There are times when the charity shop tourist seeks out the most picturesque, the quaintest, the cutest place to visit; the most historically enthralling, the most scenic arrival. But the professional knows that there are also times when it is just as worthwhile to seek out the less glamorous locations; those forgotten by the brochures, the dusty, windswept high streets, the endless 1960s architectural horror, those spots where describing the local character as colourful is definitely a euphemism rather than a selling point. We’ve had plenty of success on the unloved precincts of, for instance, Waltham Cross, Newton Abbot, Letchworth or Kidderminster; we even had fun in Basildon. The little we knew about Holyhead before arriving was nothing to do with its architecture or general quaintness levels – probably about the same as you do, that Holyhead is a port. That’s about it – wasn’t sure if it was going to be quaint harbour town like Whitstable, or bleak industrial seaside town like, say, Sheerness in Kent.
The approach to Holyhead (or Caergybi if you like) is not particularly inspiring; or at least it wasn’t on the grey, drizzly day we arrived. This followed the obligatory drive through Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (disappointingly this turns out to be a fake name invented as a Victorian publicity stunt; the village is likewise a bit on the disappointing side) and a very worthwhile stop for excellent chips on the beach at Rhosneigr. From there, you take either the traditional post road, the A5; or the newer (2001) A55, the Anglesey extension of the North Wales coast road that’s such fine to drive on the mainland. I don’t know if it was the weather, or the fairly featureless expanse of Anglesey, but we didn’t leave with any misgivings – the island seems a particularly dull place. Holyhead actually isn’t on the island of Anglesey at all: the two main roads and the railway cross over on or parallel to the Cobb causeway onto Holy Island.
If the approach to the town doesn’t instill much confidence, the town itself won’t let you down on that front. First, the positives though. One of my most frequent grumbles in life is ticket machines in car parks. If I were to buy a coke or a bar of chocolate from a vending machine, I’d be extremely cross if it decided not to give me any change – probably to the point of the traditional tilt, shake and kick. But in a council-run car park it’s apparently OK to just not give change as standard. Here Holyhead made me happy – not only did the machine in the Hill Street car park issue my ticket for free, but it kept giving me change well beyond what I put in. This I like.
Holyhead probably has plenty to sea if you’re a boat-y type. It has an epic breakwater and marina, and therefore some sort of Irish Sea-front promenade. But really, the town’s dominated by its massive container/ferry port (proud of its “first-class stevedoring skills”), its very prominent railway line and station, and a series of drab little shopping streets on the side of a hill. The other positive is that there is a fair smattering of charity shops of various types here. It has to be said that the majority of these are only half-removed from a church hall jumble sale in style and layout (there’s even a charity shop dedicated to Caergybi Parish Church). On balance, I think that’s probably a good thing – it feels more like a rummage for a bargain than the pristine shopping experience you’d get in say, Oxfam; but the bargains were few and far between, so you have to be in a certain sort of dedicated mood to get the most out of this sort of shop. The pinnacle of these was the massive A Team shop – I remain unsure if it’s a Dwight Schulz benefit or something else, but it was a huge rabbit run of rails, shelves and stacks. Not easy to navigate, and imbued with a certain sort of odour, but worth a look.
The other shops fit somewhere in between normal shop and jumble sale: you’ll find Tenovus, RSPCA, Gwynedd Hospice At Home, and a massive YMCA. Our bargains on the day were limited to some melamine storage to go in the caravan (now sadly departed ), which matched what we had already. Other than this, the run-down feel of the town centre pervaded the mood even of the normally chirpy charity shop sector on a grey summer afternoon. Google Maps suggests a shop for African Orphans, but locates it firmly within a Chinese takeaway, so we didn’t see anything
Run down is the only expression, really. As always, perhaps we missed the scenic delights of Holyhead; we didn’t visit the marina or walk on the wacky bendy bridge, for instance. But some things you can’t patch up with a strategic bit of public art. Holyhead is stuck right on the edge of the country, and the town centre is sufficiently bleak to match it. The hilly geography of the town centre and its undoubted history mean that Holyhead was probably once both interesting and attractive – today it’s neither of those things, and most will have little motivation to drive past the massive warehouse retail outlets on the edge of town. The same problem is found in so, so many towns we visit (cf. everything within a ten-mile radius of Merry Hill): what’s the attraction of the town centre? More thought required.
Find: Holyhead @ Google Maps
Get there: all the options: trains and roads come here, as does the ferry from Dublin or Dun Laoghaire.
Consume with: if you do want to hang around, you’ll find a few locally coffee shops and caffs – we didn’t stay long enough to check them out.
Visit: how about Ireland?
Overall rating: two melon ballers