GOING BY THE BOOK
Jill Hocking takes the slow road to browse some of Britain’s best-read villages
TRAVEL and book browsing come together nowhere better than in the scenic landscapes of provincial Britain. And we are talking the welcoming havens of high street bookshops here, rather than of chainstore emporiums. While many small towns struggle to retain a traditional butcher or grocer, a handful are blessed with several bookshops.
These book towns did not just happen; bookshop tourism has been embraced as one way to regenerate flagging rural economies. With this strategy, redundant buildings get a new lease of life and extra visitors provide a boon for the area’s pubs, B & Bs, cafes and other tourist drawcards.
Packed with character and atmosphere, small-town bookshops are treasure troves for literary travellers. Here are five towns and villages that trade on books:
Until the 1960s, Hay-on-Wye was an unremarkable little town in the Welsh Marches or border region. Salted away in the shadow of the Brecon Beacons, Hay dozed beneath its Norman castle and held its weekly market as it had since 1233.
Enter businessman Richard Booth, who in 1961 bought Hay’s old fire station, filled it with secondhand books and set up shop. Others followed and the so-called Town of Books was born. At last count, Hay possessed 41 bookshops, one for every 36 residents.
There’s something for everyone here: you might find an early Baedecker at Marijana Dworski Books or a prewar RupertAnnual at the Children’s Bookshop. Antiquarian books, biographies, books on theology, the Celts, military history, art and gardening; Charles Dickens’s first editions, remaindered recent titles, sheet music and more can be bought and sold in Hay. If you are a book lover, you could lose yourself for days among the teetering piles.
The annual The Guardian Hay Festival (May 22-June 1 this year) has attracted the likes of Bill Clinton, Germaine Greer and Alain de Botton, along with 55,000 other festival goers. www.hay-on-wye.co.uk.
Cross the Scottish border at Gretna Green, veer left and make for the soft rolling hills and sandy bays of Scotland’s southwest corner. Wigtown, overlooking the salt marshes of Wigtown Bay, is Scotland’s answer to Hay-on-Wye.
Among the riches in Wigtown’s 30 bookrelated businesses are Reading Lasses, a feminist bookshop and cafe, and a children’s bookshop called The Box of Frogs. More than a kilometre of floor-to-ceiling shelves crammed with volumes line the walls of the nine-roomed The Book Shop. Louis de Bernieres, of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin fame, was in the line-up of guests at the eighth annual Scottish Booktown Festival held last year (being held from September 26 to October 5 this year). www.wigtownbookfestival.com; www.wigtown-booktown.co.uk.
When foot-and-mouth disease struck Britain in 2001, the woods and fields of the Yorkshire Dales were barred to visitors. Enterprising locals in the market town of Sedbergh saw books as one way to give the town an economic shot in the arm.
In the picturesque main street, the Dales & Lakes Book Centre contains rooms of stock representing regional booksellers. Myriad titles on the Lake District, English folklore, transport and industrial history, the arts and music fill the shelves. Also in the town centre, try The Bookseller for mountaineering books and Sleepy Elephant for textiles and interior design titles. www.sedbergh.org.uk.
Blaenavon is a former coal and iron town in South Wales. Today, visitors come here to explore the area’s rich industrial heritage but also to buy books. In beautifully restored buildings on the sloping Broad Street lies a little goldmine of bookshops. Broadleaf Books offers photography, architecture and natural history titles while Browning Books is a sanctuary of children’s stories, industrial books and volumes on all things Welsh. Mair Davies’s home-based book business specialises in Dylan Thomas, the English Civil War and Chartism. Train enthusiasts make a beeline to the Railway Shop for transport titles and model railway supplies. www.world-heritage-blaenavon.org.uk.
One bookshop does not a book town make. A lone bookshop, however, on a single-lane track, in a tiny crofting hamlet set amid the glorious highlands and sparkling lochs of northwest Scotland deserves a mention on any bibliophile’s list. Achins Bookshop, in the parish of Assynt at Inverkirkaig, is the most remote bookshop in Britain.
It was established in the early 1970s and is renowned for its Scottish collection.
Take the path next to the shop to Inverkirkaig Falls and later enjoy a coffee in the timber-lined bookshop cafe. www.scotbooks.freeuk.com. Speaking volumes: Clockwise from main picture, The Book Shop at Wigtown; the Scottish town has 30 bookrelated businesses; Booth Books at Hay-on-Wye, which has a bookshop for every 36 residents; tempting doorway at Hay-on-Wye; Browning Books in Blaenavon, Wales