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A Recycled Castle

Richard Booth's Restored Hay Castle In Wales

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Hay Castle in Hay-on-Wye, Wales

Hay Castle in Hay-on-Wye, Wales

Photo © Jackie Craven
Long ago, when Hay-on-Wye, Wales was a raggle-taggle farming village with tumble-down cottages and a struggling economy, British bibliophile Richard Booth decided that he "rather felt like having a castle."

So, in 1961, he bought the town fortress. Back then, it was a wreck of a place, the thirteenth century tower crumpling, the roof in ruins, and the adjoining Jacobean mansion in disrepair. About that time, he also opened a used bookstore in the old firehouse in the heart of the village.

"I could buy the whole town for six quid back then," Booth told me as we ambled through winding roads now jam-packed with tourists.

Today, Hay-on-Wye is a thriving world center for dealers of used and antiquarian books. Richard Booth? He donned a crown, declared himself king, and named his horse prime minister.

But there is no pretension about the master of Hay Castle. The day I met him, Booth emerged from his bookshop wearing scuffed shoes and frayed corduroy trousers. The buttons on his tweed jacket hung in threads. And if his clothes did not make a statement, he was quick to point out "that rotting castle up there."

According to Richard Booth, Hay Castle is not merely a historic monument. ("We're experimenting with neon lights," he threatened mischievously.) Nor, is the castle a centerpiece for the world-famous Hay-on-Wye Literature Festival. ("A bunch of intellectual snobs talking about themselves," he grumbled.)

Instead, the square stone tower and jagged stone walls are a glorification of recycling, proving that nothing is too old or too dilapidated to be put to good use.

Hay castle does have a makeshift appearance, rather like a tattered copy of Wuthering Heights held together with duct tape. An arched doorway passes through stone walls to the castle grounds. Sagging bookcases lean against an embankment set into the grassy slope. Passers-by pause at the 50 pence stalls to thumb through worn, and often rain-dampened, titles.

Beyond the bookcases, the castle grounds rise toward the ragged Norman tower, said to be built in a single day by a thirteenth century lady nicknamed Moll Walbee. The low roof abutting the tower is overgrown with moss. To the right, a narrow courtyard leads to the "new wing." A medieval door creaks open to reveal a reception area lined with -- yep -- more bookcases. Upstairs, cardboard crates are stacked willy-nilly against stone walls. Bare wires dangle from unpainted drywall ceilings. Booth's infamous crown and scepter rest atop a solitary desk.

The unfinished appearance of Booth's castle has its advantages. "You meet a group of tourists and you can say, See that castle? I burnt the bugger down!"

This was not altogether a joke. Booth was referring to the 1978 fire that gutted his living quarters in the seventeenth century Jacobean mansion. To repair the damage, and to possibly also restore the medieval tower, Booth sells bumper stickers, flags, autographed photographs, and a variety of booklets written by "Wise King Richard of Hay." Titles include God Save Us From the Development Board, Bring Back Horses, and Abolish the Wales Tourist Board.

Wish you could own a castle? If this is beyond your budget, you can follow Richard Booth's example: Invest in something hopeless, patch it together with dreams, and tell the world that you are king. (Or queen!)

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