One of the great pleasures of running a lifestyle magazine is that I can legitimately spend time browsing shops and cafes in the name of research. My quest to find new places to shop led me to discover a thriving little town just 30 minutes drive from Swansea.
Ystradgynlais may only be a small town, but it’s got a big history. It was a centre for iron making, coalmining and even watch making – those employed at the Anglo Celtic Watch Company were said to work at the ‘Tic Toc’. It has had some notable residents in its time too; Dr Rowan Williams, the ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, Tudor Thomas, ophthalmic surgeon and pioneer in corneal grafting and Josef Herman, the Polish artist famous for his bold style and minimal detail which captured the life of the local community, in particular the miners.
In 1954 Ystradgynlais played host to the National Eisteddfod – the Gorsedd Stones can be found in Goresedd Park.
The town is centred around the thoroughfares of Commercial Street and Station Road, where you’ll find a wonderful range of independently owned businesses. The Kindle House is what initially drew me to Ystradgynlais, tempted by the range of paints and fabrics that I had discovered in their sister shop in Newton Road, Mumbles; I hot footed it up the A4067. Here I found room upon room of interior design goodies, exquisite children’s toys and some fab clothing and jewellery. The Mumbles shop has a selection of the product range but here you can see it all.
I was really surprised to find just how many quirky shops this little Welsh town was home to. The Bag Shop – well you’ve guessed it, sells bags but that’s not all, it also stocks a range of clothing and accessories. Cofion Cynnes, which if my translation is correct means Best Wishes; a perfectly fitting name for a shop that sells greetings cards and gifts. They hold a fine selection of Clogau gold jewellery and lots of other Welsh made giftware and books.
It’s not all about the frivolous though, the everyday necessities of life are catered for too – Caplin the Butchers has been part of this Swansea valley community for 85 years. This family business has handed down the traditional butchering skills from father to son, and prides itself on only selling the best quality Welsh beef, lamb and pork. No Welsh town would be complete without a Jenkins Bakery, so it’s no surprise to find one in Commercial Street, its windows were full of Easter goodies the day I visited. The bakery was founded by David and Lizzie Jenkins, in 1921; that’s 95 years ago – we know how to establish a family businesses in Wales.
Quid’s In is just around the corner in Heol Eglwys and is the place to shop for everything for the home and garden, their range of bedding plants makes for an impressive display from the road – and they are also to be seen outside many of the businesses in the area, in the form of planters and hanging baskets. As they say on all the home makeover programmes – it’s all about kerb appeal. Quid’s In is opening a nursery in Cwmtwrch very soon and I am reliably informed that I will be able to buy all manner of exotic and Mediterranean plants and trees there. Olive trees, Australian cordyline, palms, bays, jasmine and bonsai trees.
I popped into Loaf cafe for a quick cup of coffee, owner Chris certainly knows how to make a good cuppa, and I wasn’t alone in thinking so – the place was packed with locals and I was lucky to find a seat.
As Ystradgynlais is right on the edge of the Brecon Beacons it is the perfect place for visitors to the area to stay. Merlin’s bills itself as a cafe, bar, with accommodation, however this isn’t your average hotel. It’s the HQ for Call of the Wild – an out-door pursuits company that provides activity holidays for groups – Merlin’s as well as being a cafe is the local bunk-house.
The on-line review website, Trip Advisor is a useful tool if you’re visiting a town or city and want the head’s up on where to eat. The fish and chip shop The Old Temp, stands on the corner of Temperance Lane, it receives 5 star reviews from everyone who eats there. But of course the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and not being one to pass up a chip opportunity I had to sample them for myself and I have to agree, they are exceptionally fine.
Although you may not think about travelling out of Swansea to go to a hairdressers, you may reconsider when you see the stylish salon run by Elaine Rees, Clippers & Co in Station Road. It’s a unisex salon and has a beauty side to it as well.
Just a little further out of town is the headquarters of Classy Curtains. Housed in what used to be the local primary school, the showroom perfectly displays the many brands of furnishing fabrics and wall papers along with Little Green paints. This really is the one-stop home décorating shop. Helen Pickering started out making cushions and curtains from her home but she now has a workshop par excellence in what would have been a school classroom. She along with her husband David are on an epic renovation project, to transform the classrooms and assembly halls into a stylish home, business and holiday let. Their progress to date is testimony to their talents in interior design.
If you have made the journey north to this delightful little town, then you should of course be rewarded for your efforts. Just a little way along the road from Classy Curtains you will find one of the area’s hidden gems – Chameleon Cafe. Run by husband and wife team Howie and Amanda Killick, this quirky cafe cum restaurant serves freshly prepared quality food in relaxed surroundings. The menu caters for vegetarians, vegans, and those with gluten allergies. The emphasis is on wholesome and healthy, home-made food – the menu that day offered pastas and burgers as well as pesto and garlic breadcrumb topped salmon all at very wallet friendly prices. Doorstep sandwiches of bacon and sausage (meat or veggie) can be ordered off the break-fast menu up until 1.00 pm. Just the thing if you’ve cycled all the way from Swansea.
The National Cycle Route 43 connects Swansea to Builth Wells and runs through Ystradgynlais, passing alongside Cafe Chameleon.
Ystradgynlais has an air of a bygone age, a time when people stopped to chat in the street and weren’t distracted by their iphones and gizmos. It’s a friendly place with a real sense of community; it makes a great alternative to spending an afternoon in an out-of-town identikit shopping destination.
Look out later in the year for some exciting events in the town. Following the success of their Winter Fayre last Christmas, there are plans for a summer fayre which will see the town play host to craft stalls and food producers from around the area. I’ll make sure that any up-coming events are posted in our Snippets section so keep an eye open.