GO­ING BY THE BOOK

Jill Hock­ing takes the slow road to browse some of Bri­tain’s best-read vil­lages

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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:

HAY-ON-WYE, WALES

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.

WIG­TOWN, SCOT­LAND

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.

SED­BERGH, CUM­BRIA

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, WALES

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.

IN­VERKIRKAIG, SCOT­LAND

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

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