Page last updated at 15:14 GMT, Thursday, 25 October 2007 16:14 UK

From Hay to Timbuktu

Catryn Jenkins
BBC Wales news website

Members of the two twinning associations in Hay
The new "twins" both share a love of literature

Most people have heard the saying 'From here to Timbuktu', but where exactly is it and why has it formed a relationship with a tiny town in mid Wales?

Timbuktu is a city in the Sahara desert and Hay-on-Wye is a market town in Powys which is famed for its annual literary festival.

Miles apart in location and culture, at first glance it seems an odd twinning.

So why did Timbuktu decide Hay was the ideal town to twin with, and does it really have that much in common?

It all started a year ago when Timbuktu, in the west African country of Mali, appealed for a UK town to twin with in order to raise more awareness of the city.

It is already twinned with Chemnitz in Germany, Saintes in France, Marrakech in Morocco, Kairouan in Tunisia and Tempe in the US. But officials there also wanted a UK connection.

Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye
This Hay bookshop was once owned by its self-proclaimed 'king'

Villages, towns and cities from across the UK were invited to nominate themselves online to hook up with the city.

And after beating off 52 other places, Hay-on-Wye, a couple of miles from the English border, was chosen.

The second hand book town with its own self-proclaimed "king" was selected after heated debate between twinning officials.

But what exactly swung it for Hay?

Both locations share a love of literature and the written word - Hay is famed for its book festival each May and its 41 book shops. Timbuktu boasts a large collection of medieval manuscripts.

In fact, Timbuktu is classed as a Unesco World Heritage Site and ancient seat of learning.

The population of Timbuktu is 35,000 compared with 2,000 in Hay.

But despite Hay's modest population it has an annual visitor total of 500,000. Timbultu attracts around 10,000 visitors.

We have sand, Hay has mud and trees and it's cold
Boubacar Toure, Timbuktu's twinning association president

Both countries have more than one language - English and Welsh in Hay, with French being the main language of Timbuktu. However, three other languages are also spoken there.

Both towns are situated on banks of rivers - the Wye in Hay and the Niger in Mali.

Hay was once famously proclaimed a "kingdom" in 1977 by local book shop owner Richard Booth, who declared himself king and made his horse prime minister in a stunt which helped boost tourism.

Hay resident Anne Brichto was behind the idea of nominating Hay to twin with Timbuktu.

"It all started after I saw a newspaper article saying Timbuktu wanted a town in Britain to twin with," she said.

"It was because a survey showed nearly half of the people in Britain thought Timbuktu was a mythical place.

Mutual love

"Hay was supported in its bid by the Welsh Assembly Government and local townspeople and businesses."

In January, she went with two others to meet the people in Timbuktu and the bond was formed which has culminated in the twinning ceremony taking place at 1830 BST on Thursday.

So why was Hay chosen?

"Mostly it was because of our mutual love of literature," explained Ms Brichto.

Boubacar Toure, president of Timbuktu's twinning association, agreed.

"Hay has a love of literature and has so many traditions," he added. "We share many of those traditions."

But he admits while there are some similarities, there are also major differences between the two towns.

"We have sand, Hay has mud and trees and it's cold," he said.

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