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Trading places: Harpenden

PUBLISHED: 10:23 16 May 2013 | UPDATED: 10:49 16 May 2013

Lara Wares, Threads

Lara Wares, Threads

Archant

With its rural feel, historic buildings and quality outlets, Harpenden offers a rewarding shopping experience, Julie Lucas writes

SET in a dip of the Chiltern Hills, Harpenden, with its population of almost 30,000, is still fondly known as ‘The Village’. The 238-acre Harpenden Common, the greens in the heart of town, its tree-lined streets and Victorian and Edwardian buildings certainly all help it retain a village feel. The common has held a Green Flag Award for four years and the whole of the town centre is classified as a conservation area.

The town grew up around a large farming community. A cottage industry sprang up in the 18th and 19th centuries using the local long-stemmed wheat for plaiting. The plaits were then sold on to Luton and Dunstable for hat making. Farming still remains a strong focus in the town thanks to agricultural research centre Rothamsted Research.

Michael Weaver, town councillor and former Harpenden retailer, says he fell in love with the place when he arrived 45 years ago. ‘When you drive in from the south and pass the cricket pitch and common, it’s so quintessentially English. It has a range of interesting independent shops with some good supermarkets and its green spaces make it rural but not rustic. This gives the town a relaxed feel.’

Thorns of Harpenden is the oldest shop in the town. The shop front proudly displays its founding date of 1918. Step inside and it’s as if time has stood still. The original cash register and weighing scales sit behind the counter and on display is an assortment of sweets of which Willy Wonka would be proud. It is also one of the few places that still sell loose tobacco in the area and has a wall display of pipes.

Glenn Moxley, who took over the shop from his father Colin, says it is held in affection by many people who have grown up with it. ‘One morning a lady came in and said we had a picture of her dad – in an old photograph I have of the shop in 1936. She explained she had been born out the back. It was such a privilege to meet her and talk about the original shop.’

Walk further along the High Street and you will find Threads, selling a large selection of cards and gifts. Lara Wares has run the shop for 13 years. It was opened as a branch of a shop her mother ran in Scotland. For unusual gifts, also try Town Garden and Serena Hart.

There is a good mix of chains in the town such as East and Mint Velvet, which complement independent boutiques, including Oui, Boltons and Fullwoods. Caroline Couture is a welcoming bridal boutique and Nikki Kaye has a stylish range of accessories. For shoes, head to T Galloway in Bowers Parade, a modest-looking shop run by two charming Cypriot brothers, Victor and John Keshishian. They have been fitting shoes for the people of Harpenden for the past 38 years. Former resident Michael Jones, who had made the trip back to the store, says, ‘People love this shop. They have a proper fitting service. It is the best shop you will find, especially for children’s shoes.’

The town is a popular meeting place and coffee shops and restaurants abound, including Okka, Bar Azita and the Bangkok Lounge. The Gingerbread Man in Vaughan Road serves homemade gingerbread, scones and cakes. To keep children amused there is a play kitchen, so while mum and dads relax, their children can get creative. Emma Hart and her 18-month-old daughter Lily are regular visitors, Emma says, ‘Lily will not come into town without saying “café man”, she loves the little gingerbread men.’

Just up the road, Mediterranean delicatessen the Silver Palate has a dinner party service, while Jay’s in Southdown Road sells fine British artisan foods, including cheeses, handmade pies and quiches. Cook in the High Street is a must for anyone who wants ready-made meals with a home-cooked taste. And head to Yummy Mummy’s for bespoke cakes that are truly works of art. There isn’t a weekly market, but the popular farmers’ market every fourth Sunday of the month has around 70 stalls selling a wide variety of local produce.

Off the High Street is Thompsons Close, where you will find the award-winning Breathing Space. This day spa and yoga centre marks its 10th anniversary this year. After being pampered, its Blueberry Café will tempt you with locally-sourced, organic food.

For interior design ideas, head to AHMCO Kitchens and Bathrooms, Geoff Lambert, and Rowntree & Lawrence.

Harpenden’s vibrancy is reflected in its low shop vacancy rate – at just four per cent it is one of the lowest in the country. But things are still moving forward, with plans to make Thompsons Close more of a community area, with stalls and entertainment over the weekend.

Cllr Weaver concludes, ‘People come to socialise here and at the same time do some shopping. Our High Street remains the hub and the coffee shops and restaurants keep it vibrant. Times are changing and as the high street evolves we will evolve with it.’

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