Monday, February 21, 2011

Hay-on-Wye: Book town of Wales (and my heart)

Walking in on Friday, we decided it was time for another mini-break. That evening we booked The Swan in Hay-on-Wye for following night. While the weather the next morning wasn't as good as the forecast, it steadily improved as we made our way west. Only fog awaited us as we checked in early and set about exploring Hay.

With rain threatening, we kept the walk short, down by the lively Wye river. Benches dedicated to fellow lovers of the British countryside could be seen all along the trail, and we took advantage of one part-way, enjoying the view and those smells you only get near fast-moving water.

The reviews Tea had read said the Swan's food was a bit poncey, and the fab Blue Boar was just across the road to boot, so guess where we ended up for lunch. Their food was excellent -- a beef burger for Tea and cottage pie (think shepherd's pie) for me -- and while their namesake IPA was a bit bland, the Landlord more than made up for it.

Bellies full, it was time to see what Hay is famous for: books, books and more books. I've never seen so many shops in such a small town. And some of them are so specialized -- on botany and ornithology, children's books, nineteenth century British authors... Honestly, that's three different bookshops -- you wonder how they can survive. In a word, or phrase, Hay Festival: tens of thousands of visitors flood the town with one thought on their mind: reading.

I won't bore you with my amazing finds -- including the ones I left on the shelves; it's easy to spend well in excess of a thousand pounds on one book, in case you're wondering why I wouldn't satisfy my every whim -- but the highlight of the day was certainly the illustrated edition of Voltaire's Candide by Peter Pauper Press, hardcover in a slipcase. Beautiful!

We decided to rest up a bit before supper. Back in the hotel room, I took in some of the FA Cup fifth round play, very impressed with how non-league Crawley Town fared against Man U. -- that's right: a team effectively four leagues below the team at the top of the Premier League, and, in the end, they were beaten by but one goal. Incredible.

We'd heard the Old Black Lion was the best restaurant in town, and we were lucky enough to get a table without a reservation... Just. The locals were so friendly, first offering us their seats while we waited for a table, and then one gentleman finished early, taking his digestif to the pub area, so that we might have his table sooner. Such a great atmosphere, before I even touch on the fabulous food: a T-bone steak for Tea, and a starter of duck, followed by braised lamb shank for me; superb! Plus, they had the Wye Valley's own Butty Bach on hand-pump! Love that stuff.

The next morning, after a big, tasty full English at the Swan, it was out for a proper hike, south toward the Hay Bluff. The weather was great again, but it had rained overnight, making it easily our muddiest walk to date. Thank goodness for wellies, is all I have to say; well, thank that and balance I summoned from the depths, hauling one boot out while another sank up to my shin, over and over again for a stretch. And I was grinnin' like an idiot, brought back thirty years in one afternoon.

The pig farm was another highlight: these big sows snuffling over to the fence (thinking we had food, no doubt) and scratching themselves on saplings the size of my forearm. Oh, and I can't forget the wee lambs, still trying to master the trick of standing up for seconds at a time. And if walking through all these farms doesn't give you a flavour for life here, every farmhouse we passed had a stool out front with cartons of their eggs and a tin for the money. Stepping back in time would approximate the feeling for some, I guess, but I've never known life like this. Period. It's heaven to me; plain and simple.

After a light lunch at the Blue Boar -- why mess with a good thing? -- it was time for more shopping. I had visions of popping 'round to many different shops, but that was before we entered the phenomenon of Hay Cinema Bookshop. It's pretty much a TARDIS. An old converted theatre, it just keeps going on and on, gobbling up afternoons like kids' sweets. Again, I won't bore you with all that made up our two shopping bags' full. For me, the highlights were N. C. Wyeth's Pilgrims, and a beautiful edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, illustrated by Peter Weevers (although Tea also got some great photography manuals).

The day quickly getting away from us, we decided to hit the road. We still wanted to stop in Ross-on-Wye on the way back, and by the smaller roads that really shouldn't be travelled after sunset. 'Cause it was on the map, we did take one detour: to Arthur's Stone, dented by the elbow of a giant slain by Arthur, according to legend. The kids who were biking away as we arrived didn't seem so impressed, jumping up 'n' down on the neolithic burial chamber moments before. (I leave the mutters and grumblings of "no respect..." and "tanned hides..." as an exercise for the reader.)

We caught the last of the light as we pulled off at Ross-on-Wye. We'll definitely be back, as some of the walks beside the river looked absolutely idyllic. As it was, we stopped in The Mail Rooms for a few pints -- New Moon is an excellent dark, incidentally -- and tea for Tea. When we learned they'd run out of Sunday roast -- of any sort! -- it was down to the Seven Seas for kebabs; super messy, but delish!

Check out our Picasa album for more pictures from the weekend.

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