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Hay-on-Wye (Y Gelli Gandryll)
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Introducing Hay-on-Wye (Y Gelli Gandryll)

Hay-on-Wye, a pretty little town on the banks of the River Wye, just inside the Welsh border, has developed a reputation disproportionate to its size. First came the explosion in secondhand bookshops, a charge led by the charismatic and forthright local maverick Richard Booth. Booth opened his eponymous bookshop in the 1960s, stocking it with cast-off libraries from various national institutions and country houses. He went on to proclaim himself the King of Hay, among other elaborate publicity stunts, while campaigning for an international network of book towns to support failing rural economies.

With Hay becoming the world's secondhand book capital, a festival of literature and culture was established in 1988, growing in stature each year to take in all aspects of the creative arts. Today the Hay Festival is a major attraction in its own right, famously endorsed by former US president Bill Clinton, a high-profile guest in 2001, as 'the Woodstock of the mind'.

But Hay is not all about book browsing and celebrity spotting – it also makes an excellent base for active pursuits, with the Black Mountains, River Wye and Offa's Dyke Path all within easy access of the town's superb facilities.

The small town centre is made up of narrow sloping lanes, peppered by interesting shops and peopled by the differing types that such individuality and so many books tend to attract. Even outside of festival time, it has a vaguely alternative ambience.

Hay has had a tempestuous history, due to its borderlands position. In fact, at the time of the Norman Conquest it was administered separately as English Hay (the town proper) and Welsh Hay (the countryside to the south and west).

Around 1200 William de Braose II, one of the Norman barons (marcher lords), built a castle here on the site of an earlier one (Richard Booth became king of this castle, buying the dilapidated remains in 1961). For the next three-and-a-half centuries Hay changed hands many times. Following the Tudor Acts of Union it settled down as a market town, and by the 18th century it had become a centre of the flannel trade.