Town of books indeed! This is a much-belated account of what occurred in May this year, a wonderful road trip with my dear friend Kiah as we took her new car and fresh driver’s licence on the country roads to enjoy a festival close to our hearts.
Hay-On-Wye has over 20 second hand / specialist book shops in its small perimeter. It’s absolutely wonderful to peruse, because there’s almost a never-ending stream of forgotten titles and treasures from years gone by. It’s also incredibly beautiful to look at, which helps with the appeal of the annual Literary event.
I went to this festival giddy with the anticipation of seeing my favourite author of all-time, Neil Gaiman, in the flesh speaking about books and generally existing. However, the fact I would spend two whole days with a dear friend (who I’d barely seen at that time) on only my 2nd trip to Wales (a country I’ve always wanted to see more of) was also reason to anticipate this trip with a side effect of going ‘wheee!’ everytime I thought about it.
Hay-on-Wye is so pretty. It was also very welcoming, appearing at the end of our journey like a hidden spot of history. If you weren’t looking for it, you’d stumble upon it by accident and wonder how so many books landed there, probably.
Lookit how pretty! The trip there was pretty funny. I think we took a wrong turn at one point and went all the way back around. I saw the same magpie about three times, hopping about looking at me along the way before we made the right turn. We sang Bohemian Rhapsody and other classics. I fed my kindly driver chocolate whenever necessary, also giving out crisps and beverages. We didn’t make a pitstop for peepees either, which was to my detriment rather than my pride. Despite my overwhelming need to ‘go’ I kept drinking sodding water and ended up walking knobbly-kneed into the town after we’d found the place and parked.
Glad to say I didn’t have any accidents. We went in and out of a few of its many book shops, volumes upon volumes of timeless classics, first editions and general literary brilliance stacked around us.
I understand that people prefer paperbacks nowadays but come on, who wouldn’t want their book bound so beautifully and everlastingly?!
We found the festival after about two hours of book shop hopping. I, mystifyingly, didn’t buy anything to cart around with me. I got the tickets for Gaiman’s talk and then we settled down to a nice refreshing coffee / tea / whatever it was I could have at the time. The festival itself is held in a field and along the way the residents on the street put out stalls in their front gardens selling pizzas, journals, and various other wares. One woman even had a temporary café in her garden where cheap tea and cakes were offered. It had a strong community feel, and if I’d have had uncapped funds I probably would have bought a bit of everything.
There was a green carpet in the main festival area, leading us around to the various stages. The very back of the festival tents were where I bought the first proper purchase of my trip – a book containing short stories about spooky Detectives, of which a story had been contributed by Gaiman – and I saw David Mitchell signing copies of his new book to a very long line of people.
I was surprised at how normal he looked, to be honest, because I read Cloud Atlas and thought he’d be wearing a few more scarves or something.
After finding and leering at the food halls which I could not actually dine at (stupid Gallstones and their pesky dietary needs) we decided to walk back up to the car, have some dinner and then park at the field closer to the festival.
Upon our return we had to do the obligatory Hay Pictures – I am the one in the vibrant red scarf, Kiah is the much more attractive subject:
When the time came to enter the stage hall and prepare for the talk, we were very chilly. Everywhere else was warm but the valley where the wind began to swoop in and chill us. I was slightly nervous about what it would contain, and I busied myself chatting with Kiah about my writing hopes and dreams when unannounced and without any fuss, Mr Neil “I created American Gods you pussy” Gaiman stepped out to regale us with witty tales about Terry Pratchett and how he’s been working on various books. I only attempted a few pictures of his time and one came out well:
I may not win anything for photography on that one but blame my bloody “wonderous at take pictures (not)’ iPhone.
Then – after about an hour and a half of listening to Mr Gaiman read bits of his books and reminisce, it was Question Time.
Now – I’ve always been terrified of talking to people I admire. When I was two feet away from Peter Jackson in Wellington I went to introduce myself and found my throat close up. When Captain America himself Chris Evans was near to me on set I couldn’t even offer him a hello. So it took a great deal of strength and push for me to raise my hand to be the last question of the evening when everyone seemed to have had theirs answered. The man with the microphone hopped over and I, clutching my trusty scarf, stood up to speak to Neil Gaiman,
He was looking at me, as any polite and professional person would, but despite this ringing in my brain (Neil Gaiman knows you exist, don’t fuck it up) I was able to deliver my question (whether the meanings or original stories end up where he actually intended them to, or whether they morph over time) in an articulate – possibly rambly – manner. He replied with a smile, still looking at me, and I stared back not really listening just trying to remember the moment. I do recall he was very funny and on watching the video back he did answer my question. Basically, the story’s final destination, even if they do veer off the intended track, always feels inevitable. And I understand that entirely.
When we left the talk I wasn’t aware of festival etiquette, so I didn’t know that I could get the copy of American Gods I’d carted around with me all day signed afterwards. Nevertheless leaving the stage area was probably for the best as I was shivering with cold and nerves/ excitement, plus we still had to make the 30 minute journey to the hotel to check in and bed down for the night. This meant travelling under the waxing moon through winding country roads, as it was already getting dark by the time we left.
When we arrived at Madley and the little Inn, we interrupted the town’s darts evening. We squeezed through the tiny pub to get to the landlady, getting lost in the back rooms before we found her. Delightful lady, talking about how she loved books. When I told her I had written a book she was very interested and we discussed reading habits before paying up and being directed to the room.
It was pleasant and cosy, very cosy, and the village was very quiet. We managed to watch a bit of TV before opening the red wine and having a good girl talk before we retired to bed. Well Kiah did, I only got about 3 hours’ sleep because my insomnia decided to arrive when what I wanted to do was drift off to dreamland.
Exploring the town without a time restriction was detrimental for my bank balance. I ended up finding a crystal shop. I spent money in this crystal shop. Too much money. We also found a funky little boutique in which we sadly couldn’t afford the flattering fashions….
Then came the fudge shop – the shop of many a fudgey goodness – we went up to see whether the Castle was able to explored only to find some toffs were taking over the cafe inside. On our way back down we encountered a lot of book shops. We went in to a lot of bookshops. We also bought a fair amount of books, many of which I found after spending hours on the floor scouring the supernatural and occult sections of the forgotten aisles.
When our pockets were empty of money and it came to leaving the lovely Welsh town, it was quite a task. There was no wifi, there was also no signal, and so we didn’t have a map. We ended up arranging permission with kindly car park wardens for us to drive around an open field, my mobile phone aloft to the heavens outside the car window in the vain hope of getting the map to work to guide our way home.
It could have come straight out of ‘Some mothers do ‘ave em!’ but when we eventually got signal we left with some very fond memories but a severe need for coffee. The ride home was much less busy and bouncy as the ride in but we certainly had a lot of memories to take with us.
‘TIL OUR NEXT ADVENTURE!