The tiny town is best known for the Hay festival but it is also a year-round draw
"We hear you had some trouble in canoes," said Steve, the local builder who set up the huts we've called home for the last two nights. News travels fast in Hay-on-Wye. True enough, the previous day, we'd unintentionally become the afternoon entertainment as one of our canoes ran aground on a small stretch of rapids by the Warren, a pebbly beach just outside of town. A wade-in rescue mission ensued, while an audience of picnicking locals looked on. We've never seen that before," said one
And thus our reputation was sealed. It didn't matter that for the previous two hours, we'd been paddling quite capably along the Wye, manoeuvering around tree trunks and overhanging willow branches. We had no witnesses. All we'd seen was one mottled horse, a few oblivious cows and a man asleep under his hat in a rowboat.
Yet, minor mishaps aside, you can't beat arriving in Hay by canoe. We'd set off in nearby Glasbury, for a leisurely two-to-three-hour paddle downstream, past fields and hedgerows. Six of us had come for a group getaway in the Welsh countryside and, knowing accommodation often fills up a year ahead of the annual Hay Festival, we'd come a couple of weeks early. The idea of our trip was to combine the town's year-round bookish pursuits with some exploration of the surrounding wilderness in the Brecon Beacons national park.
Our base for the weekend was five miles out of town, just under Hay Bluff, one of the Black Mountains' most distinctive peaks. (flat at the top, before swooping down 600 metres like a ski jump). In a remote spot, under a cluster of ash trees, Steve Greenow - a conservation builder specialising in listed properties - has constructed five eco-friendly, shepherd-style huts.
While urban hotels pride themselves on their Wi-Fi connections, there is an increasing call for places, like this, that allow guests to fully switch off. The huts are off-grid, with electricity coming from wind and solar power, and there is no Wi-Fi or phone reception. The idea is to appeal to groups - friends or families - with all huts facing a communal firepit and roomy wooden dining table. One night, one of our party brought her phone to the fireside, before remembering it was useless and finding the stars far more entertaining. The Brecon Beacons were named a Dark Skies Reserve last year: the limited light pollution makes it ideal for stargazing.
Over in Hay proper, it's surprisingly quiet outside of festival time. The Powys market town has fewer than 2,000 residents (swelling to around 100,000 during that one week a year). Outside the ruined Norman castle, there are rows of informal "honesty bookshops" , while more established stores have enviable collections of leather-bound antiques.
The numbers of bookstores has fallen in recent years, from a peak of 35-odd to around a dozen, as people's book-buying habits have changed. ("This is a Kindle-free town," reads a sign outside Addyman Books, a vehement campaigner against e-books.) Some stores have been combating potential decline through diversification.
If you're lucky enough to be in Hay during the festival, you'll certainly have no shortage of things to do, but life around here doesn't pack up with the marquees. There are plenty of year-round draws, especially if you're a bibliophile who also likes the outdoors. As for the canoeing . . ."Perhaps the water levels were low," theorises one kind local. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014
(The Hay Festival begins on May 22 and ends on June 1. It brings writers from around the world to debate and share stories.)