Hereford, Wales: Gateway to the Hay Festival

Antony Woodward, The Daily Telegraph, April 19, 2012

If you've left it late finding somewhere to stay for the Hay Festival and you're beginning to despair, or, after a day of self-improvement, you're not ready for the bucolic backwater of a b & b, let alone "glamping", we've only one thing to say to you: Hereford.

The cathedral city of the Welsh Marches is a natural gateway to Hay, less than half an hour away by car, and for centuries one of the key English frontiers against Wales. From the Wye Bridge the Welsh hills loom and beckon.

Hereford ("Herryford" around here) will to many conjure a montage of a pink cathedral, the Mappa Mundi, cider, possibly half-timbered buildings and, to insiders, the SAS. (That regiment's training ground is the source of the Chinooks that periodically thump and whup their way through the Black Mountains.) And while all these are present, for the Hay-goer particularly, there are other delights.

On arrival, a pleasant way to get your bearings is to make for The Old House in High Town, the old city centre. This handsome black-and-white building, the sole survivor of what was once a street bearing the fine medieval name "Butchers' Row", is now a free museum furnished as it would have been in Jacobean times. Climb to the third floor and there's a model of the city as it was around the time of the Civil War: 75 acres, enclosed on one side by the river, on the others by the city walls, which still remain amazingly intact. With later developments stripped away, this remains today's compact city centre. The medieval buildings have been largely replaced by Georgian brick terraces but that centre is still eminently walkable from a base of, say, an old country hotel such as the Green Dragon, in Broad Street.

The focal point of the old town is the cathedral. Purists bleat that it is messed about, that there's no proper close, that the building doesn't dominate distant views as it does at Durham, Lincoln or Ely. But it's still the soaring presence at the end of many streets and the pink-grey tinge of the old red sandstone blurs beautifully into the brick of later centuries that surrounds it.

Inevitably, to those who have not seen it, the Mappa Mundi in the cathedral cloisters will exert its invisible cultural pull, if only through duty. Even the guidebook admits that "at first sight the original map is far from prepossessing". And it's easy to be nonplussed, faced by the notably un-map-like parchment (Garden of Eden at the top, Jerusalem in the middle, Britain bottom left) especially when "better" maps – well, ones that at least look like a child's version of the world maps we know today – existed 150 years earlier. Fifteen minutes on Wikipedia to establish that this is more in the nature of a drawn encyclopedia of distant lands, peoples, myths and natural history held together by Christianity would have reduced my bafflement. But many are deeply moved by their encounter in the darkened chamber.

The two significant things I took away were the origin of the word "orientate", because maps of this type often place the Orient at the top; and the fact that chain libraries, where hand-copied volumes are chained to prevent their being stolen, are shelved back to front (spine in, pages out) to prevent the chains getting tangled.

From the city the walk along the Wye comes recommended. Seagulls crying and wheeling overhead remind you that Hereford was once a port and that the Wye is Britain's third-biggest river. And beyond, there are, of course, the black-and-white village trails and the cider trails (although these days crisps are fast displacing apples as Herefordshire's chief export).

If you're driving to the festival, allow time for a mosey down the back roads at least once. For this section of the Wye Valley crosses into the epicentre of that nostalgic landscape known as "Kilvert Country". The lanky and irrepressible diarist became rector of Bredwardine (last syllable to rhyme with "wine", please, not "dean") in November 1877 and it is in that churchyard that he was buried just two years later, aged 38. If you keep a paperback of William Plomer's edited diary selections handy, while admiring the gem of a five-arched bridge, you can read accounts of the ice breaking against its arches in December 1878, or the record floods earlier that year. You could also follow the Wye Valley Walk to neighbouring Monnington on Wye, where Kilvert's sister was married to the rector, and in that churchyard, it is alleged, lies Owain Glyndwˆr, the last native claimant to the title Prince of Wales.

South of the river, the B4352 passes alongside the deer park of Moccas Court. Over the high paling fence, here are the ancient oaks that Kilvert called "grey men": "gnarled, low-browed, knock-kneed, bowed, bent, huge, strange, long-armed, deformed, hunchbacked, misshapen oak men that stand waiting and watching century after century … with both feet in the grave and yet … seeing out generation after generation".

Between here and Hay, the crooked iron signposts, the Whitney toll bridge, mountain views and red letterboxes set into walls may make you think you are driving directly into a post-war country calendar. Collectors of interesting roads, too, should not miss the preposterously long and steep Dorstone Hill, between the B4352 and the B4348. The unnerved can turn off halfway up to Arthur's Stone, a picturesque Neolithic burial chamber.

For a longer detour, head south of Hereford for 10 minutes on the Abergavenny road to Kilpeck. The church here is universally hailed as Britain's finest example of Norman parochial architecture, especially its Herefordshire School of Romanesque carvings – though it's the saucy gargoyles that draw most visitors. From here, it's a stone's throw to the Cistercian Abbey Dore, whence you can make your way to Hay up the Golden Valley (the name perhaps the result of Norman confusion of the Welsh for water, dwˆr, and the French d'or, for gold), made famous more recently by the film Shadowlands.

Alternatively, lovers of vernacular building should turn off at Vowchurch, and make for Michaelchurch Escley, turning right on to the unclassified road to Hay. This route runs through working farms where the old stone barns are still used as barns, the sagging stone roofs are yellow with lichen, and the words "Slow Please" daubed on to a wall seem to contain an existential message.

Towards the end, the road climbs to more than a thousand feet, before breaking out of woodland at Mynydd Brith to a spectacular view across the Wye Valley to the Begwns and Radnorshire hills before descending to Hay. Just one of the happy endings to a journey that begins in Hereford.

Hereford basics

The Telegraph Hay Festival will run from May 31 to June 10. For more information and to book tickets, see .

Antony Woodward's The Garden in the Cloudswas the Hay Festival National Trust Outdoors Book of the Year 2011.

The Green Dragon Hotel in Hereford (01432 272506; ) has a good restaurant and rooms available for the festival between June 4 and June 8: doubles from £70 a night including breakfast.

Antony Woodward’s favourite Hereford pub is The Barrels in St Owen Street ( ). In surrounding villages, try the Sun Inn at Winforton ( ), Ye Olde Salutation Inn in Weobley ( ), The Bell Inn at Tillington ( ) and the Bridge Inn at Michaelchurch Escley ( ).

For information about Hereford and surrounds, including where to stay, telephone Hereford Tourist Information (01432 268430) or see .

The Palace Art-Fest, an exhibition of work by 40 Herefordshire-based artists and sculptors, will be held in Hereford's Bishop's Palace, adjacent to the cathedral, from May 28 to June 5 (10am-5pm, Sun, June 3, 11am-4pm), with a preview on May 27 from 4.30pm to 7pm. For details, and to order preview tickets, priced at £10 each, telephone 01432 374261.