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Simon Worrall

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Vincent J. Musi

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Clive Gammon (top) and Callie Shell

image: stones
In Rejuvenated Wales

Field Notes From Author
Simon Worrall
I went sailing off the southwest coast of Wales to an island called Skomer, a bird sanctuary that is restricted to visitors except by special permission. Tens of thousands of birds nest on the cliff walls. It’s extraordinary, and very noisy.
Half the world’s population of manx shearwaters—among nature’s great travelers—migrate to Skomer to breed after feeding over the winter off the coast of Brazil.
I was anchored in a cove around sunset when a cloud of shearwaters started to appear. A mass of about 180,000 birds poured across the sky and landed on the island. The place became magical. In that moment, with the shearwaters overhead and the other birds around me, I realized the magnitude of Wales’ beauty.
For the most part, my experience in Wales was a good one. But the country is famous for rain, and it rained a lot while I was there.
I was driving along a mountain pass in northwest Wales near Aberwystwyth when out of the blue the sky went black, and it started to pour rain. Almost in an instant the temperature dropped 20 degrees and the road was awash with water. It was like one of those fast-speed sequences in a nature documentary where the clouds move through 24 hours in about a minute. A mountain pass was not a good place to be in bad weather.
Before, I could see about ten miles (17 kilometers) across the rolling green hills. But in the next moment, the mist dropped and I couldn’t even see the tops of the hills. My visibility had been reduced to about 50 yards (46 meters). The picturesque slate-roof cottages that were so attractive a moment before suddenly looked cold and bleak with sheep dripping in the fields. It was very dramatic. In no time a high summer day felt like February. I didn’t enjoy that.
The rural medieval town of Hay-on-Wye sits on the border of England. Some years ago it fell into decline until a man named Richard Booth opened a couple of secondhand bookshops in the late 1960s. Used books came in from all over the world. Soon business was booming and Booth had so many books that he began to dump the less-popular ones in a landfill. Before long, little Hay-on-Wye had rebounded by establishing itself as the world’s first book town; some of the sellers even got their start by scavenging Booth’s discarded books.
Visiting there was surreal. This town of 1,800 people has 34 bookshops. It’s now the world’s largest trading post for secondhand books and a model for other book towns around the globe. Books nobody seems to want line shelves in the castle courtyard and are left outside day and night. Buyers drop their money in an “honesty box” and take their picks.
The sheer volume of books almost blurs the difference between a good one and a bad one. It became hard to separate a Salman Rushdie novel from The Department of Transport Driving Manual of 1979.

Learn more about Hay-on-Wye in Online Extra.

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