendance was the Town Band, members wearing the sash of the Order, and four mounted ‘personages’, including Father Christmas! There was a goodly turnout, despite the snow covered streets.

The town was decked with flags when I visited, because it was at the time of the 2012 London Paralympics, which followed on from the highly successful Olympic Games. A local girl, Josie Pearson, was competing in the women’s discus, and as I sat down to a splendid lunch of ‘steak and kidney pudding’ in a local pub, she both broke the World Record, AND took the Gold Medal. The town went crazy, and by the time I had paid the bill and wandered out, one of the stores had already decorated a window with a representation of a gold medal and a message of congratulations!

Hay is a wonderful place, and I gnashed my teeth at the many books I could NOT buy due to weigh restrictions coming back across the Atlantic.

Bucket list, ladies and gentlemen!


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