Monday, January 4, 2021


Skip back to 2019, before the coronapocalypse, and my wife and I spent a two week trip to England, Wales, Germany, and Austria. It feels like an eternity ago - in the meantime, I have lost a job and started a new one, a volunteer commitment with my church was fulfilled after three (very fulfilling) years, we moved from Madison to Janesville, and we gained a grandchild in that time. It's like a dream of another lifetime, when one could roam as freely as one could afford, when we were all looking forward to the deposition of the worst President in US history, and where one only wore a mask the majority of the day on Halloween.

Since we're all pinned in by the pandemic, I've done a few posts on some of our stops, and there are more to come. My hope is to provide a little moment for you to "travel" out of your quarantine box and get to "see" and hear about a bit of this good world. I've already covered Oxford, a day hike in the Cotswolds, and Salzburg. I still "owe" posts on Vienna (which might take two or three posts), The Eagle's Nest and Berchtesgaden, Bath and the Kooky Cotswolds tour, Bedford / Chicksands, and The Devil's Quoits. 

This time around, it's a quick post about our day trip to Wales, more specifically, to the village of Hay-on-Wye, a well-known (among bibliophiles such as myself) "booktown" in the Powys area. This would qualify as one of the "places I'd be happy to die in" from this trip (Vienna being the other). When I think of the D&D outer plane of Elysium, Hay-on-Wye is what comes to mind: a beautiful plane of goodness, quaint scenes . . . and lots of bookstores. The population, when we visited, was 1600 people, and the village has (or at least had) 26 bookstores. TWENTY-SIX BOOKSTORES!  That's one book store for every 61 residents. How can that not be heaven?

Our drive from Moreton-in-Marsh was, if I remember correctly, about an hour and a half or so. What they don't tell you is that a full half hour of that drive is through skinny winding roads with head-high hedges (but no fences) on either side of the road, making it impossible to see around the next curve. When you're trying to learn to drive on the other side of the road, this can be very, very unnerving. In fact, it was a little terrifying. I suppose you got to go through hell before you get to heaven, as Steve Miller put it.

Eventually we made it there. And in one piece! Well, until I pulled into this parking lot:

I don't even remember which car was ours. But I do remember when I accidentally side-swiped someone while trying to park. ARGH! And the people I swiped? They had just gotten out of their car. The one woman said to the other "He just scraped my car!" Yes. Yes, I did. Thankfully I had taken the dealership up on that insurance (you know, the one I never take when driving in the US?). I am so glad that I did that. Note that it also came in handy in Germany when someone poked a hole in the the bumper of the Mercedes I was driving! THAT one was not my fault. But THIS one, yes, it was all me. We called the rental place and got it all worked out. Her people talked with my people, and we went on our way. I still feel stupid, even now. But they drive on the other side of the road! I was so glad when we had a chauffer the next day, but that's a different story.

After our harrowing parking experience, we set off into town on foot. I use the word "town" to mean "village". It's very small and very quaint. Look, even the clocktower is small:

And, yes, before you ask - this photo was taken near the end of the day, rather than the beginning. As I was saying, the clocktower is small, but quaint. Where in the US will you find a genuine clocktower like this, in the middle of the road (I mean this quite literally)? Sorry, Walt Disney World does NOT count. Get a life.

As a further piece of evidence regarding just how small Hay is, note this sign:

This is the gospel truth. Hay-on-Wye, in fact, all of eastern Wales, from what I could see, was clearly unsuitable for large vehicles.

While I would have gladly just laid down in that little village and died (and nearly did die of embarrassment after the parking incident), we were there to find books! In all honesty, I didn't take a lot of pictures in Hay because I was bent on book hunting. Who had time for pictures? Still, I got a few.

This was one of the first windows I saw. A harbinger of good things to come and a stark reminder that we were (thankfully) not in America any more. 

Like I said, I didn't take many pictures. We visited ten bookstores, and I only took one picture of one. Otherwise it was a mad sprint from shop to shop digging through the piles, some of them well-organized, some of them spewing printed material from the mouth of chaos. I reveled in both. Oh, and it wasn't all books:

See, there were models as well as books. And art, a ton of art. They especially like Rackham there. In fact, I picked up a Rackham book whilst there, from the same bookstore that I found these models in. I had to take this photo for my friend, Tom, as I know he loves models. 

One bookstore that came highly recommended to me by several literary friends was the Hay Cinema Bookshop, located in - yes, you guessed it you smart cookie, you - what used to be Hay's Cinema. 

This picture did not do it justice, as it was honestly an afterthought as we were leaving there for another shop. But I must tell you  that this was a treasure trove. Though they didn't have a copy of The Yellow Book Quarterly, and I really was looking to pick one up. In fact, we spent a good amount of time in ten of the 26 book shops in Hay and none of them had any copy of any volume of TYBQ, though the curator at Hay Cinema Bookshop said that he had just sold a full set a couple of weeks before. Sigh. One day . . . one day . . .

After all this running (sometimes literally) from bookshop to bookshop, we were famished, so we stopped at an Indian restaurant in town and had some great vindaloo and curry and I can't remember what all else, except that it was delicious and fairly spicy for food served in the UK. Here's a view out the back of the restaurant:

By this time, the shops had all closed, and we wandered the streets, finding this alley, which is not notable for anything at all expect that it's an alley in Hay with a view of the hills beyond.

And, speaking of hills, I took this shot of the "quilted" hills in the distance.

And this last photo from the now-notorious car park. The white spots on the hills are sheep. There are sheep everywhere there.

Finally, after what was far too short of a day, we were off back to Moreton-in-Marsh. Here is a claustrophobic view of the hedges we were trapped between until we were near the English border:

And as much as I gripe, I would return there in a heartbeat. Supposedly there is some Welsh ancestry on my Mom's side of the family. I'd say it felt quite a bit like "home" there. Yeah, I could live there for a very long time - if I wasn't killed trying to drive there. But, like I said, Hay-on-Wye is a place I could happily die in.

Why all the morbidity? Well, take a look at the books I picked up. To be fair, the M.R. James collection was picked up in Oxford the day previous, but . . . 

And I must note here that I hunted and hunted for a book by Machen, whom I believe was from just south of Hay, and I found The Hill of Dreams, which is a remarkable book. Go read my review here. and Robert Graves, who wrote The White Goddess (also reviewed on my blog) had all kinds of connections with Wales, especially on the poetic front. I mentioned Rackham earlier. And while James and Shiel were both very much English, at least I bought their books on the same island. The Spiegleman book was the one book (I know, I know . . .) my wife picked up. And the Art Deco book was just one I couldn't pass up as genuinely good art books are sometimes hard to come by, especially used, in the US. We are such Cretins!

And, lastly, what are some of the notable books I passed up? I coudn't buy everything, folks, and I only had so much space in my luggage. So, I missed out on: The Complete Short Fiction of J.G. Ballard, Maupassant's Complete Short Stories,  Frazier's The Golden Bough (abridged edition), The Complete Poems of John Betjeman (note that my wife did get me a copy of this for Christmas this year!), and Asterix in Britain. If I would have had oh, say 600 quid to spare, I would have picked up several first edition volumes from a collection of occult books that someone had just sold to Hay Cinema Bookshop. Alas, I did not have that kind of money (having spent it instead on plane tickets, car insurance, and such). But, oh, did I want them. Oh my, oh my.

After that long (and yet so short) day, we returned to our little air-b-n-b "loft", pictured below. Note the skylight in the roof, out of which we could see the stars over the Cotswolds. By the Welsh and Breton gods, it was beautiful. Nothing like falling asleep in that cozy loft, looking up through the roof at the stars.

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