It’s quality, not quantity, that sells Crickhowell. Its award-winning High Street is lined with an enticing array of independent shops you rarely see all in one place, chock-a-block and chocolate-box style waiting to serve. Add the Georgian architecture and gorgeous setting in the Usk Valley and Brecon Beacons National Park into the mix, and you’ll see why this small town enjoys such a big reputation
It’s small but perfectly formed. Some say that it’s Wales’s most perfect little town. It certainly has the accolades to suggest that this may well be the case. In 2018 Crickhowell’s High Street was crowned overall winner of the Great British High Street Awards on the strength of its thriving network of independent businesses and community-led initiatives.
The Sunday Times chose Crickhowell as the ‘Best Place to Live’ in Wales 2019. More fancifully, perhaps, The Times baptised it as ‘Knightsbridge on Usk’ for its ‘ravishing prettiness’.
Hyperbole aside, you get the picture. Everyone seems to fall in love with Crickhowell, visitors and locals alike. It’s undeniably affluent, with its fair share of escapees from city life and well-heeled retirees. But it’s by no means gentrified. This is a desirable place to live and work for a wide, well-rounded populace of long-standing residents, a reflection perhaps of the organic way the town has evolved over the years.
Unlike other towns in Wales (and elsewhere) that have reinvented themselves almost overnight as chic shopping destinations (no names, no pack drill), Crickhowell’s rise to eminence has been gradual and measured – and it feels all the more natural for it.
‘Natural’ and ‘organic’ are apposite descriptions. One of the many jewels in Crickhowell’s shopping basket is the environmentally friendly, award-winning Natural Weigh, Wales’s first zero-waste shop where you bring your own container or basket to stock up on everything from breakfast cereal to compostable sponges.
At your service
The grande dame of Crickhowell’s shopping scene is to be found across the road. Webbs captures the character of Crickhowell perfectly. This emporium began life in the 1930s as a humble paraffin delivery service, building gradually over the years to become a one-of-a-kind department store that attracts customers from far and wide. Family-run and owned, its ethos is quality and personal service. And it sells (almost) everything, from high-end furniture to fertilizer, bags of nails to electrical goods, chain saws to fine china.
It’s on the corner of the street facing another Crickhowell institution. The Bear Hotel, one of Wales’s busiest and best-known coaching inns, has been welcoming travellers for over 500 years. It’s a cosy place of nooks, crannies and wonky, wood-panelled corridors, where shabby chic was the adopted look long before it became fashionable. Guests have been known to queue up to sink into the sofa beside the open log fire.
Back on the street there’s Nicholls, another large ‘country lifestyle’ store with a faithful following for its immaculate displays of fashion and giftware. It’s surrounded by shops selling boutique clothes and books (2020’s ‘Independent Bookshop of the Year’, no less), antiques and artisan delicacies, farm-fresh meat and vegetables, newspapers and craft beer, flowers, art, wine, bread, healing crystals and outdoor gear.
The town’s strong sense of community led to the creation, by the main car park, of CRiC (Crickhowell Resource and Information Centre), a great source of local information, maps and guidebooks. There’s also an excellent art and craft gallery and café (you’re spoilt for choice for places to eat and drink in Crickhowell).
For a break from shopping head to Castle Park. You might catch a cricket match here in summer, played alongside the park in the shadow of the gnarly ruins of Crickhowell Castle, a Norman stronghold dating from the 1270s. Then make your way down Bridge Street, the town’s oldest street lined with charming, pastel-painted 18th-century cottages, to Crickhowell’s ancient bridge over the River Usk and Bullpit Meadow, another attractive green space.
The town’s cosmopolitan character is at its height each summer when The Green Man comes to town (actually, this intimate version of Glastonbury takes place a mile or so away on the Glanusk Estate, but for festival-goers trips to Crickhowell are an essential part of the experience). There’s always something going on in this energetic, spirited community of 2,000 people, which also hosts walking, literary and classical music festivals.
What’s not to like?
CURIOSITIES AND SURPRISES
Crug Hywel. The flat-topped mountain that looms over Crickhowell’s rooftops is responsible for the town’s Anglicized name. The Iron Age fort on the summit, its ramparts well preserved in parts, is known as Crug Hywel (‘Howell’s Fort’).
Don’t miss the coach. The Bear Hotel’s cobbled forecourt, ‘Post Horses’ archway and inner courtyard reflect its former role as an important stagecoach halt on the London to Fishguard route. There’s another reminder inside: an 1852 ‘Coaches and Mails’ timetable (‘Mail coaches daily 7am. Brecon, London and Carmarthen.’)
Mountain high. What’s Crickhowell’s connection with Mount Everest? The world’s highest mountain was first mapped by Sir George Everest, Surveyor-General of India, who lived in Gwernvale, a Georgian manor on the outskirts of town that’s now a hotel (The Manor Hotel).
Ancient stones and bones. The collection of ancient stones beside the A40 at the entrance to The Manor Hotel are remnants of an early Neolithic chambered tomb, dating from around 4,200–3,000BC. It’s of national importance for the insights it gives into prehistoric burial and ritual practices.
A bridge too far. Crickhowell’s narrow bridge over the Usk is a bit of a bamboozler. Dating from the 16th century, it seems to play a conjuring trick with its length: 13 arches can be seen from its eastern end, while only 12 are visible from the west.
Here comes the sun. Crickhowell is sheltered by high moors and mountains to the west, creating what’s known as a rain shadow area. When wet westerly weather sweeps in it’s much drier here than in towns in the hills just a few miles away.
A DAY IN THE LIFE
There’s more than enough to keep you busy for a full day in Crickhowell. You don’t have to tackle the places below in any particular order, though we’ve listed them in a way that should help you get the most from your visit. If you have less time to spend in town, pick the places that spark your curiosity – and come back some other time to finish the job.
Your first port of call. Helpful staff at this community-run information centre will point you in the right direction. It’s also a good source of books, guides and maps.
Like many Norman strongholds in Wales, this castle was originally a rudimentary motte and bailey affair of wood and earth. Sometimes known as Ailsby’s Castle (after a 13th-century warder), it commanded a strategic route above the River Usk between Abergavenny and Brecon.
The castle was remodelled in stone in 1272 by Sir Grimbald Pauncefote (see St Edmund’s Church), and survived until the Owain Glyndŵr uprising in the early 15th century, when an attack left it in ruins. Glyndŵr’s men didn’t quite finish the job, for the eastern tower and part of the gatehouse still survive, close to the original – now tree-covered – earthen mound overlooking a pleasant green space and children’s playground.
The High Street and beyond
Shopping in Crickhowell is a bit like wandering around the Tardis. Space – and time – seem to expand. How do they manage to fit them all into such a small area?
Webbs of Crickhowell, Nicholls and Natural Weigh are just the start of it all (see the town’s main description for more on these). They share pavement space with CwCw lifestyle boutique, Book-ish, Grenfell & Sons grocery, Cashell & Sons delicatessen and butchers, Beatrice & Maud decorative antiques and interiors, FE Richards artisan butchers, Crickhowell News, Petals florist, Crickhowell Adventure, Maison 50 home and lifestyle store, Tower Gallery, Crystals and Holistics, The Emporium antiques, Maiflour Bakery… it’s an exhaustive, not to mention exhausting, list. You’ll find them all – and more – in and around the High Street.
St Edmund’s Church
The tall, needle-sharp spire of this late 13th-/early14th-century church is clearly visible above the rooftops. Grade II Star listed, it has a fine interior – highlights include two windows at the west end of the aisles, period monuments and effigies of Lady Sybil Pauncefote of Crickhowell Castle, who built the church, and her husband Sir Grimbald, providing an interesting connection with the Norman stronghold.
Follow the footpath northwards from the bridge across the Usk for a beautiful riverside walk that shows off Crickhowell’s mountain-fringed setting in a lush, green valley. Take a look at the ‘Cracking Walks’ noticeboard at the start of the walk to get your bearings. For a short route simply follow the lovely there-and-back riverside path. If you’re feeling more energetic go the whole hog and walk the 4½-mile/7.2km loop that runs through the Glanusk Estate, returning to Crickhowell via the banks of another waterway, the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal.
Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal
Talking of which… it’s worth crossing over to the nearby village of Llangattock for a stroll along the towpath of this scenic, leafy canal, which runs for 35 miles/56km between Brecon and Pontymoile.