While Hay-on Wye's main attraction is the books, you can plow through only so many old tomes before your respiratory system rebels. Not to worry. Wales is only about 150 miles north to south, at its widest only 65 miles across and as little as 35 miles east to west, so the country is easy to explore. The most precipitous mountains are in the north, but the tall, rounded hills of Brecon Beacons National Park to the southwest are less formidable for hikers and horseback riders. And they offer spectacular scenery.
Any American using English roads--whether in an automobile, on a bicycle or on foot--needs the nerves of James Bond because English drivers are red-eyed devils behind the wheel of a car. It is unnerving enough for a driver weaned on left-hand drive to drive a right-hand car, never mind that the roads are narrow, bordered with unyielding objects such as stone walls and peopled with maniacs.
But tourists manage to muddle through somehow. And for the faint of heart or pocketbook, there's always the train or bus.
Most Wye-area inns have a fishing connection and can put an angler on a stretch of stream. My wife and I stayed at the small but comfortable Griffin Inn, a few miles from Hay in Llyswyn, where we learned from innkeeper Richard Stockton that the double l is not pronounced as in "Listen, Louie, let's leave," but sort of like \o7 cl\f7 and sort of like \o7 hl\f7 and sort of like someone delicately trying to dislodge a popcorn hull from the roof of his mouth.
Welsh is an ancient language--perhaps the oldest in Europe--dating to the barbarians who invaded England long before the Romans. One group veered north, the other south, and the northerners became Gaelic-speaking Scots and Irish. The southerners settled in Brittany, on the north coast of France, then penetrated the dark Welsh mountains and developed the Welsh language whose only close linguistic relative is Breton, a nearly dead tongue.
At the Griffin, for less than a dollar each, I bought some exquisite salmon flies, tied by a local gillie (guide), not to fish with but as collector's items. One night I decided to walk off a heavy but excellent supper at the inn and paused on the town bridge over the Wye. The water was pocked by trout rising to feed, so many trout that the river surface looked as if a gentle rain was falling. The air was filled with a hatch of a small sulfur-colored mayfly.
The Wye is 130 miles long and ranges from bouldered stretches around Hay-on-Wye that simply reek of fish to the area below Ross-on-Wye, in England, that is reminiscent of Germany's Rhine, with its stream-side castles. Author George Borrow, in "Wild Wales" (published in 1862), called the Wye "the most lovely river, probably, which the world can boast of."
Wordsworth gushed, "o Sylvan Wye, Thou wanderer thro' the woods. How often has my spirit turned to thee?" His poem "Tintern Abbey" celebrated the ruins of a wondrous monastery, built in 1131, that is about 50 miles southeast of Hay-on-Wye.
Hay-on-Wye also is the launch point for hiking treks on Offa's Dyke, an earthen wall built 1,200 years ago. Offa was the King of Mercia (the English Midlands) in the 8th Century, and his "wall," which stood 20 feet high and had a 10-foot ditch on the Welsh side, ran the entire length of the English-Welsh border, over steep hills and down through remote valleys.
Historians are not certain whether the dike was a defensive breastwork to keep the ancient Britons out of Saxon England, or simply a border marker. Whatever it was, today the dike, which survives in parts, is a 168-mile hiking trail that has been designated one of Britain's Long Distance Footpaths.
If hiking is big in this part of Wales, so is pony trekking. On the high ridges of the Brecon Beacons, the grass is lush--Wales averages 55 inches of rainfall a year--and the views are gorgeous. We rented a couple of small but sturdy Welsh ponies, or "cobs," from a stable called Cae Iago, on the west edge of the mountain range. Owner Charlie Pollack led us and a few other riders up into the hills for a half-day's ride.
The rugged Brecon Beacons loom like worn down old dog's teeth. Sheep dot the bright green slopes like distant boulders, and hedges cut the hillsides into a cat's cradle. Gorse, a rank shrub, grows in thick stands atop some of the ridges. Pollack told us there is a Welsh saying that it's all right to drink liquor after the gorse is in bloom. "Of course," he added, "the gorse is \o7 always \f7 in bloom somewhere. . . ."
There are birds everywhere, and this area is renowned for bird-watching. Another of our stops, the Glanrannell Park Hotel, which is north of the Bristol Channel port of Swansea, is a regular stop for Sierra Club tours, the ecstatic cries of bearded gorp gulpers harmonizing with the Celtic croak of little old ladies in tennis shoes in the hotel bar.