ATTACHED to the ancient stone castle walls at Hay-on-Wye, just beside the Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe sign, were a couple of posters, one offering palm reading and the other an energising massage.
Immediately above these signs, inside the castle wall, huge aluminium pots like those at an army canteen, were steaming and bubbling. Here, I was advised by my B&B host, were the cheapest meals in town.
The alternative fringe festival, tailgating on the renowned British book event, the Hay Festival, was making hay while the sun shone in this remote small Welsh town.
Hay on the River Wye is a quintessential country village with small shops opening on to the High St. Residents mostly appear walking with their dogs through the cobbled streets, chatting to shop keepers.
With just 1500 residents, Hay is surrounded by a bucolic countryside of hedgerows and winding roads, making it a charming spot to visit. But what really makes it special is not the scenery but the presence of more than 30 bookshops.
Each May the village hosts one of the most successful book festivals in Britain. The Hay Festival takes place in a village of marquees set up in a field. Gardens of spring flowers, deck chairs and sculptures add to the festival atmosphere amongst the tented cafes and shops.
I registered as a volunteer steward because I wanted to immerse myself in the event. My duties, I was advised, might include being on duty at one of the venues and checking entry tickets, being ready to open the fire exits if required and cleaning up afterwards.
It meant long hours on my feet but getting to such a huge range of author events was the reward. Some presentations I would never have chosen to go to turned out to be fascinating.
Festival presenters ranged from chefs and sports writers esteemed authors and heavy-weight academics. Celebrity writers, Nobel laureates and kitchen goddesses were seen between talks on their way to and from the Green Room.
Festival-goers were a mix of country meets academia and suburban family meets urbane bookie.
Festival garb was diverse. One attendee epitomised the dichotomy: dressed in country attire, his feet were buried in green gumboots, his head topped by a floppy canvas sunhat and in his hands was a brand new iPad. He was attending an attendee-crammed session on the Secrets of the Universe and How we Discovered the Cosmos from a world renowned astronomer.
But the highlight, for me, was an event at Richard Booth Bookshop in the centre of the village. This elegant bookshop with original wooden floors and grand staircase occupies a two-storied building overflowing with books. Upstairs is a small theatre of 100 seats built between the bookshelves. It was enjoyable to meander around the bookshop with a glass of wine and browse, or buy a ticket to a nightly festival offering in the intimate theatre.
Unforgettable in this setting was a film of Samuel Beckett's masterpiece, the Not I monologue performed by talented Irish actress, Lisa Dwan, who was interviewed in person after the film.
Hay is not all about books. Life continues with a Thursday rural market when local farmers come to town to sell sheep. Anglers walk through the village dressed for trout fishing with waders, flies and rods. Arts and crafts, and clothing boutiques tempt festival-goers. Most, though, are likely to go away with a small library of books as the reminder of their visit.
There are lots of things to do in the area. Don't miss a Shepherd's Icecream from a charming traditional parlour. Visit the nearby Brecon Beacons National Park, a favourite spot for walking and historic archaeological monuments. Try out some Welsh food such as Welsh cakes or Welsh lamb and beef.
But to get the most out of Hay-on-Wye you really need to be a book lover.
Getting around: Geraldine O'Sullivan Beere took the train from Heathrow to Cheltenham and then drove a rental car to Hay-on-Wye.
Further information: The Hay Festival website has information on location, transport by train or bus and an accommodation service. See hayfestival.com
If you can't afford to go to Wales, Geraldine O'Sullivan Beere is also the creative director of Words On a Small Island, the Waiheke Book Festival from October 8-10, which includes gala events, exhibitions, films and poetry. See waihekebookfestival.co.nz
Geraldine O'Sullivan Beere paid her own way to Hay-on-Wye.
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