Behind the magic on the Welsh high street thriving with independent shops- fabulous article on Wales Online about Cardigan
In the remotest corner of west Wales, one town has quietly rebuilt itself and its high street into something that not so much bucks the trend, but rather sets it. Sandwiched between two of Wales' finest beaches, Cardigan is home to artists and artisans, creatives and mavericks and it shows: its streets are lined with independent cafes, craft shops and galleries. Yet the charms of Cardigan aren't just limited to the bunting strung between the attractive buildings or the splashes of colour straight out of a child's colouring book. This is a town which - with a population of just 5,000 -punches well above its weight. With a strong cultural and historic identity, it somehow retains all the allure of Cornwall, for instance, but none of the crowds. Ask the people who live and work there why and the same answer is repeated again and again: Cardigan feels like home. If you want the lowdown on any town, the local butcher is the place to start and so I head to T. Samways halfway down the high street. Owner Tom is loud and jovial yet his words offer a warmth and sincerity towards his home town. "It's a community," he said in his booming voice. "You walk down the road and you end up stopping to talk to everyone." The 39-year-old has worked in the shop for 22 years and took it on four years ago where he now works alongside his wife Tina. "If you hear any news we are the first to have it," he continued. "And if we need to correct any of it then we do." People are constantly popping in and out while we chat, one picking up chicken wings, another elderly lady enquiring if so-and-so was working today. The atmosphere is one of friendliness with an unreserved welcome - everybody knows everybody it seems. There is much laughter. "I've definitely seen an increase in people moving down here, especially after Covid," added Tom. "It's that quiet life they're after. That's testament to the area itself and people are making the most of that life. We're a small community that wants to help look after each other." Down a small side street, Jack Smylie-Wild is sweeping down his tiny yet perfectly kitted out Bara Menyn Bakehouse. He's been up since 5am turning out his artisan naturally leavened sourdough loaves and croissants. He's due to shut his doors in an hour and his shelves are bare - it's been a good day, he admits, and everything has sold out. He ran a café just around the corner for seven years but moved to his bakery on St Mary Street five months ago. He sums up the appeal of Cardigan in one eloquent sentence: "It's a fiercely independent Welsh spirit fostered by its geographical and cultural position," he said. That Welsh identity was important he said, adding that Cardigan had one of the highest proportions of bilingualism in Wales as a whole. He continued: "We're proud independent people who appreciate the importance of community and local produce and it's a great high street." Life as a baker is hard work but he wouldn't change it for the world: "The queue out the door on a Saturday morning makes it all worthwhile," he said with a wry smile. Of course, Cardigan is synonymous with Crwst - the renowned bakery run by husband and wife team Catrin and Osian where pancake stacks come dripping in Pembrokeshire sea-salted caramel sauce. Stopping to chat to one family on holiday from Newport Gwent, their first stop was to be an indulgent brunch at the light and airy café off the high street - proof that Crwst's reputation extends far beyond west Wales. Read Crwst's But there's also Cardigan’s acclaimed Pizzatipi, a fairy-lit waterfront tent run by four brothers serving wood-fired pizzas on the banks of the Teifi. Wherever you look it seems, there's something for everyone, all the while with a strong focus on local and sustainable produce. In the Welsh Wind, an award-winning gin distillery which started life in a cowshed, has not long opened a gin bar on St Mary Street. Back on the high street, the sweet waft of cookie dough and sponge cake spills out of an attractive pink shop, its windows piled high with sugary creations and Truly Scrumptious scrawled in another shade of dusty pink above the wooden door. Inside, 37-year-old Katy Lemessurier is putting the final touches to a pink baby shower cake while her mum, Sarah, mans the till. The pair barely stop smiling as they explain how it's the sense of community which sets Cardigan apart from any other town. "It's got to be the community, the small businesses, it's just home," said Katy. "You walk down the street and you feel like you're home. All the shopkeepers are very close and we look after each other and support each other." Every business goes the extra mile to offer that personal service - there was one occasion when Katy was asked to produce a batch of scotch eggs to adorn a coffin of one of their elderly customers as he made his final journey. "We felt quite honoured," said Katy, whose speciality is cookie pies. "People come in and talk about everything and anything," she added. "The first thing is the weather, you know who is having a baby, who's getting married, who's passed away. It's a very close-knit area." It would be wrong to wax lyrical about the town and assume that everything is as perfect as its picture postcard image suggests. But there's certainly something about the town that sets it apart from the sad demise of many high streets across Wales and the UK. There are some familiar names over the shop doors that grace nearly every high street in Wales including the omnipresent Greggs, a Coral betting shop, Peacocks, WHSmith and Shoezone. But there's also the welcome sight of two familiar high street banks - a Lloyds and an HSBC - a rarity on high streets these days. One thing that's clearly missing is a supermarket. And there's no out of town shopping centre as such, bar a Tesco and a B&M store a bit further out on the A487. Carole Davis, who moved back to Cardigan to look after her elderly mum and take on a fashion store, said the town's footfall had only benefitted from the lack of a big shopping centre. Her shop, Solo, is stocked with high-end names like Barbour and Great Plains and was supported by locals and holidaymakers alike, she said. "We wouldn't be able to keep going without the locals," she said. "But the best months are when the visitors are here." Carole thought the pedestrianisation of the main street during the summer months and the widening of the pavements - measures brought in as a result of Covid and which look set to be permanent - had made a huge difference: "It did give the town a great vibe," she said. "We're lucky to live here - I think that when I drive to work and see the coast and come to the nice little relaxing laid-back town." Undoubtedly, the homely market town has suffered its fair share of knocks over the years. Once a booming port, its prosperity dwindled with the shift to the railway in the late 19th Century. But that history permeates every turn - the quayside has been rebuilt, the old shopfronts were restored as part of a regeneration drive in the early 2000s and its Norman castle was given a £12 million makeover. The towering grey walls of Cardigan Castle greet visitors who approach over the River Teifi, which marks the boundary between Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion. Steeped in history, Rhys ap Gruffydd seized the castle from the Normans in 1165 and rebuilt it in stone, hosting the first Eisteddfod of Welsh literature and music in 1176 And no town worth its salt would be complete without a proper market - built in the 1850s, Cardigan's gothic indoor market is a substantially intimidating building with a clutch of various stallholders selling all manner of things - from antiques and flowers to military apparel and model Welsh buses. The wider area is packed full of things to see - there's the Welsh wildlife centre at Cilgerran or a short drive south of town picks up the dramatic Pembrokeshire coast path, past the ruins of the 12th Century St Dogmaels Abbey and onwards to blow away cobwebs on the Blue Flag Poppit Sands beach where fishing boats bob on the estuary. Heading north instead along a hair-raising single track road takes you to Mwnt, a sandy cove that is prime dolphin-spotting territory if you’re lucky. Or closer to the town, just a five minute stroll away, is the once-derelict denim factory- now home to Hiut, a hip, hand-crafted jeans line worn by Ant and Dec and Meghan Markle. You can read that amazing story here. The success of the high street owes as much to the environment around it as it does to the people within it then. It's something no visionary or imposed regeneration scheme can really recreate - it's inherent in the very fabric of the town, it's reason d'etre if you will, and it would be a very different place without it. Gwen Evans, a Welsh speaker, is the wedding and events planner at the castle and said the unique identity of Cardigan was felt right down to the 'tafodiaith' - or dialect. "Certain words we use in Cardigan but if you go over the bridge to St Dogmaels, they use a different word," she explained. With links to the Pembrokeshire coast path and to places like Theatre Mwldan, there was something there for everybody, she added. Businesses rely on the summer tourists but it's kept going through the winter by that local trade. That was when the community spirit really came into its own, she added. Fisherman's Rest is on the old quay, the waves of the River Teifi lapping at the base of the walls and the white horses catching the shifting sunlight. Jane Roche is stood behind the counter of the bright red café, ready to direct customers looking for the fresh fish counter to the back of the converted warehouse which was used to build boats in the 1800s There was always something to distract her from her work, she laughed, with otters and kingfishers regularly spotted outside the large glass windows looking directly out to the river. Their fresh crab, lobster and fish is delivered from trawlers in Saundersfoot, Lower Town Fishguard and Newquay. Today's specials were chowder, pate and crab which they buy live and cook and dress in their little kitchen at the back. "It's the uniqueness of where we are," she said. "There's the coast and the historic castle and we've got some good artists and and a music culture - there's a really nice vibe in all of that. There's a strong Welsh culture and creative people come here to be inspired by that environment." Jane and her husband Richard moved to Cardigan from further afield but all four of their children, who are now adults, went to Welsh schools and speak Welsh fluently: "That heritage element is really important," she said earnestly. "It's people and the community that have made Cardigan what it is. We want to keep that small independent feel on the high street. "It's about the people and the passion and the beauty of the environment."