Category Archives: 3/5

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

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

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

Upton on Severn

P1000116, by Iain Cuthbertson. Image used under Creative Commons, click on pic for link.

P1000116, by Iain Cuthbertson. Image used under Creative Commons, click on pic for link.

We recently visited Upton for a second (maybe third time), just after Christmas, after parting ways with our visitors in its near neighbour Pershore. It was a damp day, after many such damp days and even when the East of the country takes the worst of the rainfall, the Severn plain around is always badly affected. Worcester floods on a regular basis, but you don’t have to trawl your memories too far back to recall the disastrous floods at Tewkesbury in 2007. Come December 2012, and the rain has been falling, and when we approached Upton, just upstream, it was as though we were entering the Louisiana swamps – to say the river had burst its banks does an injustice to the water stretching as far as the eye can see. Whilst not as destructive as in 2007, that’s one of the defining characteristics of living in this area: you’re somewhat dominated by Britain’s biggest river. Mind you, Upton probably wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the Severn. The small town of about 3,000 is located at one of the few bridges over the river Severn, the only crossing between Tewkesbury and Worcester; and combined with the meeting of the main roads between Gloucester and Worcester, and Ledbury and Evesham it seemed a good place to build a little harbour – and so a market town sprung up. This was boosted when the Severn Towing Company situated a crossing and toll office here, and the town gradually became what we see today, all little streets and coaching inns, large marina and fantastic bridge; and low-lying pastures usually filled up with Severn water.

Although you’re advised to pack some wellies if it’s been raining, Upton’s a lovely little stop-off. You can’t ask for much more than a sunny day by the river in the shadow of the Malvern Hills, and there’s plenty of attractive pubs and restaurants to accommodate that sort of lounging. There’s free car park at the far end of town, opposite the church: if you visit in  the summer, look over onto the rugby pitch and imagine that when we last saw it, it was full up like a swimming pool, at a level disconcertingly higher than where we were standing. As you walk towards the shops you’ll pass by all kinds of curious, low buildings bowing out onto the street, filled with curio shops, a very pleasant secondhand book shop and little galleries. The town centre is really focused on the junction of the High Street and New Street, and this is where you’ll find the two formal charity shops. RSPCA is small and poky, but with a few interesting odds and ends. St Richards Hospice is larger and contains a better range of stock – there’s usually some nice clothes here, along with the usual trinkets and books. Note the distinctive aroma about the place though – not worked out what it is yet. These are both on the main drag, with plenty of other useful or cutesie shops, plus (best of all!) a Map Shop.

I’ve defined these as the two “formal” charity shops, but the actual thrifty highlight of Upton is a charity shop only in the loosest sense of the term. It’s not immediately clear what the charity is for a start, and to get there you have to follow the handwritten signs up the side street of London Lane. Once you’re there – and if it’s open, which it may or may not be depending on the day, the time of year, maybe the condition of the pet dog – you’ll see a sort of garage door, maybe some sprawling tables outside. Definitely go in. This is part junk shop, part garage sale, part charity shop, and it’s great fun. You might find everything from vintage tobacco tins, to candlewick bedspreads and old-fashioned eiderdowns; all sorts of crockery, kitchen implements, old magazines, books in piles around the place, lamps and electricals, bits of furniture, and clothes a-plenty. My guess is that this is seasonal, as it wasn’t open for our December visit, but has been on our two previous visits. It’s definitely the highlight.

For such a small town, Upton is always on our radar if we’re down that direction anyway, perhaps visiting Malvern or Tewkesbury. It’s not only a bit lovely, but can be good for a quick trawl, with free parking and a lovely riverside spot. Plus, if you’re feeling fit you can walk here from Bristol or mid-Wales on the Severn Way. It is only small, don’t forget, but a great stop-off.

Find: Upton upon Severn Google Maps
Get there: no trains here, so bus or drive – or even better arrive in style by boat to the Marina.
Consume with: we’ve not stopped for food here, but if we did, I’d be tempted to follow the lead of Alec Guinness, Brian Blessed and Kathy Burke by stopping into the White Lion Hotel, dating back to 1510 and offering accommodation as well. It’s one of several olde coaching inns.
Visit: handily for this coming weekend, how about the Wassailing and Frost Fair? Sounds like fun in a Wicker Man and Morris dancing kind of way.
Overall rating: three tobacco tins

EDIT: I’ve been very kindly informed that the charity shop in London Lane is Worcester Cancer Aid. Thanks Jackie!

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Filed under 3/5, Worcestershire

Conwy

Conwy Castle & Snow Capped Mountains, by Christian Roberts. Image used under Creative Commons licence, click pic for link.

Conwy Castle & Snow Capped Mountains, by Christian Roberts. Image used under Creative Commons licence, click pic for link.

I waxed lyrical recently about one of Edward I’s line of castles designed to keep the pesky Welsh in check, over in Beaumaris. Well, Conway has taken this to the next level and situated itself mostly inside its castle. This was one of Longshanks’ big ideas, and involved kicking out the monks of Aberconwy Abbey, forbidding the Welsh to enter and incentivising English settling in the walled town. Whether it had the long term effect the king intended is hard to tell – the town remains a stronghold of the Welsh language and, as a considerably touristy place, you’ll probably see a disproportionate amount of traditional Welsh costumery, at least in the summer. I don’t imagine Ed is turning in his grave particularly. The general effect of the  fortifications on modern Conwy is actually a bit wonderful – Chester, York and Caernarfon are still on my to-visit list, so this is something unique for me: a town centre enclosed by medieval walls, loomed over by a dramatic castle, the broad Conwy estuary on the one hand, the Carneddau foothills of Mynydd y Dref rising at the back. It’s difficult to image a more picturesque spot for a town, especially when you consider your entry into Conwy. If you drive, then you can come in via the Sychnant Pass from the last vestiges of the Snowdonian mountains, or even better over Thomas Telford‘s suspension bridge. On the train it’s even more exciting: from the East you’ll enter via the tubular bridge over the Conway, then through a special portico in the town wall itself – the station is situated within the town centre. Maybe I’m easily pleased, but the idea of getting a train into a castle is pretty amazing.

That aside, Conwy is very much the tourist town – in fact, given the aforementioned features, it has been almost since tourists existed. Yet whether the walls themselves have had some sort of restraining function, or what, Conwy has not taken on any of the “kiss-me-quick” hat character of coastal neighbours like Llandudno, Colwyn Bay, Rhyl or Prestatyn. There certainly are holiday and caravan parks in abundance close by, but the geographically limited nature of the town centre has resulted in a small but classy selection of shops and attractions. Rather than the wide, Victorian boulevards and piers of Llandudno, the town’s character is more reminiscent of Beaumaris: busy but quaint. The promenade is a small harbour-front, and our usual chips-for-lunch test was passed with flying colours overlooking houseboats, the castle and bridge, and numerous crab-fishing children. Looking back at the map now, I notice something that escaped our attention in the summer: the well-capitalised Smallest House In Great Britain. Seeing this on Street View immediately brought back floods of memories of a childhood visit here with some distant relatives and, appropriately enough, chips in the walled recess next to the Liverpool Arms. I imagine the descendants of the herring gulls that stalked us on that day were the ones bothering us for a spare chip this August. As if there’s any such thing.

To be honest, Conwy isn’t exactly a charity shop destination. We have two small outlets, Tenovus and St David’s Hospice. They’re both quite diddy, and without a great deal of yield. Or any great deals, come to that. But this town does really well on the tourism side of our quest and is thus worth a visit if you’re in the area. It could easily be combined with Llandudno, just around the corner, or a tour of the Gwynedd coast. I’d cheerfully recommend it though – sometimes a sunny day, a packet of chips, and a little harbour is all you need to be content.

Find: Conwy Google Maps
Get there: definitely worth taking the train – the Wales North Coast line runs from Chester or Bangor/Holyhead.
Consume with: Chips!
Visit: the castle has to be the prime attraction here.
Overall rating: three slippers

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Filed under 3/5, Conwy