The Most Fabulous Welsh Village I’ve Never Seen…
As the train crossed the border from England into Wales, the anticipation swelled in my chest. This was the part of the trip I had been waiting for, the highlight I’d dreamed about for a long time. I was going to see Hay on Wye, a medieval village with over a dozen bookstores – the ultimate fantasy of bibliophile history geeks.
Hay on Wye is such a small village that when I planned the trip, I chose Llandrindod Wells as the place to base out of so that everyone traveling with me would have options other than bookstores. Llandrindod Wells was about a 40 minutes drive from Hay on Wye, and I planned to rent a car and find my way there one day. I couldn’t wait to get to the little village, explore the bookstores at my leisure, and absorb all that was Hay on Wye.
Arriving in Llandrindod Wells, Wales was like stepping back in time. The train station had posters from World War II still hanging on the walls, and there wasn’t a car for hire to be found anywhere. The only way to our hotel was to lug our suitcases up the hill by foot. Within fifteen minutes of getting off the train, my English brother was already convinced that our stay in Wales was going to be every bit as bad as he predicted.
I’d flown to England with my almost-four-year-old son, my parents, and aunt and uncle to attend my brother’s surprise 40th birthday party. The second part of the surprise was he and his family would be accompanying us on a ten day tour of Scotland and Wales after the party.
“Wales?!?!” my brother exclaimed, voice full of disdain and eyes rolling. “Why would you want to go to Wales?” My brother is English born and raised, spending just enough time in Minnesota on holidays to realize that his American family often doesn’t share the same passions or aversions.
“History!” I told him, “and Hay-on-Wye.”
Hay-on-Wye is a small village on the border of Wales made up of mostly bookstores, numbering more than twenty with thousands of books, wonderful coffee shops, and the beauty of the Welsh countryside. The many bookstores specialize in old books, new books, popular books, rare books; and the town is also host to one of the world’s premier literary festivals every summer. It’s a bibliophile’s heaven!
At least, that’s what I’ve heard – I’ve never been there.
But I came very close twelve years ago on that fateful trip with my family.
I dragged my family into Wales to stay in Llandrindod Wells – a town nearly four times the size of Hay-on-Wye. I thought it would be the perfect staging point for everyone: interesting town, near Shropshire (on the rail line), near Hay-on-Wye (not on the rail line), restaurants, shops, nice hotel. I found the town to be quaint and full of history, but my family seemed bored and kept up happy facades to placate me. Most of them took the train each day to Shropshire, another great town, and only an hour away, but it’s in England, not Wales.
So with my family spending their days in England and nights in Wales, I worked on getting to Hay-on-Wye. Being that it is not on the rail line that went through Llandrindod Wells, I planned to hire a taxi to drive me the 26 miles. As it would happen, there was a fox hunting conference in a nearby town, and all the town’s taxi’s were there. I asked to rent a car, but none were available. I asked to rent a bike, but again, none were available. I asked the hotel clerk if she or any of her friends would drive me to Hay-on-Wye for any price, but she just smiled and politely shook her head. I traveled nearly 4000 miles to get to Hay-on-Wye, only to be derailed 26 miles from my ultimate destination.
My running shoes were in my suitcase, but the farthest I’d ever run was thirteen miles – a half-marathon. A full marathon, both ways, was not going to happen in the next four days. But a six to ten mile run wasn’t out of the realm of possibilities, so I slipped on my running clothes and tied on my running shoes and set out to explore on foot. I don’t normally condone fanny packs, but when in a foreign country where I know no one and no convenient means to carry a camera, a few sheets of paper, pen, and some cash, I set fashion aside and clipped one on.
The horses and sheep in the lush (did I mention the nonstop rain?), rolling pastures outside of town picked up their heads and perked their ears, looking at me in a way that I can only describe as perplexed surprise as I plodded by in my slow, steady jog. I found the ruins of a twelfth century church, mossy streams in mystical forests, and a hidden lake with swans floating lazily around an island. Had Lancelot ridden by on his white steed, or had the Lady of the Lake emerged with Excalibur gleaming in her deathly pale hand, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised. I imagined I would sigh an exclamation of delight, just as I had at the discovery of the old church or the swan-guarded island.
The people of the village, though unwilling to drive me to Hay-on-Wye for any amount of money, proved to be just as quaint and wonderful as their countryside. Everywhere, I was greeted with warm welcomes as though I had just been absent for a while, and not a complete stranger new to their magical country. I chatted with shopkeepers and waiters, nodded to people in the streets, and felt, after only four days, that Llandrindod Wells was now my home in Wales.
The very reasons I couldn’t get to my dream destination, despite being so close, are the same reasons I fell completely in love with Wales. I wasn’t able to rent a car, or even a bike, or hire a driver; I couldn’t get everything I wanted when I wanted it; I had not choice but to make do with what I had in the place I was, and it was perfect.
Now, twelve years later, I have another chance to see the book lover’s heaven set in a medieval Welsh village. I’ll be back in England in three weeks, and I’ve already booked my rental car ahead of time with plans to drive to the border of Wales and get lost in Hay-on-Wye.
I refuse to acknowledge that after all this anticipation and years of imaging what it’s going to be like to finally set foot in the this idyllic village of bookstores in my beloved Wales that I may be disappointed.
And if something goes wrong and I can’t get there…I’ll probably love Wales even more for refusing to bow to my whims.