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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

Porthmadog

Roddy at Beddgelert

Roddy at Beddgelert

The above picture is Roddy, our not-so-new Cosalt Piper 1100 (you get the name?). Since acquiring Roddy earlier in the year, it would be fair to say that we haven’t had the chance to make a ton of use of him. However, now everything’s been tarted up a bit (a lick of paint; some new soft furnishings), he’s very much usable, and we’re currently getting the hang of this caravanning lark. Each time we go, we learn. On our first trip, to a little site near Alcester, in March, we learnt: March is cold; a hard pitch is better than a soft, wet grassy one. For our second trip, near Ledbury, we learnt the same lesson again, after being covered in mud. Now, finally, we are ready to make a week of it, so off we headed to the Beddgelert Forest site at the foot of Snowdon, and did we enjoy? You betcha.

Porthmadog is the closest town of any size for Beddgelert, home to the all-important Aldi, Wilkinsons, petrol station and  caravan repair shop (the latter necessary after the epic potholes on the way in to the camp site did our tow hitch in). It’s situated in the crook of the Llŷn Peninsula, at the mouth of the Afon Glaslyn which flows through Beddgelert from its source high up on Snowdon, and it’s this river which was the making of the town. Prior to 1811, there was no settlement here, just a marshy polder known as Traeth Mawr – this all changed when William Maddocks built the town cob and drained the surrounding land. This formed a new harbour, enabled more agriculture on the former estuary and kickstarted the foundation of Port Madoc and the nearby planned village, Tremadog. Today, the evidence of the resulting industry is all around. The remains of the Tremadog barge canal (for carrying copper) follow the path of the Welsh Highland Railway (slate) into town, where it meets the Ffestiniog Railway (also slate) – both of these have been restored, but will set you back more than was in our wallet on this holiday. Porthmadog has become a hub for the region, and most importantly, throws up numerous charity shops.

The main shopping street in Porthmadog is home to all the charity shops here. Some are familiar: Barnados and British Red Cross are a familiar sight all over the country. Tenovus now have shops around the UK, but started in Wales – most towns we visited on our hols have one of their shops carrying the usual charity shop fun, plus a selection of Welsh language books. More locally-minded, Freshfields Animal Rescue carries on the tradition of animal-based charity shops being generally ramshackle; and Age Cymru and St David’s Hospice make up the cohort. I should really say Hosbis Dewi Sant – this is after all a stronghold of Cymraeg, the Welsh language. I’ve picked up some roadsign grammar   (add a wch to make it imperative (arafwch = slow down!)) and vocabulary (mountain pass = bwlch). I hope to work on this.

Porthmadog isn’t a massive town, and it’s not the big city of North Wales by a long shot (this would be Bangor, I’d say), but it certainly fulfils it’s role. It’s a locus for the area, with all the facilities that tourists staying at Criccieth, Harlech, Beddgelert or anywhere else in this part of Snowdonia could hope for. It’s also a really nice little town, with steam railways, boats, beaches, delis and supermarkets, convenience shops and more specialised emporia. I’d cheerfully recommend  a visit if you’re in the region.

Find: Porthmadog Google Maps
Get there: Porthmadog is very handy to reach without a car (or caravan). If you really want to arrive in style, come by boat, but if not then you’re well served by a mainline station from Shrewsbury and Birmingham (this must be one of the finest train rides you could hope for), or even better, the Welsh Highland Railway from Caernarfon and the Ffestiniof Railway from Blaenau Ffestiniog.
Consume with: some local Welsh cakes, I’d suggest, from a local becws
Visit: You’re just around the corner from Portmeirion here (£10). For the cheapskates, walk in the hills for goodness’ sake! You have some of the most beautiful mountains in the land here.
Overall rating: four llyfrau

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Filed under 4/5, Gwynedd

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

Keswick

Jus' walkin' the dog by Rick Harrison, used under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

Jus' walkin' the dog by Rick Harrison, used under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

As with our last weekend away, we didn’t pick a good time to put our undoubtedly good intentions and underused walking boots to use when we took a couple of days to visit the Lake District. This time, instead of rolling fog and drizzle, we had to contend with the aftermaths of laryngitis, colds and coughs, as well as the first substantial snowfall of the year snarling up the M6 through Staffordshire. It did, however, make the Cumbrian mountains that much more spectacular, all the more so to a first time visitor like me. As we drove towards Keswick from our hotel, through Kendal, Windermere and Ambleside, past a snow-capped Helvellyn, with Coniston Old Man behind us, it was really something quite spectacular. I can’t really think of an approach to a town that can compare in this country: perhaps the descent into Killarney from the national park would be a challenger, but it would be splitting hairs.

Once in the town, you’ll certainly find yourself in the company of large numbers of appropriately clad walkers. Clutching battered Wainwright guides and dressed in gaiters and waterproofs, the fully experienced rambling hikers of the Lake District congregate in Keswick for a tea and scone or pint of ale, before heading out again. We felt somewhat underdressed, but made the most of the Mountain Warehouse sale to cover some of the ground. Same as when we hit the Peak District, this visit was a reccy – we already have a return visit booked for March, and will break out the rambling hiker gear then. Probably we won’t set our sights as high as Helvellyn, but we’ll do our best.

The next challenge, after the professional ramblers have been successfully evaded, is trying not to spend all ones money in secondhand map shops. This is becoming more and more of a challenge, and will continue to be a problem as long as I keep buying up old Bartholomew maps and the like. Soon to come at CST is Tewkesbury, which seems to be trying to lure me in with exactly this, but it was actually Keswick that yielded up the home turf – under the patronage of the “late King George V” and in beautiful shades of brown and green, the Vale of Severn is opened up from Birmingham across to Clun – including Stourbridge, the Black Country (with fields!), Worcester, Bridgnorth, and so on (I’d best halt here before getting carried away…). This was in a sprawling upstairs bookshop on Station Street, and it’s not the only one: beware. Beware too the vast numbers of outdoorsy shops – there is literally every single one here.

Most pertinently, beware of your wallet when you arrive at Oxfam. This is one serious charity shop, though certainly a most pleasant one. Rather than separate book and other shops, this is a large, combined store. There’s a significant book section (including a large religious section if that’s your thing – this is, after all, Keswick of Convention fame) and a very well-stocked music section. Vinyls are arranged by genre, which is a good sign in a record shop but a bad one in a charity shop: it’s an indicator that staff know the values of their goods, so bargains are rare. This suspicion was borne out by a £30 copy of Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, and £16 for After The Goldrush. Never mind. You might find a bargain amongst the huge array of vintage cameras, however: we walked out with a Kodak Brownie 127 for a cheerful £6.99. There’s also rails of clothes, vintage exercise bikes(!), record players and such.

A top notch, though expensive, charity shop, not many others could match up – and Barnardos, the only other circus in town, definitely doesn’t. Few items of interest here, sadly. Despite the paucity of charity shops, Keswick is worth a visit for so many other reasons, I can’t give it a low score – in fact, I enjoyed the town much more than a three would indicate, but this is a charity shop blog, after all…

Find: Keswick Google Maps
Get there: Train or 555 bus from Lancaster, or drive from Kendal, Penrith etc… but the slower the better to appreciate the surroundings, so maybe join the mob and walk here.
Consume with: we had a rather excellent baked potato at Laura in the Lakes, but there’s plenty of sustenance to go round.
Visit: get out of town – you’re in spitting distance of Derwent Water, Skiddaw, Grisedale Pike and many more.
Overall rating: three box brownies

  

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Filed under 3/5, Cumbria

Ross-on-Wye

Ross on Wye, Herefordshire, by Cross Duck. Picture used under Creative Commons, click pic for link.

Ross on Wye, Herefordshire, by Cross Duck. Picture used under Creative Commons, click pic for link.

Sitting in the bar of the Royal Hotel overlooking one of the Wye’s circuitous meanders, munching on fish and chips and generally wiling away time is, it turns out, an extremely pleasant way to slow down a Saturday afternoon. Typically for an English summer’s day, the fluffy clouds of lunchtime turned into a damp afternoon in Ross; later on, a plucky country music festival on the grass below will be entirely flooded by a massive thunderstorm – I suppose par for the course when you’re this close to Wales.

Ross considers itself a home of the British tourist trade – the first guided boat tours took in the Wye from Ross, the first tourist guide was published in 1782 about the river. It’s no wonder, really: situated on the edge of both the Forest of Dean and the Herefordshire countryside, Ross is a stone’s throw from the Malverns, the Black Mountains, the Bristol Channel or the cathedral cities of the West Country. And Ross itself is a desperately quaint little market town with pride in itself and its environs. Helpfully, it’s bursting with charity shops, making even a rainy stop-over worthwhile.

The town centres on its stilted Market House at the top of Broad Street. From there you can proceed uphill along the High Street towards St Mary’s church, the Royal Hotel or the Phoenix Theatre, past an array of locally run, independent shops. Particularly interesting looking were Waterfall Antiques, and Truffles deli, stocking an impressive 90 local ciders, arranged by distance from the shop. The opposite direction is Gloucester Road and here you’ll find St Michael’s and Acorns hospice shops. The former provided me with a speculative purchase of a Henning Mankell novel, introducing me to Inspector Wallander, off of the telly. Let me go on the record now to state that it was rubbish.

It’s the steep main drag, Broad Street, that houses most of the charity shops. You’ll find British Heart Foundation, Barnardos, Oxfam, Sue Ryder Care, Cancer Research and AgeUK lining the street and if you can’t find a bargain in there, you may well be blind. Ross is a tiny town that punches well for charity shops. It’s certainly one of the most agreeable visits you’ll find location-wise and you’d be daft not to have at least a little look.

Find: Ross-on-Wye Google Maps
Get there: Ross is a little bit like hard work if you haven’t got a car: you’ll need the train to Ledbury, though there’s plenty of buses from there.
Consume with: we had lunch at the Royal Hotel – perfectly serviceable, great location, decent price.
Visit: like history? Try Goodrich castle. Like nature? Try Symond’s Yat. Like walking? Try the Forest of Dean. And so on.
Overall rating: four Fat Face shirts.

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Filed under 4/5, Herefordshire

Stourbridge

Arches by Nickster 2000, used under a Creative Commons license. Click pic for link.

Arches by Nickster 2000, used under a Creative Commons license. Click pic for link.

Today, you’ll find Stourbridge as the westernmost compass point of a sprawling West Midlands conurbation, butting right up against some glorious Staffordshire/Worcestershire/Shropshire countryside. But it wasn’t always so: the Black Country isn’t like London with its endless 1930’s ribbon developments radiating out from the centre; rather, each town is a definable centre, each with a purpose (at least, orginally). Cradley is called the home of chain-making, Walsall’s famous for its leather trade, Wolverhampton for its steel. Stourbridge is no different and became, particularly during the nineteenth century, a world centre for the glass industry after significant Huguenot in-migration. The twenty-first century is a very different era and the Black Country is becoming a post-industrial society – though certainly not out of choice. Stourbridge retains an artisan-led glass quarter (around Kingswinford and Amblecote), but today finds itself as much a dormitory town for Birmingham, just the other side of the M5.

Stourbridge holds a particularly happy place in this blogger’s heart, however: it’s where he and his Charity Shop Partner (slash wife) have just moved, so chances are you’ll be hearing plenty more from the West Midlands and its environs over the next few months. Its location right on the edge of the countryside makes it a very appealing place to live – as accessible for the urban delights of Birmingham as for the craggy heights of Shropshire or the Malverns. If we fancy a breath of fresh air these days, we don’t have to drive to a gloomy Essex coast or wander through a crowded Epping Forest: we can ascend the overlooking Clent Hills and have our breath removed by a view spanning to Wales or the Cotswolds.

But that’s enough about me – more importantly, this is a charity shop shopping blog and has its priorities. Happily, Stourbridge punches pretty well. In a less touchy-feely era of civic government than our own, a Nascar styled ring road (see below) was built around the town centre and it’s within the ring road that you’ll find the bulk of the town’s shops. Note though – there are other charity shops scattered around, notably a couple in Wollaston that I may or may not touch on another time. Within the pretty attractive town centre I count a good nine charity shops as well as various other amenities and local shops. You wouldn’t come to Stourbridge for a day’s shopping experience any more, as you wouldn’t go to Dudley, Brierley Hill, Halesowen, or any other community within the catchment area of the monolithic Merry Hill centre, so be warned of that.

There’s a stretch of charity shops on the High Street including a pretty sweet and not-too-expensive Oxfam: we located a pile of cheap Jo Nesbo books and, happily, three Granta magazines for £1.50, which are now populating the landing bookcase. Having brokenheartedly sold several hundred books in the move, we now appear to be doing our best to counteract that. There’s also Barnardos, Marie Curie, Acorn’s Hospice and British Heart Foundation, and best of all the huge Mary Stevens Hospice Shop, fundraising for the hospice which is located in Stourbridge itself. There’s a second huge Mary Stevens shops in Victoria Passage, a sneaky cut also containing cafs, restaurants and little boutiquey shops. This Mary Stevens, as with the main one, sells plenty of furniture as well as clothes and books – the one on the high street has an entire upstairs bookshop. Look out for cast iron fireplaces and patio sets. On Lower High Street you’ll find Cats Protection League, just up from King Edward VI college – educators of Robert Plant and Samuel Johnson, no less. Then back up Market Street to find Happy Staffie Rescue and Scope. That just leaves the very mid-century Ryemarket Centre where you’ll find Waitrose and Smiths and the like, as well as PDSA and Salvation Army.

While Stourbridge is hardly remarkably beautiful or noteworthy, it turns out that it’s a very pleasant place to wile away some time. It’s a bustling little town centre with some gorgeous buildings – King Eds, the Town Hall and St Thomas’ church are all very attractive. It makes a great stop on a day out to the country as well – it’s only a short hop from here to Bridgnorth or the Wyre Forest. Best of all, a whole heap of charity shops – if this was the Grandstand vidiprinter, that would be 11 (eleven).

Find: Stourbridge Google Maps
Get there: Plenty of buses end at the bus station, and you also have the shortest branch line in Europe terminating at Stourbridge Town with its funny little trains.
Consume with: There are plenty of coffee and food places around – there’s a Caffe Nero, and The Well looks quite nice. If you’re willing to expand your horizons, there’s many pubs doing a wallet-friendly £3.69 carvery (The Old White Horse), some doing some lovely food in a lovely location (The Vine, Kinver) and of course, plenty of curry (I recommend Balti Bazaar in Lye).
Visit: The Glass Quarter is full of museums and things to do – the Red House Cone is basically a big red cone for making glass, and if glass is your thang, you’ll find plenty of interest at Broadfield House or the Ruskin Glass Centre. If not, take a wander along the canal or to the lovely Mary Stevens Park.
Overall rating: five antique fireplaces

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Filed under 5/5, West Midlands

Harborne

Harborne Farmers Market, from Pete Lewis' photostream under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

Harborne Farmers Market, from Pete Lewis' photostream under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

Harborne is, I suppose, the West Midlands equivalent of Muswell Hill or Crouch End, or multitudinous other gentrified districts. More ethnically homogenous than, say, Bearwood or Smethwick just up the road, your typical Harborne resident is more academic from the nearby (and huge) University of Birmingham, or medical staff from one of the several large hospitals close by, those that can afford a little classier than Selly Oak. Harborne town centre is fairly innocuous and unambitious – Waitrose territory for certain – but take a quick detour into surrounding residential streets and you’ll soon see the appeal.

My auntie lives in Harborne, in a large house with a large garden, a drive and a garage, on a wide, quiet road. But if I lived there, without drifting into being an estate agent blog, I’d fall for one of the very red-brick Victorian terraces. They’re very distinct to this part of the country (believe me, I have spent enough time studying Victorian terraces of late), a burnt, dusty brick in cottage style. I’d be fairly content setting up shop there, I think. The high street is less inspiring, though not without merit, and certainly not without charity shops.

We visited a very healthy seven of the eight charity shops open on a snow-and-ice infested Harborne High Street, three days before Christmas. I say very healthy in that it was fairly miraculous that we escaped with no broken legs – apparently Birmingham is not a city that prides itself on snow clearance. But healthy and wealthy they were, most notably in the very well-stocked, very academic and literate Oxfam bookshop – overpriced as normal, but nevertheless painfully tempting. Most of the rest are, if you will, chain charity shops: British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research, Barnardos, Marie Curie and PDSA. Not that this is a problem: none was a wasted visit, with a goodly number of Stephen Kings purchased to feed a growing fetish, and a wide and varied array of tat (I say this in a friendly way: by tat I mean bric-a-brac; collector’s items; etc.).

Headway was closed, leaving only the most interesting of the bunch, Birmingham Settlement. This is a large, long shop, filled with not just cheap paperbacks and the usual assortment of clothes, but small furniture at the back, lots of picture frames and stacks of Playstations and the like. Good for a rummage.

Harborne is a pretty posh area and has a high-standing reputation as such. Many such places frown on charity shops, but Harborne seems to have embraced them, and quite right. As a result: thoroughly recommend a swoop by.

Find: Harborne @ Google Maps
Consume with: Nero as usual, but there’s the whole gamut of easy-to-understand coffee here.
Visit: The Birmingham Botanical Gardens are just down the road, and they’re plain lovely.
Overall rating: four Christmas trees

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Filed under 4/5, West Midlands