We just spent a month in Hay-on-Wye, Wales, a small market town (population 1,598 in 2011) on the border with England. The locals were surprised: “What! Did you say a month? You must mean a week!” (Nope.) Or “What! How did you even hear about Hay? Did you just close your eyes and drop a pin on a map?” (Nope.)
OK, it was a bit random, but still fully-analyzed. Our friend Helen told us about Hay-on Wye. She heard about it from her British friend Polly, who said she’d love to retire there. So we decided to look into it. Worth a shot, right? We learned about the town’s used bookstores (Wikipedia claims 20, but a few have closed recently) and annual literary festival that has grown in reputation and morphed into the international Hay Festival. The quirkiness attracted us. So too did Hay’s location at the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park with its plethora of nearby hiking opportunities. We were gearing up for a 192-mile walk in September and wanted to improve our hiking endurance. So last April, while still in Cusco, Peru, Lorrie found a house in Hay-on-Wye on AirBnB, and we rented it for a month starting July 15.
I have to admit to being a bit nervous as we arrived in Hay. Other than our month-long work-stay on a vineyard in Mendoza, Argentina, it would be the longest we’ve stayed in one place since we started our trip 16 months ago. Was a month too long without a specific purpose? Would there be enough to do in such a small town?
When Lorrie and I initially began talking about this trip, I proposed picking towns in a few interesting places and settling in each one for 3-4 months. We’d always be tourists no matter what, but I imagined that a longish stay would give us time to get to know a community more deeply and explore the immediate surrounding area in a leisurely way from a “home” where we’d also be able to develop some familiar routines and casual friendships. We didn’t end up taking this approach, partly because there are so many things we want to do and see that we couldn’t bear to commit so much time to just a few places. But as we’ve traveled, deciding how much time to spend in each place has been a constant challenge—I almost always want to stay longer, yet we’ve invariably already had to firm up plans to move on. Admittedly, our schedule is pretty leisurely, but it’s not totally flexible since we still need to book some things in advance. I was looking forward to spending a whole month in Hay, which was a slight shift towards my original idea, but how would the reality measure up? Would it really be worth trading away a slew of Welsh highlights laid out so attractively in our tour books?
Hay has all of the things Americans find charming in a small rural British town: a jumble of crooked old stone buildings haphazardly updated, a rundown castle now being restored, evidence of a rich and contentious history going back 1,000 years, half a dozen pubs in atmospheric old buildings serving “real cask ales,” a web of public footpaths and single lane roads between high hedges leaving town in every direction into a beautiful patchwork of hilly farmland, more sheep than people, a river fit for canoeing, and lots of small specialized shops (including a green grocer, a couple of butchers and many bookstores). Plus, this being Wales, all the street signs are in both Welsh and English. How fun!
Everyone was very friendly and welcoming. They asked if we are Canadian because we understand they think it’s a less insulting mistake than asking a Canadian if they’re American. On our second or third day I met Derek, the owner of a small deli (more like a small specialty grocery store than what we would call a deli in the US). He suggested several good hikes and at some point I mentioned being a cyclist. A couple of hours later, Derek showed up at our house with his bike for me to use for the month, and his partner Joanna loaned Lorrie her bike too—with helmets and a pump.
I saw Derek most days when I’d walk up to the deli to buy bread, cheese, and groceries—one of those little routines I really love! He often introduced me to other customers—such as Gordon, a fanatic cyclist and triathlete who knows all the small steep roads, and Emma and Ollie who moved with their two young sons to nearby Clyro after living for several years in Buenos Aires. Emma recently opened a small museum about books called The Story of Books; Ollie, a freelance journalist, recently took time off to do a doctorate in Latin American Studies. He also wrote a book about Hay, Under The Tump, styled after Victorian diarist Francis Kilvert, which provides interesting local historical and social context as Ollie ruminates about how—and whether—newcomers can ever fit into a small rural community. (Good question.)
So was a month in Hay too long? The short answer is no. Here’s why.
First of all, the hill walking nearby is superb. With its highest peak under 2,900 feet, the Brecon Beacon mountains are not high. But their rounded grassy slopes with steep plunging escarpments provide excellent day hikes through varied landscapes with wonderful views. And unlike in the United States or other places we’ve visited where all hiking is on publicly owned land (i.e. state or national parks or forests, etc.—see my blog on public lands in the US), in Britain have the right to walk across private property using an extensive network of footpaths, or even off footpaths in Scotland. You see marked footpaths everywhere. They run along the edges of fields with crops or grazing animals and across boundary lines—requiring lots of stiles. Occasionally, the marked path leads right up someone’s driveway and out through their backyard! It’s often possible to walk right from town without driving to public land. (For an interesting back story, listen to this recent podcast about the legal “right to roam” in Britain.)
Hay was also a good base to explore southern Wales by car when we were not hiking. There are interesting historical sites within driving distance, including castles, gardens, and small museums. We learned some of the history that continues to give Wales a national identity and language while still being part of Great Britain. We also learned about Robert Owen, a Welsh businessman and early leader of the cooperatives movement. He was also instrumental in the development of New Harmony, a utopian community in Indiana, in the early 1800s.
Visitors! Having a fixed base with extra bedrooms for a substantial chunk of time made it easy to receive visitors. Our friend Bill was in London for some meetings, and we convinced him to join us for a weekend. And my mom spent a marvelous 10 days with us, which was really special and fun. She’s a spunky 86, and it was a real treat to spend so much time together. She took her first canoe trip with us—three hours on the Wye River!
For such a small town, Hay offers a surprising number of social and cultural events in town and nearby. Our stay happened to coincide with the Royal Welsh Agricultural Show, which is held each year in another small town about 20 miles away. The four-day show is roughly equivalent to a state agricultural fair in the US, featuring fun “spectator sports” like pole climbing, wood chopping, horse-shoeing, and sheep shearing. We heard several high-quality musicians right in Hay—Solana, Zoe Francis, and Jim Mullen—as well as a performance of Brahms’s Requiem in Hereford cathedral (half an hour’s drive away). We loved going to open mic night every Tuesday at the Globe at Hay, a performance venue and inspiring community space just four doors down the street from our house. Some of the amateur performers were really terrific, and others were just quirky, but all were memorable and enjoyable. I wished I had some talent and brio to share it or that Lorrie had a piano so that we could join in.
Oh, and the weather turned out to be surprisingly fabulous. Britain has been suffering a record-setting heat wave and drought, so while it normally rains a lot in Wales, we enjoyed sun and warm temperatures almost every day. That, plus lots of daylight, with the sun rising about 5am and setting at about 10pm, made me very happy.
The month flew by, and we were sad to leave what had begun to feel like home. I think we could have happily stayed longer. But our AirBnB house has been sold and once again it was time to move on….
We are now in Snowdonia in northwest Wales, thanks to our friends Sachi and Quentin who generously offered us their cabin at the edge of a small village nestled in the mountains. This part of Wales is very different than the Brecon Beacons. The mountains are higher and more jagged, and the landscape is a bit wilder and more forested. The language in the local pub has turned to Welsh, as has the weather, so we’ve upgraded our rainy day gear and continued hiking.
Our next big plan was to hike the 192-mile coast-to-coast route across northern England. Unfortunately, Lorrie is dealing with some knee pain, so we’re postponing this for another time. We’ve scaled back our hiking and to assuage our disappointment, we will do some sea kayaking off Scotland’s western coast and wander through the highlands.
We’ll leave the UK on September 17, flying to Dubrovnik to meet our son Dylan and his partner Stephanie for 10 days in Croatia. After that, my sisters Joan and Sarah will meet us for fun in Italy (Venice, Portofino, and Tuscany). Then we’ve rented an apartment in two places in eastern Sicily for about two weeks each. I wanted to spend a full month in just one Sicilian town…but, inevitably, we again could not muster the fortitude to choose just one place.