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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

Beaumaris

Beaumaris 0022, used under Creative Commons licence, by Denis Egan. Click pic for link.

Beaumaris 0022, used under Creative Commons licence, by Denis Egan. Click pic for link.

Despite being in about as Welsh-speaking a part of the British Isles as it’s possible to be, Beaumaris comes with a somewhat Gallic name and a location to match – no Provençal hills or quite so azure sea here, but the approach to Beaumaris is none-the-less a beautiful, cliff-top drive along the south coast of Anglesey. On a fine day there are wonderful views down the Menai Straits to Telford’s grand suspension bridge; the sparkling waters of the Irish sea dotted with little boats; the steep and slightly perplexing streets of Bangor on the mainland shore; and most impressively, a panoramic view of the Northern Snowdonian mountains as they sweep down to the sea.

The unusual name has its roots in the Savoyard architects brought in by the francophile Edward I to build a string of castles in the area. The Hammer of the Scots was apparently no more smitten with the then kingdom of Gwynedd, and built fortifications in Caernarfon, Conwy, Harlech and here, on beautiful marshes south of Llanfaes – hence beaux marais – to keep those pesky Welsh in order. The castle still dominates the town; the walls built by Henry IV to keep Owain Glyndŵr out have all but gone, the pier has been rebuilt after storms, and just a few buildings remain from the town’s Tudor industrial heyday, but the concentric castle remains undiminished – very impressive business, I love a good castle me.

It sits at the end of Castle Street (funnily enough), Beaumaris’ main drag. Along here is all the bustle of a quaint seaside town, with narrow side streets, ice cream parlours, expensive fish and chip shops and bunting everywhere – it’s really very attractive, and far removed from the grim realities of Holyhead for example, on the far side of the island. There’s not a great deal of charity shop action, sadly. We found the tiny St Davids Hospice shop on Church Street just before it closed, but didn’t come away with any purchases (just the usual wracking guilt at keeping a volunteer at work longer than they expected). The other to be visited is Beau Annies – although with even less joy here, as it was closed both times we pootled out to Beaumaris.

Don’t be deterred though. There’s plenty of other stuff that makes Beaumaris worth a visit, whether you fancy some local arts’n’crafts shops, fancy chippies, ice cream parlours, that castle or a trip out on the waves. Sitting eating our chips overlooking the Straits and on to Snowdon was one of the highlights of a highlight-packed holiday in Wales, and the fact that there are charity shops in this lovely little spot is really just the icing on a very charming cake.

Find: Beaumaris Google Maps
Get there: If you don’t fancy a substantial hike over the Menai Bridge, then you’ll need a bus from Bangor or Llangefni.
Consume with: I’m not sure I could go without getting chips overlooking the sea. We also tried a slightly odd tea shop near the castle, but only because the wonderful Red Boat Ice Cream Parlour was full.
Visit: well, the castle of course.
Overall rating: four strings of bunting

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Filed under 4/5, Anglesey

Monmouth

Monmouth, Monmouthshire, by Oxfordshire Churches. Used under Creative Commons, click for link.

Monmouth, Monmouthshire, by Oxfordshire Churches. Used under Creative Commons, click for link.

For CST’s first foray into Wales, you could hardly accuse me of being adventurous. Monmouth is very much the border town, currently sitting two miles within Monmouthshire on the river Wye, the traditional South Wales border. But it’s quite suited to taking a digital look at: Monmouth is the country’s first Wikipedia town. QR codes have sprung up on any interesting building, any notable resident is having a thorough and multilingual write-up, and non-computer-literate residents are being encouraged to bring items and photographs to be scanned into the Monmouthpedia project. There’s plenty to find out about, as the project demonstrates, and even the most cursory wander around town reveals castles, town halls and a wealth of history.

As a visitor today, you’ll find plenty of things to occupy your time. As a walker you might emerge into the town from the Offa’s Dyke Path or the Wye Valley Walk; as a motorist you’ll no doubt want to swan around the nearby Forest of Dean, which remains as beautiful as it ever has been; as a lazier tourist you might want to visit the castle or the impressive town hall, the local food market or, of course, the charity shops.

Of the latter there are several, including a few particularly select offerings. Starting at the top of town (there’s free parking on the road between the river Monnow and the Priory), first stop is the charming Church Street – all cobbles and quaint shop fronts, and humming with local shoppers on a sunny morning out. PS – that didn’t last: given that this is Wales, by the afternoon we were being hailed, thundered and lightninged on at Symonds Yat. just over the border. British Red Cross is located here and we found some Emma Bridgwater mugs for cheap, and the appropriate Haynes manual. Proceeding onto Agincourt Square we’ll find the two best shops in the town close by one another, Cancer Research and Oxfam. Both were buntinged up to the eyeballs in light of the recent Queenly visit to South Wales, with a really good selection of vintage clothes and tat, some eye-wateringly retro records and, to my Constant Companion’s delight, Danish cookware.

Monmouthpedia Shire Hall Exterior, by Monmouthshire County Council, under Creative Commons. Click for link.

Monmouthpedia Shire Hall Exterior, by Monmouthshire County Council, under Creative Commons. Click for link.

Monnow Street, the main shopping drag on the hill down to the Wye valley, has a fair few more to offer alongside more than its fair share of antiques-lite shops. You know the sort: few actual antiques, more of a gift shop with some sanded down old G-plan furniture. For shabby chic, read, distressed refurbished bedside table selling for several times what it was worth new. Ignore these, and you can cheerfully browse British Heart FoundationAge UKSue Ryder and St David’s Hospice (we are in Wales after all). As long as you’re aware that the free parking is for an hour only, you can probably rush around all of these. Stop for the cheap sausage sandwich (see below) and you might struggle – I’d advise taking a good couple of hours for a mooch, Monmouth’s a really pleasant little town.

Find: Monmouth Google Maps
Get there: No rail link, post-Beeching, but there are plenty of buses from all major towns in the area.
Consume with: Eat Your Crusts, on St Mary Street, does a mighty fine and might cheap hot sausage sandwich.
Visit: Andy Hamilton is performing at the Savoy Theatre on Church Street soon.
Overall rating: four Danska dishes

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Filed under 4/5, Monmouthshire

Bridgnorth

Signs, used under creative commons licence, by R~P~M. Click for pic.

Signs, used under creative commons licence, by R~P~M. Click for pic.

CST’s first foray into the wilds of England’s largest inland county is a somewhat tentative one, but is definitely not the last. Going West from our new home we leave the West Midlands via a little Worcestershire and a little Staffordshire, but as the altitude rises towards the Welsh Marches we hit South Shropshire. Whereas the North of the county sweeps through from the Cheshire plains to the industrial heartland of Shrewsbury-Telford-Ironbridge, the South of the county is dramatic, rugged and massively rural. Bridgnorth is about the biggest settlement in the area, with huge gaps between civilization. To go any further West the intrepid charity shopper must set out over Wenlock Edge, Longmynd, the Clee Hills and more, looking on towards the mountains of Wales. Ideal for the fully experienced rambling hiker.

Bridgnorth itself is a bustling little burgh, an old and historic country town. There’s antiquated civic buildings on legs, city gates and the like. The most notable feature is the town’s split level – the high town and the low town. Approaching this as though you’d be making a day trip to Bridgnorth, the following is the recommendation. From Kidderminster (coming soon) take the Severn Valley Steam Railway through Bewdley and the Wyre Forest, terminating overlooking the Severn in Bridgnorth. Have a wander along the riverbank until you reach the large old bridge, and the low town spans either side of this. While there’s no charity shop action, there’s plenty of room to sit and have an ice cream, watching the Brummies on vacation that tend to throng the town on sunny days – bikers too. From there a pound will buy you a return ticket on the funicular railway, the steepest of its type in the country, no less.

The little railway drops you around the back of the town, next to the castle (which, trivia fans, leans at four times the angle of the leaning tower of Pisa), from where it’s just a short walk round the corner into the high street. There are four charity shops along here. They’re unremarkable, to be honest, and if you go on a Saturday they are sure to be heaving. For a start, the Saturday market butts right up against the pavement, causing all manner of crush for pedestrians. (Make sure you have a full explore of the market though, right around the back to near the supermarket, as there’s all sorts of fun tat to be found. The Old Curiosity Shop is worth a rummage through for army surplus and various randomness, and follow the road round for a lovely, sprawling antiques centre.)

Along the High Street you’ll find Oxfam, Hope House Hospice and British Red Cross, and at the end of the road, Cancer Research. The best of these is probably the Red Cross shop, which sported a nice looking accordion last time we were in.There’s nothing which sets Bridgnorth out as a charity shop Destination, really, but that’s only half the point isn’t it? On the tourism front it’s great fun, especially if you can time your visit to arrive on a 1940s recreation day when the town is swarmed by vintage uniforms…

Find: Bridgnorth Google Maps
Get there: if you can find the fare, go on the steam train!
Consume with: plenty of choice in terms of pubs, cafes and chippies along the high street.
Visit: the leaning castle would be worth a look around.
Overall rating: three RAF uniforms.

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Filed under 3/5, Shropshire

Kenilworth

199-365 Kenilworth Castle by johngarghan, used under creative commons. Click pic for link.

199-365 Kenilworth Castle by johngarghan, used under creative commons. Click pic for link.

We’re not a couple for big holidays, but just recently our life has taken a turn for the glamorous. Job interviews and subsequent relocation mean that we’ve been exploring some of the finest budget hotels in the greater Midlands area, including the fancy likes of Bicester and Northampton. It’s always a good excuse for a trip away though, CST-style, and staying in Coventry Travelodge takes some beating in the glamour stakes. We were only sad to have forgotten our 2-for-1 Toby Carvery breakfast vouchers.

This time, we eschewed the vast flyovers and concrete road-mazes of central Coventry and headed out on the road towards Leamington Spa and Warwick after having had a quick drive around the pretty fancy University of Warwick. This route brings you into the ridiculously scenic country town that is Kenilworth. It may be surrounded by the medieval big hitter at Warwick, the Regency smartness of Leamington, the ashphalt maze of Coventry and the hulking West Midlands conurbation just the other side of the M42; but Kenilworth retains a bucolic air of calmness and relaxation, all watched over by a wonderfully ruinous castle. Arriving onto The Square in search of breakfast, a gloriously sunny day lay stretching ahead of us, and we ate our scrambled eggs on toast very cheerfully in a café aptly named Escape.

There seems to be a correllation between the sort of wealth of residents and the proximity of a railway station. Kenilworth has none, excluding many commuters; but the town exudes a comfortable wealth and community that’s evident in its charity shops and the bustling, friendly vibes of the high street. Up at the Square end, Oxfam bears evidence of this with its wealth of genuinely interesting artefacts. There are silver-topped walking canes; an excellent and interesting book selection; several substantial sets of Denby stoneware; and best of all some ancient cameras complete with some sort of concertina-type mechanism.

Close by is Cats Protection: less fancy, but very good for a rummage. We came away with a £2.50 leather suitcase and very nearly a pile of caravan-friendly melamine cruets, dishes and the like. There’s a cheerful selection of vinyls and books, and some fairly constant singing staff. Head down Warwick Road and you’ll find plenty more: RSPCA, AgeUK, Acorns Hospice, Myton Hospice, Cancer Research and Headway all offering a variety of goodies. There’s also a Scope tucked around the corner in the new pedestrianised development

It’s rare that I’ll suggest this, but with a town centre crammed with no less than nine charity shops, you still haven’t seen the best of Kenilworth. Get your comfy shoes on and take a hike up the hill: there’s another, more select High Street; street after street of the most beautiful, rambly old houses, many overlooking Abbey Fields; and best of all, the massive Kenilworth Castle in all its crumbly, red sandstone glory. While it’s only a little town really, there’s plenty to explore, and it’s just about worthy of a rare five out of five.

Find: Kenilworth @ Google Maps
Get there:
Like at Stow, the railway is a luxury you don’t get in Kenilworth. Plenty of buses though.
Consume with: There’s a number of good looking eateries – we broke our fast at Escape, and The Almanack also looked nice.
Visit: The castle, obviously.
Overall rating: five vintage cameras

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Filed under 5/5, Warwickshire

Special Dispatch: The Big Chill

Mr. Scruff's Tea Tent at The Big Chill Festival. Photo from The Big Chill website.

Mr. Scruff's Tea Tent at The Big Chill Festival. Photo from The Big Chill website.

I am typically not a frequenter of music festivals: in fact, in my burgeoning middle-aged resentment of culture I have all but given up going to most concerts. London gigs are hard work: probably you have to schlep out to Hammersmith or something, and wade through crowds of inebriated scenesters only to have them talk over you for the whole concert. And so on. But The Big Chill was an invite it would be rude to decline and in fact, turned out to be rather lovely.

The Big Chill is not like an ordinary festival. It’s not in a grim suburban field but a beautiful deer park in deepest Herefordshire. The toilets are cleaned regularly; there are children scampering around collecting your used cups (good on whoever came up with a 10p cup deposit); food is not hot dogs and expensive burgers but boureks and mint gunpowder tea, or jerk chicken and fair trade coffee. Things to see eschew bucking broncos, dirty campers and Kings of flipping Leon, instead featuring art installations, Spencer Tunick’s naked people, Massive Attack, Mondo Cane and Gregory Isaacs. And best of all was Mr Scruff’s tea tent.

It seemed only appropriate then that amongst the furry hat stalls and the bubble wand stalls and the Action Aid chuggers was a sizeable Oxfam tent distributing festival wear to the fashion-conscious. Wellies and footwear in abundance of course, as was par for a festival in which the weather was never exactly certain. But not only this, an entire stand for leather and tweed; a wedding dress corner; a trough, literally, of wigs and hats. And, most usefully, a stand full of waterproofs in various wacky hues and shapes. My constant charity shopping companion (now officially The Wife Herself) made good use of a fantastic, granny-styled waterproof which proved extremely useful when sitting in the cold outside the Revellers tent because it was full of Plan B fans.

Much as I hate every other person generally, there was a lovely atmosphere at the Big Chill and the Oxfam tent is really just an excuse to wax enthusiastic about a fun time. I recommend.

Find: The Big Chill @ Google Maps
Consume with: Mr. Scruff’s Tea Tent was my highlight of the weekend – the excellent tea was accompanied by some awesome-smelling brownies and a view of ducks in a pond. Most charming.
Visit:
maybe the Victorian Funfair, or the art installations of the Enchanted Garden.
Overall rating: four jester hats

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Filed under 4/5, Herefordshire

Dartmouth

Dartmouth, under creative commons from davepattens Flickr photostream. Click pic for link.

Dartmouth, under creative commons from davepatten's Flickr photostream. Click pic for link.

I’m not the first to visit Dartmouth, you know. I’m only following in the footsteps of others, in this case Chaucer, Henry Hudson, the Pilgrim Fathers, Charles II, Flora Thompson and Jonathan Raban, and countless oiks who’ve passed through the dramatic gates of the Royal Naval College which overlooks the town. It’s principally as a port that Dartmouth is known – its strategic importance as a deep-water port was noted by the French who sacked it twice in the Hundred Years War, and for whose benefit the twin castles of Dartmouth and Kingswear were presumably built. Today though, it’s tourists by the million that throng the streets – no rowdy sailors looking for a night out, more nice English families come to gawp at the quaint harbourfront.

It really is quaint though: full of brightly-coloured buildings and the odd Tudor number (see John Burton Race’s restaurant The New Angel for an example), around packed alleys and streets and markets, it’s a really pleasant little town to visit. There’s plenty to see at the castle, and plenty of shops and things in town – a cute walled market, and the odd cobbled street with rows of boutiques, hand made soap shops, expensive kitchenware stockists, etc. There’s pasty shops and cream teas a-plenty, and you can even take the boat up river to Totnes or a steam train to Paignton, should you feel so inclined.

So, a tourist destination par excellence on the English Riviera, in the South Hams area of natural beauty. But not really the spot if you’re looking for a bargain. Aside from the many boutiques and chandleries there’s the National Trust shop and the like (and look out for the discount White Stuff store if you can find it), but only the two charity shops. They’re pretty good mind – Cancer Research has a big shop on Duke Street with some good finds: I’ve found a number of props in here before and I left this time with a nice grandad collared shirt, which is pleasant. Expect plenty of stripy boating-type shirts and slacks.

The other is the Mare & Foal Sanctuary. This is somewhat less ordered, but full of odd things – we spent a happy while browsing the children’s clothes and looking at odd board games and electricals.

That’s it for charity shops, so if you’re thinking of visiting Dartmouth try and work out if you fall more on the charity shop side, or the tourism side. Me, I’m a full-on tourist sometimes, so I like it here.

Find: Dartmouth @ Google Maps
Consume with: The New Angel is the place to go, probably, but there’s some awesome cakes in a window on Duke Street.
Visit: The castle’s pretty good – there’s cannons and arrow slits, which is what you want from a castle.
Overall rating: three little oil bottles

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Filed under 3/5, Devon