Why I love Hay-on-Wye

A town of eccentrics, for eccentrics

My wife and I spent eight months looking hard for a house in north-west Herefordshire, and researching the area. Having failed to find one, we took a snap decision to buy across the border in Wales. We knew little about Hay-on-Wye, but after a few weeks, we’re loving it.

Hay is what I call a feelgood town, where most people relax and look cheerful as soon as they arrive. Other examples are Settle, Dumfries, and Shaftesbury. And I’ve been pondering what creates the feelgood factor. They’re all small market towns, with more pedestrians than cars, so you can stroll in the street at your ease. The architecture is pleasingly varied and characterful, without modern eyesores, and I think this nourishes you like a good work of art.

A vital feature of a feelgood town is nice places to eat snacks and hang out, and Hay has lots of them. My favourites are the Cosy Café, right in the middle, where you can sit outside and watch the world stroll by; The Bean Box, where you’re in a lovely tea garden looking over the River Wye; and Shepherd’s Ice Cream Parlour, which made the Top 10 in a recent Guardian review of gelaterias.

Usually I’m not into shopping, but Hay is full of independent shops for eccentrics, and there’s not a single chain store. Here are three that I’ve fallen in love with:

Eric Pugh Electrical: this tiny shop is like a 1970’s time warp, in the best sense. They’ve had all the odd connectors I needed to revive my old hi-fi, they even do home visits and repairs! Open two mornings a week!

Jones Hardware: this wonderland has everything, so crammed in that you can’t pass in the aisles. One morning, I heard someone ask for a rain gauge: they had one. The next person asked if they could sharpen knives: “No, but Jones the butcher will.”

Kate’s Pop-Up Bakery: in a small brick shed in a back street, just two mornings a week, Kate gets working at 3.50am, and from 8.15 her helper, who only counts in Italian, serves you amazing bread and patisseries.

You may wonder, as I do, how a town of 2000 people can support such wonders. The answer is partly because it’s a visitor destination, in a benign way. Hay is in the middle of nowhere: 20 miles from the nearest trains (Hereford), 40 minutes from a motorway, and blessedly there isn’t even an A road running through it. So you really have to want to visit – so the ‘tourists’ are walkers, cyclists, eccentric foreigners, and I’ve yet to feel they detract from the place.

You’ll notice I haven’t even mentioned the bookshops yet: there are about 26 of them, including such gems as Murder and Mayhem, and Gay-on-Wye. It may be the bookshop visitors who keep the whole town afloat financially, and we all owe a debt to Richard Booth, who started it all.

Oxford University has a long pedigree of producing pioneering eccentrics (e.g. Lewis Carroll, Wilfred Thesiger, C S Lewis), and I like to fancy that Richard Booth and I follow that legacy in a minor way. Before him, Hay was another sleepy town in the Welsh Borders. He opened the first bookshop in Hay in the early 1970s, and had a gift for publicity. On April 1 1977, Booth declared independence for Hay, and was crowned Richard Coeur de Livre, nominating his horse as prime minister, and setting up passport control at the border with England.

I like to imagine that the incomer eccentrics have found synergy with the native eccentrics, and I’m hopeful that this critical mass will continue!