Tag Archives: shops

A hint of the village in Harpenden

Just 40 minutes from frenetic St Pancras Station, lies peaceful, picturesque Harpenden.

Harpenden High Street
Harpenden High Street

It is a sizable town, with all the trappings of modern urban life – supermarkets, chain stores, phone shops and consumers to go with all of that. Yet, on my visit to Harpenden I discovered places and people that make me think of the kind village life I had found in novels a long time ago on the other side of the world.

When we arrived at mid-morning on a drizzly late autumn day, Harpenden Station was completely deserted. We set off down a sloping, curved and empty street towards the town, coming to rest in the first lit and populated shop – the Oxfam Store. Racks of damp-smelling tweed and stout shoes, glass cases crammed with one-short sets of sherry glasses and shelves stacked with travel books suggested that the good folk of Harpenden are fond of winter walks and arm chair journeys with a fortified wine. They are also painters, or at least collectors of paintings and it was near a pile of gloomy oils that I met my first Harpenden character. Carelessly groomed and shabbily chic in shades of peat and moss, with a voice like the Queen, she was commanding a bemused young lass to authenticate a dark, foreboding landscape. When the girl shook her head helplessly, she left the shop with an exasperated snort and slammed the door behind her.

We ambled on down to the corner, past the post office, past rows of small, old world buildings, where modern businesses had taken a tenuous hold – Thai, Indian and Italian restaurants, dress shops full of shiny stuff, a gelati parlour and a boulangerie/pattisserie – and from which idle personal stared vacantly at the street.

Round the corner in the High Street, we found the church and in the church, a cafe, offering morning teas Monday to Thursday and lunch as well on Friday. It sounded cosy, almost “villagey”. Inside a matron in a floral apron served us piping hot tea and buttery scones. At table near the counter, a tiny old lady, with a booming voice that belied her frail, stooped frame, shared a postcard with the vicar.

A few doors down from church we came across a piece of old Harpenden, a piece, in fact, of a lost world – the tobacconist. Dark, small and with a deliciously exotic mixture of smells, its corners were crammed with stands of canes, shelves of cigarettes, cases of cigars and packets of sweets.

Further along, Sainsbury’s holds half the block. Here, we came across the Oxfam art connoisseur again. She was shouting at a shelf-stacker. Across the road a Café Nero had the corner. We headed into the back streets where there were quiet cottages, greens, graceful manors.

Harpenden, as we had already half guessed from the racks in the Oxfam shop, is the departure point for some wonderful walks. One follows the Ver River, another skirts the Moors and another crosses the Common. They all follow routes marked with fascinating names, like Sopwell Nunnery, Smug Oak Lane, Frogmore Pits and Jack Williams’ Wood. Unfortunately we were unable to tramp out these paths. We discovered them at the Harpenden Library, under the sharp gaze of a stern-faced Librarian in brown tweed and brogues, just before our 5.30 train left for London.


The road that runs along the Taranaki Bight on the west coast of Aotearoa New Zealand’s North Island, is a spectacular drive. It is bordered on one side by sloping farmland, rugged hills terraced with ancient Pa sites and pockets of beautiful bush and on the other by magnificent surf beaches. It passes through lovely little seaside towns, like Mokau.

Mokau Butchery
Mokau Butchery

Located at the mouth of the Mokau River just north of the boundary between the Taranaki and the Waikato region, Mokau, has a permanent population of 400 people, who are served by a core of small shops, a hilltop cafe, a Catholic Church and museum.

We happened to pass through Mokau and drop into the museum when a meeting of the Mokau Historical Society was in session, so we were treated to a tour (with commentary) of the collection of fascinating artefacts and photos by one of the town’s oldest citizens.

Born and bred in Mokau, he had a hundred and one stories of the old town and its characters. In the old days, he told us, Taranaki was possum free. Mokau kept it that way. They went without a bridge to prevent the furry pests from pattering across and posted a watchman with a rifle just in case any sneaked aboard a boat or decided to swim.

He had also gone to the Mokau School with June Opie, author of the New Zealand book ‘Over My Dead Body’ which tells of her battle with polio and her years in an iron lung. June Opie’s father, furthermore, was a possum watchman on the Taranaki bank of the Mokau River!

Mokau offers excellent fishing, particularly for kahawai and snapper and the whitebait run thick at the river mouth. It is also a popular spot for surfers as it has some great surf breaks.

In the summer, holiday makers come to enjoy the beach and the tiny population swells to a a couple of thousand.


Cuba Street, The coolest street in the capital of cool

If Wellingon is the world’s coolest capital, then Cuba Street is the capital’s coolest street.

Tiger Eye Beads
Tiger Eye Beads

During that time in the second half of the 20th century, when chunks of the city were being sacrificed to motorways, Cuba Street was ear-marked for a traffic by-pass. As it awaited the wrecking ball, businesses de-camped and any upkeep on buildings was more or less abandoned. This, as it transpired, was Cuba Streets salvation. Rents plummeted and along with those seeking low cost accommodation, came others seeking alternative lifestyles – hippies, artists, innovators, visionaries and creators. Buildings were rescued and businesses were reborn. Second hand shops, bargain stores and galleries opened. Bars, cafes and restaurants set up alongside them. Colourful graffiti art colonised blank walls and alleys. Cuba Street was alive again. Cool and rather chic, in shabby kind of way, it was a distinctive part of the cityscape. Cuba Street became Wellington’s Bohemian Precinct.

The by-pass plan was dumped. In 1969, Cuba Mall was established. Buskers and street performers moved in, the famous Bucket Fountain was built and Cuba Street became a playground, a favourite meeting spot and one of Wellington’s most visited and vibrant quarters.  Finally, in 1995, Cuba Street was preserved forever under the Historic Places Act, as a registered Historic Area.

In essence, Cuba Street is still the same as it was when those hippies, artists, innovators and creators moved in, back in the sixties.  Most of the buildings are as they were then – the narrow wooden houses, the shop-fronts with their recessed doors, ornate lead-light windows and tiles still remain. So does the grand old Salvation Army’s Peoples’ Palace, now a Quality Inn. Colourful street art weaves around them on walls and in alleys.  Second hand and bargain stores survive and thrive, many with a 21st century vintage or retro twist. Bars, cafes and restaurants still abound, but among them now are award winners, like Matterhorn and the fine dining house, Logan Brown. Buskers and street performers still hold the floor in Cuba Mall, at any hour of the day or night and crowds gather to watch them, while the Bucket Fountain splashes away in the background. Cuba Mall is still a great place to hang out and one of the city’s most lively areas. And most importantly, that Bohemian spirit not only endures but flourishes.

My Cuba street favourites


Cuba Dupa, the Cuba Street Festival, at the end of March – for a fantastic end of summer celebration and an awesome street party  – food, bands, choirs, art, sculpture, performances, people and fun.

Cuba Dupa
Cuba Dupa

Cuba Street Friday Night Market – for all of the above, but on a Friday evening and on a smaller scale.


Madame fancy Pants – for elegant vintage classics

Tiger Eye beads for a frivolous, fanciful treasure

Arc Apparel – for a rock-bottom bargain


Midnight Espresso – for a midnight cofee and a vegan snack, also because it’s a Wellington icon.

Fidel’s – for a Cuban coffee with a Cubana (the ultimate toasted sandwich) and to re-live the revolution (Cuban, that is) through the posters and memorabilia on the walls

Breakfast, Lunch or dinner

Floridita’s Cafe and Restaurant – for good food, pleasant surroundings, quick service and leadlight windows overlooking a busy Cuba Street Corner – brilliant people-watching potential


The Ferret Bookshop – to ferret out an old favourite, or a new discovery, among their amazing collection.


Slow Boat Music – to browse their incredible merchandise, to bask in the glory reflected from illustrious international customers like Robert Plant and to maybe even catch an in-house performance?


Wellington Sea market – for fresh fish, a staggering variety of seafood and mouth-watering displays.

Fruit and flowers

Cuba Street Fruit Mart, for its abundance, its colour and its fragrance.



Budapest shopping

Vaci Utca is to Budapest as Oxford Street is to London or as Boulevard Haussman is to Paris. Fashionistas chasing the latest brands will find them in Vaci Utca’s global chain stores. Glamourous ladies will find the ensemble of their dreams in its chic boutiques and the accessories to match in its elegant department stores. For tourists, or others, seeking something uniquely Hungarian, there are amazing folk art stores.

Vaci Utca
Vaci Utca

My personal favourites on this street is a fascinating little second hand shop which sells everything from old Dual Monarchy heirlooms to insignia from Soviet uniforms. I lost myself for hours among  its collection of faded family photos.

Vaci Utca is also liberally dotted with traditional cafes, burger bars and fast food (for shoppers in need of refreshments?)

At night, when Budapest party people come out to boogie or imbibe in Vaci Utca’s clubs and bars, the whole area hums with life.