Outsiders on the inside

Full disclosure: I’m not from Hay, I’m from Cardiff. Jamie is from London. When we married, we decided to meet on the border; Hay seemed a natural choice, in the beautiful Llanstephan Church (20 mins’ drive, and worth it just for the suspension bridge). We tend to come back at least twice a year. Like many outsiders, we love the place and feel so welcomed that each arrival feels like a homecoming.

The Hay Festival is part of our annual calendar, and we love the array of readings, talks, debates; the activities for the kids and parties for grownups. But there’s much more to see and do in and around Hay-on-Wye than the Festival, and our visits are always busy.

A camper van in a field.
A narrow winding road up a mountainside.

Cathryn and Jamie’s van in a field above Hay, Wye Valley, and the road up beneath the Bluff, towards Gospel Pass

Shop, drink, dine

Shopping in Hay-on-Wye is fun. Of course, the town is famed for its many bookshops. Most people talk about the beautifully restored Richard Booth’s Books, but some of the smaller businesses are worth a mention, too. Stella & Rose's Books specialises in rare and out-of-print children’s books and is a wonderful place to buy gifts or just to wallow in nostalgia. Also hard to resist is Murder and Mayhem, the crime and horror bookshop, with two floors of classic detective and mystery novels. 

There’s more to Hay than just books, and if Jamie goes missing he can often be found trawling through the second-hand vinyl at Haystacks, with its wide and well-ordered selection. Or he’ll be looking through the eclectic range of retro homewares, clothes and furniture at The Old Electric Shop – who also has a lovely café during the day, and sometimes have live music and deliciously potent cocktails in the evening; well worth a visit. Hay is not short of places to eat and drink. The Old Black Lion does high-end pub-grub and offers B&B. They also have a decent wine list, and offer a good range of well-kept local ales. 

A small child reading a book on the floor of a book shop.
Man standing on top of the Hay Bluff trig point with a bike underneath.
Llanthony Priory ruins.

Ernie, checking out the kids' section at Booth's, Hay-on-Wye, Jamie celebrating having ridden to the top of Hay Bluff and Llanthony Priory.

Boats, bikes and by foot

While the town itself has many charms, perhaps its best feature is its location. With the Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons, the winding River Wye, lakes and forests, there is no shortage of ways to enjoy the stunning scenery.

Way2Go Adventures offer tailored excursions, from half a day to a full day. It’s lovely to stop for a picnic at one of the many secluded spots along the river. Alternatively, if you’re not keen on canoeing, you could opt to spend a gentle afternoon at the river beach the locals call The Warren, skimming stones and watching canoeists capsize on the gentle rapids.

A man on a mountain board heading downhill.

Jamie attempting to mountain-board down a hill

Another fun way to explore the area is by bike. Drover Cycles offer good mountain bikes for hire, and can advise on some great off-road loops in the area, from a green (easy) four miles to a black (killer) 28-mile loop, which takes all day, and hurts – Jamie did this one last year, and still shows off the scars. If road-cycling is more your thing, you’ll enjoy (!) the long climb up to the Gospel Pass, the highest public road in Wales, nestled between Hay Bluff and Twmpa, which offers one of the most spectacular panoramas in the area. Drop down into the next valley (either on-road or off, depending on your tyres) and you’ll find the enchanting 12th century Llanthony Priory. Though the church is now in ruins, the pub thankfully is not, and as well as offering a fine selection of beers, they do good food if you need a rest before the long climb back.

There are many wonderful walks in the area, and Hay is a great place to base yourself for a walking holiday. Be sure to grab an OS map (Landranger 161), available from any good bookshop (which, in Hay, shouldn’t be hard to find). For a gentle walk, there are lots of forestry tracks to follow, such as the Hay Forest at Felindre, or further afield there’s a nice circular route in the forest above Llaneglwys, with plenty of stunning views. For the hardier walker, the Pen y Fan and Corn Du circular walk promises to exhaust and exhilarate.

Wye Valley sunrise.

Sunrise over the Wye Valley (around the corner in Llanstephan).

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