Tag Archives: town

Coleford

Coleford Market Place, by Roland Turner. Image used under Creative Commons, click pic for link.

Coleford Market Place, by Roland Turner. Image used under Creative Commons, click pic for link.

As with its Forest of Dean neighbour Cinderford, it doesn’t take a genius to work out what made Coleford what it is. The Forest was one of the most intensively industrialised regions of the early Industrial Revolution and has a history back to the Romans of coal and iron working, and the crossing of Thurstan’s Brook in the west of the region, on the way to the River Wye, must have seemed like a reasonable enough place to set up a settlement. It was originally just a hamlet in the parish of Newland, now a nearby village famous for its massive church, the Cathedral of the Forest; it didn’t gain the market which defines the centre of the town until 1642. This was in the early throes of the Civil War when the nearest market town, Monmouth, was under Royalist control, which didn’t sit easily with the Parliamentarian Coleford. The market was reinstated after the war ended, and a grand new market hall was built – the clock tower in the centre of the modern marketplace is the remaining section of that.

Coleford these days is a mixture of the old market town, and the sprawling development characteristic of industrial towns – as such it’s got a lot in common with towns like Bilston or Stourbridge in the Black Country, or the cotton towns of the West Riding, where geography and geology collide with human history. The town is surrounded by relics of mining – Whitecliff and Darkhill Ironworks are nearby, and are both very significant historical sites (if you’re into your industrial history), and you can hardly venture into the surrounding forests without stumbling across disused mineshafts or other remains.

Back in town, what looks initially like a glorified village with added industrial estates actually turns out to be quite a hive of charity shops – although not much else. The action all takes place surrounding the marketplace and clocktower, from which four streets radiate. On Market Place, you won’t find charity shops. You will find the Angel Hotel, possibly the oldest of numerous pubs and beerhouses that characteristed the early nineteenth-century town. There are several of note, but my favourite was the Cobblers Micropub – looks… interesting.

On High Street, there are charity shops. Sue Ryder is between Mushet Walk (named after David Mushet, the Scottish steelman linked with both Whitecliff and Darkhill) and Kaplan’s Cafe, which we belatedly discovered serves a full range of Turkish food, including tavuk şiş (the one thing I miss London for). I am so there next time.

It’s actually a bit unfair to say that there’s not much in Coleford. Once you start to dig (and if you can forget that it’s first thing on an incredibly wet morning) there are plenty of interesting buildings and sites – if you continued up the high street you’d find the Coleford Great Western Railway Museum, and the possibility of walking all the way to Parkend and the Dean Forest Railway along the former Severn & Wye Railway track, if that’s your thing.

Head South East on Newland Street and you’ll Dial-a-Ride – I think this is the first time I’ve seen one of their charity shops, but unfortunately, given the overwhelmingly smell of boiled cabbage, I might be a bit wary of others. A somewhat nondescript Cancer Research is around the corner, but Forest Aid is much better, with an array of all sorts of stuff, including an entire men’s room where the books are kept. I don’t know if that’s rampant sexism or just space utilisation… Further round, on St John’s Street is Opportunity Box, a bit of a treasure trove, and the pick of the bunch, the massive Dean Forest Hospice. We were a bit rain-drowned and bought just the one thing in Coleford – happily it was from here, and happily it was a rather pleasant mid-century style mirror. That is, one thing aside from a sausage sandwich at Kaplans.

I liked Coleford, despite the rain. It’s tiny, which means you can hack it around the charity shops in under an hour, or take it at a more leisurely pace. It has a lot more to it than meets the eye and would bear a proper explore, and I’m fully expecting to return next time I’m in this neck of the (literal) woods – if only for tavuk şiş.

Find: Coleford @ Google Maps
Get there: Buses from Gloucester, Lydney, or Chepstow – but cycling through the Forest would be much more fun.
Consume with: there’s quite the range actually, from the Tram Road chippy, to Kaplan’s, to the various alehouses – take your pick.
Visit: Even if you’re not a rail enthusiast, there’s still plenty to look at. Try the Puzzle Wood, Clearwell Caves or Hopewell Colliery for starters. If you’re the outdoors type anyway, the Forest of Dean offers loads of great walking.
Overall rating: four cabbages

 

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Filed under 4/5, Gloucestershire

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

Tewkesbury

Summer in Tewkesbury, by Jayt74. Image used under creative commons, click pic for link.

Summer in Tewkesbury, by Jayt74. Image used under creative commons, click pic for link.

Things you might associate with Tewkesbury: floods; mustard; abbey; battle. For a fairly modest market town in Gloucestershire, Tewkesbury has a fair volume of history and contribution to society behind it. Floods first – perhaps more than anything, these define Tewkesbury in contemporary popular imagination. 2007 was only the most recent drama to affect the town – see here for a full breakdown of flooding in the Severn catchment – and not the first time the town has been completely cut off. The dramatic pictures on the TV revealed a low-lying town at the confluence of two of the biggest rivers in the country (the Severn and Avon), and Tewkesbury is essentially built on the wide meadows of the Severn plain, making it a prime spot for a bit of flood water. It’s a shame, because it’s a lovely town, but like Worcester and other towns on major rivers, there’s a risk to living here (and no doubt a significant chunk of insurance premium).

But beyond the obvious, Tewkesbury is home to a whole pile of Englishness. Tewkesbury Mustard combines the heat of mustard with the heat of horseradish. Genius! Tewkesbury Abbey is the third largest church that’s not a cathedral in the country; the Battle of Tewkesbury was one of the decisive battles of the Wars of the Roses (York won, much to my dad’s chagrin), and  Edward IV became the boss. (not The Boss, just the boss). Not just a market town, it’s a historic (sadly now historic only, and no longer operative) flour milling town, and the relics of this industry are clearly seen along the banks of the Avon, just off the High Street. It’s a delight too for historians of vernacular architecture – we met my folks there for the day and were regailed with all sorts of information about jettying and timber-framing, which hopefully didn’t push any other, more useful, information out of my brain. It’s also a pretty good charity shop destination.

Parking is available in several spots around town – next to the Saturday market is handy; so is St Mary’s Lane, overlooking the Avon. Be careful when you choose to go: hit Tewkesbury on Medieval Festival day and you’ll be hard-pressed to get a spot. Tewkesbury’s array of charity shops is strung along the High Street, between the Cross and the shopping arcade at the upper end. Don’t just stick to this stretch if you want to fulfil the Tourism part of our brief: some of the most scenic parts of Tewkesbury are on Church Street, including the Old Baptist Chapel, the Abbey itself, and ancient pubs like the Berkeley Arms and Royal Hop Pole (now a Wetherspoons hotel, but mentioned in the Pickwick Papers). At the bottom of the High Street you’ll find the slightly random Roses Charity Shop in aid of the town’s theatre and opened by Gervase Phinn, don’tyouknow; and close by, the Bookworm shop (I have to be very selective about going into charity bookshops like this as I’m quite prone to temptation).

Further along we have British Hearth Foundation, Cancer Research, AgeUKTenovus and Blue Cross (always proud of its medieval-themed displays), then a string of Guideposts Trust, St Richard’s Hospice and the Salvation Army. I wouldn’t say that any of these were remarkable shops, as such; but again none are poor or weird (always a possibility), and as a rule are fairly large. Happy hunting grounds, really, and a distraction from the biggest attraction Tewkesbury has (for me at least): Cornell Books, with its ramshackle side entrance and its boxes, and boxes, and boxes of old maps: Bartholomew, vintage OS and many more besides, many of them for a solitary pound. I could genuinely spend a day in there, but I am very careful.

I love Tewkesbury, actually. It warrants a whole day of exploring the alleys and ginnels, the antique markets and tea shoppes, the river walks and – of course – the charity shops.

Find: Tewkesbury @ Google Maps
Get there: the station is Ashchurch For Tewkesbury, on the mainline from Brum to the South West, but it’s a bus-ride for anyone who doesn’t want a hike.
Consume with: plenty of choice in terms of hearty pub food or cafe culture; my experience can recommend cheap-and-cheerful pub grub at the Berkeley, or coffee and cake at Caffe Ricci.
Visit: plenty to look at too, the obvious choice being the magnificent abbey.
Overall rating: four slotted spoons

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Filed under 4/5, Gloucestershire

Birmingham

As a wannabe historian, I’m wary of making pre-judgments of people, places or events based on paltry, secondhand information. It wasn’t always thus: time was that I was quick to judge places that I’d never been, in particular, and for the sake of winding up the (later-to-be) wife, Birmingham came in for quite a bit of derision. It’s a city of ring roads and concrete, I argued, like a town planner in the 1960’s tripped over and spilled all his tools onto a relief map. It’s all sinister canals and derelict factories, mid-table football teams and easily-ridiculed accents.

As it turns out, since moving to the vicinity, I’m quite a fan of sinister canals and derelict factories and I’m quite enjoying the accent. I draw the line at Aston Villa mind. I live in the Black Country, it should be noted – on a local scale, there’s plenty of rivalry there. But when it’s the Midlands against one of the other regions, those from the conurbation tend to be pretty proud of their big city. Not proud like the self-aggrandising Liverpool, and not the parka and monkey legs swagger of Manchester; Brum has always been strong on the self-deprecatory humour and it means that despite being the second city of the nation Birmingham is more often a figure of fun than a serious contender for a global city.

It’s a pity. I, like Telly Savalas, have become a big fan. Like him I can appreciate the Aston Expressway and New Street station of course, but to be honest they’re as much as most people know – or want to know – about the city. If you’ve never taken the time to get to know the city, you may well associate Birmingham with mind-numbing delays through Spaghetti Junction, on the M6 to anywhere else. Or you might have tried to negotiate the equally epic M5/M6 junction in Walsall, or got lost around the ring road. Birmingham is Motor City UK for sure: its wide roads matching the vast car factories such as the now-departed Longbridge plant; not, perhaps, the most elegant city to approach. That’s true by rail as well – entering New Street Station (even/especially after the recent renovations) is an ennervating experience as you descend into black tunnels, all watched over by brutalism’s cheerless eye.

That’s Birmingham – centre of the Midlands, on the middle of your journey to somewhere else. But Birmingham’s joys are just different to those of other cities, not less. Wander a while in the Jewellery Quarter if its gas street lights and old-fashioned workshops you’re after. Explore the canals which radiate in all directions from the hub beneath Broad Street – you’ll find waterside living and pavement restaurants every bit as pleasant as anything London can offer. Bit of culture? Try the (free) museum, the festivals in Moseley, the coffee and fine dining in the Colmore Row area, the balti triangle in Sparkbrook, join a revolution in Handsworth. Take your pick of monumentalist Victorian architecture, of Brutalism, of Georgian, of Tolkein-ian or of Jacobean. For as long as it’s been a city, Birmingham has been a centre of Enlightenment and industry, radicalism and controversy. It’s shaped in the popular mind by the bulldozed concrete behemoths of the city centre and the Birmingham Six, but in reality it’s more diverse and more interesting than you could hope to discover.

In fact, as I understand it, Birmingham has not only become a foodie destination but a shoppers one also. The Bullring is no longer the concrete hulk where a young Godber fell in love over jars of pickled onions; it’s high-end and fancy. It’s not to everyone’s taste mind – Birmingham’s alt.culture finds itself increasingly marginalised into the Oasis centre, for example, while Reddington’s Rare Records and Swordfish end up having to relocate – but if you like carrying giant paper bags with string handles, you’ll probably do well here. One area for improvement is charity shops. Historically there’s always been a handful, but more recently I could have had no justification to write about Brum at all. That was until the arrival of two British Heart Foundation stores in close proximity to one another. The first is a large, well-stocked and – unusually for BHF – they seem to have got the floorspace designers in so there’s far fewer “scuse me”s needed to get around the shop. The second shop is the really handy one. It’s huge for a start – possibly the biggest charity shop I’ve ever been in, occupying the site of the former Virgin Records store. And it’s full to the brim with every kind of homeware, from sofas to digital radios, fridges to rugs, bookshelves to spin dryers.

Birmingham is, sadly, not much of a charity shop destination. The suburbs are another matter, but the town centre is a bit too swish these days. These two BHF shops though are great and surprisingly well worth an investigation – much like Brum itself.

Find: Birmingham @ Google Maps
Get there: easy by any means – try out the new New Street station if you dare, but I prefer Moor Street.
Consume with: a vast range here, depending on your taste or budget, running from the awesome 99p baguette shops, to meat-heavy Brazilian grill Rodizio Rico, to the Balti Triangle, to Purnell’s, to the Flapper on the canal.
Visit: free museums? The centre of Britain’s waterway network? Bit of art at the MAC? Bit of animal at Cannon Hill Park?
Overall rating: three washing machines

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Filed under 3/5, West Midlands

Moreton-in-Marsh

A Thought for Sunday from John Ruskin, by UGArdener, used under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

A Thought for Sunday from John Ruskin, by UGArdener, used under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

I’ve been reading about Roman roads recently, for no particular reason other than there’s one marked on the map near home. Apparently there’s about a bazillion, going everywhere – if there’s a long, straight stretch of road near you (and you live south of the Union Canal), chances are it was first put there by the Romans, by dint of mad engineering skills, legions of grunts to do the work, and a sheer bloody-mindedness which led them to insist almost exclusive on straight marching routes, hills be damned. It’s given me some respect for the soldier of the day – to march across the country on a regular basis is no mean feat – and renewed my lack of respect for my own fitness by comparison.

One of the best known of the roads is the Fosse Way, which cuts across country from Lincoln (Lindum Colonia) to Exeter (Isca Dumnoniorum). There’s a turn at Ilchester (Lindinis), but between there and Lincoln the road is never more than 6 miles from a perfectly straight line. Considering that it traverses the Mendips and the entire length of the Cotswolds, that’s not bad going. Anyway, Moreton is found on that Fosse Way, in a direct line from Cirencester and Stow on the Wold to Leamington Spa and Leicester, and the long high street reflects that. It’s not a large town, Moreton; it wasn’t really a settlement area (so far as anyone knows) in the Roman times, and was just a stopping point for many years. It grew into a proper town about 800 years ago as a coaching stop, and got a market – it’s now a coach stop tour (£15 for a return to the Tuesday market from Thomas Cook in Stourbridge), its long high street ideal for some pootling, or apparently a cream tea – there are a hundred and one tea shoppes here.

Time was, I’d have been able to get a train here directly. Thanks to *cough* the rationalisation of the last few decades, the journey is far less convenient (and probably less stylish than boarding the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway in my bowler hat and spats); the station remains though, and will take you to Oxford or Worcester on the Cotswold Line. The last time we were here, it was at the tail end of a thoroughly enjoyable couple of days over Spring half-term; we called into Moreton as one of a number of stops on the way home. There was one difference to our previous visit: a pop-up mixed charity shop has now disappeared (it seemed to be sending it’s proceeds towards both Help For Heroes and the Bob Champion Trust), and the permanent charity shops are the only ones that remain.

The remaining shops are pretty good, happily. The largest is undoubtedly Sue Ryder Care, a double shop with a variety of oddments – it’s a particularly esoteric assortment given the somewhat clean-cut and anodyne nature of Sue Ryder shops generally. I tend to prefer a dark hole of a charity shop, a ramshackle, junk-shop feel, to the cleaner, modern, lighter shops; but this is a fine exception. Light and airy, yet full of random nonsense, perfect.

The other charity shops (including MindAgeUK and Break) reflect Moreton’s well-heeled population and bucolic setting – lots of nice things, lots worth a poke at. With just the four charity shops, Moreton is unlikely to detain the CSTourist for too long, unless you happen to get lost in the endless, wonderful maze of the Toy Shop, or stay for a cream tea. But it’s definitely worth a pass through, and there’s so many chocolate-box towns with a few places worth visiting around here, that you can easily make a day trip out of it.

Find: Moreton-in-Marsh @ Google Maps
Get there: there’s a dead convenient railway station at the end of the high street, with signs in Japanese for the benefit of the many visitors. Handy.
Consume with: for the most traditional of cream teas, Tilly’s looks like the place to be.
Visit: you could go and have a nosy at Dorn Roman village nearby (doesn’t look like there’s a lot to see).
Overall rating: three hipflasks

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Filed under 3/5, Gloucestershire

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

Upton on Severn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under 3/5, Worcestershire