Hay-on-Wye closed its castle gates 400 years ago. However, the way to Hay-on-Wye lies open for all to see what this historic town has to offer. Hay-on-Wye sits on the border between England and Wales, and uses the postcode for the County of Herefordshire, but Hay lies in Powys and is indeed a little Welsh medieval market town. It sits alongside the River Wye, the river being just one of the many attractions for the visitors who flock here each year. With picturesque views of the Wye Valley, the Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons National Park close at hand one wonders why they set out to become the “most famous book town" in the world.
With around 1,900 inhabitants and 30 bookshops, it could be said that there are more books than people in Hay-on-Wye! The town is a 'Mecca' for second hand books and bibliophiles, which is why it appeals to so many authors, writers, and historians. It was Richard Booth, self proclaimed King of Hay and owner of Hay castle, who opened his first second hand bookshop in 1961 and pursued his dream to create the largest second hand and antiquarian book selling centre in the world.
The town holds a weekly market in the town centre. Every Thursday throughout the year, stallholders move into the Buttermarket and Memorial Square. From 8am to mid afternoon the area is busy with shoppers, buying anything from eggs to thimbles! It is a busy yet welcoming atmosphere and you will find anything you need right here. For those with an eye for craft and detail, Hay-on-Wye also houses its own gallery. The Bowie Gallery offers a range of contemporary ceramics, jewellery, textiles and metalwork and is situated right in the centre of Hay overlooking the 18th century Buttermarket. This is definitely one gem in the town that is well worth a visit for its warm atmosphere and delightful displays.
If you fancy a bite to eat, there are many cafes and restaurants dotted about Hay-on-Wye to keep you happy. They are proud of their fresh local produce, and several hotels are also public houses. Experiment with the local real ales on offer or try something from the wine list while waiting for your meal!
Telegraph Hay Festival: Founded in 1988 by Peter Florence, the world famous Hay Festival celebrates the works of the best writers and performers of the creative arts. Peter Florence's mother was from the Black Mountains area of Wales herself and Florence felt that with its second hand bookshops and rustic charm, that Hay was the perfect place for a literary festival. The festival is today sponsored by The Telegraph newspaper (hence its name!) and attracts 80,000 visitors.
Hay Food Festival: There are so many excellent food and drink producers in this beautiful part of Wales that the Food Festival decided to bring them all together for a wonderful celebration and display them for everyone to enjoy. There are plenty of delicacies to whet your appetite and a wide range of foods are available to buy. There are over 50 producers both from Wales and the Borders and a wide range of activities await you: the Chef's Demonstration, children's hands on cookery workshops, Local Schools Fair-trade fruit stall and the Gwynt-y-Ddraig cider and apple bar.
Walks, Cycle Trails and Other Activities
There are many walks criss-crossing the border landscape in the vicinity of Hay-on-Wye, with winding country lanes leading to quaint villages with church and steeple. A pub on the river bank, a red telephone box in the village square. It could be argued that Hay not only favours book lovers but it is also a Mecca for walkers. Two of Wales prime trails meet up in Hay-on-Wye: the Offa's Dyke Path and the Wye Valley Walk.
There are short walks around the town or along the river bank and long distance walks that take in the most beautiful parts of the Black mountains and Brecon Beacons National Park.
Mountain Bike enthusiasts will not be disappointed. There are several dedicated mountain bike trails to the south of Hay. The Brecon Beacons Black Mountains mountain bike trail, the Black Mountains Grwyne Fawr mountain bike trail, and the Llangorse Lake mountain bike trail to name just three. There are many more among the Brecon Beacons.
As with many Welsh towns, border towns in particular, their "built" heritage can be traced back to those war torn times when the Anglo Normans invaded the land in the late 11th and 12th centuries. The first sign of conquest was the motte and bailey, a large mound, the motte, on which was built a large wooden fort or bailey. Within time these would be abandoned, or strengthened, and either reinforced or rebuilt with stone walls, becoming the castles that we see today. Hay can be said to have had a more troubled past than most border towns …it was destroyed by the English King John in 1216, and soon after the Welsh Prince Llywelyn set fire to it !
Castles and Forts
Motte and Bailey: The romantic ruins of the Hay-on-Wye castle are still standing today, but let us not forget the original stronghold, the motte and bailey settlement on the western edge of the town. Although little remains of the motte today it can be seen that the motte is 3m high and 20m across at the summit. It lies close to Saint Mary's church on the western edge of the town and overlooks a gorge and small stream leading to the Wye. Little is known of the original settlement but it is believed to have been constructed by William Revel, a knight of Bernard de Newmarch.
Hay Castle: The motte and bailey was replaced around 1200 by the present stone castle, lying on the south side of the river Wye. It was built by Matilda de Braose, and the castle stayed in the de Braose family until 1230 when William de Braose was hanged in Abergwyngregyn for "having it off" with the wife of the Welsh ruler Prince Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, Llywelyn the Great.
What followed was typical of Welsh border castles with the stronghold changing hands between the English and the Welsh over the centuries. The 13th century saw the rebellions where the Welsh Princes Llywelyn ab Iorwerth and later Llywelyn ab Gruffydd fought unsuccessfully to free themselves from the English yoke. The early 15th Century saw the last revolt, the Glyndwr rebellion, and the castle again suffered damage by Welsh forces. However, within a few years Hay Castle was once again listed as defensible against the Welsh. Indeed the castle was sacked by both the English and the Welsh, which led to its eventual abandonment and decay.
Come the 17th Century and part of the castle was rebuilt as a Jacobean mansion house that is now part of the longest-established bookshop in the town of books. Little is left now of the castle apart from its ruined walls as many parts were taken down following the building of the railway during the 1860s, but the walls and steps can still be appreciated from Castle Square in the town.
Hay Bluff lies just 4 miles south of Hay-on-Wye, Hay Bluff is a favourite launch point for hang-gliders and offers incomparable views over the Wye Valley and far into central Wales. The Brecon Beacons National Park and the Black Mountains are just a short drive away. Both popular with walkers and mountain bikers.
Accommodation and Services
If you need any extra help, Hay Tourist Information bureau is located adjacent to the main car park. A selection of maps, leaflets and booklets are available at the Centre and members of staff are happy to help with any queries or needs you have. On display in the Centre is information about the many activities the area has to offer. There is a wide selection of accommodation ranging from hotels, guesthouses and B&Bs, as well as self-catering cottages and farmhouse stays. For outdoor sleeping, there are plenty of caravan and camping sites along the A438 road outside Hay-on-Wye.
Hay-on-Wye formerly had its own railway station, but it was closed in 1963 following the famous Beeching Axe, under which a large number of smaller train stations were closed.
The Royal Commission on Ancient Monuments in Wales recently (2008) sent their investigator Richard Suggett to investigate the ancient gates at Hay Castle with colleagues from the Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory. The aim was to ascertain whether they might be one of the oldest surviving gates in Europe. Gates from the Middle Ages are extremely rare. The gates at Hay Castle can easily be overlooked as they are in a long-closed gateway at the rear. The castle was rebuilt as a house in the seventeenth century and is now part of the longest-established bookshop in the town of books. The right-hand half of the gates is similar to the gates at Chepstow Castle, which were recently tree-ring dated to the later twelfth century. Tree-ring dating involves drilling fine cores across the grain of the timber and comparing the pattern of growth rings with dated historical sequences of good and bad years. The Hay gates were drilled, and the left hand gate was successfully dated to between 1610 and 1640. Unfortunately, the right-hand gate, which is almost certainly much older, could not be dated accurately. It may well be fourteenth-century or earlier. It might be possible to date it in future as techniques advance.
Whether or not it is possible to establish the castle gates as the oldest in Europe it can surely be said that Hay-on-Wye is the gateway to Wales !