Category Archives: Berkshire

Hungerford

Hungerford swing bridge, by lovestruck. Used under Creative Commons, click pic for link.

Hungerford swing bridge, by lovestruck. Used under Creative Commons, click pic for link.

Despite having a major motorway and a mainline service to London running through it, this part of Berkshire is absolutely rural. It’s difficult to imagine that this is a home county, butting right up against London on its eastern front, home to Slough, Staines, and the sprawling Thames Valley zone of monotonous offices and enterprise parks. Instead, Hungerford is approaching over rolling downs and areas of natural beauty, punctuated by the river Dun and the Kennet and Avon Canal on its way across the country. Coming from the south, we took a turning that wasn’t exactly the one we intended to take, and the result was an idyllic drive through the North Hampshire and West Berkshire Downs, over Walbury Hill and past the source of the River Test, descending to Hungerford Common and entering the town alongside the railway.

The day was cold. A few brief days of spring-like weather preceding this visit, we had high hopes for a pleasant cross-country run with a few town stops. Pleasant it was, but hardly balmy. The wind barrels down the high street, cutting through any layers you care to wear, and soon enough there’s some April snow. It’s a shame, because on a more clement day there’d be plenty of pleasant places to wander off the beaten track – footpaths off the street direct you to the church of St Lawrence, and following the high street to its end brings you to a very scenic river. Best of all of course is the canal, a very pretty spot underneath the high street, with bridged shops and houses on the road above, and an assortment of unusually-hued ducks. It was a bit chilly for a proper explore, but there would be ample gongoozling opportunities here.

In terms of shopping, this is an antiques town (cf. Leominster, for example). There are hoards of actual antique shops, emporia and arcades in this tiny town, and several of those ubiquitous vintage style fake-antique shops, filled with rescued wooden crates and limewashed furniture. The collector could wile away some serious time here, and would (of course) be well advised to give the charity shops a once over for bargains. For the wife and I, we have to steer ourselves away from such expensive temptations and stick to the three charity shops on the high street.

If you are looking for a bargain, however, Prospect Hospice might not be the place to start. Charity shop it is (complete with odd smell, over-familiar assistant and determined shoppers), but what looks like a bucket of bric a brac turns out to be a basket of tiny doorknobs. Nothing special, but priced at more than new retail value. The same is probably not true of some wellies in the back room. A quick Google suggests that a brand new pair of Aigle wellies will probably set you back around £100; £60 for a secondhand pair is quite a reduction then, I suppose, but yowch, that’s some expensive rubber boots.

The other charity shops are better – British Red Cross is a large shop with a good selection of all sorts; and Blue Cross is located slightly confusingly over a little bridge coming off the main bridge (not down the path as the sign seems to suggest). This is also a busy, full shop with a selection of all sorts of goodies. Best of all, it’s located conveniently for the Tutti-pole Tea Shoppe directly below. This is a tea shop of the Old School. You’ll be greeted by a waitress in a pastel green blouse and ankle length floral skirt, you’ll be brought tea and plenty of it, sturdy cakes (we had a wonderful simnel) and be surrounded by olde timey pictures of the town. An experience for certain.

If you have an antiquey inclination, Hungerford is certainly worth the stop. If you don’t, it’s worth the drive to get there – just take the smallest road you can find on the map and it’s certain to be beautiful. The charity shops don’t add up to much, to be honest, but it’s a charming little town regardless and a pleasant visit.

Find: Hungerford @ Google Maps
Get there: one of the best connected little towns you could hope for – main line to Reading or Swindon through the town, and the M4 just a couple of miles.
Consume with: definitely stop at the Tutti-pole.
Visit: it it was me, I’d hike the canal to Newbury some 9 miles hence; otherwise perhaps a drink at the Bear Inn, where William of Orange was offered the crown of England?
Overall rating: three overpriced pairs of wellies

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Filed under 3/5, Berkshire

Newbury

 

Newbury Lock, by Michael Keen, used under Creative Commons. Click pic for link to photostream.

Newbury Lock, by Michael Keen, used under Creative Commons. Click pic for link to photostream.

 

Newbury is somewhere you don’t really visit on purpose, just as you don’t, say, call a utility company on purpose: you call because you have to, and the same would appear true of Newbury. My experiences of Newbury mostly involve circumnavigating it on the controversial bypass, looking out of the car window at Watership Down, which is nearby, and some implanted grain of knowledge that Vodafone is based there: it’s probably an office town. However, as I find far too often, my uninformed pre-suppositions are entirely wrong: Newbury is actually pretty charming.

We ended up in Newbury quite by accident: after a holiday in Cornwall, the increasingly-less-reliable car broke down at Chieveley services, and we ended up staying in the Travelodge there. The car had been towed to a garage in Newbury, so we were left with a day to wander the city streets while some expensive tinkering was going on in the fuel tank. It turned out to be a happy accident. The day was sunny and an October kind of warm, and the smartened-up wharfsides of the Kennet & Avon canal provide a very pleasant meander into the town centre, emerging by a large Costa onto Bridge Street. There’s pubs and restaurants (and yes, a charity shop) backing onto the canal on the other side. The bridge itself, like a miniature Bridge of Sighs, is the central point of the semi-pedestrianised town centre. North is Northbrook Street, home to a very nice, long Oxfam which yielded a bumper set of tapes for the car, and smaller Scope and YMCA shops – still all very well presented and kitted out.

Heading South from the bridge is Bartholemew Street. St Nicholas’ church towers over the shops and the passers-by – directly opposite that is the wonderfully-named (and generally wonderful) Kitchen Monger, from which we started Christmas preparations in the shape of a pudding basin, and were tempted by various see-through toasters, silicone jelly moulds, and coffee machines. As per usual for a cookshop then – just wait until I write up Worcester, the spiritual home of the cookshop. More importantly though is possibly my favourite charity shop chain, the Helen & Douglas House Hospice. As found in Abingdon, Beaconsfield, Chesham and elsewhere, this is always the best-looking shop in town, and possibly the only charity shop to feature a coffee shop upstairs: a slight stretch of the imagination, given that it’s a coffee machine nestled amongst the bookshelves, but we’re forgiving types here at CST Towers.

Also on the street is a Blue Cross, slightly scruffier perhaps, but home to the bargain of the day: juicer, £3.95, wham bam thankyou mam. Go East from the bridge and you’re in the market place (Thursdays and Saturdays), with its looming Corn Exchange Arts Centre and pavement cafes. It really wouldn’t look out of place in a provincial French town. You’ll find a typically poorly laid-out British Heart Foundation (the one whose rear can be seen from the canalside), a large Cancer Research and a smaller Save The Children here, bringing the total we found on the day to a healthy eight: not bad for an accident. I’d definitely commend making a day of it and coming back again, on purpose perhaps, hence a very generous score.

Find: Newbury @ Google Maps
Consume with: plenty of pubs and restaurants along the canal – the Costa is vast as well, and a pleasant enough place to wile away time waiting for the car to be fixed.
Visit: the downland to the South of Newbury is very lovely – I’ll point you towards the hill-fort at Beacon Hill and the talking rabbits of Watership Down.
Overall rating: five Billy Ocean cassettes

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Filed under 5/5, Berkshire