How Chic is my Valley
By Lowri Turner
Published Mail on Sunday, 15/1/08
Chic shopping. These are not words that usually come to mind when you think of going on holiday to Wales. Beautiful scenery, yes. Fresh air, certainly. Lovely beaches, absolutely. But cutting-edge designer labels? That these can be found not just in Cardiff or Swansea but in the small town of Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire - a place that I, and I suspect a lot of others, had never even heard of - seems remarkable.
Yet as I slipped (well, more squeezed actually) into a swimsuit in the changing room of Toast, the upmarket fashion label whose only other stores are in London, Oxford and Harrogate, I had to admit that Llandeilo is a unique place.
Not only does it have windy streets with County Cork-style coloured houses, a lovely church on a hill and far-reaching views of the Tywi Valley, but those twisty, turny streets are dotted with the kind of stores you simply wouldn't expect to find in such a small rural location.
As well as Toast I would single out Mela, a boutique that sells a brilliant selection of idiosyncratic, modish designs. Fancy an A-line dress made from fabric printed with cats wearing crowns? Then Mela is your place. The owner, Helen Humphries, used to work for designer Amanda Wakely in London and has brought a metropolitan fashion ethos to Llandeilo.
These are just two of the many clothes shops to wander round. Shops have bred more shops in the retail merry-go-round that is Llandeilo. There are toys at Eve's Toy Shop, gifts at Igam Ogam and stores catering for the fashionable home.
Scorpio's three floors are stuffed full of trendy Welsh tweed with a modern twist, cushions, curtains and other stylish homeware. Peppercorn sells a brilliant selection of cookery paraphernalia, while Pinc specialises in elegant garden objects. Fountain Fine Art and the Bridge Gallery sell the work of local artists.
You'll notice that I haven't mentioned a Next or an Oasis, or even a Starbucks. While towns and cities across the UK now give us more of the same, Llandeilo goes its own way, proudly boasting that all its stores are independently owned. It is this fact that has really put the place on the map.
Because the shops are all one-offs, you find stuff here that you don't find anywhere else. I loved the huge jars of snowy peaches in syrup in Salvador Deli, and bought a trio of hand-made enamel picture frames in Crafts Alive, a co-operative of local artists.
And since the shops are locally owned, the proprietors are 110 per cent committed to them and their customers. Pharmacist Nigel Griffiths, for example, owns the chemist's and also runs Barita, the coffee shop and deli on the main street with his wife Rita Morgan.
Tracey Kindred and husband Paul serve modern gastropub food at The Angel, and also run Heavenly, the award-winning ice cream and chocolate shop next door. People come from miles around for the hand-made chocolate - I adored the little chocolate shoes - and unusual ice creams.
When I was in, they had thyme ice cream - a bit odd, it has to be said, but not as off-the-wall as Heston Blumenthal's smoked-bacon-and-egg variety - as well as more conventional flavours. Tracey makes a point of using local produce. She was just off to nearby Aberglasney Gardens to collect lavender when I met her.
MORE ON LLANDEILO
Perched on top of a hill overlooking the Vale of Towy, one of the most beautiful valleys in Wales, Llandeilo is a popular destination for visitors from far and wide, drawn by its many attractions and wonderful scenery. Approaching Llandeilo from the south you pass over the spectacular stone river bridge over the salmon runs of the Towy. Built in 1848, it is the perfect way to arrive in this ancient, but vibrant town.
Llandeilo is named after St Teilo, which is more apparent nowadays after an official decree stated the name should be spelt in its old form, Llandeilo (for centuries it was spelled Llandilo). Home to about 2,000 residents, the town is home to many historic places of interest.
It is generally believed that a town has existed on the site for some 1,300 years, with a written record since the beginning of the 13th century. In its early stages it was dependent on the fortunes and misfortunes of the House of Dinefwr, the chief seat of the kingdom of Deheubarth, one of the early kings of Wales.
There are many reasons to stop a while in Llandeilo – but here are just a few. Take a walk through Castle Woods to Dinefwr Castle, perched on a crag with tremendous views along the valley of the River Towy, hunt for bargains in the antiques market, eat local specialities like Welsh lamb or salmon in one of the many pubs and restaurants, wander among the river meadows with their varied wildlife, or just soak up the atmosphere of this charming little town.
The town's narrow alleys conceal a wide variety of shops with interesting things to browse and buy. For a comprehensive guide to the shops and businesses of Llandeilo,
In 1996 Llandeilo hosted the National Eisteddfod, which was held on the meadow across the river at Ffairfach, and in 2008 hosted the World Sheepdog Trials. The town's rugby team. Llandeilo RFC, was one of the founding clubs of the Welsh Rugby Union.
Llandeilo is also part of the Transition Towns movement, the first town in Wales to be registered as such. The Transition Towns movement represents a community response to climate change and peak oil. In Llandeilo, as in other Transition Towns, a group of people has come together to explore how the town and its surrounding area can adapt to a future of low oil consumption and low carbon emissions as painlessly as possible. The movement started in Totnes, in South Devon, and is growing rapidly. Other Transition Towns in Wales include Lampeter, Machynlleth, Rhayader and Presteigne.
Llandeilo is also the perfect base from which to explore the Brecon Beacons National Park and the Carmarthenshire Fans and Black Mountain.
Nestled in the eastern part of Carmarthenshire, Llandovery, or
Llanymddyfri in Welsh, means 'church among the waters' and it is not
hard to see why it was so named. Home to just 1,700 inhabitants, this
thriving market town is surrounded by three rivers, the Towy, the Bran,
and the Gwydderig.
For many visitors, Llandovery is the first town they encounter after crossing the Brecon Beacons National Park.
Agriculture still plays a major part of the daily life and the town
still hosts a busy livestock market. But the town has become a major
tourist attraction, many of them drawn by the Brecon Beacons and
surrounding countryside. Popular activities include rambling, fishing,
bird watching and canoeing, as well as more modern-day pursuits such as
mountain biking, mountain boarding, and go-karting. Incredibly, in its
heyday, the town supported 58 pubs. Nowadays it's down to a little more
The town has a diverse range of shops, including Ratcliffe's in Stone street, a traditional old fashioned hardware store selling a wide range of items and Dinefwr Craft Centre in
the old market hall which includes a shops specialising in
handicrafts from Wales and around the world. The town has its own
railway station, where there is a park and ride to Llanelli and
Shrewsbury run by the Heart of Wales railway line.
Historically, Llandovery was once occupied a significant strategic part of the Romans' plans for the conquest of Wales. Overlooking the town, from atop Llanafair Hill, once stood the Roman fort of Alabum, built around AD 50 to 60. You can still make out the remains today. In 1110 the Norman Llandovery Castle was built, although it was almost immediately captured by the Welsh and changed hands between them and the Normans until King Edward I's reign in the 13th century.
In 1401 Henry IV stayed at the castle during the struggle for Welsh
independence led by Owain Glyndwr. Nowadays it is remembered as the
site of the brutal execution of the landowner Llywelyn ap Gruffydd
Fychan, a Welsh patriot who organised a deception of Henry IV's English
forces in their search for Glyndwr, allowing him to escape. As punishment, Llywelyn had his stomach cut out and cooked in front of
him, before being hanged, drawn and quartered in the town square. To
finish the job, the king had the quarters salted and dispatched to
other Welsh towns for public display. Llywelyn's actions are
commemorated in a 16ft-high statue, made entirely of stainless steel,
depicting an empty helmeted and cloaked figure, holding a spear and
shield. In 1403 the castle was attacked during the Owain Glyndwr
rebellion and left a partial ruin, which is how it remains today.
Llandovery is also the site of one of the first independent Welsh banks, The Black Ox, which was established by a wealthy drover, David Jones, in 1799. It was so called because its notes, used for trading with Smithfield Market in London, depicted the Welsh Black breed of cattle. The building is part of the King's Head, the home of The Bank of the Black Ox.
In common with almost all Welsh towns, Llandovery has its own rugby union team, Llandovery RFC. The club currently play in the Principality Premiership, and were crowned WRU Cup Winners in 2007. They have many teams in their club set up and always welcome new members, if you're feeling brave!
Other places of interest in the town include the charity-run Llandovery Theatre, a heritage centre, the town's famous public school, Llandovery College and the Old Printing Shop that was once one of Wales' most important printing centres.
Sites of interest near to Llandovery include Llyn y Fan Fach, with its legend of The Lady of the Lake and her magical cattle, The National Botanic Garden of Wales at Middleton, Esgair Fwyog Forest Park, Dolaucothi Gold and Carreg Cennen Castle.