Hay-on-Wye and its residents changed my life.
For many years Hay acted as our pressure valve from the mundaneness and stress of the conventional world of nine to five-dom.
We’d head for the A49 straight from work on a Friday evening for a weekend of who knew what; Hay-on-Wye always held surprises.
It always took us three hours to get there. We’d be in The Granary at 9pm and intoxicated by ten – a phenomena we put down to a mix of country air (in a smoky pub), anticipation of a fun packed weekend and a total de-stressing… plus a wee bit of alcohol. It set the tone for the following 48 hours.
Hay-on-Wye was a new world for me that was initially overwhelming. It was where I was introduced to an English/Welsh, middle class lifestyle that was alien to me. As a ‘recently arrived in the big city’ country hick from a small Scottish island I was still getting to grips with life in England but to be faced with a breakfast that didn’t include anything at all that was fried was just too much to absorb. People ate healthy stuff in Hay.
Everybody in Hay-on-Wye seemed to be artistic and doing interesting things, even the house we stayed in had a personality, being a former abode of April Ashley. Hay made me feel very ordinary and privileged that I was occasionally allowed to bathe in its magic.
We went to weird little festivals at Fforest Coalpit; skinny-dipped in the Wye on hot summer days; saw loads of cracking bands playing the Devil’s music; searched for secret obelisks around Hay Bluff to counter raging hangovers; used it as a base for countless Brecon Jazz Festivals; attended a Pagan wedding where the priest was ‘kidnapped’ by the IRA and basically just had a wild and fun time.
Hay-on-Wye was also where I proposed to Andy.
The last time we were there was over a decade ago to attend a funeral. It was the second premature death in the same wonderful family; son and then mother. The innocence and fun we associated with Hay-on-Wye dissipated around that time.
One of those deaths was the reason for a return visit; this time it was to attend a memorial to their life two decades after they’d left us.
Times change and so do places and people. The Granary where we drank is no longer a bar, it’s a rustically trendy café. But then we’d already swapped allegiances to the Blue Boar during our later visits. The Hay Festival has put the town well and truly on the map and subsequently there are more wax jackets and less neo-hippies on the streets. Even as we arrived on a cool, damp May day I felt a shiver of nostalgia run down my spine; there was still magic in the air. First stop was the Blue Boar for a pint. It felt as cosily comfortable as it always did, the sort of place you don’t want to leave till you’re thrown out.
Our first evening was a catch-up at ‘Hendre’, our friend’s Tardis like home (it could absorb any number of people over the course of a weekend). We met people we hadn’t seen in 12 years and had too much alcohol and not enough food; a classic Hay combination. Although everyone was a little bit older, they all still looked fabulous; clearly lots of pictures in attics. We talked and laughed and teased and the spirit of times past wafted gloriously through the air.
Saturday morning Andy and I toddled off around the town to see what had changed; surprisingly not as much as I’d expected. There were still enough bookshops on the go to deserve the title of the town of books. When the rain started we popped into the Granary for a coffee then had a muddy explore of the path along the Wye before ‘fuelling up’ on a couple of chunky pork pies from C.J. Gibbon; a proper old fashioned family butcher.
The memorial party started at 2pm at what had once been a bit of a wild pub but was now a tapas bar called Tomatitos. Living in Spain, coming back to Britain and eating at a tapas bar was a bit like the inverse of a Brit going for fish and chips or a curry when they’re on holiday abroad. We yearned for fish and chips. But there was something delightfully Hay about it – listening to a live band belting out old rock songs in a tapas bar with typical British country pub decór. It was also an excuse to drink more beer and have a chinwag with even more blasts from the past, like wonderful N whose voice is so deep that you could visualise his words thudding to the floor as they dance out of his mouth. N had a unique way of ensuring nobody sat beside him on train journeys; he’d open up a paper and empty a tin of beans onto it.
We’d expected to have a rest between ‘lunch’ and the resumption of the party at 7pm. As we were still gabbing in Tomatitos at 6pm, that plan went west.
After a quick shower and a change of gear at The Stables (our accommodation for the weekend), we were back in a drinking establishment; this time The Globe, the centre of Hay’s cultural universe and the place to see bands, theatre, exhibitions and all sorts.
More drinking, more live music, more catching up – it was if the last twelve years had been wiped away like the beer stains on the table. After midnight, everyone relocated to The Globe’s basement for an old school style disco for an hour and then it was back to Hendre to continue the party and wake up the neighbours with a very brief firework display.
At somewhere around 3 am, a glimmer of common sense took control and we departed the party. We were en route to Croatia and were in danger of being knackered before we started.
After a marathon goodbye session on Sunday morning we left Hay for Liverpool Airport. The drive was spent piecing together the weekend’s events and enthusing about the wonderful people we’d hooked up with again. It helped ward off an evil fuzziness; Sundays driving back from Hay-on-Wye were always like this.
Too much drink, not enough food and an overdose of fun with good friends. Hay had lost none of its magic.
Maybe Thomas Wolfe was wrong, sometimes you can go back.
Jack is co-owner, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to lots of other places. Follow Jack on Google+