I grew up in a town called Abergavenny which is tucked away in the bottom right-hand edge of the Welsh borders. And when I say I grew up there that’s actually a lie but not in a bad way. I should explain.
I actually spent my first eight years in a small, mountain-top town called Blaenavon; the main industries in that town (about a hundred and fifty years ago) were steel and coal. But both of those industries had died out before I started school and this left, in their place… nothing at all.
Even now there is nothing by way of a major employer in Blaenavon; claiming benefits, having illegitimate babies and glue-sniffing can’t be counted as being major employers. This, of course, is a terrible stereotyping statement but, sadly, it is an accurate one.
Another accurate statement is that life in that former steel and coal town today bears as much relationship to life in one of Europe’s major cities, as life in one of today’s major European cities is related to life in Dickensian London.
But my mother and step-father moved the family (older brother at boarding school all of his education life and then whisked straight in to the army the day he graduated; me, the troublemaker from hell who struggled to stay in various schools; sister who could do no wrong except to me when the parental back was turned – and frequently got away with it because she was, after all, a girl; and baby brother who was the apple of my wicked step-father’s eye) from Blaenavon. Though not to Abergavenny as I implied at the start of this piece.
Instead we moved to an isolated, very tiny, rural village called Llanover, half a dozen miles outside of Abergavenny. And when I say ‘we moved to Llanover’ I need to clarify once again. What I actually meant was that we didn’t move to Llanover.
We moved to an even more isolated farmhouse one and a half miles outside the village, bang in the middle of absolutely nowheresville.
The name ‘Llanover’ was applied to our address merely as a location identifier for postal deliveries, rather than as a statement of the community to which we did not belong.
As you may have guessed, because of the remoteness of where we lived – school – was (eventually) in the nearest big town; Abergavenny. I’ve used the word ‘eventually’ because the second of two expulsions needed to happen before I actually moved school to Abergavenny.
The massive downside to living in an isolated rural landscape a mile and a half walk away from a tiny village that in turn is a long (not to mention prohibitively expensive) bus ride from the small, provincial Welsh town that housed:
b) school friends and
c) the centre of the non-school universe (the places in town where all schoolchildren just hung around when not in school)…
Well yes, the downside was, of course, in those dim and distant pre-internet days, complete and utter isolation.
Ah well, that’s my mother’s logic for you.
But back to the point.
The town of Abergavenny had, in those days, a couple of not-very-good restaurants, a huge number of small shops, a few cafs, a Halfords, a Burtons, a Woolworths, a tack shop, a near completely ruined castle and many public houses.
We didn’t visit the not very good restaurants, The Wicked Witch of South Wales (I’m sorry I mean my mother) is, for her very many failings, a Cordon Bleu chef who would only patronise fooderies that equalled her own output. This meant occasional meals at Mario’s delightful restaurant (the staff there went out of their way to make sure the children were exceptionally well looked after), though I doubt even She goes there now, now that they no longer have their Michelin star. She’s a terrible snob, the Wicked Witch of South Wales.
On school days I’d hang out at Dennah’s Cafe (a wonderfully sleazy biker caff with pinball machines, mugs of tea, chip butties and a lung-shrivelling atmosphere of Embassy Regal so thick you needed to cut through it with a Boy Scout). I was forbidden by the Matriarch from even darkening the doorway to Dennah’s Cafe, but the reality is that I spent many happy hours, days and sometimes even weeks in there, when I should have been at my desk in some school or other whilst learning how to conjugate the verb ‘to listen’ to fourteen decimal places in Latin.
Over the road from Dennah’s was the funny little Greek cafe/restaurant which, despite the best efforts of the friendly family who lived and worked there, had as much warmth as a witch’s tit on a cold day in mid-January.
I’m sorry if any witches looking in find that offensive. I’m sure you really don’t have cold tits. It’s just a colloquialism.
Up the road from the Greek cafe there was the puzzlingly-named fish-and-chip shop plus sit-down cafe that was called… ‘Quo Vadis?’ Yeah, how completely bizarre is that?
And that, in those cold, dank and dark ages of my schoolboy existence, was all Abergavenny had to offer a pimply, hormone-ravaged creature that was neither boy nor man but was, definitely, male.
Near Quo Vadis was an absolute treasure of a shop; A.G. Pinch & Co. In this dark mess of an inglenook you could find a dozen different varieties of pasta; herbs from Spain, spices from the Orient (no, not the football club) and a thousand ingredients from as many countries. Not many people shopped at Pinch’s because, in small-town Walesville, not many people (apart from The Wicked Witch of South Wales) knew how to use the ingredients that Pinch’s sold. But Mr Pinch loved my mother and she loved him back. In a strictly platonic way. Although as she did sleep with the fathers of several of my school-friends as well as a couple of her staff (my equally wicked stepfather being, by now, banished to South Africa for giving me one public beating too many), I don’t suppose I should entirely rule this possibility out.
Further up the High Street was the centre of Abergavenny. No, not the town hall. I mean two hundred metres further up the road from the Town Hall, but on the same side.
The large stand-out lettering over the many-doored entrance said F.W. Woolworth & Co, but it was Woolies to everyone.
Home of the oft-attempted shoplift at the Pick and Mix counter, the place where the record counter played bad music very loudly, the place of many confusing – yet interesting – hardware and kitchenware bits and bobs that stood, unlabelled and unpriced, on racks at the back of the store. But it was more than a shop.
Woolies was a meeting place.
On Saturdays the girls would inevitably congregate at the front entrance whilst the boys would hang around the (look, can you please get your mind out of the gutter for just a couple of minutes?) Market Street entrance. Yes, it was also the back entrance, but we really didn’t need to go there, did we?
And the two groups would eventually cruise past each other inside the store, usually at the record counter, and there might even have been an occasional fragmenting of the Us and the Them in to smaller groups and – even more occasionally – further breaking down of the social hierarchy in to… couples!
On school-days we’d hang around the main entrance to Woolies when the weather was warmer; if the weather was inclement the FWW record counter was pressed in to service once more.
The staff hated us; I don’t think that’s too strong a statement.
But they did need us.
Every now and then pocket money day would arrive for one or more of us (or some illicitly saved School Dinner Money would be pressed in to an entirely different kind of service envisaged by the parental) and cash was exchanged for sweets (or in my case, for records).
As well as being a meeting place, Abergavenny’s Woolies was also a hugely important place in the history and the folk lore of the town.
It was Digby North who rode his pony in to Woolworths one Saturday afternoon and caused major disturbance (near ‘the women’s counter’) and a minor heart-attack in trying to get in and out as unnoticeably as possible.
It was in Woolies that I had a moment of… not altogether my best behaviour… or two, which may have involved some distinctly… Pythonesque conduct.
It was through Woolies that some of the quicker members of the school cross-country tean streaked. Twice.
And it was through FW Woolworth that we would occasionally have ’round the block’ timed races, where, as individuals, we’d have to leave the east wall of the Town Hall, run down Market Street, sprint up the punishing stairs in to the back entrance of Woolworth, dash through the store, run out the front, turn left, hammer down the High Street, turn left, clatter down Market Street and hurl ourselves at the mark on the Town Hall wall.
That was a Great Race.
If you were lucky and received an early draw it was a doddle, but if you were drawn to go third or even later, you were in for a tough time; the staff in Woolies would be waiting for you – but your time still counted against you. Getting caught was just tough luck and made you an even bigger loser!
There were a number of shops at the far end of the High Street but, apart from the music shop where I spent almost as much money on sheet music as I did in Woolies on records, we didn’t patronise them. That was the end of town where teachers and – worse – parents went.
And today it is gone. Woolworth in Abergavenny is no more. It’s been there longer than I’ve been alive but it’s gone. Like Pinch’s. And Quo Vadis. And Burton’s. And Denna’s Caff. And the tack shop. And the music shop.
All that’s left in Abergavenny these days are a different assortment of Cafes, some newer restaurants, a handful of Estate Agents that no-one patronises, Building Societies where few people save, a handful of hairdressers and very many memories.
Abergavenny always felt (even to a very young schoolboy) as if it were a town that could have been. It never really had much going for it, but it could have been something special – if only it could have known what it wanted in the first place!
Being the focal point of a relatively minor Top 20 hit in 1968 for Marty Wilde (Kim Wilde’s father!) doesn’t count as either being something special or knowing what it wanted.
And with this week’s closure of Woolies another little piece of Abergavenny has died; the ruined castle moves one step closer to immortality.
And the truly sad thing about all of this is that the passing of Woolies is being echoed around the country this week.