Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Hay on Wye, Powys
Hay, good looking
This is the English Buildings blog, so I don’t as a rule record what I see on my visits (all too brief for the most part) to Scotland or Wales. But I live within striking distance of the Welsh border, and it occurs to me that now and then my readers might be interested in the occasional Welsh building, perhaps one so close to the border that it can virtually be seen from England.
Hay on Wye is a town I visit often, and it’s near enough to the border to be more or less on it. It’s famous as the town of secondhand books, and even in these digital times the place is full of bookshops. People come from all over the country to browse and buy here and, as more and more secondhand bookshops disappear from most High Streets, Hay seems to survive. It’s a stimulating place to browse, and you never know what you will find – it’s the opposite of a search engine, the ultimate in non-targeted, algorithm-free discovery.
The person who began it all was Richard Booth, who started his first bookshop in Hay in 1961 and attracted publicity not just with his large and diverse stock, but also by declaring the town an independent kingdom (with himself as king, naturally). Booth has sold books from several premises in the town since then, and a couple of dozen other booksellers also trade from shops in the town’s knot of narrow streets. This is Richard Booth’s shop in Lion Street, beautifully restored with maroon period paint. It’s an interesting design, structurally a bit like an enormous shed, but with a front that’s nearly all glass. There are lots of ornate details, such as the gilded lion at the top above a date stone that says 1886, and the very fancy capitals.
But what makes it even more special is the wonderful selection of tiles on the front. The sheep and cattle depicted on the tiles have led many to assume that this was originally a butcher’s premises, but this building doesn’t feel like a butcher’s somehow – I’m inclined to believe the sources that say it’s a former agricultural supplier’s. The quality of the space inside (high ceilings upstairs, spacious wooden floors) and the wide door that one could imagine wheeling sacks through on a truck fit with this. The interior has recently been refitted with custom-made shelves, ample seating, and a café – it’s a far cry now from a seedsman’s warehouse, and a good place for both physical and intellectual nourishment.