In the lead up to Hay-on-Wye's annual literary festival we spoke to travel writer Oliver Balch about life in and around this famous Town of Books and why he chose to settle there. Oliver's book "Under the Tump: Sketches of Real Life on the Welsh Borders", will be published in May.
What prompted you to swap sunny Argentina for the shadow of the Black Mountains?
I love Latin America, everything about it: the people, the landscapes, the literature, the politics. Newly married, I moved to Argentina in my late twenties, feverish for adventure and all things new. The country didn’t disappoint. From glaciers in the south to salt plains in the north, we travelled the length and breadth of this charmed land. We only meant to go for a year, but ended up staying seven. And then, very naturally, it felt time to come home. We never lost our affection for Argentina. Something just changed. Our cold, damp, crowded, wonderful little isle was calling us homeward.
But home to where exactly? Emma, my wife, is from the north of England. I’m from the south. We’d lived in London beforehand, but I’d had my fill of big cities. I wanted fresh air in my lungs and turf under my feet. We landed on Wales, where both of us had family connections. On my side, my grandfather was a Radnorshire man (or Powys as it is now). I’d spent my childhood holidays visiting the Ithon valley where he grew up. The Ithon is a wonderfully plucky, gabbling river (its name comes from the Welsh eithon, meaning ‘talkative’), which rises in the saddle between the Kerry Ridgeway and the wonderfully Tolkienesque Hill of Glog, before worming its way southwards to join the River Wye. Those holidays were magical, full of making dens and flying kites and striding out across the sheep-strewn hills. That’s the home I had in mind on moving back.
So we plugged ‘Powys’ into a search engine and up popped an old worker’s cottage for sale in a village just outside Hay-on-Wye, in the lee of the Black Mountains. Emma and I had been to Hay years beforehand, drawn there by the town’s wonderful annual festival. We had just started dating and were too wrapped in each other to pay much attention to our surroundings. Yet the vague recollections we had were all positive: bright sunshine, colourful deckchairs, fresh-cut grass, new books, second-hand books, young novelists, old novelists, first love. From our vantage point in Buenos Aires, we were drawn to its bookish connections and its backdrop of scarp and scree. Plus the cottage, whose recent owners included a Croatian ceramicist, seemed wonderfully quirky. So we put an offer on Pottery Cottage, upped sticks and moved from a place with a population of 15 million to one of 1,500.
Was the transition from city to country easy?
I grew up in a village so transitioning from the city had a pleasant sense of home-coming to it. The different tempo hit us hard, of course. At night, the lights go out. I’d forgotten that about the countryside. The weather feels closer too, and the seasons starker. Yet what took me most by surprise was the absence of the ubiquitous, everyday paraphernalia of city life. Like traffic lights. The nearest to here is sixteen miles away. Or regular public transport. There’s just one bus from our village to the nearest town. It leaves on a Wednesday.
The fact that Hay lies (just) inside Wales helped me transition too. I grew up on the other side of the border. I was schooled there, worked there, was married there, lived my early life there. The fact that we’re now in Wales exerts a profound psychological impact on me. It makes me feel as though I’m moving forwards to the new, not back to the old. That single mile between me and the border, for me it marks a whole world of difference.
Throughout your book you quote the Victorian diarist, Francis Kilvert, who lived and worked around Hay-On-Wye. What remains of his bucolic depiction of rural life?
Much has changed obviously. Kilvert lived in the area 150 years ago. Before electricity, before the combustion engine, before smartphones. Village society was more static and stratified then. People rarely left, and new people rarely came. Nor was there much movement in the village either: if you were born a farm worker or squire, you died a farm worker or squire. Today, thankfully, there’s more mobility in every sense.
The greatest constant has to be the landscape. The empty, heather-strewn Radnorshire hills can’t have changed much for centuries. Nor the “ruddy rosy brown” foothills, as Kilvert saw them. When I’m up in the hills I can sense the diarist’s accompanying step beside mine, treading the same ground.
How did Hay become the famous Town of Books?
It started as an April Fool. Richard George William Pitt Booth (1938) opened a secondhand bookshop in the town in the sixties. Then he started another, and another. Soon people who worked for him began opening their own shops, and Hay’s reputation as a treasure trove for bibliophiles began to grow.
The town’s fame enjoyed a spike when Richard Booth (then resident in Hay Castle) declared himself the King of Hay on 1 April 1977. He made his horse the Prime Minister, gave his friends knighthoods and printed his own money. The whole episode tapped into something delightfully eccentric and unorthodox that lies deep within a certain type of Britishness. More bookshops followed, and then came the super successful Hay Festival. Our little border market town has never really looked back.
Hay’s annual literature festival is now huge, do you enjoy the takeover of the town?
I enjoy the energy it brings, sure. In the weeks leading up to the festival everyone in Hay is mad busy; designing window displays, stocking up books, touching up paintwork, hanging bunting, cleaning out the spare room for paying guests. We do B&B at Pottery Cottage, as well, and Hay Festival speakers from around the world stay with us. I enjoy taking them up to the Begwns for a brisk walk before the festival day begins, or out to after-parties and pop-ups in the evening.
What would you recommend looking out for, beyond the festival walls?
There are plenty of great pubs in the area. For historical character, I’d recommend The Rhydspence Inn, a medieval timber-framed coaching inn about five miles out of town. Llanthony Priory, a former Augustinian monastery, is a real historical gem too. Worth it for the magnificent drive through the mountains as much as the ruin itself. In Hay, don’t miss burrowing around the second-hand bookshops of course. They’re a veritable warren of secrets and surprises.
What happens to the town once the festival is over?
As with the aftermath of any good party, the town clears up the empties, brushes itself down and returns to life as normal. As normal, that is, as any town can be that has its very own King, a permanent Lord of Misrule.
Under the Tump: Sketches of Real Life on the Welsh Borders by Oliver Balch is published by Faber & Faber on 19th May 2016. Oliver Balch will be speaking to Georgina Godwin about the book at the Hay Festival on 1st June 2016 at 8.30pm.
Illustration by JoeMcLaren.com