Sunday, 14 September 2014

An Insider's Guide to Manchester: Manchester Museum

I've been to lots of northern towns, cities, suburbs and villages over the years for this blog, but at no point have I written about Manchester, my home city.  The reason being I couldn't condense 40 plus years of knowledge into one pithy post.  So to get over this hurdle I've developed a new feature - An Insider's Guide to Manchester.  Each post will focus on one aspect that Manchester has to offer - good, bad or indifferent.  My first post in this series is Manchester Museum.

The first time I went to Manchester Museum I was on a school trip with my primary school. The trip has always stuck in my mind as I'd never been to a museum before and never to this part of Manchester which is on the edge of the city centre near the suburbs of Victoria Park, Hulme and Rusholme.  

Manchester Museum is part of the University of Manchester and is housed in a wonderful Victorian building that stretches down Oxford Road.  I always remember I was meant to complete a worksheet on the trip, but typical me, I got distracted by the building and all the shiny stuff so didn't finish it.  Since then, once in a while, I take a trip to the museum for a shot of history and culture.
I'd been meaning to go to the Museum's cafe called Cafe Muse for a long time.  Finally I got round to it during this summer whilst I was at a loose end. The food was nice (I had a hot roast turkey ciabatta with cranberry sauce), although the cafe was jam-packed with families as it was the summer holidays.  Thankfully I found a quiet little spot in an alcove with a couple of foreign students.  It's a complete must for museums to have a good cafe these days and this seemed pretty good.  The foreign students were having pasta and a salad, which looked really nice too.  I made a note to self to try the salad the next time I visit.

The museum is housed in a beautiful Victorian building and it is a pleasure to wander through the exhibits.  As it was the summer holidays, the museum was geared towards a younger audience with rooms set aside for children's activities. 

One of the major draws to the museum is the Egyptology section, which is well presented in low light to protect the exhibits.  A while ago it was in the news as one of the exhibits kept mysteriously moving in circles.  It turns out it had a convex base which made it susceptible to vibrations from the busy road outside.  My main reservation is the exhibition of mummified remains.  Whilst they are thousands of years old, it's still human remains and I'm really not keen about viewing them.  It's just a personal opinion, although the museum does show them with dignity.

I really like the main gallery area of the museum as it reminds me of when I first visited as a child with school, when I was too distracted with looking at everything to fill in the worksheet. It has a Victorian feel to this section with the display cabinets and the wrought iron staircase connecting the levels.  The only drawback for me with this section are the stuffed animals.  Unfortunately I have a longstanding phobia of taxidermy, which stems back to childhood when one of my Mum's cousins used to have a stuffed fox in her hallway which looked really spooky.  That said I love the use of neon in this section, which gives the space a contemporary feel and some much needed light.  On the top level they have multicoloured light boxes which cast coloured light to the ceiling.  I'm a sucker for inventive lighting within buildings.  Also in the top level of the gallery there is a picnic areas for families to eat their packed lunches.  Whilst I think this is just for the summer, it's a nice touch as the cafe is too expensive for families on a budget.  I believe the picnic space will be moving to the basement from September, which will be next to the new lab opening for schools.

My favourite exhibition was about the history of Whitworth Park.  It was tucked away in a quiet corner of the museum which seemed to be a kid free zone.  I was surprised to see this exhibit as it was all about local social history, but I really love this sort of thing as it captures moments in time and you can see how places have evolved. There was a young couple sat down watching one of the films about the park.  This echoed how young couples back in the day used to stroll through Whitworth Park as a date location.

Manchester Museum is a good cultural day out for families and the museum certainly caters well for them.  It's great how museums have a multitude of purposes from educating young people, to a family day out, a daytime date for young couples, a meeting place for friends to have a chat over a coffee and cake, a shot of culture for others and a photo opportunity for photographers.  There is no doubt I will go back to the museum and the cafe, although next time I go I'll try to go midweek when the kids are at school, as they kept running into shot when I was taking photos.

Other Information

Transport details:

Bus - It's on one of the busiest bus routes in Europe so getting from the Bus Station at Piccadilly Gardens is so easy.  Buses include 42,43,142,143 - plus a whole host of other ones too numerous to mention (see website for details).

Parking - Travelling by car is relatively straightforward and the Museum is a short drive from the Mancunian Way/M602 and Princess Park Way (A5103), both of which will eventually connect you to the M60. 

There are two car parks about 5 minutes walk away - the University's own one on Booth Street West (£3 for 3 hours) or the NCP on Booth Street East (£2.40 for 2 hours).  

2 hours free parking can be found slightly further away on the side streets near the Royal Northern College of Music and Manchester Metropolitan University (Rosamond Street West, Higher Chatham Street, Lower Ormond Street, Cavendish Street).  If you go on the weekdays when the Universities are open these parking spaces are generally busy, but on the weekend you can take advantage of the single yellow line parking, although check parking signage for restrictions to avoid any parking tickets.

Museum information:
Details of opening times and exhibitions can be found on their website - follow link.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Withington, Greater Manchester

We'd originally intended to go to Cheadle, though after getting stuck on Upper Brook Street for 45 minutes, time was ticking on and we decided to sack that one off and go to Withington instead.

Many moons ago in the late 1990s, I lived in Withington in a smelly shared house with a group of current and ex-students.  Funnily enough that's how I got to meet Neil, but that's a story for another time.  On the whole it was fun, although the bathroom was a nightmare on many levels - six people, one bathroom; the ceramic snake at the end of the bath did not help with my snake phobia; and there was the time when the it was invaded by mushrooms which popped the tiles off the wall.  Eventually I left, in part due to Withington as I witnessed a scary incident in the local shop and the local kids were becoming a nightmare.  Once I had to step over a group of them as they were lying across the pavement.  So it was interesting to see how much it had changed.

Getting to Withington from the centre of Manchester is easy - just head down Oxford Road onto Wilmslow Road and keep on going.  Withington is on possibly the busiest bus route in Europe so you hardly have to wait more than a couple of minutes for a bus.

I couldn't seem to find a car park in Withington, but with so many residential streets close by it’s not hard to find a parking space.  In and around Copson Street there are also one hour free parking bays, so we did that.

I think there are two distinct parts to Withington – Wilmslow Road and Copson Street. 

Copson Street is a scruffy little street which is home to the nearest mini supermarket - the Cooperative (formerly Somerfield when I lived there).  I popped into the local fruit and veg shop and bought a mini rose bush for £1.99 which was a bargain.  The florist doubled as a general store type of shop.  The local bakery looked really nice and I loved how they were selling individual portions of their cakes.  It can be too much buying a whole cake when there are only two of you to eat it, so individual versions are a brill solution as you can buy what flavour you want without stuffing your face.  I honestly think you should support these local shops as often they can be cheaper than the supermarket and you buy the amounts you need as things are sold loose.

Wilmslow Road in Withington is rather narrow and as I recollect you would often get stuck on the bus trying to pass through.  The shops along here are marginally classier than on Copson Street.  There is a little boutique called Mockingbirds which stands out with its vintage inspired designer clothes.  Fuel vegetarian café bar was busy with customers.  It’s also known as a small music venue with events on most nights.  Typical of a student suburb, there was still a launderette going.  These are now a dying breed.  It’s hard to find places where you can wash and dry a large duvet, other than pay extortionate prices at a dry cleaners.  You might as well go out and buy a new one instead.

One thing is for sure, we were spoilt by the number of charity shops in Withington as there are loads and some we'd never heard of.  Neil didn't have much success, although he did spot a Kingbee customer looking for cheap records.  I'm a fan of travel books and I found a book about the Pennine Way by the poet Simon Armitage.  I think he’s great and has the most fabulous Yorkshire accent when he reads his poems on the radio.  Other than that there wasn't much to catch our eyes.  Although I did notice an Asian lady buying a rather nice vintage dressing table in one of the charity shops.  There wasn't much in the way of overheard conversations either, but clearly there were regulars who came in to chat to staff about holidays and general stuff.

Withington is an interesting place in terms of residents, as for two thirds of the year it’s vibrant with the transient students who live in the large Victorian terraces and flats that surround the centre.  I used to live on Lausanne Road and when we walked down the road there were loads of 'To Let' signs.  Outside one house there was a skip full of old mattresses and broken furniture.  It seemed the landlord was preparing for their new intake of students in September.  For the other third of the year Withington is very quiet and at this time you notice who the real local residents are, many of whom live on the council estates near Yew Tree Road. 

As we were visiting in August, it was the locals we noticed and to be honest they are far more interesting than the fresh-faced students.  There was an older gentleman dressed head to toe in beige - overcoat, trousers and even waistcoat, although he was wearing a white shirt too.  We’d spotted him wandering through the charity shops chatting to staff.  Surprisingly he had a taxi waiting for him.  The taxi had a Lancashire taxi licence plate, so I think he, like us, was visiting old haunts.  

So had anything changed in about 16 years?  Yes and no.  The old cinema, where we once accidentally walked into a showing of "Saving Private Ryan", had been demolished and was just a boarded up wasteland.  However odds on there will be flats built there shortly.  The White Lion pub has become a mini Sainsburys.  Pop Art record shop has closed.  The second hand book shop has gone too.  Many bars have come and gone, but the Victoria and Albert Pubs remain along with the estate agents and array of fast food outlets.   

Some places become gentrified over the years, but not Withington.  I think with the transient student community, businesses fly in and out of the place trying to make a fast buck.  However there is a constant with the working class community who live here and keep the place ticking over and stop the place from becoming too pretentious (a good thing in my book). 

Withington is a mish-mash of cheap shops, fast food outlets and bars, not like its classier neighbours Didsbury Village and West Didsbury just up the road.  Just walking along Wilmslow Road you're visually assaulted by all the shop signs vying for your attention.  There is nothing subtle about Withington. It's a functional place that serves a purpose and the sort of place you pass through unless you are born there.  I really can't get wistful about the place with my having previously lived there; that's reserved for Sheffield anyway.  It served a purpose, which I'm grateful for and thank for being a part of my life, but life moves on and so has Withington.  

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Alderley Edge, Cheshire

Whilst Wilmslow can be a bit chav-bling-tastic, Alderley Edge is like its classier cousin. It's the  Posh Spice to Ginger Spice.  Funnily enough Victoria Beckham lived in Alderley Edge back in the day when David played for Manchester United.

Yes - Alderley Edge is very much a part of the 'footballers and new rich' set.  In Cheshire, Alderley Edge is locally known as being a part of the golden triangle, which includes Hale Barnes and Knutsford.  Much of the wealth is concentrated here and it's no wonder it's considered one of the wealthiest areas in the UK.

Getting to Alderley Edge is relatively straightforward if you come from Wilmslow as you just go down the Alderley Road onto the A535 and then on the B5087.  Or if you are coming from Manchester - M60, exit junction 3 onto the A34, then pick up the A535 and B5087.  It's probably quicker using the latter route as you can use the Handforth bypass.
Parking is relatively straightforward as there is a little pay and display car park we tend to use behind the main shops.  However last time we went it did have some terrible pot holes.  Actually you might be better using the car park at the little Waitrose on the main road.  

Our car seemed conspicuously out of place amongst all the flash cars with personalised number plates.  For some people in Alderley, they park where they like and there was one woman who was unconcerned that her 4x4 had received a parking ticket.  It sure would be nice not to worry about such "trivialities".  

If you are stopping at Alderley Edge it does make a good afternoon lunch location as it has loads of bars and restaurants to choose from.  We'd already eaten beforehand, but I quite liked the look of the Botanist.  I couldn't help but notice many places offered your standard pub menu, but with a twist and fancy presentation.  If you have the right connections, you could seriously clean up here if you opened a bar/restaurant.  Instead we went to Costa for a cold drink as it was really hot and sticky that day, so much so I felt like I was having a hot flush.
Costa was fairly busy, caffeinating the neighbourhood.  One lady was nursing her coffee, scrolling through her smart phone, whilst another was on her laptop trying to type through the racket made by the neighbouring large family.  The family looked like visiting walkers having a break.  Just above Alderley is a National Trust site called the Edge.  Essentially it's an escarpment where you can get a great view of the Cheshire Plains and beyond on a good day.  It's also known as a supernatural attraction and there are plenty of legends about the place including the Wizard of the Edge.  It's just off the Macclesfield Road out of the village.  You can either follow the signs or stop where you see loads of cars on the side of the road.  We weren't feeling that adventurous on a hot summer's day, so we stayed in the village.

The village has a long history and goes back to the bronze age.  There are some lovely buildings in the town.  I particularly like the stone built building which houses a branch of Barclays Bank.  Further up is the 19th century tudor style building, which is home to the De Trafford pub, part of the Chef and Brewer chain.  I do keep meaning to try this place out as the Chef and Brewer food is generally pretty good.
Now when it come to charity shops, Alderley Edge is in the premier division.  If you are a size 8 to 10 go to Barnardos and bring your credit card.  Seriously it's the best charity shop for designer women's clothes I've seen.  The shop was naturally packed, but Neil was waiting outside as it doesn't do vinyl records. 

There are a number of charity shops in Alderley Edge, but the newest edition is an Oxfam.  We'd noticed the Oxfam in Wilmslow wasn't as good as it used to be and the book section was no longer as extensive.  It seems with the opening of the branch in Alderley Edge, the book section has transferred to here.  I liked it and so did Neil as he managed to pick up some vinyl records.  I think it was the first time he found anything here as I've always equated posh towns and villages to crap music taste.  Nantwich being an exception, but I do think that was a one-off-someone-died donation.

As you go on the charity shop trail in towns, you  recognise other people on the same trail.  This time it wasn't a person I recognised, but a lovely beagle dog whose owner traipsed from shop to shop hanging outside each shop waiting for his wife who was busily trawling through the shops.

The majority of Alderley shops are independently owned and reflect the demographic of the place.  There was a cheese shop, running shop and a rash of estate agents.  Nothing is just a simple shop - a home wear shop is an interior design shop. A kitchen shop was described as selling "exquisite bespoke kitchens".  Even the local bakery was serving up some lovely looking baked goods I've never seen in a local bakery.  You can't help but admire the spin they do to make things classier than they are.
Alderley Edge is clearly classier than its neighbouring town Wilmslow.  It's more low key, with dashes of designer style.  I couldn't help noticing the locals were promenading down the street in their high class smart casual clothes holding the designer bag of the moment.  I'm sure there's an internal social politics that would be interesting to unpick here, but that's for another time.  I can also imagine Alderley Edge does draw wannabe WAGS who stop over at the Premier Inn in the hope of picking up a Premiership footballer in a local bar.  Not that I would recognise a footballer if I bumped into one.  Seriously football is an overrated sport and has completely jumped the shark in terms of respectability and integrity.  I've been to two football matches in my life, once to Manchester City and the other time to Manchester United.  The only reason was to accompany my brother who had no one else to go with - he was desperate and I considered it a charitable act.

Alderley Edge is a lovely part of the world, far enough from the hustle and bustle of Manchester, but handily on a quick rail route to the city.  You can quite easily see why it has become the desirable neighbourhood of choice for the wealthy.  However I'm in no doubt there is a local snobbery and obsession with conspicuous consumption, which taints this lovely place.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Ashton-Under-Lyne, Greater Manchester

We’d been to Stalybridge and were retracing our steps back to the M60, and we were passing through Ashton-Under-Lyne so decided to stop.  However, first thing to note is that Ashton-Under-Lyne is the Sunday name for the town which is more commonly known as Ashton.

I’d been to Ashton twice, first time to Tameside FM (community radio station) and the second time to IKEA (missed junction 23 on the M60, so had to take the next junction and spin around).  A quick note about IKEA, it can be a nuisance to get to as you have to pass through the town to get to it.  My only advice is to look for the big blue building and travel in that direction.  Fingers crossed you will get there, but this is a rare circumstance where I’d advise a SAT NAV would be useful.

We parked in the Henrietta Street car park on the edge of Ashton town centre.  It’s was cheap enough, although I hate having to type in my registration number into ticket machines which have non-qwerty keyboards. 
Ashton is a very down to earth place and is resolutely working class.  A bit rough around the edges, it’s an old mill town with many of the buildings from its Victorian heyday.  However in the centre of the town there are two more modern shopping precincts that house most of the high street shops – Ladysmith and the Arcade.  The real draw to Ashton is the huge market located in the town square outside of the Town Hall.  It kind of reminded me of those large squares you find in European cities as it was flanked by the Town Hall and Victorian Indoor Market Hall.  It’s a huge space and I was surprised to find out this is one of the largest in the UK.  When we walked around it, it was the end of the day and shutting up shop, but clearly you will find all forms of life here.  The indoor market was pretty smart too, as in recent times it’s had a makeover after a fire.  I remember Neil’s auntie saying she used to go to Ashton market with Morrissey, when he was just Steven, to find 60s girl group records.  Yes - I do mean Morrissey of The Smiths fame.  How cool is Neil’s auntie? Wow, that’s as cool as aunties get in my world.  It was over 30 years ago when that happened, yet the market remains.  I hate to admit this but I always thought Bury was the biggest draw when it came to markets in Greater Manchester, but Ashton’s market probably is a close second. 
For us the most interesting part of Ashton wasn’t the town centre, but the charity shops on the edge of the town.  Stamford Street is the main street to check out for charity shops, although there are others dotted around the side streets of Ashton. 

Stamford Street is quite interesting as it’s a mix of cheap shops and interesting independent shops that don’t fit into the town centre.  Some were surprisingly classy, many were not.  However in my world it’s always good to have a diverse range of shops.
The best charity shop we found was the Wooden Canal Boat Society shop.  It is a large charity shop, which had the added benefit of being both organised and reasonably priced with reasonable stock.  It also sold some canal boat paraphernalia too, if you’re into that sort of thing.  Once in a blue moon Neil stumbles upon a small clutch of interesting records and this place was the annual blue moon moment.  It’s exciting when this happens, as after several years of doing this I know it’s the exception and not the rule.  In many respects it was appropriate a couple of the records Neil found were by Morrissey.  I think Neil will be asking to come back here again.

Further down the road there were three branches of “Amazing Charity Shop”.  They were of the ‘mad old lady, crammed to the rafters’ kind of charity shop where you could half empty the shop and it still would still look overcrowded.  I can’t say we found much, but it was more for the fact we were overwhelmed by stock.  Some parts of the shop were completely inaccessible due to the stock mountain.  It’s a shame as there was probably stuff in there worth getting.

As ever, we found as we went from charity shop to charity shop we were bumping into the same people.  It was summer holiday time and I spotted a young kid with her dad doing the rounds. I hope her dad treated her to a toy to take home.
I didn’t expect Ashton to be as big as it is and we were quite overwhelmed by the area it covers.  To be honest I don’t think we explored over half of it in the time we had.  There are so many little side streets to explore and unless you have a good sense of direction you could easily get lost here.

We did have a bit of local interaction when a strange bloke asked me for directions to Molly’s.  I had to ask him to repeat what he said, probably more for the fact I am slightly deaf than he was a bit worse for wear.  I had no idea what Molly’s was, let alone where it was.  Neil pointed out to me it was a pub we had passed with the misspelt signage.

We only had a couple or so hours to explore the place but it’s definitely a place to come back to again.  Yes, it’s a bit rough around the edges and needs a lot of TLC, but some efforts had been made with the random street art of bronze characters looking around corners or in the middle of the streets.  It may not have all the high street names, but it’s the independents and charity shops on the side streets that are the draw for us.  If you like markets then this is definitely the place for you.  Okay, Ashton isn’t the most glamorous place in the world, it’s not beautiful, it’s not cool nor trendy, however it’s different and speaks of a different age which reminds us of how our forefathers lived.  Above all Ashton has character and that is becoming an increasingly rare commodity in this day and age.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Stalybridge, Greater Manchester

I'd been meaning to go to Stalybridge for quite some time.  My Dad had told me tales about Stalybridge having a very lively night life and that it was nicknamed Stalyvegas.  Not that we were going in the evening, but I thought it would be interesting to see the place anyway.

Getting to Stalybridge means taking the M60 and getting off at junction 23 at Ashton-Under-Lyne and then following the A635 until you hit the town.  We stupidly ended up in a pay and display car park next to the Amber Lounge.  We should have travelled further up the road and parked outside Tesco for free.

It was a Tuesday so we did expect the town to be quiet and to be honest it was.  
The weather was a bit touch and go too with drizzle as we wandered through the town. 

Stalybridge architecturally is firmly in the 19th century with plenty of nice Victorian red brick buildings. At its height, Stalybridge’s money came through cotton mills.  The cotton mills are long gone now and many of the large civic buildings have been turned into flats or otherwise remain empty.  As for the feel of Stalybridge, it remains somewhere in the 20th century, maybe the 60s or 70s.  I would quite understand if this place was used in period TV dramas as it’s fairly untouched by modern architecture.  However there has been some regeneration going on.  Stalybridge train station looks as if it has had a makeover with a modern entrance.  The bus station seemed rather new too.  The Huddersfield Canal which runs through Stalybridge has also had a makeover, which is nice to see when many canals across the north need a little TLC.

In the distance I spotted a rather swish looking apartment block that would not look out of place in some of the trendier parts of central Manchester.  They looked like they were designed by Urban Splash and sure enough when I checked they were.  Urban Splash had also converted a mill into loft style apartments.  They were selling it on the basis you're only a 12 minute train ride from Manchester - I'm not entirely convinced myself.  Maybe it's the attraction of city style living on the edge of the Pennines - I'm still not sure.

Obviously the main reason we came here were the charity shops.  According to Yell there were four, but we could only find three.  Anyway that was enough to keep us occupied.  The charity shops were quite busy and there was quite a bit of banter in the shops between staff and regulars. Sadly we didn't find anything to buy.  We did spot a house clearance shop and they did do a good line in old electronics and stereo equipment.
The rest of Stalybridge is an interesting mix of cheap shops, pubs and independent shops.  There is a small precinct in the centre of the town dating back to the 60s.  There was one shop called Findlay's, which was rocking old school 70s signage.  We thought it had closed down until we spotted people coming out of the shop.

We were surprised to find a few shops that sold art in the town.  I guess this is part of the town's regeneration, although the town retains a civic art gallery, which is part of the town's library.  Sadly we didn’t have chance to see it as I stupidly parked in a pay and display car park and we needed to get back to the car. 

There are plenty of independent shops in Stalybridge.  There is one little café that caught our eye as its name was a pun on serendipity – Sara Dip and Tea.  I also found a sewing shop called "All Fabrics" that sold nice fabrics and did sewing workshops.  I adore seeing places like this in towns like these as I do think it’s a shame we are fast losing these skills.  When I was a teenager my school used to have needlework classes.  It turned out I was really quite good at needlework, although the teacher eventually retired and wasn’t replaced.  So I lost one of the few things I liked at school and given that I hated school it was a big loss.

One thing is for sure, Stalybridge has plenty of pubs, bars and venues.  As we walked through, we noticed many shops had shutters pulled down, although I realised some of these places opened up at night either serving beer or food.  I can quite understand why this place is often referred to as Stalyvegas as there are so many places to drink and have a dance.  However many had closed down too, like many places across the country.  The few pubs that were open during the day all had people sitting outside drinking beer and smoking fags.  Part of me almost wants to experience a Stalyvegas night out as an academic exercise for the blog, but part of me is a little intimidated too at the thought of it. 

Stalybridge has an old school charm and is languishing somewhere in the 20th century, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.  Many of these outlying towns march to the beat of their own drum.  When you live in the city you often see younger people trying to keep in with the trends and scoff at those people who don’t.  However as you get older you realise it’s healthier and happier to follow your own passions, regardless of how uncool they are.  Stalybridge is rocking that uncool vibe and lots of people appear to love its night life, which is fair enough.  We may not be back in a hurry, but good luck to the place.  We live in tough times, but you do need a place that’s not shy to let its hair down and be itself and Stalybridge is that place.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Hindley, Greater Manchester

What possessed us to go to Hindley after going to Westhoughton?  The lure of charity shops.

Hindley is just a short drive from Westhoughton along the A58.  We managed to find some free parking behind the “Summat to Ate” restaurant and found that Silcock’s fun fair company were storing some of their rides by the car park.  We noticed someone had tried to remove graffiti that stated “xxx is a grass”.  The irony was that even though they removed the paint, you could still make out the name of who was the grass.  I think someone needs to rethink their graffiti removal technique.
It was mid-afternoon on a Saturday and all was very quiet.  There were many shops already with their shutters down, although from the looks of some of the shops the shutters had been down for many years.

The main shops in Hindley are located on the A58 (Market Street / Bridge Street) with an ASDA on Ladies Lane and a Tesco Extra on Cross Street.  Apart from ASDA and Tesco, most of the shops are independently owned.  As with Westhoughton there were a few with odd names: Buttyful (a sandwich shop, unsurprisingly), Bonkers (discount shop) and Cheerful Cantonese Restaurant.  We did pop into the Suga Shack that does a fab range of sweets.  I’m sure this place must be popular with the local kids. 
On our travels I’ve begun to notice shops and market stalls doing frozen foods and in Hindley there is a shop called Frostys.  Unlike the likes of Farmfoods and Iceland, all these shops have are white chest freezers.  There are no promotional signs to brighten up the place, so it looks quite odd from the road.  It’s like you have found an electrical shops that just does chest freezers or there is a random minimalist art exhibition going on.

The architecture in the town is predominantly Victorian red brick, although there are a few stand out places.  The Lloyds Bank appears to be a mini Greek stone temple, completely symmetrical with columns framing the doorway.  Its only adjustment to 21st century life is the insertion of a disabled ramp on the side.  The RBS is housed a in a purpose built Victorian bank and looks fab with ornate stone work.  The Mahabharat Indian Restaurant is housed in a former Baptist chapel.  I have to say the restaurant have done a good job to make the outside of the chapel look well presented.  Part of me wonders if they have managed to keep any of the original features inside the restaurant.
It was sad to see the former library was up for sale.  The grand Victorian red brick and stone building looked so forlorn boarded up with windows broken.  I really hate to see public buildings left to rot like this.  It would be interesting to see what it looks like inside.  I do wonder what this building could be used for in this day and age.  A restaurant? Converted into flats? Or will it be torn down and be replaced by a featureless building?  It probably has too many problems that the Council can ill-afford to resolve.

One thing is for sure in Hindley there are plenty of pubs to choose from and some of which date back to the 18th century.  The pubs appeared to be the most popular places to be in Hindley.  Apparently the Lord Nelson Hotel is a grade II listed building.  
The reasons we came here were for the four charity shops listed online.  Of the four, only one was open – Annies Orphans.  Maybe it was too late in the day to visit the town for charity shops as Hindley was dead.  Although next door to Annies was a house clearance shop which we had a quick wander through. Sadly Neil didn’t find anything in either shop. 

Maybe it was the time of day and the fact that the football was on, but there wasn’t much going on in Hindley.  There are too many shops for what is needed and the supermarkets really draw shoppers away from the centre of the town.  I do think these former mining and mill towns are struggling to find a purpose in the 21st century now that the industries have gone.  In Hindley’s case it appears to be a functional, commuter town with reasonable low cost housing that serves the local community.  Definitely not one for day trippers – just for visiting friends and family.  I don’t think we will be back here in a hurry, except maybe just passing through to Wigan or Bolton.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Westhoughton, Greater Manchester

I’ve been going to Westhoughton for the past few years for work, specifically to the leisure centre.  However in all that time I’d never been to the town centre.  So one sunny Saturday afternoon Neil and I took the journey up to Westhoughton.

Getting to Westhoughton is straightforward.  Take the M61, exit at junction 5 and head along the A58 towards the town centre.  You can either park near the tiny retail park opposite Sainsbury’s on Cricketers Way, or as we did in the free car park on Bolton Road, around the corner from Market Street.

It was a nice sunny day and the streets were deserted.  Quite a few of the shops were closed too, though the Pottery Studio appeared to be busy doing a pottery party.  Thankfully the two charity shops, Bolton Hospice and The Children’s Society, were open.  So we had a browse, but sadly there was nothing to be found, although I was impressed by the Children’s Society’s Bond-themed window display.

The architecture of the town is predominantly of the Victorian and Edwardian period and entirely in keeping with its mining heritage.  The Town Hall is the grandest building in town. Built in 1903, it’s red brick with a clock tower overlooking the street.  There are weird carved red faces over the windows and doors.  Around the corner is the local library, which started life as a Carnegie Library.  I always like to see Carnegie libraries as they did so much to educate the working classes in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Interestingly they only received funding from Carnegie if there was match funding from public support and not institutional support.  The idea was to ensure the libraries were for all and not a clique.  Sometimes I wonder in these straightened times whether libraries should seek philanthropic funding from businesses to remain open, as that’s how many libraries started out.
At the bottom of Market Street is the Pretoria Pit Disaster Memorial in Ditchfield Gardens.  It was good to see how well maintained the memorial was kept.

Westhoughton seemed to be full of pubs, many of them traditional looking Victorian pubs.  Most of which were well maintained. The busiest place was more modern looking:  The Robert Shaw Wetherspoon’s pub.  This was probably due to the intoxicating combination of cheap beer and World Cup football.  The Robert Shaw was named after the local actor who starred in films including The Sting, From Russia with Love and Jaws.

There were a few random shop names that caught my eye: “Boys T’ Men” and “Blooming Flowers” which showed the local humour.  I did find it odd there was a shop called Horwich Carpets, when Horwich is a few miles up the road, but it’s actually a branch of the main shop based there.
I’m always a sucker for vintage shops and we found Vibrant Vintage.  The staff were very friendly in there and explained how they displayed their clothes in period order – 40s, 50s, 60s etc.  They also stocked new rockabilly outfits and lots of vintage paraphernalia.  Sadly they didn’t stock vinyl records as they didn’t really know much about them.  Once they made a table out of a stock of old records only to be told one of the records they used was worth more than the table itself.

Finally we visited Westhougton’s covered market and this place is definitely the heart of the community.  Locals were catching up on the gossip and some stallholders were indulging in a spot of knitting as it was a slow day.  There were quite a few craft stalls to catch my eye.  As it was a hot day, Neil and I were hoping to find some ice cream.  So when we saw a Nestle ice cream freezer in the corner of the market we wandered over to have a look.  However what they were stocking were more for snakes than humans - ten day old chicks for £1.50, five mice fuzzies for £2.30 and one small rabbit for £7.00.  Quite frankly the freezer made me feel quite queasy.
Westhoughton is a rather unassuming place tucked away between Bolton and Wigan.  I do think the Sainsbury’s and retail park on Cricketers Way draws people away from the town centre on Market Street.  However from what I found, the people are friendly and there is a sense of community especially in the market.  In part I already knew that from doing some work at Westhoughton Leisure Centre, but it was nice to see that in action in the town.  Whilst Westhoughton is not exactly a tourist destination, it’s a solid working class community that’s proud of its heritage.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

West Didsbury, Greater Manchester

I found myself with an hour to kill on a particularly hot day so, instead of baking myself in my car reading, I decided to take a nearby detour to Burton Road – the heart of West Didsbury.

Many moons ago in the 1990s I lived in nearby Withington and occasionally ventured up Burton Road to the swimming pool (not the best), Withington Hospital (never good) or the Nepalese restaurants (pretty good).  Back then it was just another road on the edge of Didsbury which was on the way to The Woodstock and The Yewtree (now sadly closed) pubs on Barlow Moor Road.  In recent times I’d heard things were happening along Burton Road and I’d been meaning to check it out.

Getting to Burton Road is quite simple from Manchester city centre – head down Princess Parkway, take a left down Nell Lane, go to the end of the road and turn left.  It’s slightly trickier from the motorway – you take the M60, take junction 4 which leads to the A5103/M56, then you take the first slip road you see to Northenden, take a right and a right again and you get back on the A5103 towards Manchester and take a right onto Nell Lane.  Alternatively, you can now get a tram here from the city centre – just jump off at the Burton Road stop.
There is on-road parking in dedicated parking bays for up to 1 hour, although there are plenty of side streets to park in for longer.  However parking is a premium here as it’s very built up with flats and shared accommodation.

Burton Road itself is primarily a residential area full of large red brick Victorian houses, although modern flats have popped up all over the place.  Between Burton Road and Princess Parkway there is a large private housing development called Didsbury Point built on the Withington Hospital site.  There is also former council housing now run by Southway Housing off Burton Road, so you do really get a diverse demographic mix in West Didsbury.

It was a Thursday afternoon and all was quiet along Burton Road.  There were a few people hobbling along to the outpatients at Withington Community Hospital and some people were having drinks outside the various cafes and bars.
Burton Road is definitely a home to independent shops.  If you wanted to a find a gift and a card for someone, you would not struggle to find something along here.  There is a nice little vintage shop with a friendly assistant.  As much as I like looking at vintage stuff I can only really buy accessories.  The truth is I’m too big for all the nice vintage clothes.  Recently I’ve been watching the Channel 4 programme “This Old Thing” and have been quite frustrated they haven’t mentioned at all that vintage sizes tend to be on the small side.  So if you are above a size 14 you are essentially buggered unless you want to look like your Nan.  Anyway, the shop had lots of pretty things to be bought.

I enjoyed pinballing from shop to shop.  You want kitchen stuff? You want some furniture?  You want some artwork?  You could find it all along here and Lapwing Lane.  The place caters for all budgets and tastes, although it was laughable that some bloke was trying to pay for a £2 birthday card with a credit card. Who’s too posh to carry cash these days?  The assistant told him there was a £5 minimum for card payments and there was a cash point across the road.

It was good to see, despite all the gentrification, there were still some regular shops like discount stores, standard takeaways, newsagents and hairdressers.  However there are no charity shops, but they are located in Didsbury Village and Withington.  If you cross over the Metrolink bridge towards Withington it’s like how Burton Road used to be in the 1990s.  I like places which are a mix of the new and the traditional.  I hate it when places get to the point where you can’t get a pint of milk and a loaf of sliced bread, but can get some hand thrown pottery and some funky artwork.  Thankfully West Didsbury hasn’t hit that point yet.
You don’t have to cook in West Didsbury and could easy eat out for at least a couple of weeks in cafes and restaurants without repeating yourself.  Years ago I remember we had a fine meal at the Metropolitan restaurant pub on the corner of Burton Road and Lapwing Lane, so it was great to see it was still going strong.  I also remember Neil going all experimental at the local Nepalese restaurants by ordering banana and lychee curry.  Actually there are three Nepalese restaurants along here which is really unusual, although if memory serves me correctly the Gurkha Grill was the original one.  You are truly spoilt for choice here from budget to high end dining – Thai, tapas, vegetarian, Japanese and even English high tea.  What I did notice and maybe this was due to the fine weather, but there was a French café culture vibe going on.  From the little cafes to posh restaurants you could eat and drink outside whilst watching the world go by.  Often in Manchester alfresco dining is more an endurance activity, but in fine weather I almost feel transported back to Paris.

Along with the restaurants there are plenty of bars and pubs, many of which also serve food.  You could see by the customers there is a youthful vibe in this part of Manchester.  The pub which intrigued me most was The Railway on Lapwing Lane.  It’s part of the Holt’s pub chain, which is known for cheap beer and often attracts the older, overly committed drinkers.  However this place didn’t look like your standard Holt’s pub, as it had stealthily blended itself into surroundings by being faithful to its Victorian origins and going a bit neutral with its decor.  I could see myself having a drink here with friends having a nice chat.  Weirdly, while googling the pub, I found out Johnny Depp has been known to frequent this place.

Burton Road does scrub up well.  I can imagine this is a lively neighbourhood in the evenings and now with the Metrolink on the doorstep I’m sure we’ll be taking a trip one evening to sample its delights.  Honestly I could not have imagined it would change so much in 16 years.  It’s understandable this place is popular with students and young professionals.  Whilst I’m certain the rents are high and the house prices are silly, it’s a vibrant neighbourhood with good transport links and I can understand the appeal. 

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Stockport, Greater Manchester

It had been years since we had been to Stockport and was a glaring omission from Life in Northern Towns.

I’d heard things weren’t going too well in Stockport during the recession with a significant number of shopping units empty.  In the end Stockport became part of the Mary Portas Pilot to revitalise the high street.  I’m not entirely sure whether this has been successful from the articles I found online about the project and also from my visit I’d say the debate is still out on this one.

Anyway, back to the trip.  Getting to Stockport from North Manchester is relatively straightforward as you hop on the M60 and get off at Junction 1.  However getting past the queues at the Trafford Centre are becoming a real pain at the weekends and I would suggest going clockwise (past Oldham / Ashton) instead.  It can be slightly longer, but definitely quicker.  If you are coming from central Manchester then there is always the A6 to contend with.  Personally the A6 to Stockport can suck the life from your soul as you have to negotiate lots of traffic through Longsight and Levenshulme.  I think Princess Parkway is quite a good alternative as you can pick up the M60 and head for Stockport that way.
Parking in Stockport is fine as there seems to be plenty of it.  We parked near the Merseyway shopping centre in a pay and display car park - £1.60 for 2 hours or £2.40 for 3 hours.

Stockport is dominated by the massive, red brick railway viaduct that spans the town centre.  Built in 1840 apparently it’s one of the world’s largest brick built structures.  This may go some way to explain why Stockport is a split level town – in the valley the Merseyway shopping centre and bus station, on the hill the rest of the town. 

The Merseyway shopping centre is a fairly standard, uninspiring shopping precinct.  Partly covered and home to the usual high street suspects.  Apparently there were plans to redevelop the place, but that went wrong with the recession in 2008.  Shoppers tend to fall into two brackets – family and teenagers.  In the main shopping area it seemed reasonably busy for a fine summer’s day.  However when we ventured further afield we seemed to head into ghost town territory. 

Underbank seemed to be the more interesting area both shopping-wise and architecturally.  Whilst Merseyway shopping centre is just a bland mass of 60s concrete, Underbank has many old buildings and has a bridge dating from 1868 crossing over it.  In some respects it reminded me of the bridge in Chester that spans the shopping area, but a more simplistic version.  Winter’s Holt’s Pub was very old school in its design.  We did find some vintage shops along here and had a quick browse.  A couple of young women were deep in conversation discussing why the parents of one of them had split up.  Sadly there wasn’t too much to browse so I couldn’t eavesdrop on the rest of the conversation.
We found ourselves lost in Stockport and at one point had to avoid a passing drunk who was wobbling down one of Stockport’s many steep streets.  We eventually found the indoor markets along with more vintage shops.  The main indoor market was a Victorian covered market made of wrought iron and glass painted black and white.  The stalls were a mix of the traditional and interesting, plus they had a café that was full of people.  There was one stall that caught my eye where a lady was making some fab celebration cakes.

Across the outdoor market was the indoor produce market, again with its own café.  It was beginning to close up for the day, but it’s great to see local produce being sold here.  I also liked the fact one stall was a dedicated pop-up stall, which is great for people starting out new food business ventures.  However it wasn’t the food that impressed me most about this market, but the vintage shop you can find at the top floor of the market appropriately called “Room at the Top”. 
It wasn’t just a vintage clothing shop, but it sold all sorts of vintage paraphernalia.  I’ve been looking for wall art for our house, but I was struggling for inspiration.  Little did I realise until coming to this place that vintage art exhibition posters would be perfect for what I needed.  Whilst I didn’t buy any posters from there, it has led me on an interesting journey trying to find some.  I did spot a dad trying to help his teenage daughter to find a 60s vintage dress for her school project, which was rather sweet to see.  Neil was very pleased to find copies of old Record Collector magazines and bought a batch of 31 for £10.  There were so many things here I could have bought if my budget allowed.  So I wasn’t surprised find out the place had won awards and definitely one to visit.  If you are really keen on vintage, every 2nd Sunday of the month the Vintage Village pops up at the main market hall and Room at the Top also opens that day.

As ever we headed for the Charity shops, however they weren’t that exciting for Neil.  I think with the proliferation of vintage shops in Stockport, the charity shops are regularly trawled by people who know their stuff and pick up the interesting finds.
Weirdly in Stockport we found you could do a tour of the World War Two air raid shelters in the town.  I did think from the amount of post war buildings in the town, there must have been lots of buildings destroyed in this town during the war.  I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable doing the tour as I’m not one for confined spaces, however I’m amazed at the foresight of the Council to open up these shelters as they are a unique aspect of social history.  Also another oddity in the town was the Hat Works Museum, however time pressures meant we couldn’t visit but I’ve heard good things about this place through friends.

Stockport is a surprisingly interesting place when you get out of the main shopping precinct.  Not only because of the shops, but also because of the architecture which transports you back in time.  It’s also interesting how the vintage thing has exploded here; whether that is down to the Portas project or cheap rents is another matter.  However I don’t think the Portas Pilot has really addressed the whole empty unit problem in Stockport.  It has probably mixed up the type of shops available in the town, but I do think the layout of the town doesn’t help matters.  Recently I’ve recovered from a broken foot and I now realise people with mobility issues would struggle to access parts of this town.  To be frank you’d be limited to the main shopping precinct as it’s on the flat and close to the bus station. The biggest problem for towns in Greater Manchester is the Trafford Centre.  It just draws away punters from the local towns as it offers a total shopping experience with the added bonus of free parking and it’s sheltered from the frequent Manchester rain. This is a knotty problem Stockport has to address and I don’t think it’s an easy one to solve despite the Portas Pilot offering some hope.