They say you can't judge a book by its cover, but you can judge a book festival attendee by her footwear. Unfortunately, my dainty sandals are letting me down, announcing to the crowd at the Hay-on-Wye Festival of Literature that I'm a rookie. Due to the town's limited accommodation many visitors choose to camp – in paddocks, apple orchards and farms – so sturdy Wellingtons are the footwear of choice in this muddy, yet literary, corner of Wales.
I hadn't planned on visiting Wales, until the previous evening when I'd met an old-timer in an English pub. "If you're bored lass, you should pop over to Hay-on-Wye," he said, looking at me over wire-rimmed glasses. "The annual book festival is on." I was slouched in a corner, glass of wine in hand, flicking idly through a novel while doodling in my notebook. It was day two of my self-drive trip through the Cotswolds in rural England and I was restless. The quaint sounding towns – Bourton-on-the-Hill, Barton-on-the-Heath, Moreton-in-Marsh – were beginning to blend into each other and, quite frankly, all this postcard prettiness was rather boring.
Which is how I found myself driving through the moody moors and mountains of the Brecon Beacons in south Wales, and into Hay, a fortified border town on the Wye River. Entering through narrow streets winding around whitewashed cottages I sense that this town is a bit of a lone wolf, born, most likely, from its location on the Welsh side of the Welsh/English border. The crumbling Norman castle looming above the streets hints at past troubles between Celtic patriots and English lords.
Today Hay-on-Wye is in the midst of an invasion of a different kind, the annual Hay festival when the town swells from a modest 2000 to 100,000 people. The first couple I meet are carrying a canoe.
"We've piddled and done a wee," they chorus, in answer to my wide-eyed question. It takes a few moments for me to decipher their lilting accent. "We've paddled along the Wye." Others have arrived by bike, train, electric car, rickshaw, shuttle bus or by Wellington-clad feet. My hire car and my sandals, seem rather lame by comparison.
Fortunately, the crowd is open-minded and all are welcome.
From its humble beginnings in 1988 the festival has expanded to celebrate great writing from poets and scientists, lyricists and comedians, environmentalists and philosophers, bringing together strong ideas to transform thinking, particularly with regard to sustainable living. Bill Clinton called it "the Woodstock of the mind".
Many events are free, but most of the big-name speakers, such as Stephen Fry, Judi Dench and Arianna Huffington, require tickets and have sold out. But with dozens of events across the tent village I still manage to join an impromptu poetry class in a paddock and a chess workshop.
The real delight comes from following a trail map outlining the town's 20 or so bookshops.
Richard Booth, a local, opened the first in 1962 when he began importing second-hand books from the US. Since then Hay-on-Wye has become internationally recognised as a town of books. One shopkeeper tells me that, though the number of bookshops has dropped, the quality and diversity have remained. "Do you think e-readers are to blame?" In answer, she points to a sign above the door – "Hay is a Kindle-free town."
The town is an Aladdin's cave of bookshops, teashops and curio stores, all more boho hip than chintz and doily. I pass an "honesty" bookshelf crouching in a paddock like a library escapee, a construction sign that says "Reading Zone Only", Booth's Bookshop with its cinema and cafe, a chandelier shop called Goosey Ganders, and Murder and Mayhem, a bookstore specialising in detective fiction. For art lovers there is the Gallery Trail detailing contemporary artists, designers, jewellery makers and ceramicists, while foodies can choose from spicy street food, pop-up stalls, gourmet delis, sheep's milk ice-cream or even a gin cocktail in the Old Electric Shop.
I stop at Addyman Annexe, on Castle Street, a Hay institution whose conservative shop-front belies the self-professed "sexier" material inside – from works on poetry, philosophy, sex and left-wing history to the occasional occult. They also specialise in second-hand, rare and out-of-print books. Skimming the section dedicated to Welsh writers I see it, a dark green cover with simple black font – Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. In an instant I'm transported back to my university days when I first heard the poet's "play for voices" read out loud.
The assistant slides open the cabinet, passing the book as if it were a newborn baby. "First edition," she says, purring the words. I turn over the hardcover, feeling its heft and shape before opening it and breathing in the delicious smell of old paper. On impulse I hand over a wad of cash. "Excellent choice," she says. "You have very good taste." And I know she doesn't mean my shoes.
The writer drove a rental car with the assistance of DriveAway Holidays.
Cathay Pacific operates regular flights from Sydney and Melbourne, via Hong Kong, to more than 30 European destinations including London and Manchester. See cathaypacific.com.au. Hay-on-Wye is a 3.5-hour drive from London, three hours from Manchester.
DriveAway Holidays offer worldwide car hire in 130 countries, including 40+ in the UK with London airport or downtown pickups. Vehicles range from economy and compacts to wagons, SUVs and motorhomes. See www.driveaway.com.au
The Festival Bedfinder Service provides help with finding hotel and B&B accommodation for festivalgoers. Campsites such as Gypsy Castle and Wye Meadow are also popular. See hayfestival.com
SEE + DO
The Hay Festival, Wales, will be on from May 26 to June 5, 2016. See www.hayfestival.com