My first assignment of the new year took me to the Shropshire market town for a UK staycation.
The town is closely associated with the story of the naturalist Charles Darwen, Shrewsbury’s most famous son [pictured above].
It hosts an annual festival of natural sciences, coinciding with the February 12 birthday of man whose 1859 book, On the Origin of Species, forms the basis of our understanding of evolution.
“Darwen was a human being with human failings, but he simply couldn’t stop himself asking questions all his life,” says Jon King, whose book, Charles Darwin in Shrewsbury – The Making of a Marvellous Mind was recently published by Amberley Publishing.
But the town is also booming as a hub for independent businesses with boutique galleries, cafes and shops doing a busy trade, notably along historic Wyle Cop.
The historic market town, set within a loop of the River Severn, first made its money from the wool industry in Tudor times.
Today the half-timbered shopfronts of Wyle Cop, said to be the street with the longest uninterrupted row of independent shops in the country, are again alive with home-grown businesses.
“Shrewsbury is booming with quirky, independent businesses,” says local shopkeeper, Simon Perks. “Like a rubber band, it keeps bouncing back.”
An interview with the travel blogger Stuart Forster for his blog, Go Eat Do.
The feature is about ideas for a weekend visit to Chester but, with Halloween approaching, previews my new Dark Chester tours [pictured above].
The tours run Saturdays at 6pm and delve into the dark-tourism heritage of the city, exploring 2,000 years of plague, poltergeists and religious persecution.
Talking about St John’s Church, a Saxon site of worship from 689AD, I describe how:
“Cestrians, the people of Chester, call it ‘the thin church’. It’s a reference to the fact it’s one of those places in the city where the world we know, and another we can’t explain, is at its thinest point. It’s a place to step across the supernatural threshold.”
We also discuss, amongst others, the Chester Mystery Plays and the Chester Heritage Festival (both returning in June 2023).
Plus wider ideas for things to do and see during your visit.
I’m finally catching up on posting assignments over the autumn and the first stop? Blackpool.
The nights may be drawing in, but autumn finds brassy Blackpool bathed in “artificial sunshine”.
The world-renowned Blackpool Illuminations along the promenade (pictured above) have been extended this year until 3 January, building on a tradition that began in 1879, when arc lamps replaced gas lights to bring winter cheer.
Illuminations aside, the kiss-me-quick seaside resort continues to reinvent, shaking off its bawdy image with new places to eat, stay and party.
* Aber has been in the eye of the storm of late with residents evacuated for fear of flooding. Here’s an archive story from a happier time.
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All roads lead to Aberystwyth.
Not only is the town alive with the 7,000-strong community of students from the twin-campus University of Aberystwyth, but a slew of excellent new options for dining, drinking and overnighting are making the town an essential stop along the Ceredigion coast.
Most of all, however, the buzz is about a major cultural programme throughout the year and based around The National Library of Wales, which celebrates the centenary of receiving its first Royal Charter in 1907.
Following the granting of a £2.4m investment by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the building was dramatically but tastefully redeveloped in 2001 and today remains Aberystwyth’s landmark site with over 5m books, including the 12th-century Black Book of Carmarthen.
The town has always had close links with the sea, developing first as a centre for the fishing industry before reinventing itself, following the arrival of the railway in 1864, as a fashionable seaside resort appealing to the genteel Victorian sensibilities.
Today the bonnets and britches may be long gone, but the impressive promenade remains skirted by a sweep of pastel-coloured buildings.
Locals are still to be found taking the air along the 1.5-mile promenade at North Beach as the sun sets over Cardigan Bay and, in keeping with local customs, kicking the iron bar at the end of Marine Terrace for good luck.
Welsh is widely spoken here and people are proud of the way their culture has been adopted by a new generation.
The Aberystwyth Male Voice Choir still rehearses at the Tabernacle Chapel most Thursdays, while boutiques around town champion local work. Try Siop Y Pethe for Welsh-language literature and Oriel y Bont for works by well-regarded Welsh artists, such as John Knapp-Fisher and Aneurin Jones.
The Ceredigion Museum, meanwhile, shares a building with the tourist office and is housed in a restored Edwardian theatre, where changing exhibits tell the tale of Aberystwyth’s history against an elegant backdrop.
Away from the bracing, ozone-fuelled strolls and city-centre cultural enclaves, the Mid Wales countryside also offers superb scenery.
And one of the most popular ways to soak up the landscape is by taking a one-hour ride on the narrow-gauge Vale of Rheidol Railway, which plies a 12-mile route along the valley of the River Rheidol to the waterfall-spanning Devil’s Bridge.
The old steam locomotives, which were built by the Great Western Railway between 1923 and 1938, have been lovingly restored by volunteers.
Back in town, the cream of the new openings is Ty Belgrave, a stylish new boutique hotel with a very contemporary feel. The rooms are very tastefully appointed, blending the modernity of flat-screen TVs and the designer chic of contemporary fittings with a strong seaside motif in the artworks displayed through the corridors.
Downstairs, a lounge area is the place to take in the view across Cardigan Bay from a comfy leather sofa with a sundowner in hand.
In fact, the hotel is typical of the new face of Aberystwyth: stylish, contemporary but, at heart, indelibly linked to the smell of the sea.
Get your bearings
The centre is very walkable with some fine, old buildings and plenty of tucked-away cafes. Try The Mecca on Chalybeale Street (01970 61288) for people watching and a caffeine fix.
Start the day by grabbing a map of the Aberystwyth Town Trail at the tourist information office on the corner of Terrace Rd & Bath St (01970 612125) and, while there, pop upstairs to the Ceredigion Museum (01970 633088) to catch the latest exhibition.
Stretch your legs
A trot along the North Beach promenade, Marine Terrace, is the most genteel pursuit on offer and one that harks back to the town’s erstwhile halcyon days as a Victorian resort. North Beach is also the main swimming beach with lifeguards and a EU blue-flag rating.
Many locals prefer to swim, however, at the stony but emptier Tanybwlch Beach, just south of town.
Get some culture
After dark, the pubs and bars are heaving. Check out Rummers Wine Bar on Bridge Street (01970 625177), located right by the river, or the Coopers Arms on Northgate St (01970 624050), a friendly pub for a pint and a chance to catch some live music.
For something more cerebral, the Aberystwyth Arts Centre on Penglais Rd (01970 623232) is one of the largest arts centres in Wales with excellent opera, drama, dance and concerts (tickets for which can be booked at the tourist information office). The cinema, in particular, shows a good range of world and foreign-language cinema.
Catch a ride
Sunday mornings are perfect for a constitutional around the 430ft Constitution Hill, which overlooks the town and commends 60 miles of coastal views.
To get there, catch the trundling little Cliff Railway (01970 617642) to the summit, the UK’s longest electric funicular and possibly the slowest too at a G-Force-busting 4mph.
On the wind-blown hilltop, the erstwhile Victorian tearooms have been rebuilt in line with environmental considerations and a Victorian camera obscura, an immense pinhole camera, still casts a beady eye over the town.
Explore local heritage
This isolated site is home to the ruins of the 12th-century Cistercian Strata Florida Abbey (01970 831261). The Cistercians were a monastic order with roots in France, and the community at Strata Florida was founded in 1164.
The site is close to the village of Pontrhydfendigaid off the B4343, a 15-minute drive southeast of Aberystwyth.
Catch it if you can
Amongst the huge programme of events to mark its centenary year, the National Library of Wales (01970 623800) is sponsoring an event to support future young poets at the Urdd National Eisteddfod and hosting The Sir John Williams Lecture in the North Reading Room of the Library.
The library will hold a joint event with the National Museum Wales at the National Eisteddfod of Wales.
Where to eat
Ultra Comida, Pier St (01970 630686) A blend of Spanish, French and Welsh produce is the mainstay of this excellent little deli.
Treehouse, 14 Baker St (01970 615791) This excellent organic restaurant is one of the best places in town for lunch with a wide menu of organic fare.
The Orangery, Market St, (01970 617606) Set in an 19-century coaching house, the space is divided between a restaurant, cocktail bar and a family room where children are welcome until 8pm.
Aberystwyth is the terminus of Arriva Trains Cambrian Coast Line, which crosses Mid Wales to Pwllheli via Machynleth.