Oliver Balch’s ‘Under the Tump’- the tump in question being the mound in Hay on Wye, upon which sits a fortification-is a lyrical tour of that quiet land twixt England and Wales...The Marches. A pastoral ribbon of border country which straddles English Shropshire and Herefordshire to the East, and Welsh Powys and Monmouthshire to the west. Within this nebulous lost domain of Princes and Lords lies the former county of Radnorshire- formally the smallest and least populated county in Wales- and almost tipping out of Wales into England, at its very fringes is the market town of Hay on Wye and the neighbouring village of Clyro.
Today, Hay is feted as the world first book town. The Hay on Wye book festival began in the 1980‘s and continues to go from strength to strength, attracting international figures from President Clinton to Mario Vargas Llosa.(In fact,with remarkably good timing I discover that the festival actually begins today) The town's cerebral reputation beginning in the early 1960‘s when Richard Booth opened the first of Hay’s many book shops and sowed the literary seed which flowered into the Hay we know today.
However, The Hay Festival is but a small part of Oliver Balch’s work. Essentially, the author offers a socio/cultural investigation into areas’ evolution from a virtually unknown small market town and farming community up until the 1960‘s, into the rather upmarket bohemian idyll it has become today. A place where the past struggles to keep its identity and values against the increasing tide of wealthy incomers from the cities who apart from snapping up properties and thus pricing locals out of the market, bring with them a swaggering self confidence and an urban mindset which to the chagrin of the areas’s indigenous population,threatens to overwhelm the town’s quiet rural character.
One of the areas most famous residents,the curate and rural diarist Francis Kilvert whose roseate observations of the area and people written in the mid 19th century has never been out of print since it was first published by Jonathan Cape in the 1930‘s; and it is to Kilvert that Oliver Balch looks to to guide his journey through a land which is ‘Not quite England, not quite Wales’. Using Kilvert’s zealous thirst to explore both the land and its people, the author adopts a forensic approach to uncovering the real Hay and its environs. A search not made easy by virtue of the areas’ multi layered character.
Oliver Balch’s arrives in nearby Clyro via London and Buenos Aires with his family and immediately seeks to discover if he and his kin can truly belong to an area to which-apart from childhood holidays-he has no connection? With a dogged determination, he latches onto just about anyone who will tolerate his investigative presence. Given the highly detailed references and observations of the people he meets, I have an image of him whipping out a notebook every few minutes and saying..’So that was 1963 you married your second cousin then’? Whatever the author’s methods, it provides a highly readable and fascinating account which manages to filter in some Kilvertian prose to compliment to publisher’s advised ‘reportage style’ of writing.
Young farmers, old hippies, parish pump politicians, trendy young entrepreneurs,pub landlords, all get the OB shake down. Surprisingly, everyone he meets seems only too willing to lay their life bare and reveal their personal triumphs and tragedies. Some readers might find the author’s microscopic descriptions of insignificant details like a gaudy painting in a cafe or some ancient pork scratchings hanging a bar, rather OTT in the information stakes, but gradually,like a painting which takes shape with every brush stroke,it is these finite details which make Under the Tump so readable and evocative of the land and the people.
People like Rob and Layla who I believe featured in C4‘s Amazing Spaces programme presented by George Clarke. Rob and Layla are like many ‘off comers’ are fairly recent arrivals who in common with most of their New Age tribe are not as the media would have it, ‘benefit scroungers’, but hard working individuals who can and will turn their hand to anything to make ends meet. In this instance, the Amazing Spaces connection saw the couple convert a 1960‘s coach into a bijou accommodation for holiday makers. Then there’s Woko, the young farmer who exists in the old country and in old times. When you could walk through Hay and bump into Evans the farrier or old Ned from the Bwlch. These days you are more likely to bump into Will Self or Martin Amis!
Of course no book about Hay and its people would be complete without ‘The self styled ‘King of Hay’, the aforementioned Richard Booth who on April Fool’s Day in 1977 proclaimed Hay an independent kingdom with himself as King Richard and his horse as Prime Minister. The publicity gained world wide coverage including slots in The New York Times and El Pais.
Hay’s ‘monarch’ was actually born in the town and after inheriting his uncles estate, began to ship books back from America in containers to furnish his burgeoning book shop sited in the town’s old fire station. His original book shop is now owned by a rich American incomer-Elizabeth Haycock- who has poured a considerable amount of investment into refurbishing the outlet.
The author offers a surreal description of a open meeting with Booth holding court. An event where a common usurper threatened Hay’s independence by successfully mounting a referendum on Hay and the King’s status. The people of the town obviously content with their liege voted to maintain the status quo.
The Hay book festival arrives late on in the book in keeping with the author’s style, is more concerned with the logistical side of the festival and the ordinary people who make it work year after year rather than waffle on about celebrity writers and politicians. With an estimated half a million people visiting a town with a population under 2000 during the festival period then although its not quite Glastonbury then it’s still a huge logistical task for the mainly local organisers.
Like Francis Kilvert before him, in his Under the Tump, Oliver Balch has certainly brought his adopted homeland to life and gone a long way towards unravelling the rapidly changing character of Hay and the surrounding farms, hamlets and villages. His vivid descriptions of the lonely bald hills and jackdaw haunted ruins remain long in the memory. Certainly within the genre, Under the Tump offers itself as a fine example of how a community and the land they share can be vividly brought to life by a writer who is not backward in coming forward. Sympathetically coaxing his cast into the spotlight yet maintaining a healthy respect for all concerned. I’m sure it is the author’s personable approach which has unearthed a rich seam of social and cultural history in an area where a more remote and objective writer would have failed.
Author,Oliver Balch: Photo OB
For this writer, domiciled in the more rugged north of the country, it has certainly inspired me to visit this summer. Google Earth has been perused and a wild camping spot for my camper pencilled in. You could say, I intend to make Hay while the sun shines !
Under the Tump is published by and available from Faber and Faber
Oliver Balch website