Knutsford

Marble Arch, Knutsford, by M Stevens and A Moffat. Pic used under Creative Commons, click pic for link.

Marble Arch, Knutsford, by M Stevens and A Moffat. Pic used under Creative Commons, click pic for link.

I have a problem with my head – it latches on to things, associates it with other things, then, typically, sings it back. Today’s subject is a case in point. As a geographer, My favourite bit of listening to the radio is the traffic reports. I am well aware that that makes me somewhat odd, but that’s that. I harbour ambitions of visiting the places that come up regularly. I’ve bagged the Woodhead and Snake Passes; I’m still holding out for Scotch Corner and Sandbach. Our most recent trip up country (to the Lakes – of which no doubt more to come) gave us a chance for a stop just off the M6 at a place that comes up time and again for Sally Traffic. And here’s where my inner logical clunks take over: I was unbelievably pleased with myself when we passed the Welcome To Knutsford sign. Why? Well, I’d just crossed Knutsford City Limits, like Ike and and Tina before me.

It turns out (rather worryingly) that I’m not the first to make this connection; some chap called Robert Williams got there first. I’ll let him off. I’m not sure of his connection – he’s a Stoke man which is in the next county. Knutsford is very much leather-clad and clutch-bag-toting WAG country: a swathe of footballers find themselves listed under Wikipedia’s notable people entry. The town is very much older than that though – we were following in the footsteps of none other than King Canute (as in Canute’s Ford), and the towns’ most famous resident, Elizabeth Gaskell. Mrs Gaskell’s social commentaries and observations of poverty seem somewhat out of place in today’s Knutsford. Like it’s footballer-friendly near neighbour Alderley Edge, this is very much the upmarket side of Cheshire; there’s a carefully tucked-away Aldi but other than that, if you’re earning below a certain threshold, Knutsford is probably not the place for you.

Even the charity shops are certainly of the upmarket persuasion. Happily there’s several, and it’s a very pleasant spot for a wander around while you visit them. There’s a certain rough-edged architectural feel to the town, with dark red bricks and lived-in looking buildings in the town centre, for all its smartness. I’d hazard a guess at this having been a working town, once upon a while – it doesn’t have the endless miles of terraces that you find in the Lancashire mill towns, but the buildings remind me of canal towns like Stourport and Ellesmere. There’s no canal here, sadly, not even a decent river – what looks like a river valley behind the shops on King Street is in reality The Moor, a small wetland nature reserve. King Street itself is home to several of the town’s charity shops. Sue Ryder, British Red Cross and Cancer Research line up almost three-in-a-row; nothing for this shopper on this visit, but a certain mother in law walked away very heavy with bags. Further up the street is perhaps the pick of the bunch – a mid-sized Age UK shop, but filled with interesting buckets and baskets of stuff. Where the other shops in town trade very heavily on clothes, this one is the bric a brac heaven.

You can squeeze up through a number of alleyways and narrow streets to the parallel Princess Street. These include the recently tarted up Regent Street, full of clean pavements and swanky boutiques. On Princess Street itself is an Oxfam Bookshop, and that will lead you to a sort of open end to the street, Canute Place bordering on Tatton Street. Here you’ll find the Children’s Adventure Farm Trust and Barnardos. There’s a pretty haul of charity shops that will definitely bear repeat visits here, and it’s excellently situated for a coffee stop if you’re heading north. Knutsford is an attractive town with some pretty decent charity shops. I’d say that meets the remit.

Find: Knutsford @ Google Maps
Get there: A very handy rail connection right into town, on the Chester-Northwich-Manchester route.
Consume with: We didn’t really stop long enough to scope this out and would welcome suggestions, both for coffee stops and for lunch. There’s a costa, I know that much.
Visit: For those of a stately home persuasion, you can’t go wrong with the massive Tatton Park estate. Others might be interested in the Gaskell connections with Brook Street Chapel, if Unitarianism is your bag.
Overall rating: four pairs of leather trousers

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Filed under 4/5, Cheshire

Tavistock

Tavy Toy Town by Jamie Henderson. Image used under Creative Commons; click pic for link

Tavy Toy Town by Jamie Henderson. Image used under Creative Commons; click pic for link

There are some towns which are just lovely, and Tavistock’s one of them. It’s found secluded in the Tavy valley, nestled amongst foliage at the foot of the Dartmoor hills – just a short drive from Plymouth, but a world away in character. The town centre is chock full of local granite buildings, many of them named after the Russell family, Earls of Bedford and lords of the manor, who held great sway in this stannary town from Henry VIII onwards. The towns roots run much deeper than that though – today’s pannier market was charted in 1105, and the ruined abbey goes back to 961; but there’s plenty of evidence of habitation way before recorded history. It isn’t just an olde town though – Tavistock’s history continues through its favourite son, Francis Drake, a wide range of mineral mines, even a canal and two railways – although none of these are functioning today. These last do make for some highly attractive features though – you can walk the canal for several miles through this part of the UNESCO world heritage site. In fact, any direction you wish to strike out from the town you’ll find something rather beautiful.

So – plenty of history and plenty of scenery. But that does not make a charity shop tourist destination in itself, does it? Happily, Tavistock is just as good here. The outermost shop here is Children’s Hospice South West, on West Street, on the corner of Russell Street (that name again…). A large shop this, with some huge linguaphone sets and mad Pyrex dishes causing certain individuals trouble here. On the same stretch is Sue Ryder, opposite Brown’s Hotel, which served us very well for a coffee stop.

Further down there are two Oxfams, an ordinary one and an Oxfam Bookshop with a collection of beautifully illustrated children’s books. Thankfully, at this stage on our holiday we had convinced ourselves that when we returned to civilisation we were going to go and live on a boat, which rather limited our purchases (and somewhat relieved our bank accounts). I’m not even joking; if Diglis marina weren’t so overlooked, we might well have been living afloat by now. St Luke’s Hospice is large and bright and well-stocked; Woodside Animal Hospice is almost its exact opposite, dingy, cramped and crowded, and filled with all sorts of amazing gubbins you had no idea you needed.

We found several secondhand-by-commission shops in this part of the world – Handmedowns takes a small cut on any children’s clothing you want to sell on, which doesn’t seem a bad idea (although I’d a bit rather donate to the charity shop). That just leaves us with MacMillan, tucked away up a little shopping alley called Paddon’s Row, surrounded by hifi shops, art shops, vintage clothes shops and the like. In fact there’s plenty of this sort of shop scattered through the town. A few chains aside, the majority of shops here are independent concerns, some of a highly excellent nature – the cheese shop and health food shop in the market come very much recommended. The market itself is, to be honest, a bit pricey for the likes of me; but again it’s mostly individuals selling their own crafts and produce, and there’s a very lovely atmosphere indeed.

I feel I’ve probably failed to sum up Tavistock’s charm. We spent a whole day here, which is very rare for us, not just pacing the charity shops but exploring the alleyways, browsing the market, walking along the river and canalside through the very charming Meadowlands Park. We certainly have plans to return and will be walking the canal route, as well as lunching in the Tavistock Inn on Brook Street, home of pretty much the biggest pub grub portions ever, and a lovely pub to boot. If you’re ever in Devon, try and make a detour, this is my advice.

Find: Tavistock @ Google Maps
Get there: no railway connections anymore (as yet) – you’ll be after the A386 halfway between Okehampton and Plymouth.
Consume with: definitely lunch at the Tavistock, though bear in mind you’ll need that riverside walk afterwards.
Visit: plenty to go to, but to be honest our loveliest time was spent walking the canal and riverside paths in the park, trying out the outdoor gym equipment and chasing ducks.
Overall rating: five mad pyrex dishes

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Filed under 5/5, Devon

Barmouth

Barmouth Bridge, by Eifion. Picture used under Creative Commons licence, click pic for link to photo

Barmouth Bridge, by Eifion. Picture used under Creative Commons licence, click pic for link to photo

Cue the standard blogger apologies for delays in posting – I have all sorts of reasons/excuses that I shan’t bore you with. One of them at least was a short break in North Wales (our first proper YHA break which was, let’s say, an interesting experience), and here we are. I don’t really know what normal people do on holiday. In our heads, we pack waterproofs and walking boots and stay at the foot of Snowdon, and spend all our time driving miles and miles through the awesome countryside between tiddly towns, visiting their charity shops. It’s not a bad lot, and it’s definitely something of a treat these days – once upon a time, in car ownership days, this was our weekends: it was no big to drive 100 miles in a day visiting our favourite towns. Nowadays, we’re all eco and that, and getting rid of the car has been a big help in saving us money, precisely for that reason. 

But, that means that a holiday spent roving the towns of a fresh part of the country is a grand treat, and we definitely made as much of it as possible this time round, revisting Porthmadog and Beaumaris as well as a number of other places that we visited last time we were in Snowdonia. One of these, perhaps the furthest flung, was Barmouth. According to Wikipedia, Barmouth is geographically one of the closest seaside resorts to the West Midlands “and a large proportion of its tourist visitors, as well as its permanent residents, are from Wolverhampton, Birmingham, Dudley and other parts of the Black Country, and Telford, Shropshire.” As a geographer that makes me twitch – closest is not as straightforward a term as you might like it to be. If we’re talking crows a-flying (82 miles) or caravans a-towing (109 miles), Barmouth is pretty much the first big patch of wet that your average yam yam will hit if he heads due West. You’ll see what I mean though: Weston-super-Mare is further as the crow flies (89 miles) but closer on the road (104 miles).

Academic arguments aside, there was certainly a preponderance of Midlands accents in Barmouth, although not in quite the density of Scousers in Llandudno. There’s plenty to attract them for their hols from the big city though, not least the wonderful journey to get there. A visitor by rail will get used to the rolling Welsh names of the stations they pass: Caersws, Machynlleth, Llwyngwril, Morfa Mawddach, then Barmouth; the train ride through the Dovey valley and along the Cardigan Bay coast has got to rank as one of the finest in these isles. A visitor on the roads can take their pick of equally lovely routes: the most direct has its fair share of Welsh as the driver passes through Llanfair Caereinion, Dinas Mawddwy and Dolgellau, before following the Mawddach estuary through the cliffs to Barmouth, loomed over by Cadair Idris on the southern banks. Beware the caravaner after Dinas Mawddwy mind – I’ve been there myself, pedal to the metal in second gear, attempting to coax an old Escort into dragging a little ‘van up the Ochr y Bwlch.

When you get to Barmouth, most will be heading for the extensive beach. Not us, of course. You can park in town and have a wander. There’s a fair selection of kiss-me-quick hat shops and the like, but actually there’s a wider range of boutique than most equivalent seaside resorts, including actual ethnic restaurants beside chippies and pubs, and some vast, crowded antiques shops. This time, we came away with a pair of school tins for catering-sized baking, and at a steal; but not all goodies are so reasonable. The charity shops are, in fact, not all that spectacular. Save The Children is fine but fairly uninspiring; close by, Tenovus is the same. Freshfields is probably the pick of the bunch – maps make this man happy, but it’s more of an emporium feel than some of today’s bland chain stores.

Charity shop-wise, Barmouth doesn’t score highly. There’s nothing here to mark it out in distinction to any other seaside town, or in fact anywhere else. The charity shops are fine, neither good nor bad, just un-memorable. Tourism-wise, Barmouth pretty much has the lot: mountains, seaside, boat trips, miniature railways, cliffs, seagulls, chips on the harbour, ice cream. Wordsworth, that incurable romantic, felt the same: “With a fine sea view in front, the mountains behind, the glorious estuary running eight miles inland, and Cadair Idris within compass of a day’s walk, Barmouth can always hold its own against any rival.” That’s all I ask for, too.

Find: Barmouth @ Google Maps
Get there: I’d recommend coming on the train: a wonderful route in with the station bang in the middle of town.
Consume with: we’ve ended up eating chips on the harbour, under the shadow of the viaduct, both times we’ve been here now. Can’t go wrong, really.
Visit: Barmouth’s shipbuilding history heads back a couple of hundred years, but Barmouth has been a port for way longer than that even. Plenty of heritage-y visitor things: try Ty Gwyn, Round House and Lifeboat Museum.
Overall rating: three sheep mugs

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Filed under 3/5, Gwynedd

Tewkesbury

Summer in Tewkesbury, by Jayt74. Image used under creative commons, click pic for link.

Summer in Tewkesbury, by Jayt74. Image used under creative commons, click pic for link.

Things you might associate with Tewkesbury: floods; mustard; abbey; battle. For a fairly modest market town in Gloucestershire, Tewkesbury has a fair volume of history and contribution to society behind it. Floods first – perhaps more than anything, these define Tewkesbury in contemporary popular imagination. 2007 was only the most recent drama to affect the town – see here for a full breakdown of flooding in the Severn catchment – and not the first time the town has been completely cut off. The dramatic pictures on the TV revealed a low-lying town at the confluence of two of the biggest rivers in the country (the Severn and Avon), and Tewkesbury is essentially built on the wide meadows of the Severn plain, making it a prime spot for a bit of flood water. It’s a shame, because it’s a lovely town, but like Worcester and other towns on major rivers, there’s a risk to living here (and no doubt a significant chunk of insurance premium).

But beyond the obvious, Tewkesbury is home to a whole pile of Englishness. Tewkesbury Mustard combines the heat of mustard with the heat of horseradish. Genius! Tewkesbury Abbey is the third largest church that’s not a cathedral in the country; the Battle of Tewkesbury was one of the decisive battles of the Wars of the Roses (York won, much to my dad’s chagrin), and  Edward IV became the boss. (not The Boss, just the boss). Not just a market town, it’s a historic (sadly now historic only, and no longer operative) flour milling town, and the relics of this industry are clearly seen along the banks of the Avon, just off the High Street. It’s a delight too for historians of vernacular architecture – we met my folks there for the day and were regailed with all sorts of information about jettying and timber-framing, which hopefully didn’t push any other, more useful, information out of my brain. It’s also a pretty good charity shop destination.

Parking is available in several spots around town – next to the Saturday market is handy; so is St Mary’s Lane, overlooking the Avon. Be careful when you choose to go: hit Tewkesbury on Medieval Festival day and you’ll be hard-pressed to get a spot. Tewkesbury’s array of charity shops is strung along the High Street, between the Cross and the shopping arcade at the upper end. Don’t just stick to this stretch if you want to fulfil the Tourism part of our brief: some of the most scenic parts of Tewkesbury are on Church Street, including the Old Baptist Chapel, the Abbey itself, and ancient pubs like the Berkeley Arms and Royal Hop Pole (now a Wetherspoons hotel, but mentioned in the Pickwick Papers). At the bottom of the High Street you’ll find the slightly random Roses Charity Shop in aid of the town’s theatre and opened by Gervase Phinn, don’tyouknow; and close by, the Bookworm shop (I have to be very selective about going into charity bookshops like this as I’m quite prone to temptation).

Further along we have British Hearth Foundation, Cancer Research, AgeUKTenovus and Blue Cross (always proud of its medieval-themed displays), then a string of Guideposts Trust, St Richard’s Hospice and the Salvation Army. I wouldn’t say that any of these were remarkable shops, as such; but again none are poor or weird (always a possibility), and as a rule are fairly large. Happy hunting grounds, really, and a distraction from the biggest attraction Tewkesbury has (for me at least): Cornell Books, with its ramshackle side entrance and its boxes, and boxes, and boxes of old maps: Bartholomew, vintage OS and many more besides, many of them for a solitary pound. I could genuinely spend a day in there, but I am very careful.

I love Tewkesbury, actually. It warrants a whole day of exploring the alleys and ginnels, the antique markets and tea shoppes, the river walks and – of course – the charity shops.

Find: Tewkesbury @ Google Maps
Get there: the station is Ashchurch For Tewkesbury, on the mainline from Brum to the South West, but it’s a bus-ride for anyone who doesn’t want a hike.
Consume with: plenty of choice in terms of hearty pub food or cafe culture; my experience can recommend cheap-and-cheerful pub grub at the Berkeley, or coffee and cake at Caffe Ricci.
Visit: plenty to look at too, the obvious choice being the magnificent abbey.
Overall rating: four slotted spoons

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Filed under 4/5, Gloucestershire

Birmingham

As a wannabe historian, I’m wary of making pre-judgments of people, places or events based on paltry, secondhand information. It wasn’t always thus: time was that I was quick to judge places that I’d never been, in particular, and for the sake of winding up the (later-to-be) wife, Birmingham came in for quite a bit of derision. It’s a city of ring roads and concrete, I argued, like a town planner in the 1960′s tripped over and spilled all his tools onto a relief map. It’s all sinister canals and derelict factories, mid-table football teams and easily-ridiculed accents.

As it turns out, since moving to the vicinity, I’m quite a fan of sinister canals and derelict factories and I’m quite enjoying the accent. I draw the line at Aston Villa mind. I live in the Black Country, it should be noted – on a local scale, there’s plenty of rivalry there. But when it’s the Midlands against one of the other regions, those from the conurbation tend to be pretty proud of their big city. Not proud like the self-aggrandising Liverpool, and not the parka and monkey legs swagger of Manchester; Brum has always been strong on the self-deprecatory humour and it means that despite being the second city of the nation Birmingham is more often a figure of fun than a serious contender for a global city.

It’s a pity. I, like Telly Savalas, have become a big fan. Like him I can appreciate the Aston Expressway and New Street station of course, but to be honest they’re as much as most people know – or want to know – about the city. If you’ve never taken the time to get to know the city, you may well associate Birmingham with mind-numbing delays through Spaghetti Junction, on the M6 to anywhere else. Or you might have tried to negotiate the equally epic M5/M6 junction in Walsall, or got lost around the ring road. Birmingham is Motor City UK for sure: its wide roads matching the vast car factories such as the now-departed Longbridge plant; not, perhaps, the most elegant city to approach. That’s true by rail as well – entering New Street Station (even/especially after the recent renovations) is an ennervating experience as you descend into black tunnels, all watched over by brutalism’s cheerless eye.

That’s Birmingham – centre of the Midlands, on the middle of your journey to somewhere else. But Birmingham’s joys are just different to those of other cities, not less. Wander a while in the Jewellery Quarter if its gas street lights and old-fashioned workshops you’re after. Explore the canals which radiate in all directions from the hub beneath Broad Street – you’ll find waterside living and pavement restaurants every bit as pleasant as anything London can offer. Bit of culture? Try the (free) museum, the festivals in Moseley, the coffee and fine dining in the Colmore Row area, the balti triangle in Sparkbrook, join a revolution in Handsworth. Take your pick of monumentalist Victorian architecture, of Brutalism, of Georgian, of Tolkein-ian or of Jacobean. For as long as it’s been a city, Birmingham has been a centre of Enlightenment and industry, radicalism and controversy. It’s shaped in the popular mind by the bulldozed concrete behemoths of the city centre and the Birmingham Six, but in reality it’s more diverse and more interesting than you could hope to discover.

In fact, as I understand it, Birmingham has not only become a foodie destination but a shoppers one also. The Bullring is no longer the concrete hulk where a young Godber fell in love over jars of pickled onions; it’s high-end and fancy. It’s not to everyone’s taste mind – Birmingham’s alt.culture finds itself increasingly marginalised into the Oasis centre, for example, while Reddington’s Rare Records and Swordfish end up having to relocate – but if you like carrying giant paper bags with string handles, you’ll probably do well here. One area for improvement is charity shops. Historically there’s always been a handful, but more recently I could have had no justification to write about Brum at all. That was until the arrival of two British Heart Foundation stores in close proximity to one another. The first is a large, well-stocked and – unusually for BHF – they seem to have got the floorspace designers in so there’s far fewer “scuse me”s needed to get around the shop. The second shop is the really handy one. It’s huge for a start – possibly the biggest charity shop I’ve ever been in, occupying the site of the former Virgin Records store. And it’s full to the brim with every kind of homeware, from sofas to digital radios, fridges to rugs, bookshelves to spin dryers.

Birmingham is, sadly, not much of a charity shop destination. The suburbs are another matter, but the town centre is a bit too swish these days. These two BHF shops though are great and surprisingly well worth an investigation – much like Brum itself.

Find: Birmingham @ Google Maps
Get there: easy by any means – try out the new New Street station if you dare, but I prefer Moor Street.
Consume with: a vast range here, depending on your taste or budget, running from the awesome 99p baguette shops, to meat-heavy Brazilian grill Rodizio Rico, to the Balti Triangle, to Purnell’s, to the Flapper on the canal.
Visit: free museums? The centre of Britain’s waterway network? Bit of art at the MAC? Bit of animal at Cannon Hill Park?
Overall rating: three washing machines

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Filed under 3/5, West Midlands

Moreton-in-Marsh

A Thought for Sunday from John Ruskin, by UGArdener, used under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

A Thought for Sunday from John Ruskin, by UGArdener, used under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

I’ve been reading about Roman roads recently, for no particular reason other than there’s one marked on the map near home. Apparently there’s about a bazillion, going everywhere – if there’s a long, straight stretch of road near you (and you live south of the Union Canal), chances are it was first put there by the Romans, by dint of mad engineering skills, legions of grunts to do the work, and a sheer bloody-mindedness which led them to insist almost exclusive on straight marching routes, hills be damned. It’s given me some respect for the soldier of the day – to march across the country on a regular basis is no mean feat – and renewed my lack of respect for my own fitness by comparison.

One of the best known of the roads is the Fosse Way, which cuts across country from Lincoln (Lindum Colonia) to Exeter (Isca Dumnoniorum). There’s a turn at Ilchester (Lindinis), but between there and Lincoln the road is never more than 6 miles from a perfectly straight line. Considering that it traverses the Mendips and the entire length of the Cotswolds, that’s not bad going. Anyway, Moreton is found on that Fosse Way, in a direct line from Cirencester and Stow on the Wold to Leamington Spa and Leicester, and the long high street reflects that. It’s not a large town, Moreton; it wasn’t really a settlement area (so far as anyone knows) in the Roman times, and was just a stopping point for many years. It grew into a proper town about 800 years ago as a coaching stop, and got a market – it’s now a coach stop tour (£15 for a return to the Tuesday market from Thomas Cook in Stourbridge), its long high street ideal for some pootling, or apparently a cream tea – there are a hundred and one tea shoppes here.

Time was, I’d have been able to get a train here directly. Thanks to *cough* the rationalisation of the last few decades, the journey is far less convenient (and probably less stylish than boarding the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway in my bowler hat and spats); the station remains though, and will take you to Oxford or Worcester on the Cotswold Line. The last time we were here, it was at the tail end of a thoroughly enjoyable couple of days over Spring half-term; we called into Moreton as one of a number of stops on the way home. There was one difference to our previous visit: a pop-up mixed charity shop has now disappeared (it seemed to be sending it’s proceeds towards both Help For Heroes and the Bob Champion Trust), and the permanent charity shops are the only ones that remain.

The remaining shops are pretty good, happily. The largest is undoubtedly Sue Ryder Care, a double shop with a variety of oddments – it’s a particularly esoteric assortment given the somewhat clean-cut and anodyne nature of Sue Ryder shops generally. I tend to prefer a dark hole of a charity shop, a ramshackle, junk-shop feel, to the cleaner, modern, lighter shops; but this is a fine exception. Light and airy, yet full of random nonsense, perfect.

The other charity shops (including MindAgeUK and Break) reflect Moreton’s well-heeled population and bucolic setting – lots of nice things, lots worth a poke at. With just the four charity shops, Moreton is unlikely to detain the CSTourist for too long, unless you happen to get lost in the endless, wonderful maze of the Toy Shop, or stay for a cream tea. But it’s definitely worth a pass through, and there’s so many chocolate-box towns with a few places worth visiting around here, that you can easily make a day trip out of it.

Find: Moreton-in-Marsh @ Google Maps
Get there: there’s a dead convenient railway station at the end of the high street, with signs in Japanese for the benefit of the many visitors. Handy.
Consume with: for the most traditional of cream teas, Tilly’s looks like the place to be.
Visit: you could go and have a nosy at Dorn Roman village nearby (doesn’t look like there’s a lot to see).
Overall rating: three hipflasks

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Filed under 3/5, Gloucestershire

Marlborough

Old Appleby's Yard in Marlborough, Wiltshire, by Anguskirk. Photo used under Creative Commons, click pic for link.

Old Appleby’s Yard in Marlborough, Wiltshire, by Anguskirk. Photo used under Creative Commons, click pic for link.

On these, shores, the word Marlborough is redolent with history. John Churchill, created first duke of Marlborough after a diplomatic switch of allegiance to William of Orange, was one of the foremost, and the most successful, of military commanders at the time of the Restoration/Glorious Revolution (for more info, see Neal Stephenson’s sprawling Baroque Cycle, in which Churchill features regularly). Visiting the town today, you’ll find an attractive medium-sized country town, with an apparently famously wide high street – nice, but not the sort of grand gesture you’d expect for such a hero. Never mind though – Churchill had to console himself with Blenheim Palace, which might have helped. Actually, Marlborough’s refined bustle harks back to a lengthy history – the town’s name allegedly comes from Merlin’s Barrow, the bearded wizard reputedly being buried in the grounds of the College. Certainly there are archaeological remains from older than 2000BC, progressing through iron age buckets and Roman coins (at Cunetio, two miles east) and a Norman castle and mint, and notables such as William the Conqueror (hunted here), King John (married here), King Henry III (held parliament here), Thomas Wolsey (ordained here) and William Golding (raised here), all passed through.

There’s a nice, quick run-through of a lot of things you forgot from school there. No doubt they would disapprove at the town’s big educational establishment, Marlborough College, site of the aforementioned Barrow. Marlborough today is actually a rather pleasant town, with plenty of quaint olde worlde buildings – you wouldn’t, perhaps, get a sense of the overbearing weight of history compared to some other towns who ham it up more; Marlborough is a bit too select to flaunt itself in such ways. You’ll notice that from the shops in the wide high street (after you’ve spent the most stressful half-hour of your life trying to park): plenty of these are just that cut above the normal high street fare (Phase 8, Joules, White Stuff, that sort of thing).

That bodes well for the charity shops though, of which there are several. It’s tricky to pick the best here, there are several contenders, all based around the high street. The sort-of exception is the always excellent Helen & Douglas House Hospice, which is slightly up the hill on Kingsbury Street, opposite the artfully tatty Cat’s Whiskers. It yielded two t-shirts for me, and cheerfully so: it turns out that I’m a size smaller than I used to be. Must be all that car-less commuting, I heartily recommend it.

A new discovery on me that morning, the Prospect House Hospice in Marlborough turns out to much less odd-smelling, and a little cheaper than its Hungerford counterpart (although not that much cheaper). It’s a big old shop, with a large upstairs full of interesting bread bins and vast racks of antique books. On the same stretch is a smaller, more typical Blue Cross shop – the wife got a mustard handbag here, as mustard is absolutely in, in this household. On the opposite side of the high street is a well-stocked Oxfam Bookshop (with two (two!) boxes of maps) and a charming RSPCA shop which winds all the way back into the building, into snugs and down steps. There’s huge displays of trinketry, and I even picked up a DVD of Blood Simple, which I’ve had an eye peeled for for ages.

If we had a longer day, Marlborough would make a great stop for some proper exploration. There’s all sorts of hills and side-alleys leading off the main street, and the river Kennet which flows through is quite charming. The sheer volume of history makes it worth a trip if you’re into that sort of thing – interesting for me, as I tend to write off Wiltshire as being bucolic to the point of empty. Marlborough was certainly worth a stop though, and might find itself a convenient break point now my family members have moved. No doubt we’ll be back, if only for a pub lunch (of which many options).

Find: Marlborough @ Google Maps
Get there: you’ll have to get there from Pewsey or Swindon if you’re coming by train, but there’s plenty of buses no doubt.
Consume with: there were many, many options for a pub lunch along the high street. We plumped for the Royal Oak, a Greene King pub, but there’s also the Castle & Ball, the Green Dragon and the Bear. If you’re after something a bit littler, how about the Mustard Seed bookshop and cafe sat right over the river.
Visit: Jazz festival, food festival, but my pick would be the intriguing Big & Little Mop Fair. No idea.
Overall rating: three bags in mustard

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Filed under 3/5, Wiltshire