Three years in the making! Once in a lifetime trip! All that hyperbole is true. And in the end (which should be about three posts from now, including this one), I had what may amount to the best—and longest—trip of my life.
I began planning this trip pre-pandemic in early 2020. While I had been going to the UK every two years from 2014 onward, I had gone in 2019 following a 2018 trip, because my employer at the time was footing the bill as I went on a top secret mission (which, alas, never came to fruition). So I decided in 2020 I’d go back and since—for me, at least—half the fun in every trip is its planning, I began laying the groundwork very early in 2020, including a plane reservation. (Yeah, I’m like that … Plan in February for a fall trip.) That had to be cancelled for obvious reasons and I got a full refund from my airline, but then I dove in again in 2021, and this time opted for a voucher when I had to—sadly and inevitably—cancel yet once again. Well, let’s put it this way: The airline made the decision for me by cancelling my flight months in advance. In the meantime, I had decided that this trip—which may be my last due to being retired—was going to include a return visit to Hay-on-Wye, the lovely book town in Wales that I first went to in 2018.
The next part of this story starts with a Christmas present. My dear friend Laurel—whom I’ve known for over 30 years (which is impossible, since I myself am only 39 and she is forever 25)—bought me a book called Book Towns: Forty Five Paradises of the World. She asked me what it was about (it was on my wishlist on that site that shall not be named, so she gifted it sight unseen), and I explained to her that Hay-on-Wye in Wales was the very first book town, started in 1962, and she said, “Wait. There’s a book town and we’ve never gone to it? How is that possible?”
Laurel and I spent many hours in bookstores in Pittsburgh and New York City over the years. I always kid her that I can scout the entire store, find three books to buy, and come back and she will be in the same exact spot that I left her, intently perusing a book or magazine, lost to everything that is going on around her. And so began a not-so-long but gentle process of convincing Laurel to join me on my quest to go back to Hay, which I had visited in 2018, when I took the longest trip of my life in the UK, which included London, Leeds, York, Brighton, and Hay. It’s a charming village right where England meets Wales, and houses about 20 bookstores.
So, after a lot of discussion and planning, we decided we would meet in London, go to Hay-on-Wye for a few days, and then spend a few more days in London. And as the pages—like in a movie—fell slowly from the calendar on the wall and began to speed up to an alarming rate in August, we realized the trip was upon us, just like that.
Airlines had a really tough pandemic and this past summer they were still slowly and painfully recovering, so any trip via plane was a crapshoot. I planned this for the weekend of Labor Day, and airlines had a particularly hard time with holidays. Labor Day is the final summer holiday, but I was hoping—praying, in my own secular way—that they had their collective shit together by the last one, since they didn’t exactly stick the landing on Memorial Day or Fourth of July weekends. My semi-diabolical plan involved flying out on the Sunday before Labor Day, thinking that that would be a quieter travel day. But of course in May, British Airways cancelled my direct flight in September from San Diego to London, and I had to reroute through Phoenix. Laurel’s first flight on Virgin from JFK (she lives in New York State) was also cancelled, but luckily they just rebooked her on an earlier flight the same evening.
And my plan pretty much worked. While both our flights were crowded, they were relatively on-time, and when I walked out of customs in Heathrow Airport, there was Laurel, standing waiting for me (although she didn’t have a little sign that had my name on it, which was disappointing). Another part of my plan included carry-on luggage only, since Heathrow seemed to have major problems with baggage handling over the summer. I packed my smaller Away suitcase and ordered a matching, dark blue carry-on bag that fit neatly onto the the bigger suitcase’s handle. Thinking I was traveling light (or at least my version of traveling light), Laurel met me at the airport with a knapsack she designed and made herself, sticking strictly to the size requirements for carry-on, and a day pack. I immediately asked “What’s wrong with this picture?” I showed up like a Kardashian with my expensive, bulky, matching luggage, and Laurel outdid me with her hand-made knapsack and the very picture of traveling light. (Full disclosure: She bought a suitcase while we were there. Books don’t travel easy.)
So before I jump into a day-by-day recitation of everything we did (minus bathroom details), allow me to mention this caveat: I always travel alone. And, I live alone. And I’ve gotten very, Very, VERY used to that amount of aloneness. So I was a bit unsure as to how all of this traveling with someone for TEN WHOLE DAYS was going to work out.
It worked out wonderfully. Laurel was the perfect travel companion. She’s the only person I know who would not only put up with countless bookstores over a ten-day period but also relish that experience. (We also had lots of walks, great meals, stayed at both a nice B&B and a wonderful hotel, and visited a trio of famous British museums.) There was never a cranky word (well, this one time I almost ran into someone while listening to a spam call on my phone and got cross, but never at her). I stayed on ten additional days after she left ten days into the trip, and spent most of that time talking to myself as if she was still there. So, all-in-all, it was a most amazing trip having the one person I regard as my best friend at my side and seeing a lot of familiar sites through her new eyes.
So here’s what happened, day-by-day, you lucky dog. As always on this site, click on the photos to see them larger on your screen, and where available, gallery photos can be viewed as a slide show.
Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, Sunday, September 4, 2022
Day 1: Sunday, September 4th
Both my flights—American Airlines to Phoenix and British Airways from Phoenix to London—were pretty much on time. The flight to Phoenix felt like Granny’s old timey aeroplane ride in that it featured some of the—well, most elderly flight attendants I’ve ever encountered. I half expected to be given a big piece of apple pie ala mode to “fatten me up” before we landed. Phoenix was a scorching 107 degrees when I got there and I was thankful to be safely inside the air-conditioned shield of Sky Harbor airport. What I hadn’t anticipated was how freakin’ big that airport is. When I saw the flight I was changing to was in the same building, I didn’t realize it was a mile away. Thankfully I had more than enough time to go from the far end of Terminal A to the far end of Terminal B and moving walkways certainly helped.
The flight itself was packed. I always upgrade a bit on long-haul flights (nine hours from Phoenix to London) and opted for World Traveler Plus, their premium economy cabin. The seats are bigger and more comfortable, there’s more legroom, and the cabin is smaller. I lucked out when the guy next to me moved with his ancient father to the row in front of me, because dad wanted an aisle seat, and there were two empty seats. I watched The Duke, a great movie based on a true story, starring Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren, about ne’er-do-well who steals a famous painting of the Duke of Wellington to make a point over TV viewing fees. It was the perfect film to get me into a British mood (look it up, I heartily recommend it). The food was forgettable and I didn’t sleep at all, except for maybe over three songs in my specially prepared for this trip playlist, which I promptly re-listened to when I woke up.
The Millennium Bridge in London, with St. Paul’s Cathedral in the background.
Day 2: Monday, September 5th
When I walked out of customs in Heathrow Terminal 5, Laurel was standing there waiting for me, which was a wonderful sight to behold. We took Heathrow Express to Paddington Station and then the Underground (more properly known as The Tube) to Southwark Station. We were staying one night at Hilton London Bankside, which is my favorite hotel in the world. I have Diamond status there and access to the Executive Lounge, so we had a built-in free dinner and drinks while we stayed there, which over the course of the ten days we were together, amounted to six nights. After a very crowded first Tube ride to the hotel, where Laurel almost lost her watch/charm bracelet but a good samaritan handed it to her before the Tube doors slammed shut, we took a walk around Bankside and into the Tate Modern and perused the bookstores, a portent of things to come.
I follow Hilton London Bankside on Instagram (@hiltonbankside) and about a week or two before the trip they were promoting their bespoke experience stays for people with young children and showed a photo of their little stuffed mascot, Foxy, which they give to little kids. The entire theme of their hotel is foxes, and there are quite a few urban foxes who roam the nocturnal streets of London, foraging for food (in fact, I saw one while eating in the hotel’s restaurant one night).
I left a comment about wanting to buy one, and lo and behold when we checked into our room, there was a tiny stuffed Foxy on my bed. I can’t begin to tell you how much joy that gave me, and how strange that sounds to me at the ripe old age of 67 (well, 39). I guess there’s still a lot of little kid in me.
The sign outside Hilton London Bankside, my home for 12 of my 20 nights in the UK.
Day 3: Tuesday, September 6th
We got up bright and early and had our first breakfast in Hilton Bankside’s wonderful restaurant, OXBO, which came free of charge. I’m a breakfast pastry type of person, and they had some wonderful almond croissants and breads for toasting, which I took advantage of every day. Laurel was more of a coffee, granola, yogurt person (with a banana, please). Tuesday was the day we were taking the train to Hereford, which was the closest station to Hay-on-Wye.
We arrived at Paddington Station via Tube with plenty of time to stand and stare at the big departures board to figure out which track our 11:45 direct train to Hereford was leaving from. I whiled away the time by almost fainting. I was standing there and everything started to turn white in my eyes from the far left and right sides, creeping across them. I sat down and felt immediately better, and I think it was because I basically hadn’t slept much in the preceding 36 hours (usually I’m not very good in hotels the first night). The train ride went by quickly. There were two older gentlemen sitting near us who I immediately called Statler and Waldorf, who proceeded to open this meticulously packed lunch which consisted of some kind of pasta salad, flat lettuce leaves, olives, and some kind of pastry for dessert. When they were finished, the younger—and more nattily attired—of the two, just as meticulously packed it back up into his fastidiously arranged Tupperware, stacking the various filters that separated one layer from another. The older man was reading a new book called The Book Lover’s Guide to London, which I could see was a densely-illustrated, full-color book. It became my mission to find a copy of this book over the next few weeks.
When we arrived in Hereford around 2:45 PM, my Instagram friend Helen was waiting to pick us up. A little back story first, though: In 2018 when I first visited Hay, after discovering it via Instagram (and reading the book Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books by Paul Collins), I asked a ton of questions of an Instagrammer associated with Addyman Books (@addymanbooks), which turned out to be a very nice woman by the name of Anne, who very patiently answered all my queries. Anne is a partner in the Addyman empire, which consists of three bookstores in Hay: Addyman Books, Addyman Annexe, and (my favorite), Murder and Mayhem, devoted to mystery-crime-thriller books; it’s pretty much the one bookstore that convinced me to visit Hay. We stuck up an online friendship and I actually met her when I visited back then, spending a short time in her kitchen and talking books and what I do (or did at the time) with her. We stayed in touch over the past four years, and when her friend Helen (on Instagram @coachingbyhelen) visited the States and made a stop in San Diego in 2019, she reached out and asked for some recommendations during her visit. Alas, we never met in person that time, but I began following her on Instagram and when it came time to plan another visit to Hay, I reached out to her for some recommendations (quid pro quo, Clarice), and she steered me in the direction of Radnor House, a B&B, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Helen and Anne volunteered to pick Laurel and me up at Hereford Station, so Helen picked us up and drove us over the winding and beautiful narrow roads of Herefordshire to our B&B in Hay. It was about a 30-minute trip. It was wonderful to meet both Helen and her friend Reese (maybe it was Rhys?) in person, and I instantly felt like I had met an old friend. When I saw her and her beaming smile from across the parking lot, I said to her, “I would know you anywhere even though we’ve never met.”
Some photos of our B&B in Hay-on-Wye, Radnor House.
As mentioned, we stayed at Radnor House, (on Instagram @RadnorHouse), which is a four-room B&B in the center of the town. David, the owner, took wonderful care of us, with an amazing continental breakfast each morning with big, thick slices of multigrain bread, croissants, smoothies, fresh made coffee, and more. The room was spotless and very thoughtfully decorated and I loved the tiled walk-in shower. We got dropped off by Helen and checked in with David and then dove into our first bookstore, which was right next store to Radnor House: The Hay Cinema Bookshop. One of the first bookstores in Hay, when Richard Booth came up with the concept of a whole town devoted to selling books, the Hay Cinema Bookshop is not a bookstore that sells books about old movies, it’s a bookstore that was once a cinema (movie theater). It’s in a big, rambling building, and required a second visit, but right away we dove in, and bought some books. We came, we browsed, and we purchased. My first one was an old digest-sized Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan book, Tarzan the Invincible, which was printed in the 1950s by a company called W. H. Allen. I had purchased two of them in 2018. I love their covers and format. I picked up two on this trip, including a copy of Tarzan and the Ant Men. They’re printed on very flimsy, pulpy paper, so they’re hard to find in nice condition, especially with intact covers.
Two of the pulpy British Tarzan digests I found in Hay. They were published in the 1950s.
We roamed around Hay a bit, but by this time (5:00-ish), the village was shutting down for the day (Hay Cinema Bookshop was open until 6:00 PM). We had dinner at the pub directly across the street from our B&B, called the Blue Boar Inn, which was seemingly run by a bunch of semi-surly teenagers. The fish and chips we had sure were good, though.
One of a number of Book Town signs as you enter Hay, a lovely blue door, and this little canal runs through part of Hay.
Day 4: Wednesday, September 7th
Our first full day in Hay dawned with a great breakfast at Radnor House and on-and-off rain. We visited Hay Castle, which is finally restored to its previous greatness. When I first visited Hay in 2018, the Castle was a mess, but millions of pounds later it has become an incredible museum and cultural center. We spent a couple of hours exploring it, including the wonderful animated film that chronicles the Castle’s history. They project it on the wall in the basement. We climbed to the top of the Castle (Laurel did the last bit of daring-do and climbed the rocky steps to the very tippy-top, which allows for amazing views of the entire village and the Hay Valley; Hay-on-Wye derives its name from the Wye River which runs through it). Laurel purchased a colorful tote bag and I hemmed and hawed about buying Richard Booth’s biography, My Kingdom of Books, which I eventually purchased elsewhere (most appropriately in the Richard Booth Bookshop).
Photos from Hay Castle, newly restored and a great addition to the town.
I can’t tell you which order we visited them, but we pretty much hit most every bookstore in Hay over the next three days (Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday). Hay publishes a great little map and bookstore listing brochure, so here are the stores we visited, in alphabetical order, because, yes, I’m like that:
The Addyman Annexe
Broad Street Book Centre (which housed a number of booksellers in separate displays and rooms)
Clock Tower Books (which is actually not near the Clock Tower)
Green Ink Booksellers
Hay Cinema Bookshop
Murder and Mayhem
The Old Electric Shop
The Poetry Bookshop
Richard Booth’s Bookshop
A look at both Addyman Books and their sister store specializing in crime/mystery/thriller books, Murder & Mayhem, directly across the street from their flagship store.
It’s a far cry from Richard Booth’s original vision, but Hay still draws a large contingent of book lovers and “bookstagrammers” every year. It has a giant book festival in May of each year, Hay Festival, and also has a Winter Weekend (this year it’s November 24-27). While the town no longer has the 40 or so bookstores of its (no pun intended) heyday, there’s still more than enough books per square foot then pretty much anywhere in the world.
One simply does not leave Hay without some vintage books, particularly in my case these lovely vintage Pan and Great Pan paperbacks, most of which are not exactly “woke” by today’s standards. Me, I just love the painted covers.
Having said that, I was a bit disappointed in the selection within my ever-narrowing field of interest when it comes to vintage books. That pretty much encompasses vintage Tarzan and James Bond paperbacks, and painted-cover books from a defunct British publisher known as Pan or Great Pan. Those painted covers—which are beautiful, at least to me—cover a very small timespan, from about the early 1950s to the mid 1960s, about a decade and a half. I ended up with the two Tarzan digests I mentioned earlier and six Pan books over our entire visit, which were all in amazing condition.
We also visited Bartrums & Co., a lovely stationery and pen shop in the heart of Hay. Laurel is a huge fan of such stores and I love to explore them too. This shop is particularly great (see below for a photo of the shop).
(Left): Me, Anne of Addyman Books, and Helen; and Helen, me, and Laurel at dinner at the Old Black Lion Inn in Hay-on-Wye.
Wednesday night we took Anne and Helen out to dinner at the Old Black Lion Inn, in return for their kindness of picking us up and taking us back to the Hereford train station. We had a great dinner there, spending close to three hours talking and laughing. Speaking to Laurel after our trip, she cited that as one of the things she liked most: Spending time with Anne and Helen and getting to know them a bit. I wholeheartedly agree.
Day 5: Thursday, September 8th
Thursday is Market Day in Hay, but a steady rain in the morning put a damper on it. Still, it was interesting to see so many people turn out for what is surely a big day each week. Lots of breads and homemade goods of all kinds (edible and non-edible) were available from various vendors set up throughout the town, some under cover and some with their own tented stands. We ate lunch at a place called The Granery as we continued to make our way through the various bookstores in Hay, including Anne’s Addyman Books and Murder and Mayhem, where I picked up another Tarzan digest and some 60-year-old What’s On In London magazines at the former, and a Pan paperback or two at the latter. On a whim, we went into a shop called Rawhide, next to the Murder and Mayhem bookshop and I found this wonderful backpack made by a company called Roka, which I purchased. It turned out to be a lifesaver when I packed up to come home. There are a lot of interesting smaller shops in Hay that aren’t bookshops, including a healthy amount of arty maker-oriented stuff and boutiques. We spent a lot of time on Broad Street, where the Clock Tower is located, and explored some of the bookshops there (mainly Broad Street Book Centre, which is made up of various vendors) and a fascinating “catch-all” shop called The Old Electric Shop, which seemed considerably expanded from the first time I visited in 2018. It had a bit of everything, including books (of course), clothing, home goods, antiques, and art.
Images of Hay including Bartrum’s wonderful stationery shop, candles at The Old Electric Shop, the Clock Tower in the center of town, one of Hay’s dual-language street signs, a hedge-lined entryway, a colorful restaurant board, The Swan’s elegant sign, that yellow house that’s impossible to miss coming off the bridge over the River Wye, and a Hay sunset.
In the afternoon, we stopped at Anne’s place for a cup of tea and visited with her in her home. And that night, after we went to dinner at The Swan, the only hotel in Hay, we ran into her again as we took a sunset walk around the village. She was heading to the local shop to pick up some food for dinner, and she told us that Queen Elizabeth II had died, the day after she had “invited” Liz Truss to take over for the yellow-haired buffoon as Prime Minister. The UK entered a 10-day period of mourning, with her funeral to be on Monday, Oct. 19th. It was an historic time to be in England, and—sad to say, but not too sad—her death saved us from a looming train strike on Sept. 15th that would have affected both our travel plans. God Save the Queen!
I called it “Haynbow” on Instagram, but supposedly this rainbow appeared across the UK right around the time the official announcement of Queen Elizabeth II’s death happened.
Right before we went into The Swan, a giant rainbow appeared in the sky. Evidently a rainbow was seen throughout parts of England and Wales at that instant, and people swear it was right at the time of the announcement of the Queen’s passing.
Day 6: Friday, September 9th
Friday was our last full day in Hay, so we decided to change it up a bit and take a walk. We walked across the bridge over the River Wye (no whistling of British military tunes in lock-step, though) and up a big, green hill to a place where the sidewalk ended. We saw some incredible vistas of the Hay Valley, met some recalcitrant sheep, and walked for about an hour of so. I get so immersed in the hunt for old books in Hay and forget how incredibly beautiful the surrounding landscape is. It’s so lush and green, even though they had a lack of rain over the summer.
The view from over the bridge and atop the hill from the River Wye.
We ate lunch at Oscar’s Bistro, our second time there. They had a German style potato salad that reminded me so much of the homemade stuff my German style grandmother used to make 60 years ago, that I had to go back. We then proceeded to make some final visits to bookstores, including Addyman Books and Murder and Mayhem, and a bookstore I haven’t mentioned yet, Richard Booth’s Bookshop.
Richard Booth’s Bookshop is, I think, the crown jewel of Hay’s bookstores. Founded by the pioneer Hay bookshop owner, who had a hand in many shops in the village, Richard Booth—the self-proclaimed “King of Hay”—it long ago changed hands. It’s a beautiful three-story shop, with creaky wooden floors and miles andmiles of shelves. The upstairs area is amazing, and the basement is … well, a little creepy and noisy, with all the foot traffic on those creaky floors above. There is also a small cinema in the back that shows first run movies on certain days. It’s nice to see that movies are still alive and well in Hay. At the end of the day we took one more walk around Hay Cinema Bookshop, then went to dinner again at the Old Black Lion Inn, which we so thoroughly enjoyed during our evening out with Anne and Helen on Wednesday. I had scallops, which at that point in time, were the best I’ve had. That would change in London in the following week.
Richard Booth’s Bookshop.
Day 7: Saturday, September 10th
Saturday was our travel day, back to London via Hereford Station and Anne drove us there, once again giving us a great look at Herefordshire, via its picturesque two-lane highways. We arrived to find out that even though we purchased two direct tickets to London, there was, in fact, no direct service to London that day. A nice young woman on the platform told us to talk to customer service, which unfortunately was manned by two young guys that we will call Beavis and Butthead (I don’t want to insult Laurel & Hardy, even though their physicality better fits the pair we encountered). The one sat behind his computer screen and never said a word and the other gleefully printed out a long list of various trains (three, I believe) plus a bus we’d have to take, getting us back to London about four hours after our original time. After I said there’s no way we’re going to do that, he finally added, “Or you could change your ticket.” So we went and talked to an actual human being behind the ticket counter and he changed our tickets to go to London via Newport, Wales, with ONE train change (not three and a bus ride) for the princely sum of 16.90 pounds … for both of us. Why “customer service” didn’t suggest this in the first place is beyond me. We ended up back in London about 20 minutes after we should have via the direct train we originally booked, which wasn’t running due to track repairs. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be the only time I had train trouble in England. That story is coming up in my final post in a few weeks.
We had to wait a little bit for the train to Newport, but once we got there, we had less than a 10-minute wait for the London train, which arrived on the same track. Soon we were back at Paddington Station, thanks to a very empty train ride. It was a beautiful sunny day to travel, and Laurel dutifully took photos of all the stations we passed through, making notes from a map app as to where exactly we were. We got back to our hotel (once again Hilton London Bankside, our home for the next five nights) around 5:00 PM and after checking in, took a long walk up to the Tower Bridge, where a very nice young woman volunteered to take our photo when she saw me struggling to take a double-selfie with my short arms. The cynic in me expected her to run away with my phone, but I guess sometimes you just have to have a little faith, baby. We hiked back to the hotel, where we ate dinner in the Executive Lounge. The next day was already on the horizon, along with visits to London’s biggest bookstores, Foyles and Waterstone’s Piccadilly. Because we didn’t get enough books in a town full of bookstores.
Laurel and I at Tower Bridge, wrapped in the golden glow of sunset. That’s the Tower of London to the left of the photo, above the boat.
Next time in Week Two: Laurel and I explore London and I go take a bath … in Bath.
Visit me on Instagram @gg92118 for lots more photos from my UK 2022 trip!