Good cake and coffee in St Asaph, I presume?

I don’t know how much coffee Stanley got to drink when he lived in St Asaph’s workhouse as a boy…More likely gruel and water probably.  But now he’d have the joy of coffee, cake and more at Jacob’s Ladder Coffee Shop right on the main roundabout opposite the Cathedral.

St Asaph is the UK’s newest city, granted its status to mark the Queen’s Jubilee in March 2012.  It’s not exactly an urban city, though. It has a population of barely 3,500, less than the ‘village’ my parents lived in…

So, I knew it wouldn’t take long to do the sights, meaning all the more time to enjoy a cuppa and take in the  atmosphere at the best place for coffee in town (oops, I mean, the city)…

Jacob’s Ladder is a bright, friendly place. It used to be the St Asaph Post Office so it’s been a focal point for the community for some 150 years.

Jacobs Ladder coffee shop in St Asaph

There’s no website for the coffee shop; no Twitter and only occasional Facebook activity.  The only online review I could find beforehand suggested that Lowri always gives service with a smile. And sure enough, that’s what I found too.

Coffee was good and the cakes fantastic. Well, actually, I chose only one cake (ginger) and liked it so much I had to have two pieces, even though the professional in me was saying I ought to have tried a second type, just to quality check for readers.

Cappuccino and ginger cake at Jacobs Ladder in St Asaph

Lowri is another person with a great story of how she came to run the coffee shop, so it will fit nicely in that next volume of Fancy a Cuppa?, once I’ve got round all the Cathedral towns (and cities).

St Asaph Cathedral

The Cathedral in St Asaph goes back a good few centuries. It is most famous for holding an original edition of the Welsh translation of the Bible, made in 1588.

This single work is credited in some quarters with helping maintain the Welsh language through the mediaeval period, though I’m not totally convinced by this, since language is surely preserved just as much orally as it is in written form. But that’s something for historians and linguists to debate.

I began a bit of a debate myself by expressing enthusiasm in the coffee shop for the ‘Stanley Obelisk’ down by the riverside.  It is a modern sculpture depicting the fascinating life of the guy who is best-known for ‘finding’ Livingstone in the African jungle. (See the video below for some footage of it…)

The majority of locals, I was told, don’t like the thing. Not because of its subject matter, I was assured, but because of where it had been placed and the ‘modern’ material it was made from.

Stanley is an extraordinary character I didn’t know much about before today. He was dumped in the workhouse at the age of 5, but escaped and fled the country on board a boat that sailed for America.  There he got involved in the Civil War (fighting for the South) before landing a job for the New York Herald to go and ‘find’ Livingstone.

The rest is history, as they say. But I loved the footnote that, after such humble beginnings, he could have made so much of himself and he ended up as MP for Lambeth. Why isn’t there some sort of epic film about the guy? Come on Hollywood. Time you went to St Asaph and began filming.

And hey, there’s room in the coffee shop for all the production team, I’m sure! Lowri won’t mind…

Video: Cathedral and coffee in St Asaph



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Tea on Bangor Pier & Coffee on Bangor High Street

It’s only a small place, Bangor, but it has perfect entries for Fancy a Cuppa’s next volume: tea looking out over the Menai Strait and coffee in one of those places that just make you feel good all over.

Scratch the surface of Bangor, though, and it is not always what it appears to be on paper.

The ‘Roman Camp’ overlooking the coast is actually a Norman fort and it’s not clear the Romans came over this way; the standing stones, which on Orkney have been there for 5,000 years, were installed around Bangor in 1931 (but no obvious reason why…); even the so-called Bangor Mountain, which guidebooks say towers over the town, is actually just a big hill.

They claim to have the longest High Street in the UK (though the earlier examples make me wonder). Still, it is a long street and our first stop for coffee is hidden up an alleyway leading off the High Street, so you don’t want to miss the signposts or you may have a very long walk back to find it again…

Blue Sky Café, in what’s called the Ambassador Hall, is one of my favourite stops for coffee in recent weeks.  It’s not just the great coffee (and tea, by the way), or the delicious cakes made with local honey, eggs etc.  It’s the whole feel of the place: the very fact that they have teamed up with other tea rooms locally to form a co-op (called Cilydd, in case you’re interested) to help promote quality food & drink, with local products and ethically-sourced.

Inside Blue Sky Café in Bangor North Wales

It’s a real gem on what is otherwise a fairly mundane High Street. So this place is not to be missed if you are anywhere near Bangor. And miss it I almost did.  I wasn’t sure it was open when I ventured up the alleyway next to the butcher’s (who, bizarrely, also do a takeaway coffee), but a young lass strode past me and said it was the best place in town, so I followed her in.  Good choice.

Cappuccino and banana loaf at Blue Sky Café in Bangor

The cappuccino was good and strong; the banana loaf, made with Bangor honey, and served with butter, made an excellent start to the day.

Bangor Cathedral is just a short stroll from Blue Sky Café and quite a lively place it was too.

Bangor Cathedral

The Bishop was there (first actual Bishop I had seen in my 30 Cathedral visits so far this year): greeting some visitors from Nairobi one minute; turning to a primary school group the next and explaining fantastically well some of the stories of the Cathedral (best explanation I have heard yet of what a ‘bangor’ actually is – and if you don’t know, time you looked it up…).

And very impressive how smoothly he switched from English to Welsh, something you need around here where more than half the population count Welsh as their main language.

Slightly less impressive was the Bible Garden, which the guidebooks claim contains every plant mentioned in the Bible.  Hmmm, either the bad spring we have had this year left them dormant, or that claim just isn’t true.  Or call me a Doubting Thomas…

Bangor’s other delight is its Victorian pier. The Garth Pier dates from the 1890s, but was renovated in 1988 and now looks magnificent stretching out towards Anglesey. It was delightful when I arrived in the pouring rain on Thursday; but it was scintillating in Friday’s bright sunshine.

And right at the end of the pier, in what used to be an amusement arcade, stand the Bangor Pier Tea Rooms. Vic had his hands full of dough when I walked in, but that, it seems, is the usual state of affairs as he works to keep up with demand for his infamous scones (and shortbread, and bakewell tart).

Scones, shortbread and bakewell tart in Bengor Pier Tea Rooms

Vic and Sheila are a fantastic pair. They’re well beyond retirement age so give themselves three days off a week (closed Monday – Wednesday), but clearly thrive on the activity that comes from extraordinary word-of-mouth clientele. They have no truck with modern things like the internet (though try googling ‘Bangor Pier Tea Rooms’ and you’ll see just how many others have written about them or made videos – who needs blogs and twitter when everyone knows you anyway??).

View from Bangor Pier Tea Rooms

I was intrigued by a paving stone in the High Street that told me The Beatles had been in Bangor in 1967. But nobody I spoke to in town seemed to know anything about it. When I asked Vic, he said he hadn’t been in Bangor then either, but he HAD seen The Beatles play at Buxton Opera House in the early 1960s before they really became famous. Ah, the stories Vic could tell…

But I still didn’t find out where The Beatles played, or find anyone who could claim they saw them in concert in Bangor. Any ideas, anyone??

Video: A day in Bangor finding great tea and coffee

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Yale, an aqueduct – and unlocking great tea & coffee in Wrexham

I only found one place worth mentioning for tea and coffee in Wrexham.

After an early start from home and a very clear run down the M6, I was there just as most shops opened up in town. But Just Tea and Coffee in High Street only open at 9.30am, so I was banging on the door, desperate for my first cuppa.

Entrance to Just Tea & Coffee in Wrexham

Unless I’m somewhere like Spain or Italy, where it’s really hard to find good tea, the first cups of the day in our household are all tea. And after the early start I’d had, tea was still on my mind when I got inside Just Tea and Coffee.

Tea & Welsh Cakes at Just Tea & Coffee in Wrexham

Their Wrexham Blend, served in a pot that’s constantly refilled – Chinese-style – was excellent. And Kim, the owner, a great conversationalist. Mind you, I quickly learnt how lucky I was that I had delayed my visit by a few weeks: they only opened the café section of the shop 3 weeks ago, so before that I could have had my pound of tea, but not sat down and had a pot!

I also got lucky with the Olympic Torch. Having preceded it by a few days in Shrewsbury, I missed it by a day in Wrexham and, judging by the local paper, this was the event of the year in town.

The crowds lining the streets on Wednesday were nowhere to be seen on Thursday in Wrexham, which is no bad thing when you’re trying to navigate round a one-way system and then wander round town sniffing out the highlights.

Busiest place in Wrexham seemed to be the Yale campus…

Yes, this is named after the same guy as the Ivy League college in the States. He’s buried in Wrexham and they swapped a stone from a local church for one of the stones of Yale University to mark the link, though I think the connections end there.

After a bit of a wander, I was back to Just Tea and Coffee for… my coffee of course. By now, end of the morning, this place was busy (mind you, it only seats 6 so that doesn’t take long!). And what a pleasure coffee was. I could have tried the Kopi Luwak for about £15 a cup, but I opted instead for Kim’s basic brew and was well-satisfied.

Cappuccino at Just Tea & Coffee in Wrexham

This will make an excellent entry in the reviews section (once I’ve caught up with my backlog…) and THE place to go for anyone visiting town.

The Cathedral, which is of course the reason I was here, is one of the many Catholic churches built after they freed up religious practice in the 19th century. There is a Welsh Saint called Richard Gwyn, who was executed in Wrexham in the 16th century, and there is actually a relic (a little piece of arm bone) stored in the wall of the place.

Wrexham Cathedral

Sadly, the spot where he was hung, drawn and quartered is now a car park, without even a blue plaque to mark the area. Ah, the 1960s and 70s have so much to answer for…

Thankfully, nobody thought to demolish the area’s most magnificent architectural wonder: the Aqueduct at Pontcysyllyte (and yes, I didn’t enjoy asking directions either: “Where’s that aqueduct thingy” was the best I could manage). Over 200 years old, it was built for the canal boats to ship coal, steel, bricks, lead and whatever else they found in these Welsh hills.

And it’s still totally in one piece now (you’ll have to watch the video below to see it; I was too busy holding on for dear life to juggle two pieces of camera equipment…)

The Tourist Information office in Wrexham said that there used to be a steady flow of Yale graduates coming through town, but this had dwindled since 9/11. Well now, with the canal aqueduct to see AND a great cup of tea or coffee to be had, come on you preppies, it’s time to return to Yale’s roots!

Video: Did Mr Yale have such good coffee and tea in his day?


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