Thursday, November 26, 2009

Narberth


Town Hall - Narberth (image from Narberth COT)

When I first came to Pembrokeshire I would smile at a particular road sign on the A40: it read, Arberth Narberth. Bilingual roadsigns are commonplace in Wales, and though this one appealed me for its rhyme I never thought to visit the town. It was only when a traffic accident diverted me that I chanced upon one of the hidden gems of West Wales.

Narberth (or Arberth if you're talking Welsh) is about as untypical for Pembroke as it can get. For a start, it is not near to the sea, lying pretty much in the middle of the county. It is on what is known as the Landsker, the line dividing the English and Welsh speaking areas in South West Wales. The line is pronounced, but I have a feeling the people of Narberth knew something of the best of both cultures. And perhaps that explains the subtle and slightly poetic variation in the two names.

For Narberth is a sophisticated town. It has the best and most concentrated collection of boutiques, galleries, delicatessen, dress shops, antique dealers and cafes this side of Cardiff. It has a thriving arts scene too, and for years the Queen's Hall played host to bands which would never usually venture this far. It's a sort of Notting Hill in Wales, but much much better - because it lacks the pretence as well as the prices.

This morning Jane and I sat in the Ultracomidia delicatessen and had brunch. I ordered the set breakfast: toasted ciabatta with olive oil, Serano ham, tomatoes, a glass of freshly squeezed orange and think Spanish hot chocolate. It cost less than going to Mcdonalds. Jane had the same with Comte cheese and a cappuccino. We mixed and matched and decided we really ought to book for one of the tapas evenings. Frankly, I could have sat there reading Baudelaire and not felt out of place.

Cheese at Ultracomidia

And, dare I say it, this is rare in this part of Wales. Readers of this blog will know of my affection for Pembrokeshire, but one of its lesser aspects is that the heavy influx of summer tourists means there are few businesses with aspirations beyond this obvious source of income. Much of what passes as quality is little more than polished veneer.

In many towns - St David's is a good example - the low season feels deserted and shabby. Even in high season there is the seaside equivalent of pile it high - sell it cheap with a mix of dodgy crab sandwiches and tacky souvenirs. I'm being a touch harsh here - the lack of pretension is one of Pembrokeshire's delights too - but just sometimes I need a more sophisticated fix.

Narberth gets the balance right and works hard to keep it going. In the summer there is a food festival, an arts festival, and a brilliantly conceived children's festival - nicknamed the Narby Gras. In December there is a winter carnival and, of course, they do Christmas with lights and street sellers; similar efforts are made at New Year, Easter, Halloween.

If all this sounds a touch upmarket I guess that is true. But the important phrase in that last sentence is 'a touch', because the real delight of Narberth is that it is accessible to almost all. It is not expensive - eating there is cheaper than the tourist traps - and the town actively markets itself as offering superb value. Nor do you have to like bruschetta and olives to enjoy the place - the butchers does the best faggots I know of, and the chippy on the corner (The Contented Sole) does a great fish chips and curry sauce.

I could go on. But you can already tell I like Narberth. And you probably have as good an idea as you're going to get without going there. If you are down in West Wales, I'd strongly recommend you do.

12 comments:

  1. Ooooo- I looked at your winter carnival link in this post. A lantern parade in Narberth - for this Aussie that pines for the towns and valleys of Wales, that would be my idea of heaven!...and throw in the bruschetta and olives - bliss!

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  2. ...and it's my nearest town (she writes smugly). I wasn't there today, but I was there on Tuesday in the appropriately named Bargain Box and buying meat from the butchers you mentioned (which also does the best sausages including the Narberth sausage). What I love about Ultracomidia is that the staff are so knowledgeable. I tend to just go in and describe the sort of thing I want and they make intelligent suggestions. Narberth is a lovely place. Just don't tell too many people about it...

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  3. How long has Narberth been like this? Was it always civilised and continued to evolve, or was there some event or phenomenon which made it the way it is?

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  4. You've certainly piqued my interest as this is a part of Wales I have never visited, usually confining myself to Gwynedd of the far north...

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  5. I have fond memories of a corner of Pembrokeshire: Bosherston lily ponds where I went on fishing trips with my dad on three occasions. We camped in a nearby field and spent most of the day fishing, swimming at the beach not far away, and cooking awful food on a Primus stove that had the evil personality of a camel with a bad back.

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  6. You're right. It does sound my kind of place for an occasional visit at least. On the subject of edible hearts.... my first mother-in-law (yes, I have been unlucky enough to have two, the first a dragon-in-law, the second a sweetheart), despite being able to afford it, would shun the good cuts of meat, and go for the cheaper, which, like her vegetables, she cooked almost to extinction. Stuffed heart was a favourite. I made it for my late husband, her son,being a young and dutiful wife at the time (these days he would have to do it himself!) I never ate it, nor did my children, but he loved it... and I was young, and in lerve..... now I am old and in lerve, and thankfully my husband has never eaten heart, has no interest in doing so.

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  7. That sounds like a wonderful place to visit!! Chris and I have only ever been to Wales once and we've been talking about visiting again now that we live closer....I think you may have just provided us with a destination!!

    C x

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  8. Sorry not to have been around for a few days - been testing software at a very fast pace. It's all or nothing here.

    Anyway I've never heard of Narberth but it sounds like it is a gem of a place. Now you've made me aware of it I'll probably keep seeing things about it - that usually is what happens.

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  9. That sounds like a real gem.

    Pembrokeshire's a fascinating place - I was involved with an archaeological dig at Monorbier for a while and always remember the description of the area being 'Little England beyond Wales' - presumably the Landsker also forms part of the history behind that phrase.

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  10. Thank you for his, as we are holidaying there in June. We love Wales having been to lots of places over the years but never to Narberth.

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  11. I was born in Narberth on the 19th of July 1957 at 26 St James Street.....my cousin now lives in the same house. Lovely town ....if the butcher you refer to is Andrew J Rees and Sons, he is my brother-in-law and without being biased, a bloody good butcher! :-D

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