Category Archives: 2/5

Holyhead

Ffordd Caergybi (Holyhead Road), 2010, by Jeff Carson. Image used under Creative Commons licence, click pick for link.

Ffordd Caergybi (Holyhead Road), 2010, by Jeff Carson. Image used under Creative Commons licence, click pick for link.

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 TenovusRSPCA, 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

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Filed under 2/5, Anglesey

Tenbury Wells

Tenbury Wells by Ian Guest, used under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

Tenbury Wells by Ian Guest, used under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

Like Malvern, Matlock or Cheltenham, Tenbury made its most recent history out of its natural resources. The suffix to the town name was added in the 1840s when mineral waters were discovered in the local area, however the history of the town goes back plenty further than this. Chartered in 1249, the town was already well-established, boasting (probably) a motte-and-bailey castle, Castle Tump, that now sits administratively in Shropshire, on the north banks of the Teme. Today, it’s a sleepy West Worcestershire town that clings to its market tradition, its frankly odd Chinese-Gothic pump rooms, and its pretty lovely situation in the quiet, under-appreciated bucolic charms of the Teme valley.

The town is possibly most famous these days for its mistletoe festival in December, which is when we landed. I say festival, we made out a few sprigs here and there in shop windows. I think we missed the druids, which is a shame: I’d like to meet a real-life Getafix. Instead, there were a handful of inhabitants, even on a Saturday lunchtime, poking around the small high street and partaking in disappointing pasties. There are three charity shops. Near the historic Teme bridge is a somewhat ad hoc looking, generic armed forces shop selling furniture and a few clothes. It was very reasonably priced, but with a slightly overbearing, staring staff.

Further down Teme Street is the St Michael Hospice and Sue Ryder. Both were fine, in their way, but we left with no particular bargains. That’s Tenbury, I suppose. It’s fine, it even has its attractive little market area and riverside, and its various traditions and folklores: but there’s nothing particular to recommend it.

Find: Tenbury Wells Google Maps
Get there: You could kayak up the Teme I suppose, but as there’s no station you might have to drive.
Consume with: Don’t risk the lukewarm pasties, tempting as they might appear. You’ll be better off with some sort of traditional tea shop of which there are several.
Visit: Those of the industrial-historical bent might enjoy tracking the Leominster Canal which ran past the town.
Overall rating: two pet blankets

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Filed under 2/5, Worcestershire

Alderley Edge

To The Edge, under creative commons, by kh1234567890. Click pic for link.

To The Edge, under creative commons, by kh1234567890. Click pic for link.

Alderley Edge is, according to Stuart Maconie’s excellent book, a wild, mystical place. A high heathland redolent with pagan rites and mysterious gold stores, numerous Arthurian legends, a rocky escarpment looming over the Cheshire plain. Here, the lonely farmer crosses the dreary moorlands to market only to be led by a bearded man into an underground lair to see the rows of sleeping men that would awake when England was in danger.

These days, you’d be more likely to come across that scenario on Clapham Common than Alderley Edge. The town only really took on its current identity from the 1880’s, when the Manchester & Birmingham Railway renamed the station from Chorley (to avoid confusion with Chorley, Lancs), combining an old name for the locality with The Edge, the aforementioned sandstone escarpment. The name stuck when Sir Humphrey de Trafford, local landowner of wealth and familiar surname, laid out part of his large estate in an extensive street pattern and the village expanded into the small town we have now. This period of expansion means that the town consists of large swathes of spacious Victorian villas on leafy avenues, making this quite the desirable commuter hotspot. That reputation was confirmed following Lord David of Beckham’s decision to settle here in his Man U days, followed by a whole gaggle of Premiership footballers, Coronation Street stars, two-thirds of New Order and the legendary Stuart Hall. Today the high street is a quiet but salubrious thoroughfare, dripping with designer sunglasses shops, expensive delis and coffeeshops.

And boy, have the charity shops fallen for it. Oxfam Books is the odd one out here with a fairly broad selection of coffee-table art books, undergraduate textbooks, and unemployed law students talking loudly about their friends in tax law when they should have been serving customers. The remaining charity shops have gone down the boutique route. Unlike nearby Wilmslow (coming soon), just as wealthy a town, Alderley Edge charity shops have decided that they cna focus on the expensive tat and designer clothes and despite being Cancer Research or  Marie Curie they can quite legitimately charge £25 for a man’s shirt. Now: if you have any sort of savvy at all you won’t have to look beyond a shop sale or factory outlet to find brand new Ben Sherman shirts for £25, so where they get off charging this for something someone has worn around, sweated into, and bashed and scraped, is beyond me. The worst offender is Barnados, who seemed to have gone so completely for the boutique feel that they had even employed a haughty extra shop assistant to stand at the back and judge you when you came in. All these shops had a massively disproportionate selection of women’s clothing, which is perhaps unsurprising, but not fun for a boy.

I suppose, in its way, Alderley Edge is not an unattractive town (although once you’ve seen one Victorian satellite town you’ve pretty much seen them all). There seems little to justify its reputation other than some expensive shops: there’s little history or dramatic scenery, there’s no amazing shopping experience or grand café culture. In short, there’s little to recommend it. By virtue of having four charity shops I’ll lift it off the bottom tier of visits, but if you’re in the area, skirt Alderley Edge and visit Wilmslow or press further afield to Buxton or Glossop – much more beautiful, interesting and worthwhile towns.

Find: Alderley Edge Google Maps
Get there: Alderley Edge station will get you here from Manchester Piccadilly or Crewe.
Consume with: We had Costa – despite a few cafés, most looked pretty uninspiring.
Visit: we didn’t stop otherwise I’d have been tempted to get up to The Edge to look for either goldbars or Iron Gates.
Overall rating: two leather jackets

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Filed under 2/5, Cheshire

Droitwich Spa

Droitwich floods 2007 (2) by Ruth Flickr is used under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

Droitwich floods 2007 (2) by Ruth Flickr is used under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

In theory, there’s no reason why Droitwich Spa shouldn’t be a perfectly pleasant little town. Though home to a significant swathe of commuter development from the sixties onwards, Droitwich is its own community with its own salt-working industrial heritage stretching back to Roman times, when the town was called Salinae. The natural water of the town is ten times saltier than the Dead Sea, no less, and that led to DS becoming a Victorian spa town known for the restorative properties of a dip in its waters. Situated on the River Salwarpe and the Droitwich Canal, directly between the edges of urban Birmingham and the medieval splendour of Worcester, I repeat: there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be a lovely little town.

The problem with Droitwich is hard to pin down. Despite its Roman, medieval, Victorian and Edwardian heritage, the town centre is drab and lifeless. A sunny Saturday afternoon should bring the best out of a town, but this oddly warm October day saw a very few disinterested shoppers poking at a collection of pound shops and budget-end retail chains. The rail station is somewhat out of town, leaving some buses for the intrepid few. But why go to the effort of going into Droitwich when you have the full gamut of shopping facilities just a few miles down the road in Bromsgrove, Worcester or Birmingham?

Droitwich has it’s share of charity shops. On St Andrews Road there’s a mid-sized Salvation Army and a Blue Cross, next to a fairly massive, crowded secondhand furniture shop which is worth mentally tucking away. In the St Andrew’s Square shopping development, which seems to be what life there is to the town, there’s also a very standard Cancer Research shop. The rest of the shopping stretches down High Street – there’s one or two secondhandy shops, some quiet looking delis, that sort of thing, alongside Acorn Hospice and St Richard’s Hospice, which is hidden down a little side road towards the big Waitrose.

We didn’t come away with any purchases of note on that unseasonably hot Saturday afternoon, and in no way feel tempted to give DS a second chance, if only for the intense difficulty of finding something nice to eat for a late lunch. The town has potential in all its history, but needs some serious work to make it a viable destination for anything.

Find: Droitwich Spa Google Maps
Get there: the trainline is a little bit out of town, buses are occasional and walking is hard. Sigh.
Consume with: good question! You find me the answer and I’ll let you know.
Visit: the classy amongst you might enjoy the famous Droitwich Spa Lido.
Overall rating: two (just!) damaged headphones.

 

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Filed under 2/5, Worcestershire

East Dulwich

shop fronts, under creative commons from fear and boozing in a lost vagueness' photostream. Click pic for link.

shop fronts, under creative commons from fear and boozing in a lost vagueness' photostream. Click pic for link.

I’ve done a lot of work on gentrification in the last four months (see? It didn’t stop there). I can summarise Smith’s rent gap theory, or Ley’s humanistic take; I can waffle at length about Barnsbury (as per Jonathan Raban (who I love more than ever)), Brooklyn Heights, Bilbao, and associated subjects such as global cities or neoliberalism; I can cite writers like Zizek or Foucault with nary a bat of the eyelid. But booksmarts pale into insignificance when faced with an irrefutable measure of gentrification provided by the ever-paternalistic Times property section: the chicken shop test. Presumably the majority of Times readers don’t live in an area where chicken shops proliferate (i.e. where impoverished folk live), because I’m happy to confirm that chicken shops actually don’t correlate with ‘edgy’ either academically or in any other way. And because Lordship Lane in East Dulwich featured three (in 2004), that does not make it a bastion of working class solidarity amidst a rising tide of middle-class colonisation and class repression spilling over into the area.

East Dulwich is, in fact, thoroughly gentrified. House prices quadrupled during the 1990s as fixer-uppers moved in, and today Lordship Lane is awash with organic delis, fancy fish-n-chip shops and four-wheel drive monsters. It’s very pleasant for all that, and placed well, just close enough to the altogether more traditionally salubrious Dulwich Village, just far enough from the less classy Peckham Rye. There’s village greens, larger parks, art galleries – everything except a tube station. It’s reminiscent in some ways of a newly-established Muswell Hill, who pride themselves on not having a station. East Dulwich also fits into a West-East heirarchy: where Muswell Hill wants to be Highgate (which itself wants to be Hampstead), but looks down on Crouch End, which in turn looks down on Harringay and Wood Green, East Dulwich would dearly love to be as classy as Dulwich Village, but has to content itself with Nunhead lingering jealously nearby, and Peckham, who nobody loves.

What it doesn’t excel in is charity shops. It’s difficult to give a high rating to such a clearly well-off locale which sports just the two, fairly average emporia. The better is Mind, on the junction by Goose Green, which did well on DVDs and some nice looking cookware and cake tins, which is always nice. The lesser of the two was a slightly eerie St Christropher’s Hospice shop: large enough, but with the atmosphere of a hospital waiting room, and an odour to match. A few board games and tatty clothes weren’t enough to make it visitable, really.

East Dulwich then: thoroughly middle class, thoroughly modern, but lacking in what makes a day out. Probably a very pleasant place to live.

Find: East Dulwich @ Google Maps
Consume with: plenty of cappucinos and things with pastry at various coffee shops, you needn’t go short 
Visit:
Dulwich Picture Gallery is nearby, if art’s your bag, but I’m more tempted by the epic-looking Horniman Museum in nearby Forest Hill.
Overall rating: two little cake tins

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Filed under 2/5, London South

High Wycombe

Decorating High Wycombe, used under a creative commons licence. Photo by bertieboy70, click pic for link.

Decorating High Wycombe, used under a creative commons licence. Photo by bertieboy70, click pic for link.

Buckinghamshire and the Chilterns in particular is one of my favourite places to spend the day. I’ve had profitable excursions in Gerrards Cross, Chalfont St Peter, Amersham, Chesham and Beaconsfield, and still plan to visit Tring and Berkhamsted to tick them off the list. More than this even, it’s a beautiful part of the world, largely untouched by the presence of the metropolis on its doorstep and filled with charming village greens, Georgian old towns and rolling, English hillsides. High Wycombe is the big name in the locality and as such definitely warranted inclusion.

Sadly, Wycombe seems to be the sinkhole for the region into which everything less desirable drains. It starts promisingly enough: the drive into the town from Beaconsfield presents you with a wonderful view of the banks of trees and the massive King’s Mead and The Rye parks. But by the time you get to the town centre itself, you’re left with a different impression. Firstly, try and find your way around – if you don’t end up on the way out of town you’ll be stuck at the vast Eden shopping centre. Once you’re in, little improves. On a warm August Saturday, High Wycombe town centre retains that bleak feel that you get in semi-planned communities like this commuter town. The wind always seems stronger in these places, like the right angles and concrete expanses funnel it in unexpected ways, which doesn’t happen in the patchwork of older towns.

A few of the charity shops had closed up by the time we reached there – earlier than their scheduled hours, possibly in advance of the bank holiday weekend. Among them were British Heart Foundation, Scope and Help The Aged, so of course I can’t comment on these (other than whoever was manning the shops clocked off early this weekend). The latter two are situated on Oxford Street, close to the large, semi-pedestrianised centre. On this same stretch was a fairly reasonable Oxfam, but the experience took a turn for the bizarre when a (slightly odd) customer was demanding a refund for a £2.99 CD that he’d bought in the Chesham shop. It raises the question firstly, how do you deal with someone so irate about three quid? But more importantly, when is it right to take anything back to a charity shop? Certainly one has ones statutory rights etc., but morally it’s pretty low to demand a refund off a charity. Our only guess was that the CD was his annual treat, and when it wasn’t right, three pounds was a big spend out. I dunno.

That left a large but odd-smelling Cancer Research, and a huge South Bucks Hospice shop on White Hart Street. This was a split level affair, with an upstairs snug for books and things, and a big open plan downstairs for clothes, nicknackery and the rest. A good selection, though I left with nothing.

Google maps informs me that there is also a Save The Children, a Marie Curie, and and Ian Rennie Hospice shop (I’m kicking myself for that – in Beaconsfield I’d stared at a sandwich board down the road for ages trying to guess whether Ian Rennie was a charity shop or a DIY shop – I wrongly thought DIY): I don’t feel like I’ve missed out by avoiding these places. Maybe I’m being unkind, but Wycombe offers little attraction to warrant a return visit. I plan to leave it to the hordes of bored-looking, loitering youth that littered the place.

Find: High Wycombe @ Google Maps
Best buy: old hard-backed books will always grab me.
Consume with: plenty of chain coffee shops and pubs, you won’t go hungry.
Visit: save it for the annual drama of the ‘mayor-weighing’.
Overall rating: two saucepans

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Filed under 2/5, Buckinghamshire

Herne Bay

Herne bay kent by karen cb, under creative commons. Click pic for link.

Herne bay kent by karen cb, under creative commons. Click pic for link.

This part of Kent is absolutely lovely, as has already been established just down the coast. Sun-kissed grassy banks leading down to the most hospitable part of the North Sea span between pretty coastal towns with oyster shacks and narrow alleys. Whitstable, Margate, Ramsgate, Deal, Sandwich, Dover, all with their charms, and Herne Bay right in the midst of them, as good as attached (via Tankerton) to Whitstable.

Sadly, Herne Bay lets the side down a little. True, we probably judged it unfairly: arriving on a Bank Holiday weekend Saturday we wound through the busy (and charming) residential streets into the town centre to be faced by several of those nervous tic-inducing circuits around the narrow, crowded streets looking for somewhere to park. We were not successful, so our return visit was later in the afternoon when the crowds had departed, the sun had peaked and the late afternoon heat was less unbearable. Our excursion around the town’s charity shops was less amenable – most had closed, the few that remained open offered up little if anything worth purchasing. So, our opinion tainted, we poked around anyway.

Before the Victorians swooped in with their grandiose villas and the world’s first freestanding purpose-built clock tower, this was a little shipping village, on the goods route between London and Canterbury. Then the builders came in and built up a holiday destination to rival any their peers built. Its trade declining since the advent of package holidays, Herne Bay today is a seaside strip of sea-walls, ice-cream stands, tatty arcades and overweight, tattooed, shirtless men with tinnies.

This is not my idea of a holiday destination, I have to be honest. The more people, the less good a place is a rule that works in almost situation, and there’s plenty of people being all there at Herne Bay, at least at the sea front. As we disappear into the wide Victorian shopping streets the people disperse, but the experience hardly improves. As I mentioned, most places were closed, and the various attempts at redesign and modification has led to a slightly bleak, new-town look. There’s a problem I have when places are half-closed – there’s little to tempt me to come back and visit another time to find out what I’m missing. Which might be a shame: there’s actually a reasonable number of charity shops here: two Demelza shops, Action for Children, Cancer Research, Dogs Trust, an olde-style Oxfam, and a couple of new ones on me: Seaside Charity Shop and Strode Park Foundation. I’ll be honest here: I can’t remember which ones I went into: there was only a maybe three open (I know Oxfam and Cancer Research were available).

Anyway, the whole experience was hardly overwhelming, but at least the sun was shining and we got to sit on the beach with an ice cream. I shouldn’t think I’ll return, but, y’know, any afternoon spent pootling in the charity shops isn’t half bad.

Find: Herne Bay @ Google Maps
Consume with: ice cream on the seafront, what else?
Visit: Roman ruins at Reculver
Overall rating: two Stephen Kings

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Filed under 2/5, Kent