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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

Holyhead

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

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

There are times when the charity shop tourist seeks out the most picturesque, the quaintest, the cutest place to visit; the most historically enthralling, the most scenic arrival. But the professional knows that there are also times when it is just as worthwhile to seek out the less glamorous locations; those forgotten by the brochures, the dusty, windswept high streets, the endless 1960s architectural horror, those spots where describing the local character as colourful is definitely a euphemism rather than a selling point.  We’ve had plenty of success on the unloved precincts of, for instance, Waltham Cross, Newton Abbot, Letchworth or Kidderminster; we even had fun in Basildon. The little we knew about Holyhead before arriving was nothing to do with its architecture or general quaintness levels – probably about the same as you do, that Holyhead is a port. That’s about it – wasn’t sure if it was going to be quaint harbour town like Whitstable, or bleak industrial seaside town like, say, Sheerness in Kent.

The approach to Holyhead (or Caergybi if you like) is not particularly inspiring; or at least it wasn’t on the grey, drizzly day we arrived. This followed the obligatory drive through Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (disappointingly this turns out to be a fake name invented as a Victorian publicity stunt; the village is likewise a bit on the disappointing side) and a very worthwhile stop for excellent chips on the beach at Rhosneigr. From there, you take either the traditional post road, the A5; or the newer (2001) A55, the Anglesey extension of the North Wales coast road that’s such fine to drive on the mainland. I don’t know if it was the weather, or the fairly featureless expanse of Anglesey, but we didn’t leave with any misgivings – the island seems a particularly dull place. Holyhead actually isn’t on the island of Anglesey at all: the two main roads and the railway cross over on or parallel to the Cobb causeway onto Holy Island.

If the approach to the town doesn’t instill much confidence, the town itself won’t let you down on that front. First, the positives though. One of my most frequent grumbles in life is ticket machines in car parks. If I were to buy a coke or a bar of chocolate from a vending machine, I’d be extremely cross if it decided not to give me any change – probably to the point of the traditional tilt, shake and kick. But in a council-run car park it’s apparently OK to just not give change as standard. Here Holyhead made me happy – not only did the machine in the Hill Street car park issue my ticket for free, but it kept giving me change well beyond what I put in. This I like. 

Holyhead probably has plenty to sea if you’re a boat-y type. It has an epic breakwater and marina, and therefore some sort of Irish Sea-front promenade. But really, the town’s dominated by its massive container/ferry port (proud of its “first-class stevedoring skills”), its very prominent railway line and station, and a series of drab little shopping streets on the side of a hill. The other positive is that there is a fair smattering of charity shops of various types here. It has to be said that the majority of these are only half-removed from a church hall jumble sale in style and layout (there’s even a charity shop dedicated to Caergybi Parish Church). On balance, I think that’s probably a good thing – it feels more like a rummage for a bargain than the pristine shopping experience you’d get in say, Oxfam; but the bargains were few and far between, so you have to be in a certain sort of dedicated mood to get the most out of this sort of shop. The pinnacle of these was the massive A Team shop – I remain unsure if it’s a Dwight Schulz benefit or something else, but it was a huge rabbit run of rails, shelves and stacks. Not easy to navigate, and imbued with a certain sort of odour, but worth a look. 

The other shops fit somewhere in between normal shop and jumble sale: you’ll find TenovusRSPCA, Gwynedd Hospice At Home, and a massive YMCA. Our bargains on the day were limited to some melamine storage to go in the caravan (now sadly departed 😦 ), which matched what we had already. Other than this, the run-down feel of the town centre pervaded the mood even of the normally chirpy charity shop sector on a grey summer afternoon. Google Maps suggests a shop for African Orphans, but locates it firmly within a Chinese takeaway, so we didn’t see anything

Run down is the only expression, really. As always, perhaps we missed the scenic delights of Holyhead; we didn’t visit the marina or walk on the wacky bendy bridge, for instance. But some things you can’t patch up with a strategic bit of public art. Holyhead is stuck right on the edge of the country, and the town centre is sufficiently bleak to match it. The hilly geography of the town centre and its undoubted history mean that Holyhead was probably once both interesting and attractive – today it’s neither of those things, and most will have little motivation to drive past the massive warehouse retail outlets on the edge of town. The same problem is found in so, so many towns we visit (cf. everything within a ten-mile radius of Merry Hill): what’s the attraction of the town centre? More thought required.

Find: Holyhead @ Google Maps
Get there: all the options: trains and roads come here, as does the ferry from Dublin or Dun Laoghaire.
Consume with: if you do want to hang around, you’ll find a few locally coffee shops and caffs – we didn’t stay long enough to check them out.
Visit: how about Ireland?
Overall rating: two melon ballers

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Filed under 2/5, Anglesey

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

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

Leominster

Leominster Old Market Hall, under creative commons by sally-parishmouse. Click pic for link.

Leominster Old Market Hall, under creative commons by sally_parishmouse. Click pic for link.

There’s a segment of the west country that sits across the borders of Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, that’s rapidly becoming one of my favourite parts of the country. When I look on the map I come to the conclusion that its borders would be difficult to define: certainly it incorporates the Teme valley through Ludlow and Tenbury, the Clee Hills and down to the Severn below Worcester. It would also stretch north to the Longmynd and Church Stretton, and probably as far up as Shrewsbury. If I go that far I’d have to include Bridgnorth, oh, and Ironbridge, then down the Severn valley through Bewdley with a detour to the Kinver/Clent area, taking in Stourport, then right down to Upton and back west to Great Malvern and Ledbury. The problem is, every time we find a town/hill/river/misc. scenery that fits just outside that area, we’d have to push the envelope until most of those three counties are included.

Leominster does fall squarely in this lovely part of the world, though, on the A44 between Hereford and Ludlow – Welsh mountains to one side, lush Elgar country on the other. Towns around here are pretty well-heeled, with plenty of local produce markets, antiques shops (Leominster is very well-stocked on this front) and the like. There’s an Aldi here, but the Cooperative is bigger. Nevertheless, the usual image of charity shops being the last desperate resort of tatty town centres is far from true here – no less than nine charity shops nestle alongside antiques markets and secondhand shops, making Leominster a bit of a destination for vintage-seekers.

We visited for a second time this past Saturday afternoon, in the pouring rain. St Michael’s Hospice and another unnamed animal shelter shop were as closed as they were last time we visited, but a pile of others were open. The bulk of charity shops cluster around the high street, which splits into two narrow roads. Here you’ll find large Debra and YMCA shops, both of which include some furniture (although not much). There’s also Tenovus and British Red Cross on this stretch, then it’s just a matter of nipping along one of the side streets into Corn Square where you find Oxfam and British Heart Foundation.

Down the hill is Broad Street, which is pretty much that – a wide street with a barometer shop, rows of antiques markets and the ubiquitous shabby chic reclaimed furniture stores, who will quite cheerfully ask £85 for a decoupaged G-plan bedside table that would cost you £5 to reclaim and make for yourself. The antiques centres are pretty good mind – we’ve bought beautiful rugs from here before now, and even in this Age Of Austerity I could have bought a pile of records. As it turned out, I came out with just a Dubliners album – but After The Goldrush was cheaper here, too, than it was in Keswick Oxfam.

Back up and along West Street there’s a fairly nondescript Sue Ryder, and one of the more tempting shops of the town, Utter Clutter (which, if I overheard correctly, is closing soon, so get at those half-price vinyls). I came out of there with more Bruce Springsteen vinyls at reasonable cost.

There aren’t any spectacular charity shops in Leominster, but there’s certainly a decent enough volume. It’s a lovely little town though, in a lovely setting, so I can cheerfully recommend your visit.

Find: Leominster Google Maps
Get there: Leominster station is a little outside the town centre, but not too far.
Consume with: Savery’s is a nice little caff, with some mega cakes.
Visit: Leominster’s in the heart of the Lugg valley – small and very pleasant, and near to much of olde worlde Herefordshire.
Overall rating: four melamine bowls

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Filed under 4/5, Herefordshire