Tag Archives: save the children

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

Matlock

Derwent Valley, Derbyshire, under creative commons by Duncan Harris. Click pic for link.

Derwent Valley, Derbyshire, under creative commons by Duncan Harris. Click pic for link.

Although just outside the bounds of the Peak District national park, you won’t run short of scenery in and around Matlock. The River Derwent, which winds down from the middle of the park, through Bakewell, Matlock, Belper and Derby before meeting the Trent, has carved out an impressive path through the Derbyshire Dales, and the Matlock area is where you find some of the most dramatic parts. Maybe the best way to approach the town centre is from the South, from Belper direction – you’ll follow the Cromford Canal and the Derwent through a UNESCO World Heritage Site of mills and industrial history (I’m pretty much in love with all that at the moment, you’ll have to forgive me) and then pass into the really dramatic gorge around Matlock Bath – stop here for the Heights of Abraham with its cable car – and into Matlock town centre. If you fancy, you can walk all the way, or you can come from the opposite direction on the Peak Rail.

Matlock and its environs were a collection of unimportant villages until the discovery of thermal springs there at the close of the 17th century. With the industrial revolution just a few years after, and Victorian hydro-tourism, Matlock became the bustling county town of Derbyshire, and remains a busy rural town today. What that essentially means for our intentions is that there’s a pile of charity shops, plenty to look at, and something to eat.

If you arrive in Matlock from Cromford direction, you’ll find an Oxfam Books shop as your first charity shop on Dale Road. You’d be well advised to embrace the non-charity sector as well – although there’s one or two smartly priced antiques shops, we’ve found some excellent bargains in Second Time Around, just over the road from Oxfam, including books, blankets, maps and all sorts. Cross over the river and stop to admire the view towards Riber Castle along the Derwent and once again thank your lucky stars that you can come to such a beautiful part of the world. Chuck a penny in the oddly-coloured water of the wishing well, if you’re very grateful.

At the Crown Square roundabout you’re faced with three variably fruitful options. Turn left for the road to Bakewell, Youlgreave and into the Peaks. Along here you’ll find a handily located Wetherspoon’s for breakfast, the Railway Inn for other liquid refreshment (sadly, they seem not to do the breakfasts any more that we enjoyed on our first visit, watching England embarrass themselves in the Rugby World Cup over a plate of sausage and egg), and the slightly odd, crammed-full Lighthouse charity shop. There’s plenty of bargains in here including small electricals, if you can negotiate the over-stuffed room and inconveniently-placed staff.

Go straight up the hill from the bridge, on Bank Road, and you’ll find the majority of Matlock’s civic or historic buildings; importantly, you’ll also find Save The Children, British Red Cross and AgeUK, although you may not find much in them. Alternatively, right onto Causeway Lane will take you along the parks by the river and just round the corner to Firs Parade, home to Mind, Sue Ryder and British Heart Foundation. So that’s a fair haul of eight charity shops in a little town which happens to be one of the prettiest I know. As you can see, I’m in a generous mood, but I’ve no doubt we’ll be returning to Matlock any and every time we’re in the area.

Find: Matlock Google Maps
Get there: you’ve many options – walk the Derwent Valley Heritage Trail, catch the Peak Rail steam train, or get the normal train from Derby.
Consume with: I would have said breakfast at the Railway, but there’s plenty of other options, including the ‘spoons.
Visit: plenty round here! Masson MillsHeights of Abraham, Riber Castle
Overall rating: five china face dolls

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Filed under 5/5, Derbyshire

Halesowen

Just like a concrete spider by abrinksky, used under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

Just like a concrete spider by abrinksky, used under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

My visit to Halesowen was somewhat unusual for me: an edgy, nervous visit, which was nothing to do with the town itself; and stranger still, a solitary excursion. My loyal wedded wife would normally accompany me everywhere and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But the reason we were anywhere near Halesowen at all (hardly a glamorous destination itself) was for an interview for her and that involved me exploring the area and doing plenty of pacing around.

Fortunately, I know how to entertain myself around charity shops, and Halesowen has a whole slew of ’em. These are focused on the (very) 1960s pedestrianised shopping precinct which hardly does justice to Halesowen’s history: at the time of its mention in the Domesday Book Halesowen was larger than Birmingham and was known as Hala until it was gifted to David Owen (not the SDP one) in the twelfth century – hence Halesowen. It grew from a market town to a thriving industrial centre on the outskirts of the Black Country coalfield, being particularly noted as a centre of nail manufacture (not quite as thrilling as Cradley, home of chain-making, just up the road, but still good). It remains very much in post-industrial no-mans-land:  a new bus station development and Asda hardly make up the ground in this bleak, concrete outpost of the West Midlands.

The conglomeration of charity shops makes sense then. First to be noted are Age UK and Beacon Centre for the Blind, opposite the churchyard. Fairly standard in appeal, the shops set the tone for the town: the produce is reasonably priced, the shops are reasonably busy and the staff are reasonably friendly. Very reasonable. I parked above Asda and found these two first because I didn’t really know where I was going, but it’s a fair way to enter the town: turn right down the slope into the precinct for the full slew. On your right will be Cancer Research (closed on the Thursday morning of my visit) and to the left Acorns Hospice and British Heart Foundation. Further along the street you’ll find a large and well-stocked British Red Cross shop, near the entrance to the ugly Cornbow Centre which dominates the town centre. The remaining trio of charity shops are on Peckingham Street, all in a row: Scope and Mary Stevens Hospice bookend a large Save the Children, the best of the bunch in Halesowen (and I’m not just saying that because the aforementioned wife used to work there).

It’s a pretty bleak outpost, as I say: Halesowen reminded me of, say, Basildon or Waltham Cross, with the epic range of charity shopping and painfully dated architecture of the latter, in particular. If you have an hour to spend it’s probably a profitable place to sniff out a bargain, as long as you’re not in it for quaintness…

Find: Halesowen @ Google Maps
Get there:
Old Hill station or many buses
Consume with: various shoddy delights – my cappucino in Coffee2 was OK, or thereabouts
Visit: nothing much in Halesowen, but make a break for the Clent Hills, just down the road.
Overall rating: three Stephen Kings

  

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Filed under 3/5, West Midlands

Newbury

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under 5/5, Berkshire

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

Truro

 

Truro_S09044, from Ennor (unwell-resting)s photostream, under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

Truro_S09044, from Ennor (unwell-resting)'s photostream, under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

Truro’s famous neo-gothic cathedral rises above this medieval city a little like the Emerald City over Oz; a 250 foot jewel rising over the old county town, and Britain’s most southerly city. John Loughborough Pearson’s triple-spired Victorian edifice looms large over the town but the kink in its design belies the fact that Truro is much older than the cathedral and the designers had to fit the church to the town, and not vice versa. The ramshackle spread of Truro’s streets makes reveals the medieval structure of the town and as such, it’s quite a charming place to visit.

 

As the big town of Cornwall, it’s also a heaving mess of people on this sunny Easter holiday weekday. I can’t imagine it of a weekend – chances are I’d be less keen, having inherited a charming misanthropy from my father. But, it’s a pleasant diversion from the dusty wastelands of most of the Cornwall that the brochures don’t show you, so I’ll poke around further.

The plan of Truro has changed dramatically since Google’s satellite imagery was last updated. Gone are the huge building sites, replaced with the biggest Marks & Sparks you ever saw and a host of other large scale shops and eateries. The plaza in front is now the central part of this new development, and it’s an attractive arena with an outdoor market to complement the indoor pannier market. You can cut through the pannier market to the older, smaller town centre section of Boscawen Street, and between the two you have all the chain stores you’d hope for in a town of Truro’s size (probably more, even).

It’s worth having a poke through the side streets though, because it’s here that you’ll find the little retailers and cafes that make Truro actually quite pleasant. There’s a few crafty jewellery types (crafty in the make-their-own-wares sort of way, not suspicious) and handmade toy shops, that sort of thing. There’s also our lovely charity shops, and many of them – too many to give a run down of pro’s and cons, I think. I failed to make suitable notes, sadly.

At the top of Pydar Street we have British Heart Foundation and a teeny Cats Protection League. There’s a couple of shop-laden snickets through to The Leats, and at this end of town (mostly around River Street, heading back towards Boscawen) you’ll find the Cornwall Hospice, Cancer ResearchSave The Children, Barnado’sAge Concern and CLIC Sargent Hospice. That leaves Children’s Hospice South West, and finally an Oxfam that proved a significant iPhone/GPS fail. But, worth it, because it was a nice shop over the bridge.

That’s not a lot of information, true, but Truro wins on quantity rather than quality. If you want a pushchair, or a particular necklace, or a particular book, chances are you’ll find it somewhere in Truro, just be the law of odds. Plus, it’s an attractive enough town with its neo-gothic/middle ages mash-up architecture in abundance and plenty of things to do.

Find: Truro @ Google Maps
Consume with: something chocolate based in Thorntons Cafe, perhaps?
Visit: Has to be the cathedral.
Overall Rating: four convenient pushchairs

   

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Filed under 4/5, Cornwall

Totnes

 

Totnes, by dachalan, under Creative Commons.

Totnes, by dachalan, under Creative Commons.

Here I am and here I rest. And this town shall be called Totnes. 

So, allegedly, declared Brutus of Troy, mythical founder of Britain, upon landing at the “coasts of Totness”. Given that Totnes is a good 6 miles to the coast it seems unlikely, but nevertheless the town has become the de factoadministrative capital of the South Devon region known very cutely as the South Hams.

Brutus is commemorated with his own Stone on Fore Street (see here for pic and more info). Whatever its actual origins, by the 12th century Totnes was a bustling market town situated on the river Dart and on the major route through this part of Devon – even today, Totnes is just off the excitingly named A38 Devon Expressway and on the main rail route from Paddington through to Penzance. 

It’s a nice town, is Totnes. You can start at the bottom or the top – recommended would be the Steamer Quay car park by the river: it’s a hike and a half to the top of the hill, and you’ll not likely want to do that to go back to the car. Cross the river Dart and make your way to the foot of Fore Street where we start our trek.

First stop, a low-beamed Scope, sets the tone. A large shop, well-stocked with all manner of interesting things in an attractive setting. Amidst the many butchers, handmade shoe shops and other such boutiques, the charity shops of Totnes slot in admirably. Scope yielded me a Phaidon book of boring postcards, which was maybe the highlight of my whole holiday.

We continue up the steep slope via Save The Children (good for board games, and I’ve seen some excellent records here in the past) and British Heart Foundation. The hill peaks at Castle Street, where you can turn off for the small but charming Totnes Castle. It’s worth taking the time to poke off the main drag – the residential streets around the old part of town are really cute, especially leading up to the castle. 

Finally, there’s a few shops bunched together as the High Street bends round: an Oxfam and accompanying Oxfam Books & Music (I left with an Andre Gide, but as usual, not the cheapest), then two more local shops (a vast and sprawling Rowcroft Hospice, and a much smaller, but jam-packed Animals In Distress.

Definitely a well-worth-it trip out, because once you fight passed the massed ranks of hippies and crystals Totnes is a really lovely town, and one of my favourite haunts when I’m in a Devon way.

Find: Totnes on Google Maps
Transport: Totnes railway station is on the mainline from London to Penzance.
Consume with: Lunch, coffee, whatever at the Tangerine Tree Cafe – this was a great discovery.
Visit: The castle, of course. But nearby is the wonderful wilderness of Dartmoor, and I prefer that.
Overall Rating: four battered Mills & Boons


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Filed under 4/5, Devon