I’m a recovering bookseller and literary tourist. Always one to seek out bookish places, I found Wales to be the perfect destination. Visit the north of the country and you can find peace and quiet in the Gladstone’s Library. Visit the south of the country and you can wander among the thirty or so Hay on Wye bookshops. And in between you can discover a few places that have inspired literature.
Surrounded by Books in Gladstone’s library
Staying at the Gladstone’s library is the ultimate slumber party for book nerds. The library was founded by William Gladstone, a long time UK Member of Parliament and Prime Minister during the 1800’s. He had a vast appetite for books, accumulating over 32,000 volumes in his lifetime. His library is the UK’s only Prime Ministerial library and one of a very small number of residential libraries that aren’t associated with a university.
The key word here is residential. Yes, my dear book nerd, you can sleep IN the library. The beautiful Victorian building houses the library in north wing and the south wing has 26 rooms which are available for accommodation.
The accommodation isn’t reserved just for academics, although I did meet several during my stay there. But civilians can stay there too. While there, I met a corporate group on retreat, a minister seeking inspiration and a volunteer cleric (and fellow Camino Pilgrim) who was providing religious and gardening services. I also chatted up one of the library’s visiting board members who is a professor from the University of Texas. He had just finished up a seminal work on how zombies in our pop culture represent the collective trauma of a post 9-11 apocalypse. Of course.
My purpose for staying at the library was not zombies but rather a desire to sit still and achieve that special kind of quietude that only libraries can deliver. Gladstone’s offers that in spades. I spent my time in the library hearing nothing but the occasional rustle of book and shuffle of chairs. Absolutely. Positively. Quiet.
While at Gladstone’s, I spent most of my time reading the book How to be Bored. I also took a few naps and strolled in the garden. By the standards of this busy world, I was doing nothing. But I achieved everything. My stay there slowed my pulse and gave me great peace after what had been a very busy stretch of travel.
- Getting to the library: I came from London having just completed a tour with Dobby from Harry Potter, visiting his favorite Potter sites in the UK. The nearest major train line is in Chester. I picked up a car there and drove a quick 20 minutes to the library. You can probably do it in 15 if you avoid the 4 wrong turns that I took.
- Staying at the library: Room rates range from £65-93 (incl. breakfast). The rooms are simple but nicer than you might imagine for Victorian library rooms. You can also add on a dining package for a modest price. I mean, if you are going to stay at the library, then STAY at the library. I ate in and hardly left the grounds for three days. Heaven.
- When to visit: You can visit the library anytime. They run a literary festival in early September which would be worth a visit but it’s also a very busy time there so book way ahead for that. More information is available on the Gladstone’s website.
The book, of necessity must be put into a bookcase. And the bookcase must be housed…and the library must be dusted…what a vista of toil, yet not an unhappy toil”
Side Trip: Elwoe Castle
There was no end of rebellions, raping and pillaging in this area of Wales during the 13th century. I tucked into a rip roaring fictional version of it in Here Be Dragons. A lot of the action centers around the Elwoe Castle. It was built by Llewellyn, the sovereign Prince of Wales during his beef with Henry II and the Normans. The castle was historically sited at a strategic crossroads of the English/Wales border and it is now contained in a regional park with hiking trails. It’s an easy 10 minute drive from Gladstone’s. Or 20 minutes of you make 4 wrong turns, as I did.
Surrounded by books in the Hay on Wye Bookshops
Hay on Wye in southern Wales has 1,500 residents and 26 bookshops. The perfect ratio. The bookshop trend was started by Richard Booth, the self-proclaimed King of Hay who had a vision to re-make the economics of the town. Myth has it that he once owned most of the shops in town. He’s quite elderly now and owns just one Hay on Wye bookshop. But the other stores in town do well enough by making a living on visiting tourists and bagging the occasional score on rare used books at estate sales.
Booth’s original location was purchased by Elizabeth Haycox. She was inspired by great bookshops like Powell’s in Portland Oregon and Shakespeare & Co in Paris. She has remodeled Booth’s into a beautiful modern bookshop with a great collection of new & used books, a cafe and rotating collection of bookish art.
I rolled into town without a reservation and was lucky enough to get a room at the Rest for the Tired B&B. It was a score not only for it’s modest room rate, but the B&B sits above the Broad Street Book Center. So once again, I was sleeping while surrounded by books. The building has been in business continuously since 1620 and the proprietress runs the B&B, the bookshop below and she also used to be the town mayor. So she was well positioned to give me the scoop on the town’s history and some local gossip.
If you visit the Hay on Wye bookshops, don’t plan on a fixed agenda. I spent two days doing a version of the following loop: breakfast, wander bookshops, coffee, farmer’s market, lunch, wander bookshops, wander antique shops, river walk, visit a pub. An exhausting itinerary to be sure and one that required a trip to the post office so that I can ship home my purchases.
While on my lazy circuit of the Hay on Wye bookshops, I took the opportunity to ask the booksellers to recommend a book on Wales or by a Welsh author. Here are their pics:
- Richard Booth Books: The Lady of Hay, Barbara Irskin and Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill and Under the Sun
- Murder & Mayhem: Magus of Hay, Phil Hickma
- The Addyman Annex: Under Milkwood, Dylan Thomas
- A. Watkins: The Old Straight Track, Alfred Watkins
- The King of Hay: The New Wales, David Cole
- Getting there: I drove down from Gladstone’s. I wanted to see the Welsh countryside and so took the slow road through Snowdonia National Park, making only 2 wrong turns. Or, you can take the train to Cardiff, pick up a car there and drive north to Hay. If you go to Cardiff, you can spend some extra time exploring some of these things to do there.
- Staying in town: You can read reviews or book Rest for the Tired on Trip Advisor. Or other Hay on Wye Inns & B&Bs at Trip Advisor or Booking.com
- When to visit: I was there in early July. The weather was great and I was ahead of the August vacation mobs. But Hay on Wye also holds the annual Hay Festival in late May/early June. I asked about lodging during the festival and confirmed that it’s best to book ahead. However, if you are just one or two people, you can sometimes snag a room in someone’s house at the last minute.
Side trip: Brecon Beacons National Park
The Brecon Beacons didn’t surround me with books in the literal sense but this national park and the towns located within it have inspired a number of authors in their seminal works.
You can take the faster highway west and south out of Hay. But the Mayor recommends the road less traveled. This means entering the Brecon Beacons national park through it’s narrow back door directly south of Hay on Wye. It’s the sort of single track lane that requires you to back up when a tractor is coming at you from the opposite direction. This caused me some agita, but I just gripped the wheel and shoved it into reverse. Glad I did because the drive was totally worth it. I spied a grand vista that makes up one of Wale’s largest and most beautiful natural landscapes.
I drove over the Gospel Pass and down in to the Vale of Ewyas pulling over into the Llanthony Abbey. The abbey was established by hermits in 1108 and over time evolved into an Augustine monastery. By the mid 1500’s the abbey was abandoned and began to fall into ruin. The graceful arches of the Abbey and the green setting of the park sparked in me one of those magical travel moments. I shut down the itinerary and the information gathering and the picture taking and sat myself down in the grass. It might be too trite to say that I was transported back in time but I did indeed sit there visualizing how the priority would have looked in its heyday.
There are a few literary connections in the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains located within the park. The Brecon Beacons were the setting for Chatwin’s On the Black Hill and there is some evidence that he spent childhood holidays there. According to Visit Wales, JRR Tolkien lived in the village of Talybont-on-Usk in the 1940’s and the surrounding Black Mountains helped to inspire his vision of the Shire. Yes, they filmed the movies in New Zealand but I’d like to think that the books were born in Wales. And when you see the green rolling hills, the brooks, flocks of sheep and tidy little houses, it’s not hard to see the Shire there.
The Final Chapter
From the Brecon Beacons, I headed north again to return the car (2 wrong turns) and complete my epic journey of the UK by heading home via Dublin. I wasn’t done with literary tourism however. Before leaving, I also took a literary tour of Dublin which gave me a look into Ireland’s own love affair with the book.
Upon reflection, there are lots of other great things I could have done in Wales; I could have gone castle hopping or visited gardens or hiked some of Wales many trails. But for me, this literary itinerary was the perfect thing. The slow pace and book-loving company fed my brain in a way that other kinds of sightseeing just can’t. Surround yourself with books in Wales and give yourself the opportunity to feed your own brain as well. Happy travels.
Books are delightful society. If you go into the room filled with books, even without taking them down from their shelves, they seem to speak, to welcome you”
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