About Hay-on-Wye (Y Gelli)
The town has always held an important place in the region, being on the road to Brecon, once the most important town for miles around. Because of this it has a history of coaching inns and pubs, and the tradition of offering food and lodging to travellers continues with accommodation and cuisine being among the best on offer in Britain.
Because of its position the town has seen many battles through the ages. The castle has been attacked several times in its history from both sides of the border. It was destroyed by the English King John in 1216, and soon after the Welsh Prince Llywelyn set fire to it. The most recent fire, which destroyed a great part of the castle, occurred in 1977. Its history of being tussled over by Welsh and English has given Hay a unique duality. It also gives its inhabitants a very practical attitude to survival. King Offa of Mercia built an enormous earth wall in the second half of the eight century to protect himself from the Welsh. This now forms the line of the Offa's Dyke Footpath, which runs from South to North Wales along the border. The town has a second and older castle hidden away and unmarked, next to the church.
It has a second and Welsh name, Y Gelli, and this appears on signposts around the district. The historian can research the evidence for months, as much has been written about the town. These include parish records of the many churches, including non-conformist chapels. Records also exist of the Almshouses, still in use, where women of good character over a certain age have economically priced accommodation. Several local writers have chronicled the history of the town, of which the definitive is probably Annals of a Parish by local historian Geoffrey L Fairs. This was published in 1994, written to mark the 1050th anniversary of the earliest known mention of the town. A slimmer volume is The Book of Hay, written by Kate Clark in 1990. Other guide books are readily available in the Tourist Information Office.
Early reports of the eccentrics who seem to be attracted to Hay, include Maud Walbee, said by some to be a witch, who it has been reported was walled up with her eldest son, to starve to death for displeasing the king at the time. Other legends from the district appear in the Mabinogion, the definitive book of legends of Wales. One legend connected with the Prince Llywelyn, who fired the castle, is that in order to avoid the English in a battle at nearby Builth Wells, he had his horses' shoes put on back to front, so that the English thought he was running away, when in fact he was advancing. Similar tales of the Welsh getting the better by wile and wisdom over their opponents, including the Devil himself, are well known in Welsh Tradition.
Coming up to the modern day the preacher Francis Kilvert was a frequent visitor to Hay recording day to day events in his diary. Then in 1922 the town achieved notoriety when a local solicitor, clerk to the Justices, was tried, and finally hanged for the murder of his wife. Life for the inhabitants has been, like everything else in Hay, a mixture. Lying in the fertile Wye Valley, the major occupation has always been connected with farming, mainly of sheep, because of the hilly terrain. But alongside farming has been working in the wealthier houses, which have often been owned by English families. Many people locally, even today, have more than one job, as, in spite of the prosperity brought in by tourism, wages are low.
The Market has always played an important part in the town, and this as with other market towns, has brought people in from outlying areas to shop for all their needs. So alongside the cattle market have developed tradespeople and merchants. For the visitor, there is every kind of pleasure. Beautiful scenery, excellent accommodation and superb local cooking, all provided with the pride in excellence for which the Welsh are well known. The energetic can walk; a second long distance footpath, The Wye Valley Walk, runs through the town; ride, canoe, or cycle in the area and local agents can provide all the equipment needed. Including advice on safety, which is sometimes ignored at their peril by visitors, as mists can come down on the hillsides, and currents trap unwary on the river in minutes. Local newspapers regularly report fatalities each year.
For the music lover there are local concerts, but centres such as Cardiff, which provides the very best in entertainment, is within reach to hear such renowned performers as the Welsh National Opera. Hay holds a Festival at the end of May at which international stars of stage, screen and radio regularly perform. Alongside this is the Children's Festival where storytelling, puppetry, and magic occupy children from the ages of 6 - 12 in workshops, with additional activities for younger children. Hay is also a favourite for visitors to the nearby Royal Welsh Show in July.
The Art and Antique enthusiast can browse through the many excellent galleries in the town, and the book-lover can visit the unparalleled thirty plus bookshops, which were in the forefront of the development of the town as a tourist attraction. The town has recently been awarded a Market Town Initiative Grant by the Development Board for Rural Wales to enable it to provide facilities such as a new community centre for the residents. Along with this development various other amenities around the town are being improved for the benefit of locals and visitors alike.
The town is very aware of the Communication Revolution and has excellent facilities for computer links, the largest site being at the local primary school. This is at the forefront of a scheme to provide opportunities for further education. The town is one of the most visited tourist locations in Wales, with visitors regularly returning year after year. It is ideal for a short break, as it is within a few hours travel of the Midlands and London. Accommodation at Festival time is often booked up months in advance, with some people booking their place before they leave the previous year. However, the Independent Tourist Office is very helpful in advising on everything from attractively priced Bed and Breakfast to Five Star Hotel accommodation in the area.
©2002 Ann Norris
Freelance Writer & Journalist