It would be the day it poured: the day of liberation from nearly three months stasis in Oxford. I took the 6.56 train Worcester, having the day’s first proper cup of coffee in the cheap Brief Encounter-ish tearoom in Worcester, and then onto Hereford, creeping along the Malvern Hills, the fields inundated with rain, the wet crops, the sheep cringing into the hedge thickets and soggy apple orchards. I’d forgotten about rural buses and their lacksadaisical reliability. I’d missed the bus from Hereford to Hay-on-Wye by five minutes and it was two hours until the next one. Cursing, I walked into Hereford (grey, depressed, with a strangely hospitable European piazza in the centre) for a bacon butty – which, I now know, is impossible to eat without coating your eyebrows with brown sauce – and a stroll through what was promisingly called The Butter Market but was really a church bazaar affair in the town hall.
And thus to my destination. Hay-on-Wye is set on a hill and impossible to navigate.
The streets seemed to shift shapes when I had my back turned. I stomped down alleys, getting lost in residential culs-des-sac, running up and down the hill to find my bearings. In the distance, the hills were monochromatically green in the distance – emerald with darker hedges which subdivided them, shouldering heavy mist and suffering the ubiquitous rain.
Autumn hasn’t reached Wales yet but there is a single flaming tree in front of Hay Castle, which stands gothically at the top of the hill. Richard Booth, the man who made Hay-on-Wye the village of books by opening his shop in 1962, has since resigned his crumbling castle, trailing with vines, beset by rooks, and studded with a large CAUTION sign. The bookstore that used to function on the ground floor is now dismantled and the emptied dusty rooms with warped timber whispered bad luck and sadness.
The best bookshop award went to the marvellously stocked Poetry Bookshop. The owner had a puppy he was trying to train, which was kept in a wire cage while Japanese tourists browsed, laughing at the names of poets and asking for expensive nicely illustrated copies of Tennyson. The puppy, a long coltish thing, leapt out of its confines but caught its leg on the cage and yelped melodramatically to a general disturbance.
For lunch, I was directed to the ivy-covered Blue Boar at the top of the hill, on the other side of the castle. It was wood panelled, fire-placed, carpeted, empty. I ordered lamb and the best glass of red wine I’ve had since Burgundy. The room was later peopled by a large woman who approached her bacon and brie sandwich with great intent, and an octogenarian with a Beckettian face, wearing a waistcoat and an expensive paisley scarf. The two men at the bar left to sheer their sheep.
I gallivanted back to the Poetry bookshop for a second run only to be turned away by drawn curtains. When I called the number on the front door the owner said they were closed firmly, in the cold manner of bookshop owners who’ve had no patience waiting all day in an empty shop only to be beset by strangers in their late afternoons. I returned forlorn – after several wrong turns – to the Blue Boar, planning to warm myself with a powerful espresso and my melancholy. I saw my bus and went over to meet the conductor only to be told I had missed the last bus to Hereford and I’d better come with him to Brecon. Farewell, village of books. Farewell ruinous geography. Farewell sodden shoes and lovely fireside espresso. From Brecon, home of the great 18th century actress Sarah Siddons, a bus to Abergavenny, a train to Hereford, to Oxford, where - upon my alighting - it started to rain.