Published On: Fri, Mar 25th, 2011

Hay Festival: A town set at a slight angle

In the Sixties, Hay-on-Wye was a remote town in the Welsh Marches where not much happened. Then, as now, the visitor approached it across a bridge over the River Wye, admiring the way its grey stone houses sprawl at the foot of the Black Mountains. Behind the town the green scarp of Hay Bluff soars 2,000ft into a sky sown on a good day with buzzards and hidden on a bad day by rain. There is a castle, a market on Thursdays, and shops selling sheep farmers’ requisites.

The Welsh border runs through a corner of the town. A former squire, harbouring the anti-Welsh sentiments that often reach their fullest expression within a hundred yards of the line on the map, used to patrol on Sundays with a shotgun to stop the inhabitants of the Welsh side, where the pubs were closed on Sundays, swarming into the pubs on the English side, where they were not.

Then Richard Booth arrived and filled the town with second-hand books. The first time I visited Hay, a proud bookseller showed me 10,000 copies of HM Ploughing Regulations for Bengal for 1948 – volumes for which there had never been and certainly would not now be a market. In 1977, Booth crowned himself King of Hay and declared UDI. A horse was appointed foreign minister. The King’s ankles were snapped at by various pretenders.

Another Hay began to overlie the quiet market town: an eccentric place, where unusual human beings felt entirely at home. Jonathan Meades, architectural critic and psychogeographer, once said that living in Hay was like being trapped in a railway compartment full of escaped lunatics. This was harsh when he said it, and has become less true as the years have passed. But the town is still set at a slight angle to the rest of the world.

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