Growing up in West Cornwall, I almost never went to Falmouth; my sister had friends who played in bands in sticky-floored pubs near the docks, but it wasn’t really for me. We’d go to Truro for shopping when our nearest town, Helston, fell short; we sometimes went to Penzance but I really didn’t know Falmouth, which required an awkward journey through the lanes around the Helford river. In those days it seemed thoroughly post-industrial (though admittedly never as run-down as Redruth and Camborne), but it has gentrified and the Sunday Times’ readers recently voted it their favourite town. It’s been hugely boosted by the transformation of the Art College (small but always prestigious enough) into a university (two in fact, as the University of Exeter shares its Tremough campus), so there are cool cafés and plenty of arty students (as boho as any in Dalston) to hang out in them, and the town even has a proper independent bookshop, something which much grander Truro can no longer support. The opening of the National Maritime Museum Cornwall in 2003 put Falmouth on all the tourist maps, but the real marker of gentrification was the opening of a seafood restaurant by Rick Stein in 2010. When I was there a few weeks ago the Spring Festival was under way, with Science in the Pub events exactly like those I’d left behind in Cambridge!
There was no town here in medieval times, as the site was too exposed to attack from the sea until Henry VIII built Pendennis and St Mawes castles; it really only came into being after 1688 when the Post Office chose Falmouth as the port for its Packet Service to Spain and Portugal, and later across the empire. In 1805 news arrived here of Nelson’s victory, and death, at Trafalgar, from where it was carried to London (271 miles away) in just 37 hours, with 21 changes of horse (at a cost of £46 19s 1d), and in 1836 the Beagle, with Charles Darwin aboard, arrived here at the end of her voyage of circumnavigation. These are mentioned on various plaques, and in The Levelling Sea, a superb account of Falmouth’s history by Philip Marsden, who lives just a few miles away across the harbour. A couple of weeks after my last visit to Falmouth I was, by chance, in Nelson’s home village, which I will mention in another post.
The port declined in the late twentieth century, but the docks seem livelier these days, repairing ships including the Navy’s Royal Fleet Auxiliaries, and cruise ships now come in to the world’s third largest natural harbour. Admittedly most of them just get on buses to the Eden Project and the Lost Gardens of Heligan, but one side effect may be that there’s still a good supply of public toilets, unlike the rest of Cornwall where the gruesomely penny-pinching county council is trying to close them or even to find private concerns willing to try to somehow keep them open.
The town centre loosely falls into two parts, the waterfront street from the Maritime Museum past the church, and The Moor, a square on the hillside just above. There are some great cafés and restaurants in the lower area, but the more hipster artisan coffee bars (and barbers) seem to be on The Moor and just above. I always pop in to Falmouth Art Gallery, at the bottom end of The Moor, because it’s free and has both interesting temporary shows and a permanent collection featuring leading Cornish artists (as well as John Singer Sargent and Tilly Kettle), but also because of their weird and wonderful automata. The most popular is the AutoWed, which you really can use for your wedding – it’s a product of Sam Lanyon’s Concept Shed, just a few hundred metres from the museum.
Pubs and restaurants
Falmouth still has plenty of pubs, and a remarkable number of them seem to be free houses, offering a wider choice of beers than those tied to one brewery. On the other hand, they tend not to bother much about food. For me, the best discovery recently in Falmouth has been Beerwolf Books, a pretty unique bookshop-pub in a eighteenth-century sea-captain’s house (I think). Surprisingly, it was once home to the Falmouth Working Men’s Club; it’s totally un-wheelchair accessible, alas. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but on balance you can ignore the bookshop room but you can’t ignore the bar, so it’s essentially a pub, and a very good one too. I was particularly pleased to find organic, vegetarian beer from my favourite Manchester brewery, Marble. They don’t do food, but next door in the same courtyard is the Courtyard Deli & Kitchen, using the finest local produce.
Other good pubs include the Boathouse, with stunning views across to Flushing and great beer, the Seven Stars on The Moor, with a lovely historic interior, and the ‘Front and the Working Boat, both by the harbour.
As for food, in addition to Stein’s and the Courtyard, a few other tempting options are Pea Souk, a veggie café tucked away up an alley near Beerwolf (they serve takeaway drinks only if you bring your own cup), Stones Bakery, Fuel, Provedore (which is good for breakfast and lunch, and superb for evening tapas – no bookings, so get there early) and Cribbs, a genuine Caribbean restaurant whose owner came from St Vincent as chef on a cruise liner (he’s also just opened Bahama Mamas, a new café-bar on The Moor).
And of course a few words on public transport – the university campus now seems to attract buses from all over west Cornwall, and the Truro-Falmouth railway now has two trains an hour each way, while the main Plymouth-Truro-Penzance line just has one an hour – although this is soon to be increased to two an hour after signalling improvements.
Most people think of Woking just as a commuter town on the railway from London towards Basingstoke and deepest Hampshire; some will know it as home to Britain’s first mosque (founded in 1889) or as the site of the first Martian landing in HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds. However it does have other claims to fame, notably The Lightbox Gallery, opened in 2007, which puts on interesting little art exhibitions and has a small local history museum. My friends in Walton-on-Thames have no interest in visiting (they like larger shopping centres such as Kingston, Guildford and Oxford), but I like coming here, partly because it’s a pleasant cycle ride along the towpaths of the Thames, the River Wey Navigation and the Basingstoke Canal.
From the railway station in the present town centre, it’s just a mile southeast to the village of Old Woking: St Peter’s Church, just off the High St, dates from the 11th century, with its tower added in the 13th and 15th centuries, as well as 15th-century pews, 16th-century brasses and a 17th-century gallery. But its greatest treasure is the Great Oak Door, dating from the reign of Henry I, with its excellent medieval ironwork. The church is listed as Grade I, and nearby the Old Manor House, The Grange and Hoe Place are all Grade II or II*. Carters Lane continues east (past a 17th-century farmhouse) to the site of Woking Palace, dating from around AD 1200, which was taken over by Henry VII after 1502 and expanded by Henry VIII between 1515 and 1543; however it fell out of favour and was demolished by 1635. There’s now a grassy area within a moat, with a vaulted undercroft and some buried foundations. It was excavated in 2009-15, after some rather damaging poking-around by Rupert Guinness, who bought the estate in 1905 from his father-in-law the Earl of Onslow, who owned Clandon Park, just beyond Guildford, one of the National Trust’s treasures but closed since a fire in 2015. In 1910 Guinness went to Canada and then created the Woking Park Farm in order to train emigrants to farm in Canada (he became Earl of Iveagh in 1927 and died in 1967; there are still historical traces of the Guinness/Iveagh family in Vancouver BC).
Closer to the station and the present town centre, the Shah Jehan Mosque was founded in 1889 (and closed between 1899 and 1913); on the far side of the railway, towards Horsell Common where the Martians landed, the Muslim Burial Ground was established in 1915 (for soldiers from India who died in World War I) and beautifully restored for its centenary. Visitors are welcome at both the mosque and the burial ground.
The River Wey Navigation was built in the 1650s (adding weirs and locks to make the river navigable by barges), and the Basingstoke Canal opened in 1794. The London & Southampton Railway arrived in 1838 (its station was called Woking Common at first); in 1845 a branch opened to Guildford, extended in 1859 to Portsmouth. As a railway junction Woking developed far faster than it had as a canal town, with a huge surge in its population at the end of the 19th century; then the railway was electrified and the present somewhat Deco-style station built in 1937. Now there are no less than 14 trains an hour to London (taking 28-50 minutes) rather than the five a day provided when it opened in 1838.
I came to The Lightbox to see an exhibition on JMW Turner in Surrey – there were none of his great paintings, but quite a few sketches and engravings that he made along the Rivers Thames, Wey and Mole – he lived most of his life near the Thames, settling in Twickenham, and used a boat to paint from; he was also a passionate fisherman. It made me think of JK Jerome, who began writing Three Men in a Boat as a serious travel guide, but ended up producing one of our finest comic novels – a lesson, perhaps, for guidebook writers like me.
In addition to temporary exhibitions, there are some works by major British sculptors on the ground floor and a selection of twentieth-century British works from the Ingram Collection, which might include David Jones, William Roberts, John Bellany, John Bratby, Edward Burra or Billy Childish. There’s also a good little history gallery, featuring the palace, the mosque, the railway, notable Wokingtonians (I just made that word up) such as the cricketing Bedser twins Eric and Alec, Rick Parfitt of Status Quo and rower James Cracknell. There’s coverage of the local army regiments – the First Tangier Regiment of Foot, founded in 1661, became the Queen’s Royal Regiment (the West Surreys), the oldest English infantry regiment of the British Army. The 31st Regiment of Foot was raised in 1702 as a Marines regiment to serve in the War of the Spanish Succession; in 1756, at the start of the Seven Years’ War, a second battalion was raised which became the 70th Regiment of Foot, and these merged again in 1881 to form the East Surrey Regiment. They became famous for the ‘football attack’ on the Somme in 1916, and defended the Dunkirk beaches and Singapore in World War II. In 1959 the East and West Surreys were amalgamated to form the Queen’s Royal Surrey Regiment, and in 1966 this amalgamated with various Kent, Sussex, Middlesex regiments to form the Queen’s Regiment; having merged again in 1992, it’s now the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment (Queen’s and Royal Hampshires). Anyway, I don’t think there’s any mention of RC Sherriff, an officer in the 9th East Surreys, who was wounded at Passchendaele and invalided home, where he eventually wrote the classic play Journey’s End (1928, filmed for the fifth time in 2018). He went up to my Oxford college (1931-4) and ended up writing movie scripts, including Goodbye Mr Chips (nominated for an Oscar in 1939) and The Dam Busters (1955).
Finally, the museum has coverage of Brookwood and Brooklands – on opposite sides of Woking (but both visible to the south of the railway), and not to be confused. Brookwood, a couple of miles west, was home to the London Necropolis, a private cemetery opened in 1854; this was once Europe’s largest cemetery, with space for Anglicans and Nonconformists, and had its own rail branch, with direct trains from Waterloo. Brooklands, just east near Weybridge, was the site of Britain’s first motor-racing circuit (1907-39) and an airfield and the Avro, Vickers and Hawker aircraft factories; there’s now a museum with various early cars and planes, as well as a Concorde. Next to this is Mercedes-Benz World, where you can see over 100 historic cars and drive on the original circuit. My local friends recommend the café – very popular with Weybridge’s community of Russian oligarchs, so they say.
Across the canal from The Lightbox is the Living Planet Centre, home of WWF-UK (what used to be the World Wildlife Fund); it keeps good shopkeeper’s hours of 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday so I haven’t been inside yet, but it’s apparently one of the greenest buildings in Britain, with a good education and visitor centre.
I have life membership of the Youth Hostels Association of England and Wales, which has been great value over the years – but for the last decade or so I really haven’t stayed in British hostels much. Recently I’ve stayed in official HI hostels in Italy, Paris and the USA, and whenever I’ve been updating the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget the Swiss association has put me up in its lovely hostels (usually in a private room, thanks). But the England and Wales association has closed most of its more attractive hostels, concentrating on cities and large modern hostels that can take school groups. Indeed, one problem is that often, even when there is a hostel in the right place, it’s full because of a group booking. Closed or full, that seems to be the choice – not much use for the independent traveller. Any idea of a network of hostels within cycling distance of each other has also been lost, except in the Peak and the Lake District – you need a car nowadays. It’s incredible that second-tier destinations such as Salisbury and Lincoln are now hostel-less – how can a hostel in these tourist towns not cover its costs?
However the YHA has seemed more like an arm of the property business than a youth charity for years now, and one sometimes gets the sense that closing hostels down has become its purpose rather than an unfortunate side-effect of economic circumstances. It’s telling that when a new chief executive was appointed in April 2017 he said: ‘My initial priority as chief executive is to deliver the new business plan and lock in the success that has been achieved in recent years’.
The sense that the YHA has been taken over by bureaucrats and bean-counters was reinforced recently when I wanted to meet a friend in Milton Keynes. There is still a decent smallish hostel here, of all places, in Bradwell, one of the original villages swallowed up by the New Town, with a couple of cheery and remarkably cheap pubs nearby. But I booked for the wrong date and had to change it – I sent two emails to the hotel and had no reply at all, I phoned and had no answer, and the YHA’s call centre, which was meant to be open on Sundays according to the first webpage I found, wasn’t. When I called on Monday morning I was dealt with very professionally, but I had a strong sense of over-centralisation. And if they aren’t dealing with their emails and phone calls at the hostel, there needs to be an auto-reply or redirect to say so.
Once you get to the hostel, it’s absolutely fine, apart from the strange lack of hooks in the shower cubicles, and the manager is great. You also need to show photo ID to check into a hostel now – something to do with child protection, I suppose (there were no children around when I was in Milton Keynes) but it’s hard to see that it would actually make any difference.
As for Milton Keynes… the museum is only open weekends and half-term, which ruled that out. The World War II code-breaking museum at Bletchley Park is excellent, but I’d been there not too many years ago. So the high points were the Concrete Cows and the little robot vehicles that deliver fast food in the centre. I remember the concrete cows from years ago, reasonably lifelike and grazing in a field by the railway, but after years of decoration/vandalism these are now in the MK museum and they’ve been replaced by ‘replicas’ that look like rejects from someone’s GCSE art project. They’re not so visible from trains now and stand on wood chips rather than grass in the Loughton Valley Park. We had fun discussing their self-referentiality as meta artworks, or something.
As for the pods, they look like student bed-sit fridges on wheels and bustle around on the pedestrian/cycleways at a maximum 15mph. Apparently passenger-carrying pods are also on trial in central Milton Keynes (or centre:mk as it’s now been branded). But we in the tech hub of Cambridge are not at all jealous, because we have Amazon Prime deliveries by drone. Well, just two Beta customers, apparently, but the first delivery took just 13 minutes from final click to delivery. But apparently you still need to put out a welcome mat that the drone can recognise.
Lewes looks like a town that I could live in (yes, I’ve always said that I could only live in a university town, but Brighton is close enough – the University of Sussex is close to Falmer station, on the Lewes side of town). The town may look quintessentially Tory with its cute cottages housing secondhand bookshops and tearooms, but in fact it’s been a hotbed of anarchy, rebellion and general bolshiness for many centuries, and still is. The Battle of Lewes in 1264 led to Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, effectively taking power from King Henry III for a year, during which he called England’s first two parliaments, and thus perhaps led to Magna Carta too. Tom Paine lived here for six years from 1768, developing his political ideas in talks to the Headstrong Club; in 1774 he left for America and went on to write The Rights of Man, which influenced the French revolution, Common Sense, which influenced the American, and The Age of Reason, which influenced the revolution against religion.
Nowadays the town is perhaps best known for its riotous bonfire celebrations on November 5, when its Bonfire Societies compete to stage the best bonfire. In principle, the six main societies process separately through town and then repair to their own part of town for a bonfire and firework display; in practice it’s not that simple, as there’s a certain level of drunken anarchy about the whole thing (though people rarely seem to get hurt). The crowds are massive and the authorities try their level best to cordon the town off and keep the event for locals. In fact they never succeed, but you should definitely forget about coming by car – train is the best option, although you’ll have to stand. The main pubs admit people by ticket only and food options are limited. You’ll also need to buy a ticket in advance for the bonfire sites, but bring cash for a programme and other charitable donations.
Bonfire Night, for those of you not of the British persuasion, celebrates the failure of Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot to blow up parliament in 1605, but here it also commemorates the seventeen martyrs burnt at the stake in Lewes in the 1550s; the processions also stop at war memorials to remember those who died fighting tyranny – very much a Lewes thing. There is also satire and protest about contemporary events and politicians, of course.
There was also a minor insurrection in 2006-7 when Greene King, the expansionist regional brewer from East Anglia, took over some local pubs including the Lewes Arms, a very popular pub in the town centre, and actually prevented the landlord from selling Sussex Best Bitter, from the Harveys brewery just half a mile away, and rightly revered as a fine local ale. The Lewes Arms is the perfect community pub, with no TV, jukebox or gambling machines, a place where people go to meet friends old and new, and they supported their local brewery – Sussex Bitter outsold Greene King’s offerings by at least 4 to 1, which may be why GK wanted to oust it. In any event there were widespread protests, and the locals not only boycotted their pub but also assiduously picketed it for four months until GK backed down, with a large amount of egg on their face. The fact that there are so many Morris Minor cars here might also be seen as some kind of revolt against modernity.
And so it was that I found myself in a Harveys pub called The Rights of Man in the centre of Lewes, which serves good old Sussex Best Bitter, but also modern (craft beer/American-style) IPAs such as Olympia, Wharf IPA (‘citrus and British hops’) and the dry-hopped Armada Ale, as well as Wild Hop blonde and Castle Brown. It turns out that Harveys are aiming to expand the brand beyond the traditional 60-mile range, producing a seasonal ale every month and putting more beers into bottles and cans. There’s a modern visual branding for the pumpclips and labels, and they’ve adopted the Sussex county motto We Wunt Be Druv! (We Won’t Be Driven!), which has always seemed to fit Lewes far better than the rest of the county (which in theory no longer exists anyway, having been split into East and West Sussex). In 2016 they also finally added an apostrophe to their name, becoming Harvey’s and pleasing pedants everywhere, as the founder in 1796 was in fact John Harvey.
Incidentally, the Depot Cinema is a new three-screen community cinema and café-restaurant on the Harvey’s Depot site next to the railway station – it looks pretty good.
Property is certainly not cheap here – of my various Lewes-area friends, one commutes to work at the Houses of Parliament, so can afford local house prices, one is a travel writer so of course cannot (and lives in the relatively down-at-heel ferry port of Newhaven), and one is a folk-singer and jobbing museumologist and has long left the area. In fact it’s as much a suburb of Brighton as of London, with lots of retired folk but not a lot of work locally.
I recently led a group on the Coast to Coast hike across northern England – it’s well covered by guidebooks and online resources, so I’ll just offer a few tangential thoughts here. Speaking to some Australians, I found that the C2C is the only British hike they had heard of before coming here (and the Camino de Santiago and the Tour du Mont Blanc are more or less the only ones on mainland Europe), and they were surprised how poorly signed it was. I explained that when Alfred Wainwright first wrote about it in 1973, he called his book ‘A Coast-to-Coast Walk’ and invited people to create their own version, knitting together public footpaths in the same way that he had done. But we like sheep (Herdwicks, of course) have gone astray, all treating his book as the bible, and as more and more B&Bs and cafés (not to mention baggage transfer services and the like) have opened along his route it’s become more and more entrenched as THE Coast-to-Coast. So maybe it needs to become a National Trail, like the Pennine Way, which was very busy when I was a lad but is not much heard of now. Fair enough, because it is pretty dull and samey.
We (Wilderness Travel) follow Wainwright’s advice and have created our own version of the C2C, starting from Ravenglass (to cut out the very dull first day from St Bees Head) and staying two nights in each hotel (with one exception) to fit the best hikes in around excellent feeding opportunities – we also cut out three more dull days, through Shap and across the Vale of York, both largely flat and agricultural and mostly on asphalt, and the slog across the Pennine watershed, which is largely peat bog. After the driest winter in twenty years, the worst bits of peat bog are not actually too bad, and there were lots of heli-bags of rocks by the path, indicating that more boggy sections are to be made dry and hiker-friendly.
But there’s actually been far more wet weather than dry in recent years – much of the Lake District was badly hit by Storm Desmond in December 2015. In Keswick the Pencil Museum, the town’s main rainy-weather attraction (ironically enough), was flooded and closed until May 2017 (taking the opportunity for a major revamp too). Across the road, the excellent Luca’s Ristorante just closed down, while the Keswick branch of fabulous Booth’s supermarket chain was also flooded, reopening in March 2016 – known as ‘the Waitrose of the north’, its bags carry tags like ‘Cumbria not Umbria’ and ‘fettle not feta’ (Yorkshire fettle being a suspiciously feta-like cheese). I saw Fitz Park, by the river in the centre of Keswick, being returfed in summer 2016, while the very popular Keswick to Threlkeld Railway Path was badly hit – a couple of hundred metres of path were washed away a mile or two east of town, two bridges collapsed into the River Greta and a third was soon closed. About half the path (from Low Briery to Brundholme Rd) reopened by Easter 2016 and the two collapsed bridges were cleared over the summer of 2016 (once the water was low enough), but rebuilding, or perhaps rerouting of the path, now seems to be stuck in a morass of national park planning and funding decisions. The A591, between Keswick and Grasmere, was also washed out, but was naturally a much higher priority than a walking and cycling route and was reopened in May 2016 – the lane on the far side of Thirlmere was used for a bus shuttle until a temporary roadway opened.
And spare a thought for Glenridding, which was hit hard twice in December 2015, by Storms Desmond and Eva – there was a lot of construction work underway in the streambed in the summer of 2016, and it was still going on the next summer. The previously nice Ramblers Bar at the Inn on the Lake in Glenridding reopened at the end of May 2016, in an enlarged and characterless form. Appleby was also hit by Storm Desmond and was just getting back to normal in May, in time for its annual invasion by Travellers attending the Horse Fair (which many residents would probably be happy to have seen cancelled).
East of the Pennines, York was also hit by flooding on Boxing Day of 2015, the most high-profile casualty being the Jorvik Viking Centre – this has undergone a £4.3m ‘re-imagining’, with more cutting-edge technology, and reopened in April 2017. I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that the Yorkshire Museum has an exhibition entitled ‘Viking – Rediscover the Legend’ in the summer of 2017 – a reduced version of the successful British Museum exhibition. And it’s definitely a coincidence that York’s Mansion House (home to the Lord Mayor) is reopening in late 2017 after a couple of years of painstaking restoration and delays. It will display civic treasures with an exhibition of the city’s gold and silver collection, a Georgian kitchen and new virtual tours. This will presumably compete with Fairfax House, which claims to be ‘the finest Georgian town house in England’.
In Keswick we love to eat at Morrel’s (shame about the group of noisy Americans – oh, no, that was us) and to drink at the Dog & Gun (recently refurbished but still offering goulash and Old Peculier – most of the time, anyway). It’s also worth checking out Magnolia, almost opposite Morrel’s – a bistro-bar with a great range of Belgian beers (also to be found in the Open All Hours Premier shop).
In Richmond (North Yorkshire) we have to stay at the King’s Head due to the lack of suitable alternatives. It’s just been refurbished and the ground floor is now a coffee-bar with no drinkable real ale when we were there (gin and tonics for all!), and reception is now upstairs. The bedrooms have weird spotlights and back-lighting behind the bedhead and the kind of ‘cool’ showers with controls that don’t show what they do or where the hot water is. We weren’t impressed.
Further to Katy’s posts on Haverfordwest and on Walking the Welsh Coast Path, here are a few thoughts on my research for the Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire chapter of the next edition of the Rough Guide to Wales. As this blog is meant to be about going beyond the guidebook, there’s not a whole lot to say because the interesting stuff is mostly going into the book!
I did notice a clear pattern of all kinds of places being open for shorter hours or closing one day per week. Tourist Information Centres in particular are being closed – welcome to austerity Britain! And bus subsidies are also being cut in a way that can’t help but damage the tourism industry (although Pembrokeshire is beginning to link together some pretty substantial and decent cycle routes). However, gardens (or at least the National Botanic Garden and Aberglasney, both in Carmarthenshire) are extending their summer hours into October – this seems a bit odd, as in Cornwall and elsewhere the trend is to open earlier in the spring, as climate change means that plants are flowering earlier every year. But I didn’t think there was much going on bloom-wise in October.
In Pembrokeshire there are three different sets of parking charges, depending on whether the car park is owned by the county council, the National Park or the National Trust, and the costs vary hugely. County car parks, mainly in towns, can be so cheap that it doesn’t seem worth maintaining the machines and paying for enforcement staff. The National Park lets you park free for the first thirty minutes, and is then not too expensive. The National Trust, however, levies a pricey fee to park all day (with reductions for shorter periods in a few places only), but is of course free for members. At the Trust’s Dinefwr estate near Llandeilo (in Carmarthenshire) it’s no longer possible to pay for parking alone at Newton House to walk up to the ruins of Dinefwr Castle – now you need to pay £7.27 for the full visit of Newton House. The castle is accessible by public footpaths and I’d encourage you to walk in from Llandeilo if possible.
The most exciting new attraction in the area is Dr Beynon’s Bug Farm, on the outskirts of St Davids. This will be covered in the new edition of the guide, but suffice it to say that – in addition to displays of exotic insects and so on – this is also the cutting edge of the very contemporary movement towards entomophagy, ie eating insects. As the world’s population grows towards 8 billion there’s no way that we can expand meat production (far and away the least efficient or sustainable form of agriculture) to match it, and insect farming is a very promising substitute, requiring far less land and water to produce equivalent amounts of protein. The Grub Kitchen, at the Bug Farm, is experimenting both with developing insect-based dishes, and with their public acceptability. If you think bug burgers, bug felafels and cricket-flour cookies sound tempting, be sure to go and test them out. Personally, as someone who gave up meat over 35 years ago, I feel no need for a substitute (although I do enjoy plenty of cheesey animal protein) – even so, in the interests of research, I did taste a few bits and pieces, and found them quite unobjectionable but also felt that they didn’t taste of anything much beyond their main (veggie-based) ingredients – although ants do give a noticeable tang.
Around two billion people in Asia, Latin America and elsewhere already eat insects in various forms, so it’s really about overcoming people’s perceptions in Europe and North America. Equally, insects can be used for animal feed, to reduce the damage done by rainforest being destroyed to grow soya.
Oddly enough, no sooner had I been to the Bug Farm than I started to notice other references to entomophagy online, such as this and this – it turns out that Nordic Food Lab, co-founded by René Redzepi (chef-patron of Noma, widely lauded as the world’s best restaurant), has also been active in this area.
I stayed one night at the fancy new Twr y Felin art-hotel in St Davids, and had a fine dinner there, with a BBC film crew at the next table. In the morning I made a special effort to switch on the TV for breakfast news and there they were (or specifically Nick Higham), announcing St Davids’ bid to be UK Capital of Culture 2021. And when I went down to the cathedral he was still there, speaking to camera for probably the umpteenth time. Obviously the smallest city in Britain (population 1800) couldn’t support a year’s cultural gallivanting on its own, so the bid will include the surrounding area, known as the Hundred of Dewisland (the Welsh form of David is Dewi), and perhaps Fishguard, which is not just a ferry-port but an increasingly lively artistic centre in its own right. This isn’t relevant to the next edition of the Rough Guide, of course, but it may be something to watch for the following one.
One place I visited that I knew perfectly well I wouldn’t be able to squeeze into the book was Monkton Priory, on the outskirts of Pembroke. Monkton Abbey, founded in 1098, was one of the most substantial religious establishments in Pembrokeshire (the future Henry VII, born in Pembroke Castle, was educated there), but after Henry’s son dissolved the monasteries it was broken up. The church is now Monkton Priory, a remarkably long slim edifice with the tower set in the centre of its south wall. There’s only one window on the north side (and that’s half-hidden behind the organ) and not many on the south side, so it’s lit from the two ends, giving an unusual effect. Restored after 1882, there are now Victorian frescoes in the chancel. It’s usually open, and there’s free parking outside. To the rear of the church, Priory Farmhouse is in part a 14/15th-century tower-house, which may have been the prior’s residence. The nearby Monkton Old Hall, built c.1400, is the oldest domestic dwelling in Pembrokeshire and possibly in Wales, and has a distinctive Flemish chimney at the rear; it’s now run by the Landmark Trust and you can rent it (from £450 for four nights).
So – what possessed me to undertake Walking the Welsh Coast Path? The honest answer is that I simply don’t know. It somehow caught my imagination, billed as the first complete coastal path of an entire country in the world. I wanted to do it. Then I said I would and I did – or to be precise – I have half done it – Chepstow to Cardigan from March 13th to April 23rd 2017. The rest to be completed in 2018. For the purposes of this blog I’ve pulled out the highs and lows and added a few retrospective musings.
I planned to walk every day apart from Mother’s Day.I’d bought a book about walking the WCP – but it went from North to South and having decided to do it the other way round, it was not that useful. I knew I had six weeks at my disposal and when I sat down to work out the mileage I realised I’d only get round halfway in the time available. I did make use of a blog by Charles Hawes who meticulously logged his route clockwise round the WCP a few years ago. If you want to know the minutiae of each day’s twists and turns I recommend you look there! I also made a Facebook group of all my friends who like walking and/or live near to the route and invited them to join me or give me a bed to sleep in. The response was gratifying and generous.
Small rucksack. 2 prs of kwik-dry walking trousers Kwik-dry long sleeved walking top 2 T-shirts (only wore one) 4 pairs of walking socks 7 prs knicks 2 bras Pair of lightweight silk thermal long johns and top Warm fleece Sunhat Beanie Showerproof jacket Lightweight rainproof plastic poncho (used only twice) Walking pole
I didn’t take a map but followed the cleverly designed ‘Conch’ symbol of the WCP, which morphs into a dragon’s tail.
After a few weeks I bought an ankle support and also a tubigrip for my right knee which troubled me more or less constantly. I was knocked off my bike some years ago and badly twisted my knee. Physio had seemed to sort it out but I hadn’t asked much of my knee in the intervening time and the weakness revealed itself fairly quickly. The walking pole helped a lot to relieve the stress, particularly going down hill.
I knew I was heading towards spectacular coastal scenery in the Gower and Pembrokeshire beyond, but in the early days my only highs were places with baths where I could have a good long soak to let my muscles relax – Sue’s hot tub with the added bonus of prosecco just about takes place as my top high in the early days!! And anywhere with food. I was able to eat anything – ANYTHING I wanted and walk it off the next day!
It’s been years since I could eat chocolate and chips and cake without thought and not worry about weight. I lost half a stone, perhaps I built some muscle and strangely, my appetite regulated itself such that I still feel full more quickly since having completed the walk and have stopped overeating. Long may it last….
The first real high, location-wise, was Merthyr Mawr en route from Ogmore by Sea to Porthcawl (Day 7). It’s a delightful estate village that boasts several thatched roofed cottages (and a substantial domestic pig in a garden) a charming 19th-century church and medieval cross, and is surrounded by a host of Neolithic remains. The path leads through woodland and on to a vast array of sand dunes – the second highest in Europe it seems, yet practically unknown. I then walked along the beach all the way to the seedy amusement arcades of Porthcawl which had a peculiar charm of their own.
For the first nine days I averaged 13 miles a day, so the next high was a mere six-mile amble from Swansea to the Mumbles (Day 9) and a dinky village to explore full of coffee shops and independent retailers. The walk from Mumbles the next day to my cousin’s flat at Caswell Bay was also a breeze compared to the previous week and the scenery began to beguile me. The Gower lived up to its reputation. The route is varied with short sharp inclines and descents, through woodland and dunes, along fabulous beaches and substantial cliffs and with far-reaching views.
Also plenty of watering holes like the Three Cliffs Café at Pennard Stores (Day 11), which I’m told can get super busy in the summer.
The views from the Worm’s Head Hotel at Rhosilli (Day 12) are unrivalled too and the perfect place to watch the sunset.
There’s also an Old Rectory on the beach which is the National Trust’s most popular holiday cottage.
The six-mile stroll from St Clears to Laugharne (Day 22) was pretty and perfect for someone who may not like serious walking! It also ends at Dylan Thomas’ picturesque Boathouse where there’s a lovely café with sandwiches, cake and excellent coffee. And a small museum worth a look.
I also loved the section from Laugharne to Amroth (Day 23) despite an early stretch on the road. Lots of ups and downs but on lovely grassy paths which made a welcome change from muddy gullies. The path officially routes inland at Amroth beach but I saw the tide was out and decided to walk along the beautiful sands. Downside was that I had to cross a shallow river running across the sand to the sea. As it was the end of my day I got a bit gung-ho and simply strode boldly across it, without worrying about wet feet for the remainder of the day, but hadn’t reckoned on slipping. I fell lock, stock & barrel into the freezing water and to get myself up I had to roll over thereby completely immersing myself!
No-one on the beach took the slightest bit of notice of me, so having stood up again, I felt lucky that the sun was shining brightly as I dripped my way up the slipway to the nearest park bench where I brazenly stripped off to my underwear in front of an elderly couple ensconced in their car and looking out to sea as they munched their sandwiches. I didn’t dare make eye contact with them as I pulled a bag of dry clothes out of a plastic bag in the sopping rucksack and proceeded to dress as quickly as my damp body would let me. I was shivering by now, so made my way to a nearby pub which had a double-sided open fire where I was allowed to both dry my clothes and warm my body. Strangely, I suddenly didn’t fancy the two-mile walk to my bed and ordered a taxi. Was told to wait ninety minutes, so settled in for a drink and when time was up the taxi driver called and said he’d be another hour. So another drink was ordered..but they didn’t serve food..oh well! I fell asleep that night well and truly sozzled. But after all, I was celebrating having reached the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, a well-established route, sections of which I already knew and was delighted to revisit. The conch symbol was often absent in this section and replaced by an acorn, the symbol of the much older and better established PCP.
Stackpole Quay and Estate (Day 27) are also worth a mention and perfect for a day’s outing especially with children. The National Trust do a great job maintaining this stunning location and run an excellent café at the Quay. Stackpole’s historic designed landscape is Grade I-listed, full of surprises and a tranquil contrast to the rugged coast. I passed through the Estate to St Govan’s, another lovely village with a pub and tea room. The next day, walking through to St Govan’s Chapel (Day 28) was also a delight as I passed along one of this coast’s most beautiful beaches at Barafundle, which was entirely deserted that morning.
The chapel is a small medieval church tightly tucked between the cliffs at the water’s edge. The day I visited a marriage proposal was taking place – not the first I suspect. A more romantic spot would be hard to find! I wasn’t so keen on the drone filming the event….
The ‘sheep incident’ was definitely one of the strangest things to occur along the WCP
It was a lovely day for the Freshwater West to Angle leg. (Day 31). It started with an egg sandwich slathered in laver bread (seaweed) butter from the fabulous mobile Cafe Môrwhich serves a variety of delectable Welsh-based treats including a vegan burger. We began walking through the dunes and then three sharp inclines and descents, passing lots of small inlets & bays. At the third one, having stopped for a brief rest, I saw the most peculiar sight. A sheep, seemingly stranded, perched on a large rock which had sheer sides from all angles, on the very rocky beach. Very much alive. No idea how she got there. I didn’t call the coastguard till half an hour later when I picked up a weak signal on my phone. They thought I was bonkers but I persisted sensibly and after sending them a geo-located photograph, they were convinced and said they’d notify the local farmers.
A few days later I received the following satisfying message! “The RSPCA responded to our call and attended the scene with the farmer of the land. They recovered the sheep and discovered it had gone down to the rocks to give birth so now has a lamb. Although the sheep is back on dry land at this time, the farmer has informed us that it is very fond of this location on the rocks and has been recovered several times without injury.”
Arriving, eating and staying at the Druidstone Hotel (Day 34) is always a highlight and did not fail to impress on this occasion. It stands at the sea edge above St Bride’s Bay and offers a range of accommodation from camping in the summer, a tiny eco-lodge, bunk rooms (I had the cheapest at £60 for two) right through to exec-type suites and everything in-between, including self-catering cottages. Even if you never stay – do go there for a drink in the basement bar or the terrace with its fabulous view over the sea and sands below.
The next night was also a culinary high – we dined at the Cwtch* in St David’s, the smallest cathedral city in Britain. Between us we ate lobster, rabbit and turbot. NB: Cwtch is Welsh for a loving safe place in a room or in people’s hearts.
Pwll Deri Youth Hostel (Day 38) is probably in the most spectacular location of any hostel in the UK. I walked alone from Abermawr and the scenery was majestic. The path eventually disappeared as I scrambled up and over the craggy Carn Ogof from where I spotted my destination in the distance perched on the side of the cliff.
I was very glad to have booked a room to myself and after watching the sunset from my bedroom window I had an early night.
I was proud of myself this once as I heard from the volunteer wardens the next day that since they’d been there, I was the only one who had actually come in and out of the hostel on foot. Everyone else was touring by car.
Early on I discovered official coast path signs reading “What! No Coast?” – they constitute what I came to call the Welsh Coast Path Con. Basically the WCP is a work in progress and it needs more work. For one reason or another the path is routed inland more often than one would hope and frequently through unattractive industrial areas, tediously lengthy outskirts of towns or along busy dual carriageways. So I took a decision early on to only ‘walk the coast’. After all, that was what I signed up for – right? So whenever I came to a shitty bit or an estuary where I was routed inland one side and then out to the coast the other, if the path was not in view of the water, I took a bus or cab or hitched to the bridge to walk to the other side. (For the record, this happened five times.)
Many of the lows came from the workings of my mind! There were plenty of days when I simply did not ‘feel like’ walking. And I did it anyway. Then there were the times I wanted to stop walking because I was tired or bored or lonely or in pain or…well, there was always a reason! Once I’d started, I found one strategy for keeping going was to count to ten over and over again. Usually after a few minutes or so, I’d get through the resistance. It was important though to recognise when it really wasn’t wise to go on. One morning I woke up with a fever, felt shivery and a bit dizzy and was expecting company the next day. After two hours of struggle I hitched a lift with a couple of potato farmers to the nearest village and asked at the lovely Marloes Village Store, Café and Post Office if I could settle in for a few hours, explaining that I was under the weather. They were super friendly and accommodating and produced great coffee and a baked potato for me even though it wasn’t on the menu. I spent four hours there resting and catching up on emails and doing the cryptic crossword. I felt disappointed because Marloes Head is one of the finest stretches of Pembrokeshire coast. Still, I can look forward to going back to complete it.
There was a sadness to the day I walked with David Gardner from Trefin to Pwll Deri (Day 38), as a couple of holiday makers were dashing around the area trying to find their elderly terrier Fido who had gone missing on the Coast Path the day before. I heard, a few days later, that he had been found and retrieved from the rocks below but had not survived. Dogs really need to be kept on the lead in this environment not only for their own safety, as there are loads of tempting rabbit and badger holes near the cliff edge, but also to protect the sheep which roam freely and at this time of year have vulnerable small lambs.
People have asked me lots of questions, some of which may have been answered already.
To the question “what did you learn’? I say that I learned that I have grit. I suspected as much but had never really tested myself. Now, on the other hand, I am acquainted with some serious walkers, including my beloved Tim Burford, and I’m sure they must be bemused by the outpouring of encouragement and respect and support and praise given to me on Facebook for something which to them may seem rather common-place and unremarkable. But for me, it was hard. And I came to the conclusion that while I enjoy walking for a day or so at a time … or even a tad longer, I am not at heart a real walker. I’d imagined that by the end of the 41 days I’d be feeling fitter and full of enjoyment of the terrain and scenery. The truth is I felt exhausted and franky blasé about ‘another nice view’ and dreaded the long hours (often seven a day) of putting one foot in front of the other. I learned that I can keep myself company with pleasure but that I like a regular dose of other people and mercifully, that is what I got.
So you might think I regret it. Not at all. My mind has an interesting trick of remembering the good times more than the bad ones. I’m grateful for that. So will I complete the walk? Absolutely! In 2018 I intend to walk from Chester to Cardigan anti-clockwise this time, to ring the changes, and will have the sea to my right for a change! And I’m not going to do it all in one go. I’ll do a week or so at a time and factor in rest days. And I hope people will join me too.
I’ve been asked “What did you think about?” Well, it’s no different to any other day except that more often I found myself thinking about the discomforts. The best strategy then was to focus on the sensations of being present beyond the aches and pains. The light, the colour, the wind, the sun, the sounds. I used all my senses to embrace the whole experience rather than focus on the bits of misery. I didn’t make any momentous decisions nor receive any great moments of enlightenment. But then, I hadn’t set out to.
Some people wondered “Why didn’t you get sponsored?”. That’s an easy one…I wanted to be free and not beholden to anyone. Nevertheless, a couple of people have said they’d like to sponsor me retrospectively and I’d be delighted if they donate to any charity of their choice. Thanks!!
My top walks
Below I’ve listed my top walks and then the ones I do not consider at all worthwhile unless you too are going to complete the whole route for whatever reason! In no particular order.
1. Ogmore by Sea to Porthcawl (7 miles) described above.
2. Caswell Bay to Oxwich (8 miles) Wild spring flowers in abundance – the route is varied with lots of ups and downs, far-ranging coastal views, wooded valleys and a long section through the dunes. Three Cliffs Bay is stunning and if you get there at the right time of day you can cross the river on the stepping stones. Then there are lovely marshes at the end.
3. Oxwich to Rhossili (11 miles) Shaded woodland hugging the coast emerges onto a broad close-cropped grassy path overhung by majestic stone outcrops with a great view of the Worm’s Head. Lots of remote beaches and fab rock formations. 4. Llansteffan to St Clears (12 miles) Varied terrain starting at the very end of the beach at Llansteffan. With an incoming tide we only just managed to reach the steps up in time. Wonderful, truly coastal, path along a well-maintained track with views back to the Worm’s Head and to Tenby ahead. We had a section through National Trust land with more great views over the Taf estuary towards Laugharne and up to St Clears. Then into a huge field where we stopped at a conveniently positioned fallen tree and ate our lunch at leisure marvelling at the lack of road between ourselves and the river and no people or boats to be seen for miles. We proceded past a goose farm where the farmer chatted to us about the strange types who follow the Coast Path. One died on in the bog, another was found wandering around talking to himself and was admitted to hospital. He advised us re avoiding said bog and said we were welcome to picnic by the nearby quarry with the locals in the summer. We hugged the edge of the field which was badly littered as it was also the high tide mark and then were taken into a lovely wood carpeted with celandine.
5. The whole section from Stackpole East to St Govan’s Chapel is superb. 6. St Bride’s Bay to Druidstone (8 miles) with lunch at the pub at Little Haven. 7. Solva to Whitesands Bay (13 miles) includes St Non’s chapel and Porthclais harbor with its National Trust kiosk selling yummy cakes. St Justinian’s has a section where the water looks like a boiling cauldron, the water being whipped up by the combo of tide, wind and current over the rocks known locally as the Bitches! 8. Whitesands Bay to Porthgain (12 miles) Varied terrain with some bigger climbs as the rocks and cliffs become larger and more dramatic. There’s an ice-cream van at Abereiddy and some lime-kiln remains to shelter for a nap! 9. Porthgain to Pwll Deri (8 miles), as described above.
10. Fishguard to Poppit Sands (29 miles) My old stomping ground as a young mother. Includes the wonderful Dinas Head, the Sailor’s Safety at Pwllgwaelod for fresh seafood, Cwm yr Eglwys – one of the prettiest beaches with rock pools and a ruined church, the stunning estuary at the Parrog in Newport and the Witches’ Cauldron, a spectacular blow hole near Ceibwr Bay. Finally, Poppit Sands with its dunes and lovely café and the EU-funded Poppit Rocket bus which ferries walkers back along the coast.
My worst walks
1. Chepstow to Redwick (16 miles) lots of walking along the levee and two detours over the M4 to avoid firing ranges.
2. Redwick to Newport (15 miles) Too many deviations inland off the coast, going round private properties, and lots more repetitive levee culminating in industrial terrain with power stations.
3. Newport to Cardiff (13 miles) Uninspiring back streets of Newport leading back to the levee. 4. Barry to Llantwit Major (14 miles) Too many miles walking inland again and then an unreasonably long bit along the edge of a muddy turnip field.
5. Angle to Pembroke (9 miles) Whilst Angle is very pretty the main body of the walk involves one prolonged view of the Milford Haven Refinery on the other side of the estuary.
There was also a significant amount of path on tarmacked country roads. No pit stops or nice places to rest either.
I decided to use miles as although they are longer, somehow in my mind, the fact that there were fewer of them helped me psychologically. Go figure! I needed all the help I could get and help I did indeed get both in the form of friends who joined me for as little as an hour to those who walked with me for days and, in one case, a week!!
407.7 miles completed between 13 March and 23 April 2017. 9.94 miles average day’s walk.
18/41 nights in B&Bs 3/41 AirB&B 2/41 in Youth Hostels 18/41 with friends
Fauna seen: Marsh Harrier (Oxwich Marsh) Red Kite, Pied wagtail, Egret and Grey Heron (Rhossili) Pheasant & Red Admirals, Brown Fritillary (Laugharne) Peregrine Falcon & Choughs (Trefin)
Georgia and Josh & friends in Cardiff who distracted me from my aches & pains for an evening and gave me and Joe a bed each to sleep in.
Cressida Leigh in Swansea who popped down to my hotel at very short notice so I didn’t dine alone.
Andrew, and Debbie who laid on a feast and brought me wine in the bath and whose dogs treated me to a foot lick massage, all this and in the ‘posh end of Barry’ no less (as informed by FB geolocation services!).
Sue Wright in Llantwit Major where I spent two nights which had absolutely nothing to do with prosecco in the hot tub each evening, Sue’s fabulous cooking and the lifts to and fro. It had everything to do with an enduring friendship!
Diana Benjamin, my cousin, who brought Mum down to stay in her Gower flat so I could take her out for Mother’s Day lunch and who also accommodated me on the sofa.
Janice Williams who scooped Karen and me out of the rain and took us back to her lovely farmhouse near Carmarthen.
Sara & Squidge in Martletwy – thanks to Squidge for the fine dining and chauffeur services..much appreciated from a man with clearly many other things to keep him busy!
Selena and Roger for trusting me with Llanteg for a night.
Sophie and David Wellan who gave me and Peter such comfy places to sleep.
Imogen and Stephen Castle who gave me a key to their home and included me into their family routine for three days including Stephen’s gig.
Stuart and AnneFreeman who waited up, cooked for me and put me in front of a cosy fire.
Charley and Seb Garman who had us to stay with their easy & fine hospitality, despite having a number of pressing things to attend to. And to Tanya for cake and lasagne.
Lesley & Peter Fletcher who welcomed us so warmly at their swanky Pavilion café at Penrallt Ceibwr.
Robby Coles who linked up with us at Castlemartin and provided his freshly baked bread and cheese sandwiches for lunch.
Thanks to those who accompanied me:
Joe Smithfor getting me going and keeping me motivated for the first four hard long days in an uninspiring landscape and drizzly, grey weather.
Selena Vane who popped up unexpectedly in Barry and walked a bit before inviting me over to her future mother-in-law’s for tea.
Andrew Derrick who stoically walked with me through a longish day of mizzle and kept my spirits up before catching a train home. And on my last evening caught fresh sea-bass for dinner. Yum!
Sue Wrightwho managed to fall over in deep wet mud within half an hour of joining me and instead of turning round, rolled in the wet grass to clean up (a bit) and gamely continued for a further few hours!
Karen Bellfrom Cornwall who came for a week! Great & cheerful company through the most drizzly and trying days.
Sara Lloyd-Morriswho walked and talked with me more than once and brought with her gin and freshly smoked salmon amongst other culinary delights.
Freddie Rileywho accompanied me to Laugharne where we had a picnic, courtesy of Robbie Coles, below the castle with the family, to celebrate Josh’s birthday.
Tim Burford who came for breakfast with me at Dylan Thomas’ old watering hole and joined me for Dylan’s Birthday Walk (as part of his research for the Rough Guide to Wales) and also linked up at Castlemartin military range a month or so later.
Sophie Wellanfor bringing Sky the dog, great chats and setting a pace when I was flagging
ImogenClarke who walked out of her comfort zone to get me on my way.
Julian Peckwho came all the way from Cambridge (and thanks to Katherine Ireson for graciously ‘lending’ him to me for two days). And Marc Bailey (also from Cambridge) for jolly company and not complaining about my snoring in the bottom bunk. And for lending me his rucksack.
Stuart Freeman who did a few hours with me over a couple of days and took me up a beautiful sweeping valley parallel to the coast before turning back across the mountain for home.
Al Brunker & Sara-Jane who joined us on the walk to the Druidstone – AND walked all the way back. Respect!! Oh yes, and who also provided home-baked fruitcake.
David Gardner for great conversation and his expertise in identifying birdlife.
Last but not least Peter Knight who with patience and good cheer accommodated my flagging energy and found the joy in each day.
You may already be aware that Hebden Bridge is the Totnes of the North (I mean the North of England), with its organic veg shops, its organic reiki practitioners, its organic… well, a bit like Glastonbury but without the crystals. You may not be aware that Todmorden is the new Hebden Bridge, now that property in Hebden Bridge has become relatively unaffordable – after the cotton mills closed in the 1970s they were originally squatted by artists and hippies but now they’ve been converted to cool lofts for media types commuting to Manchester. Todmorden is just four miles up Calderdale, one stop closer to Manchester by train or a pleasant cycle ride along the Rochdale Canal. As with Hebden Bridge, it has gritty industrial buildings, lots of independent shops, an independent bookshop (there aren’t many of those left these days, thanks to Amazon, so to have two towns so close each with its own bookshop is amazing); in fact there are very few chain shops at all apart from the Boots pharmacy.
Both benefit from remarkably good public transport services, with pretty frequent trains on the Manchester-Halifax-Leeds axis, and buses that reach the smallest hamlets, it seems, as well as running constantly up and down the Calder Valley. And they both have tourist information centres too, the Hebden Bridge one still professionally run, the Todmorden one run by volunteers and supported by its Friends, who pay £10 or more a year to keep it going.
Even though Hebden Bridge is in the Rough Guide to Yorkshire and Todmorden isn’t, Todmorden is not necessarily second-best, a pale copy of Hebden Bridge – it was for instance the birthplace in 2007 of Incredible Edible, now a global network of groups building communities through growing and talking about food. It all started with runner beans planted secretly outside a disused health centre, and vegetable plots with Help Yourself signs. Now commuters pick herbs at the railway station as they head home, there are vegetable gardens along the canal and outside the police station – and the police report that vandalism is down. There’s even a fish farm at a village school. One crucial idea was the community growing licence dreamed up by the council’s director of communities – now people can apply for a licence to plant on council land and as if by magic the council has less waste ground to care for.
Remarkably, there are two excellent vegetarian cafés immediately next to each other in the centre of Todmorden, the Old Co-op and the (slightly better, it seems) Káva. I’m also hearing good things about The White Rabbit, a Modern British restaurant with vegan choices and vegetarian tasting menus. However Todmorden doesn’t seem to have any particularly good pubs (the Queen Hotel and Wetherspoons’ White Hart are decent enough), and you have to go to Hebden Bridge to find West Yorkshire’s first pub co-op, the Fox and Goose, on Heptonstall Road, and Calan’s micro-pub (closed Tuesdays) in the central pedestrian zone.
Hebden Bridge also does better in the cultural stakes, with its Picture House (since 1921; cash only, no booking), the Little Theatre, the Trades Club and the Hippodrome (rechristened the Hipper Drome, and home to the Hebden Bridge Burlesque Festival and similarly metropolitan entertainments); there are lots of festivals too.
I visited with my friend Rob (who was with me cycling in Taiwan; he’s blogged about Hebden Bridge too), and we stayed at Mankinholes youth hostel, which is up a hill to the south, closer to Todmorden but easily reached from Hebden Bridge. It’s a good base for walking, with Stoodley Pike and the Pennine Way just above, but we used it as a base for cycling, with some very pleasant loop routes over to Burnley or down to Halifax. There’s plenty of information elsewhere (including GPS trails and so on), so suffice it to say that there’s a great range of rides available, from 70-mile road rides with several big climbs to family pootles along the canal. There’s no wifi at the hostel, but it’s a pleasant stroll from the hostel to the Top Brink pub in Lumbutts for a pint and an online catch-up.
I’ve never seen so much Victorian plumbing (actually stone spillways) to get excess water out of the canal, but it’s definitely needed, as there were serious floods here in 2000, 2012 and 2015, and they’re still making good the damage. Even so, the spillways are an impediment to cycling, requiring regular dismounting.
One nice loop ride was to follow the Rochdale Canal to Littleborough, via the highest broad canal lock in Britain (just 14m below the Huddersfield Narrow Canal’s summit, which is 197m above sea level), then a steady climb to Blackstone Edge Reservoir and then the longest unbroken descent in Britain, 8km or five and a half miles down Cragg Vale to Mytholmroyd. Obviously it’s tempting to charge straight down, but you could also take a one-mile (each way) detour to The Craggs Country Business Park, New Road, home to a branch of Hebden Bridge’s excellent Blazing Saddles bike shop and to Craggies café-deli-butchers, offering great lunches and cakes etc, and also the products of the two breweries that share the business park. Cyclists with lightweight bikes and lycra naturally prefer to ride up Cragg Vale, but that’s too much like hard work for us.
Next time I’ll make a point of getting to the National Trust’s Hardcastle Crags and the information centre/café at Gibson Mill, just north of Hebden Bridge, via Heptonstall, which features frequently on film and TV. I might also take a look at Gaddings Dam, on the moor just above Mankinholes – built in 1833 to supply water to the mills of Lumbutts and long disused, it was rescued in 2001 by a local group determined to preserve Britain’s highest beach – yes, it’s usually freezing, but being shallow it can warm up nicely in high summer.
If Wrexham is post-industrial and a bit run-down, the Vale of Clwyd, not far to the west, is redolent of old money and older history. I also find it very beautiful – there’s just something about the line of the Clwydian Hills looking down to the east, even though they’re not particularly high or dramatic. This area was disputed by the Welsh and English in medieval times, but as soon as Wales was properly united with England in 1536 the leading citizens of Ruthin and Denbigh took advantage of new opportunities and became wealthy merchants, MPs and even Mayor of London. They built fine houses and enhanced existing churches by building a second nave alongside the original one, something that is a local speciality (although hardly unique – there are more around Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire, and in Cornwall, for instance). Denbighshire now puts out some wonderfully detailed tourist info, full of nuggets that thrill history geeks like me. In particular, the churches of Denbigh tell an interesting story – the town’s first church (and still its official parish church) was St Marcella’s, in the country to the east of town (see below), then in the thirteenth century St Hilary’s was built just outside the castle. In 1578 Queen Elizabeth’s favourite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, began building a new Puritan church that was abandoned after his death in 1588 and is still known as Leicester’s Folly. St Hilary’s fell out of use after the large Victorian church of St Mary’s was built in 1874 and was demolished in 1923, apart from the tower which you can still see. There’s also the usual astonishing number of Nonconformist chapels.
The church of St Marcella in Llanfarchell (aka Whitchurch), a mile or so east of Denbigh (open daily 9am-4pm), is a fine example, with a magnificent 15th-century hammerbeam roof over both naves, and houses memorials to many of them, most notably John Salusbury (died 1578) and his wife Dame Joan (née Myddelton – see below), their recumbent effigies lying on an alabaster table-top monument in the south chancel. In the north chancel the memorial to Humphrey Llwyd (1527-68) sits between those to Robert Salusbury (died 1774) and a brass commemorating Richard Myddelton (c.1508-75 – see below). There’s also a sign outside to the tomb of the Welsh poet Twm o’r Nant (Thomas Edwards), who died in 1810.
Humphrey Llwyd was an alderman then MP for Denbigh, in 1563 steering through the House of Commons the bill to translate the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer into Welsh (which turned out to be crucial to the survival of the Welsh language), and produced a map of Wales which was published by Ortelius in his groundbreaking world atlas of 1573. The Salusbury/Salesbury family was the most powerful in Denbigh, and William Salesbury (c.1520-c.1584) was a humanist scholar who supported Llwyd and Richard Davies (c.1505-81) and William Morgan (1545-1604), both Bishops of St Asaph, in their efforts to translate the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer – Morgan did much of the work in 1578-87 when he was vicar of Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, southwest of Llangollen. Another supporter was Gabriel Goodman (1528-1601) from Ruthin, who became Dean of Westminster and helped manage the printing of the Bible in London – the buildings he funded in Ruthin are mentioned in the Rough Guide.
Richard Myddelton was MP for Denbigh and governor of Denbigh Castle; his son Sir Thomas made a lot of money in London, becoming Lord Mayor in 1613, while his younger brother Sir Hugh (1560-1631) was a business partner of Sir Walter Raleigh in his explorations of the New World, and promoter-engineer of the New River, which brought water from Hertfordshire to the booming (and unhealthy) city of London. Sir Thomas bought Chirk Castle (well covered in the Rough Guide), and financed Y Beibl Bach (the Little Bible), the first easily affordable Welsh bible (1630), and his son Sir Thomas Myddelton II became a parliamentarian general, besieging Holt Castle among other exploits.
The church of Llanrhaeadr (strictly speaking Llanrhaeadr-yng-Nghinmeirch), midway between Ruthin and Denbigh, is in the Rough Guide because of its wonderful 16th-century Jesse Window, perhaps the finest stained glass in Wales. However there are many other fascinating little churches in the Ruthin area, such as Llanrhydd, a mile east of Ruthin, which houses an early sixteenth-century rood screen, a seventeenth-century altar table and a Georgian choir gallery; Efenechtyd, two miles southwest of Ruthin, a tiny church with an unusual carved-oak font and a fourteenth-century East window; Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd, two miles south of Ruthin, with fine medieval glass and part of a rood screen; Llanelidan, five miles south of Ruthin, with a Jacobean pulpit and box pews, and fine memorials; and Llanynys, three miles north of Ruthin, with a Tudor porch and Tudor panels from the house of Colonel William Salesbury, an altar dating from 1637, and a great fifteenth-century wall painting of St Christopher facing the door.
They seem to like grand monuments in Denbigh – the most obvious is the Dr Evan Pierce Memorial Garden, really just a setting for the 72-ft-high column that Pierce (1808-95) set up on Vale St in 1872 so he could see a statue of himself from his front door. In 1832, the year he qualified as a doctor, he helped bring a cholera outbreak in Denbigh under control, then went on to become a JP, alderman and mayor (1866-70). Not satisfied with the column, in 1890 he built a memorial hall on Station Rd, now the town’s theatre. Fantastic as he was, there’s no space for him in the Rough Guide, alas.
I’d also like to explore the whole western part of Denbighshire and say at least something about it in the Rough Guide – it’s a remote and empty area, the precursor to the mountains of Snowdonia, and there are some interesting trails around the artificial lake of Llyn Brenig. This area was a sacred space to the people of the Bronze Age and there are cairn fields and burial mounds dotted (but not randomly) around the landscape. There’s a visitor centre and café (open daily) by the dam on the B4501 road.
Denbigh also has a small museum, open only on Mondays and Thursdays from 1.30 to 4pm (or by appointment on 01745 814323 or email@example.com), but it has plenty of keen volunteers and if it gets its Lottery Heritage Foundation grant it will be able to create modern displays and open normal hours – the best of luck to them!
Corwen, to the west of Llangollen, has recently opened a museum (daily except Tues and Thurs 10.30am-3.30pm; donations welcomed) and it’s quite impressive (I will try to squeeze it in to the new Rough Guide). There’s good coverage of Owain Glyndwr’s revolt (which started here), farming and droving (moving herds of livestock to the English markets) and transport – the town more or less came into being when Thomas Telford built what is now the A5, a new highway to carry the Irish mails to Holyhead. Soon afterwards, the railways arrived and Corwen became the busiest junction in North Wales. The railway closed a century later in 1965 (although it was effectively abandoned after flooding at the end of 1964) and Corwen fell asleep; now it is being revitalised by the recent extension of the Llangollen Railway (a mostly steam-hauled heritage railway), along the Dee from Llangollen, to the east.
Hull. Wrexham. I go to the most glamorous and exotic parts of Britain. On the surface, Wrexham is a rather run-down post-industrial town where far too many people smoke, women have the longest false eyelashes I’ve ever seen, boy racers cruise in souped-up Ford Escorts, and there’s no visible recycling. No surprise then that Britain’s newest super-prison opened there (on the Industrial Estate!) in March 2017.
But, just like Hull (Britain’s City of Culture 2017), it turns out to have hidden depths. Wrexham County Borough (which covers a surprisingly wide area) also has a remarkably frequent and affordable bus system and a reasonably useful cycle network, including some routes on former railway lines out into the surrounding villages. In fact many of these so-called villages seem more like self-contained towns, built around coal mines or steelworks that have now vanished – there’s a lot of industrial heritage here, and strong local pride in it. Some is described in the Rough Guide to Wales (which I’m updating part of) but not all, for instance King’s Mill, at the eastern end of the Clywedog Valley Trail.
It’s virtually impossible to add anything new to the Rough Guide due to space constraints, but I had to take a look at Wrexham Cemetery (on the Ruabon Road), because a friend helped arrange a Lottery Heritage Fund grant to start restoring it – it’s a fine example of a Victorian garden cemetery, with lawns and trees rather than serried ranks of tombstones. The chapel, designed by a former mayor of Wrexham, William Turner, and the cemetery gates are listed as Grade II.
My friends actually live in England, in Farndon, just across the Dee from the village of Holt which, partly because it’s right on the edge of Wales, tends not to feature in guidebooks. However its castle, built between 1283 and 1311 on an unusual pentagonal plan, was once very important. Guarding a bridge built c.1340 and still in use, the castle was captured by the Parliamentarians in 1647, after an eleven-month siege, and largely demolished. Much of its stone was in fact taken in the 1670s to build Eaton Hall, the seat of the Dukes of Westminster, just to the north. Just recently excavations have taken place and new information signs have been erected – it’s a lovely riverside site, but there’s not a great deal to see beyond a few grassy mounds. There’s even less to see of the Roman tile works of Bovium, just north of Holt, which was busiest between AD 87 and 135 when it supplied roofing tiles by barge to the legionary fort under construction at Deva (now Chester).
Between the castle and the bridge, St Chad’s church is very fine and usually open to visitors. Rebuilt after 1287 and again around 1500, its nave arcades are in Decorated style with the rest in Perpendicular style. It’s pockmarked both inside and outside the main door by holes left by the musket-balls of the Royalist forces cornered in the church and the Roundheads who were besieging them. There’s a fine late 15th-century font bearing the arms of Richard III, donated by Sir William Stanley, who betrayed Richard by switching sides at the battle of Bosworth, and was then executed after backing a plot against Henry VII in 1495. (The castle then reverted to the crown, and the detailed inventory of its content provides invaluable historical information.)
There’s also a deli in the centre of Holt that was once a florist’s shop run by Paul Burrell, formerly butler to Diana, Princess of Wales – he’s now across the bridge in Farndon, and apparently it’s a pretty good flower shop if you like that kind of thing. HG Wells taught at Holt Academy until he had an accident playing football that persuaded him that writing novels was a safer option.
In Wrexham, the main conventional sight is St Giles’ church, with cast iron gates and screen (1719) in front by the Davies brothers of Bersham (they also created gate-screens for Ruthin church and Chirk Castle). Another friend (from Gresford, four miles north) always reminds me of the little jingle about ‘The Seven Wonders of Wales’, which is really a set of minor sights in northern Wales – ‘Pistyll Rhaeadr and Wrexham steeple, Snowdon’s mountain without its people, Overton yew trees, St Winefride Wells, Llangollen bridge and Gresford bells’. Well ok, Snowdon is not a minor sight, but Wrexham steeple, 135 feet high, is just a local landmark, and it is a tower, not a steeple (ie there’s no pointy bit on top). Begun in 1506, it’s richly decorated with fine medieval carvings. Gresford’s light and airy church, mostly rebuilt in the late 15th century, boasts a peal of eight bells (two added in 1623), as well as a Perpendicular font, stained glass from c1500, and some fine monuments.
Another nine miles north from Gresford (actually just west of Chester), Hawarden is famous mainly as the home of William Gladstone, Queen Victoria’s less-favourite prime minister. However far more dramatic and significant events occurred here on Palm Sunday eve of 1282 when Dafydd ap Gruffudd seized Hawarden’s Norman castle and captured its lord in his bed – Dafydd was an ally of the English against his brother Llywelyn, the last Prince of Wales (having betrayed him three times), and had been made Lord of Denbigh, Ruthin and Hope (the ruins of the castle he built at Hope or Caergwrle can be reached by a path from Caergwrle, on the Wrexham-Bidston railway). However his revolt in 1282 provoked Edward I’s decisive campaign to conquer Wales, and Dafydd was captured in 1283 and disembowelled and quartered in Shrewsbury. The castle ruins are in the park of Gladstone’s former home and can be visited on foot via an archway in the centre of the village. Hawarden church was burnt down in 1857 and rebuilt by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott; there’s an Arts & Crafts memorial to Gladstone in a later chapel by Sir William Richmond, and a nativity window by Burne-Jones.
Northeast Wales is one of the rare corners of the country that’s more interested in soccer than in rugby – Michael Owen and Gary Speed both grew up in Hawarden. However for me the most interesting find here (although there’s no space for it in the Rough Guide) was Gladstone’s Library, a small mansion that was bequeathed by Gladstone to the village of Hawarden and is now Britain’s only residential library, and the only British equivalent to the Presidential Libraries found in the United States. There’s perfectly decent accommodation and food here, where you’ll meet scholars of nineteenth-century literature and history, as well as some religious types interested in Gladstone’s brand of Evangelical Anglicanism; they run an interesting range of talks and courses, including Gladfest (‘Britain’s friendliest literary festival’), and it’s also the venue for singer Cerys Matthews’s Good Life Experience in September – not your usual music festival, but an opportunity to connect and to relish the good simple things in life.