Hay on-Wye, also the subject of Mr Pernickety’s gastronomic scrutiny is one of a chain of towns along the Marches whose function developed over the last millennium from military to administrative to mercantile – towns, like Monmouth and Ludlow, that have boasted castles, courts and cattle markets, sited on east-west trading routes. But since the first half of the C20th Hay has been struggling to find a new raison d’etre. Defence from the rape and pillage of Welsh freedom fighters is no longer required; the passing drovers have been replaced by 40-tonne stock lorries and those seeking retail Valhallas of consumer goods can now drive themselves to the great, grim shopping malls of Bristol or the Black Country. Sustaining any kind of commercial activity in marginal Marcher towns like Hay presents a challenge.
A career in the burgeoning tourism industry was always an option for an interesting, largely unspoiled castle town sited in the picturesque valley of the mid-reaches of the salmon bearing River Wye, set against the dramatic backdrop of the northern edge of the Brecon Beacons, all bolstered by the lovely, and widely read descriptions of the locality by C19th vicar, Francis Kilvert and, more recently, Bruce Chatwin. However, it was the decision taken in 1961 by Herefordshire native, Richard Booth to take over the redundant fire-station and establish it as a massive repository for second hand books that came to define Hay-on-Wye henceforward.
Booth soon found how far and how readily bibliophiles would travel to spend time among stacks of forgotten, musty tomes, to buy them and to carry them home. He moved into the half ruined castle and requisitioned the town’s failed cinema and turned it into one the biggest second-hand bookshops in the world. He took over other premises in the town and was inevitably followed by others (some offering niche interests) so the number of shops grew and the stream of book-hunters burgeoned. Booth himself, despite his self-proclaimed ascension to the Throne of the King of Hay, has recently ceded dominance in the town to other thrusting biblio-merchants and the influence of the Hay Literary Festival which first appeared some 20 years ago. The growth of this event under Peter Florence has been remarkable and the town has seen the surge of booklovers swell to hundreds of thousands a year.
To cater for all these visitors, a gradual sprouting of hotels, guest-houses, cafés and restaurants has taken place, for even booklovers must eat.
Mr Pernickety, a bibliophile himself, first visited Hay over a quarter of a century ago and has produced his Guide to assist fellow booklovers, and anyone else who cares about food, in choosing the most suitable eating places in and around Hay.