Sunday 29 November 2015

Chepstow, Monmouthshire

All I knew about Chepstow was that it had a racecourse and that’s it.  I didn’t know it was in Wales as its name sounds English, but apparently Chepstow is the English name for the place.

We took the scenic route along the River Wye from Monmouth to Chepstow along the A466.  It’s only 16 miles, though as it’s a winding road it took much longer than anticipated and not good for passengers who get travel sick.  The plus points of choosing this route is that it’s pretty and you pass Tintern Abbey.  Sadly we didn’t have time to stop, but it did look good.

Parking in Chepstow is straightforward as there’s a big car park behind the main shopping area which costs £1 for 2 hours.
Chepstow is quite a compact town and certainly not as busy as Monmouth, but that could be just the time of day.  The architecture is rather mixed with new developments amongst the medieval and historic buildings.  At the top of the hill there is the Town Gate which dates from the medieval times and in the car park you can still see the remains of the Port Wall which used to protect the town.  There is also some random street art too with a surprising statue of a naked man complete with genitals.

Obviously we were here for the charity shops and they didn’t disappoint.  I found the shops were particularly good for books, especially newly published ones.  I picked up the Amy Poehler book “Yes Please” for a song at £1.50.  I’d have bought more books if I hadn’t already purchased them at full price.  I also picked up a practically new clutch bag for £2.99.
There were some good overheard conversations to be had in the charity shops and I spent far too much time eavesdropping on them.  One was a lady who was discussing her career change – she’s so much happier now.  The other was the concerned grandparents who were hoping their grandson will finally pass his driving test to improve his job prospects.  I forget, living in a city, how important it is to drive when you live in the countryside.  It’s practically a rite of passage to pass a driving test where there’s very little public transport available.

There are a few antique / vintage places in Chepstow and Neil spent almost an hour trawling through them.  He did pick up a good haul of vinyl records and CDs. I know he’d happily come back here again just for these shops.  As a result of this I spent quite a bit of time looking through the craft shops, exploring the tiny shopping arcades and taking photos.  Damn the traffic in this town though, as it makes it hard to take photographs of buildings without a blurred car in shot.
Neil noticed the WiFi was particularly good in Chepstow too and you could get a half decent O2 signal (3G).  He’s rather obsessed with these things and mobile phone coverage – it’s possible he may have a social media addiction.

Chepstow is definitely a good place to visit in South Wales; a bit quieter than Monmonth and easier to navigate without getting killed in the process.  We had already eaten but there are lots of cafes and restaurants to get something nice to eat.  If we are ever in the area again, we’d definitely stop off and have a wander.

Sunday 8 November 2015

Monmouth, Monmouthshire

Monmouth had been recommended to us as a place to go in South Wales by a friend who knew about our weakness for visiting towns and charity shops.

Traveling across South Wales is not like traveling across a city or between urban conurbations where the roads are straightforward and speedy.  The 33 mile drive took over an hour from Hay-on-Wye to Monmouth which I couldn’t believe.  This was not helped by Neil as he’s not a fan of winding roads, so I had to take them at sane speeds to avoid that inevitable phrase “Are we there yet?  I feel sick”.  All the same it was a pretty drive and we took a route along the B4348, A465 and A466. 

We parked up in a car park behind the main shops in the town centre.  It was a very busy car park and people were hovering like vultures trying to nab a spot.  We were very lucky to get a parking spot quickly and paid £1.50 for 3 hours.
Monmouth is a busy town and I’ve never seen so much traffic pass through one place.  How people cross the main street without getting hit by a car on a daily basis is a miracle.   This posed problems for me as I wanted to take photos of the buildings and kept getting random trucks and cars in shot.  The street was busy too, with old people, families and tourists.  I was genuinely surprised how popular this place seemed to be.  Given the amount of pubs and places to eat it seems to be a popular destination for tourists.  Behind the main shops I did spot a gardening shop-cum-cafĂ© called the Potting Shed.  It was a nice little quiet spot where you could enjoy a cup of tea and a slice of cake away from the hubbub of the town.
Architecturally, Monmouth is a rather pretty mix of rendered buildings which have evolved over the centuries.  The baroque 18th century ShireHall is certainly the star of the town, with its perfectly symmetrical frontage looking grand and refined overlooking Agincourt Square – it’s clearly well maintained by the local council.  On the edge of town is the Monnow Bridge which is the oldest surviving medieval bridge with a gate house in the UK.  It’s certainly worth a look and makes a good photo opportunity as well as a chance to feed the local ducks who live underneath it.

We were here for charity shops, and Monmouth did not disappoint.  Neil found a couple of CDs but managed to get stuck in Mind behind a mum and her screaming child.  The child wasn’t impressed with the shop as she thought it was “smelly”.  It wasn’t by the way, she was just tired and grumpy.  I did have a charity shop regret here as I found a pottery goblet but didn’t buy it.  As we walked around, I was bugged that I didn’t pick it up, so I went back only to find it had been sold already.  Damn – I never learn!

I was impressed that Monmouth had a few craft shops and I spent some time browsing the fabrics.  In one shop the assistant was upcycling a chair with vivid red chalk paint as it was a bit of a slow day.  Needless to say I ended up buying more fabric for my stash.

Neil grabbed a bite to eat and had an uninspiring pasty, whereas I went to Caffe Nero and got a nice latte.  It amused me to hear the staff discussing how well other chains had done over the weekend.  It’s funny to see the competitiveness in the coffee trade. 

All in all, Monmouth was definitely a successful trip for us – pretty, pleasant and some decent charity shops. The only downside was the traffic and I was certainly happy not to get run over – something from past experience I wouldn’t recommend.  This is the kind of place you could easily spend a night or two in if you fancied a short break in this part of the world.  

Sunday 1 November 2015

Brecon, Powys

We took a few days off work and decided to take a road trip to South Wales as we’d never been together before.  We were staying in Hay-on-Wye for three nights and that provided a great base to explore the surrounding area.

It was Bank Holiday Monday and we weren’t too sure whether any of the surrounding towns would be open.  So we had a look on the map and found Brecon was about 16 miles away.  The plan was if it was closed then we’d have a drive around the Brecon Beacons.  It took us about half an hour to drive there and we took a route along the B4350, A479 and A470.  We parked up at Lidl where you get 1.5 hours of parking for free.

On first impression, Brecon seemed like a tidy Welsh town built on a hill.  Whilst the majority of buildings are modest, often colourfully rendered, there are some fine architectural buildings.  The Greek revival Brecknock Museum, whilst undergoing renovations, looks really grand with its imposing columns and sturdy symmetrical design.  St Mary’s Church in the centre of town is suitably old and weathered and has evolved into its current form from the Norman times.  We didn’t see the cathedral as we explored the town, but if we’d known we’d have visited it too.

The first thing we did was get some food.  I wasn’t too fussed about getting fish and chips so Neil decided to get his own from a nearby chippy.  It took an age for Neil to get served, but it was worth the wait.  I sampled one of his chips and they were the best chippy chips I have ever had.  My intentions to eat something healthier went straight out the window and I bought myself a portion of chips - they were heaven.  Often chippy chips smell nicer than they taste and are soggy.  However these were proper crispy and so fluffy inside - chippy must double fry them.  The chippy’s name is Coracle Fish Bar and, although it does get very mixed reviews on Trip Advisor, the chips are fantastic.

Fortified with chips, we explored Brecon.  Even though it was a Bank Holiday most of the shops were open.  The charity shops weren’t that exciting to be honest and that’s possibly because there is an overpriced antique shop in town picking up the best stuff.  To be truthful it’s a bit of a stretch to call it an antique shop as to me it seemed like a vintage shop.  I do think in recent times there has been a blurring of lines between what is considered antique (rare old stuff that people want) and what is classed as vintage (old stuff).

There was a Fairy Fair going on off one of the side streets.  We didn’t know what to expect so we peaked in.  It was all a bit odd and hippyish.  There was some bloke giving a talk and we couldn’t get through to the stalls as the place was very crowded with people watching him speak.  So we made a swift exit.

Surprisingly the indoor market was open and we popped in.  It’s one of those traditional indoor markets with some permanent stalls as you walk in and a big space full of trestle tables for the temporary stalls.  If you wanted carpets this was the place to go as it was full of them.  Otherwise we found people selling cheap stuff you normally find at traditional markets.  Although if you are visiting it’s worth checking out what’s on at the markets as they do have a monthly farmers market as well as host craft and antiques fairs. 

Before we left we nipped into a sweet shop to buy some ice cream.  However we were stuck in a queue for ages as there were two indecisive Irish ladies trying every type of fudge as they were buying holiday gifts for their families.  Thankfully the shop assistant managed to serve us between a bout of indecisiveness.  It was worth the wait though as it was nice Welsh made ice cream. 

Whilst Brecon didn’t strike me as a touristy place, more of a down-to-earth town serving its local community - it was a nice place to stop off and spend a couple of hours exploring.  Bank holiday probably wasn’t the best time to go, but we did get to see most things and I got dog envy seeing all the cute pooches in town.  If I was ever in that neck of the woods again I would definitely stop off to try the chips as they were brill.