A couple of weeks ago I found myself in North Devon with a bit of time to kill and decided on the spur of the moment to take the turning to Barnstaple – somewhere I had never visited. I had no particular expectations, but thought that at worst I could have a cup of tea somewhere warm, even if the shopping was disappointing. I just hoped I could find somewhere to park, as this is often a challenge is small towns.
Imagine, therefore, my delight at finding there is a park-and-ride facility in Barnstaple. Situated improbably behind what appears to be a school, it has a bus service into the town centre every 20 minutes and costs just £1 per person. The friendly and helpful driver told me not to get out at the bus station but to stay on until the post office, as that would put me right in the middle of the shops.
On our way into town, I spotted a promising-looking vintage and collectibles shop, so once the bus set me down at the post office I walked back a hundred yards or so to Eclectic in Queen Street. Eclectic (www.abygoneera.net) is something of an Aladdin’s Cave, with cabinets packed with all manner of vintage and antique goodies. I spotted a late Victorian sterling silver salt spoon with a gilt bowl which I thought would be a great addition to my collection, and had a discussion with the owner about possible ways of displaying such tiny spoons.
From Eclectic it was on to the main shopping streets, which sweep round the centre of the town. This really is the British high street at its best – not only the big multiples like M&S (incidentally a much better stocked store than the one in my – larger – nearest town of Taunton), Primark etc, but countless independents, including no fewer than two cookshops selling more kitchen gadgetry than my imagination could conceive of, a traditional (and competitively priced) gentlemen’s outfitters, and a surprising number of jewelers, who as well as new stock also sold an impressive collection of vintage and antique pieces.
Perhaps Barnstaple’s highlight is the Pannier Market, which dates back over 150 years and which has general, craft or collectors’ markets most days (see www.barnstaplepanniermarket.co.uk for details). On the other side of the road is the picturesque Butchers’ Row, formerly a series of butchers’ booths but now also home to a coffeeshop, a greengrocer and a couple of delis.
I am astonished that it has taken me so long to discover this great little town with its varied and interesting shops – why is this not a shopping destination in the South West? Why is no-one talking about it? It’s really not far from the M5, and more than worth the drive. From where I live, it would take me roughly the same time to get to Cribbs Causeway, but I know where I shall be going back to! In fact, I can’t wait to go back and explore more – there is apparently an antiques centre, as well as a couple of antiques shops, and several more streets with shops which I did not have time to visit on this occasion. All of which gives me a great excuse to return to Barnstaple soon, and celebrate this wonderful example of the British high street.