A picture-perfect riverside town: The bookworm's guide to Hay-on-Wye

10 June 2022

Hay-on-Wye: it’s the sort of the destination where many get lost in bookshops, Alice in Wonderland style. As archetypal as its bookshops and literary festival may be, that’s just the first chapter in this small Powys town.

As you roll out of the Welsh outback and into Hay-on-Wye, the storyline of your holiday has a few possible tangents. Side quests might include sampling the larder in its excellent Welsh eateries, paragliding or hiking from the surrounding bluffs, canoeing down the River Wye, or even horse riding in the Black Mountains.

So, buckle up and bring along any reading glasses, but don’t forget your outdoorsy gear either. The following two-day itinerary doesn’t just conjure up the full literary fantasy. It’ll craft your own narrative, which might just be a best-seller the next time you recount your travel tales around a campfire.

Day 1: Bookshop Browsing

It’s likely you’re already brimming with anticipation for Hay-on-Wye’s illustrious bookshops. If you’re not here for the Hay Festival, which is a momentous literary occasion that runs between May and June every year, there are several bookshops that all budding scholars will want to bookmark.

Begin by making your way to Lion Street, where Addyman Books has been churning out kids’ books, science fiction novels, myths, antique maps, and rare antiquarian reads since 1987. Its occult and vintage Penguin books are even stowed away in a Transylvanian church.

Right across the road, Murder and Mayhem bears witness to a host of murder mysteries. The small, vault-like shop is a time capsule for page-turning novels such as those by Agatha Christie and the Sherlock Holmes series, as well as horrors from the turn of the century.

Still on Lion Street, continue to flick through Hay-on-Wye’s many emporiums, which include the startling stanzas of The Poetry Bookshop or Richard Booth’s bookshop, a three-floor establishment founded by ‘the King of Hay’, who largely contributed to Hay-on-Wye’s success as literary destination for second-hand books.

Canoeing on the River Wye

In the afternoon, it’s time for your first plot twist: the river Wye. Cross over the bridge from Lion Street and pick up your water vessel from ‘want to canoe?’. The river Wye trickles down from the Welsh mountains and runs for over 100 miles, so canoeing journeys can last as long as five days if you wish, stopping in Glasbury, Symonds Yat, and Chepstow.

A smaller five-and-a-half-mile journey spotting heron, kingfishers and Welsh moors takes just three hours’ worth of cruising. You’ll want to plan in time to moor at Hay Warren, a small meadow and ‘beach’ delightful for wild bathing, a short paddle west of the town centre.

Welsh eateries

Adventurous side tended to, it’s only time that your tummy received some TLC too. Luckily, Hay-on-Wye is an undercover foodies’ destination.

Power up with wholefoods and deli eats from Hay Deli. Nab sheep’s milk ice cream in flavours such as Lebanese coffee or gooseberry and elderflower crumble from Shepherd’s Parlour.

For more filling meals, The Granary is a barn-like establishment that sells pies and baguettes. Tomatitos Tapas Bar and the Cosy Cafe are other popular digs infused with local flavours.

Day 2: Arts, markets, and trinkets

If you’re lucky enough to be in Hay-on-Wye on a Thursday morning, you’ll want to rise early and browse through the 40-plus stalls that grace Memorial Square, selling items like edible treats and homemade ceramics.

Otherwise, map out the way to trinkets, art, and pottery in the town. It’s not just about bookshops, after all.

The Hay Antiques Centre has over 40 stalls brimming with trinkets, all under one roof, while some of the town’s art galleries include The Table, The Lion Street Gallery and The Haymakers. If it’s ceramics you’re after, Brook Street Pottery is dedicated to ceramic art.

Outdoor adventures

Trinkets and antiques in hand, the remainder of your day is committed to exploring Hay-on-Wye’s big backyard. For those who’d like to hike their way around, there are two main narratives that could unfold, both beginning in Hay-on-Wye.

The Black Mountains in Hay-on-Wye

The Offa’s Dyke heads south for Hay Bluff, running along an 8th-century earthwork that marks the boundary between Wales and England. The Wye Valley Walk traces the river Wye instead, snaking past wild swimming spots, meadows, and moorlands.

If you’re willing to travel half an hour’s drive out - and you may be since cider is on the menu - the Cider Circuit is a loop around historic hamlets and artisan cider farms. Drover Cycles on Hay on Wye’s Forest Road will rent you wheels for the day, so you can cycle around.

Of course, there’s no forgetting the Black Mountains, which is a mecca for outdoor activities. The Black Mountain Activities centre, 10 minutes’ drive from Hay-on-Wye, organises gorge walking, caving, climbing, or bushcraft.

Bryngwyn Riding Centre, 20 minutes’ drive from Hay-on-Wye, orgnanises Hacks through the local countryside.

So, take your pick, or perhaps extend your itinerary by a day and fuel yourself with more Welsh goodies for several of the above outdoor activities. When you head back home, you should have plenty of photos, a full belly, and a few books and trinkets to show for your time in Hay-on-Wye. 

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