Sunday, 10 April 2016

Uttoxeter, Staffordshire

Despite the miserable weather we ploughed on, over the county border from Derbyshire to Staffordshire.  Uttoxeter is 14 miles from Ashbourne and it takes about 25 minutes, driving via the A515, A50 and A518.

Before this visit I had very little knowledge of Uttoxeter apart from the many signs I’ve passed over the year on the A50, the film director Shane Meadows is from here and the Starbucks drive through at the Uttoxeter service station. 

We parked up behind the little precinct and wondered why there was a queue at the ticket machine.  Apparently people were waiting until 3pm to get a free ticket for parking, which is always good to know as these things aren’t always widely signposted.

As we walked through the little precinct, the song “Ghost Town” by The Specials went through my head.  It was a rather bleak concrete place from the 60s with lots of empty units. There was a handful of shops still open but mainly charity shops. 

When we made it out onto the main shopping street, things improved.  Firstly the street is pedestrianised which always helps.  Also the architecture is definitely market town, with many buildings dating back at least a couple of centuries. The butcher’s shop on Market Street had a little brown plaque stating it was from Elizabethan times – you could tell with its Tudor wooden beamed structure.  At least the town planners have kept the newer developments behind the main shopping streets to retain the character of the place.  

Luckily for us, there were a quite a few charity shops to explore in Uttoxeter.  I’m always a fan of good second hand charity book shops and the Katherine House Hospice had a particularly good one – plenty of books, well organised and reasonably priced.  I bought Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” here, which is a gripping read by the way.  In the other charity shops, Neil was also having some luck with vinyl records and CDs and picked up some stuff – even some sheet music which happened to be in good condition.

On the mobile phone front, Neil was getting tetchy as the signal for O2 was pretty patchy, whilst on Vodafone there was a better reception.  Thank goodness for tethering is all I can say.

There were a few independent shops in the town too, but it must have been a slow day for them as the place was virtually empty as the wet weather kept most people indoors.  The only place which was experiencing shopping action that day was the local ASDA.

The main thing I really took from this place was the Staffordshire version of the Midlands accent.  It’s not as strong as you’d find in Birmingham or Wolverhampton, but it still has that burr which is captured beautifully by Shane Meadows in his films and TV programmes.  It’s fascinating how accents change with geography and the first time I’d spotted this accent was on a previous trip to Leek about 20 miles north west.  I do think it’s one of the most interesting things about the UK how accents can be so radically different over relatively short distances, for example there are only 30 miles between Liverpool and Manchester but the accents are poles apart.

I’m sure Uttoxeter on a race day feels like a different place, but on the day we went we found it to be a dull but functional place.  I’m sure it’s a nice place to live – the countryside on the door step, but within easy reach of Stoke, Derby and Stafford.  I wouldn’t be that excited to visit here again, but as ever with certain places the weather can really temper your experience of a place.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Ashbourne, Derbyshire

I discovered Ashbourne in Derbyshire through taking detours back to Manchester when the A40 or M6 had been jammed with traffic.  As I passed through, I noticed the town seemed rather nice and I made a mental note to return here to visit.

Getting to Ashbourne from Manchester takes about an hour and a half to drive.  There are several ways to get there and the route I took was the M60, M62, M6, A50, B5030, B5032 and A52.  I think there are better ways to get there, that’s for sure, and Neil was getting queasy on the B road part of the journey.  We parked up in Sainbury’s car park and you have to pay to park for a maximum of 2 hours, but you can get the parking fee refunded in the supermarket.

It was a grey and drizzly kind of day - not the best to go visiting towns, to be honest with you.  After parking up, the first order of our day was to get food.  As we didn’t want a pub lunch, we found Billy’s fish and chip shop in the centre of town and thankfully they had some indoor tables so we didn’t have to eat them out in the rain.  The fish and chips were nice which is always a bonus.

Ashbourne is a classy kind of town. Not only does it have a Sainbury’s and an M&S supermarket in a nearby retail park, but it rocks the holy grail of middle class supermarkets – a Waitrose.  It also has an Edinburgh Woollen Mill, which to me is always an indicator of a tourist destination.  It’s definitely upmarket with lots of lovely little independent shops too.  Ashbourne also prides itself on being a fair trade town which is always good thing.  If you like antiques and art you will find plenty of shops to your taste.  In one antique shop window there was a pair of glorious, white life sized greyhounds – they were so lifelike and no doubt cost a small fortune. 

There is both an indoor and outdoor market in Ashbourne.  The outdoor market wasn’t that big or exciting, but I did like the upholstery stall where they were selling footstools, which could be customised to your own taste.  The small indoor market was hosting a craft day and it was very busy as the rain was driving people inside.

Architecturally, there is a country market town vibe going on and the sort of place you could spend a weekend soaking in the relaxing calm.  The gallows sign “Green Man and Black’s Head Royal Hotel” spanning St John’s Street is a distinctive landmark in the town and I couldn’t help but think that some lorries wouldn’t be able to pass down this street because of it.

In the cities and suburbs, pubs are closing at a rapid rate, but here I was surprised to see so many -   apparently 1 in 4 of the buildings in this town had been a pub.  Many looked like they had been here hundreds of years and it’s a shame I was driving as it would have been nice to sample a pint or two here. 

We were here obviously for the charity shops.  One was particularly overpriced, but the others were fine.  In Oxfam I overheard a conversation where the volunteer was telling customers that the rain was keeping people away from Ashbourne, but come on a sunny day and the place would be teeming with folk.  Neil managed to pick up some CDs and vinyl and that always bodes well for a repeat visit.

Bizarrely there were two religious speakers near the market proclaiming their stories of redemption to all who would listen.  This was really rather strange and unexpected.  You sort of expect this on a busy city centre street in Manchester, but not in a sleepy market town in Derbyshire.

I can’t quite understand why I’d never really heard about this place before my detours as I know Derbyshire fairly well.  Maybe it doesn’t have obvious lures like Bakewell (the Tart) and Buxton and Matlock (the Spas), but I’m so glad to finally stop off in here and explore the place with Neil.  It’s an unassuming, but charming place to visit and it definitely makes its way on the ‘revisit and stay overnight’ list.  

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Knaresborough, North Yorkshire

The first time I came to Knaresborough was on a school trip to visit Mrs Shipton’s Cave and the Dropping Well where you could, at the time, petrify your handbag on the little waterfall.  The tour guide took great pleasure in telling us 10 year olds about how people used to get hung, drawn and quartered, with their bodies being left on display by the river as a lesson to others.  I’m not sure many of us had pleasant dreams that night, but that piece of knowledge has stuck with me ever since. 

This time, we had just visited nearby Wetherby and so decided to go to Knaresborough.  There is supposed to be a B road route between the two towns, but as ever I missed the right road and ended up doing a detour via the A1.  When we got there we found a little car park behind the main shops on Chapel Street - £1 for 2 hours. 
Knaresborough High Street

Knaresborough is a pretty little town packed full of characterful buildings, dating back hundreds of years.  One thing I did notice about many of the buildings was that they had three floors which gave the place a more imposing presence.  I liked the fact that the centre of town was pedestrianised with car access for disabled parking.  It is also a pet friendly town and we kept seeing posh pedigree pooches all over the place, which is always nice to see.

There are so many independent shops in Knaresborough and I did notice there were plenty of vintage style shops selling clothes, knickknacks and upcycled furniture.  Definitely a place to go to get vintage stuff and style ideas.  I also love to visit stationery shops and I found two here which is always great to see in this digital day and age.
Urban Fox Interiors in Knaresborough

Neil is a fan of daft shop pun names and he remembered on our last trip there was a shop called “Mungo Deli”.  Thankfully it was still open and Neil managed to get a picture of it for his Facebook album of silly shop signs.
Mungo Deli Shop in Knaresborough

There are plenty of places to eat and drink here – lots of cosy old pubs, cute cafes and gastropubs.  We had already eaten in Wetherby, but as we are greedy we did pick up cake from the friendly and down to earth Hurst’s Bakery.  I have to recommend the chocolate cream cake, especially as it had a surprise layer of black cherries in it and tasted great too.

As ever we checked out the charity shops.  Other people had the same idea and we kept bumping into them in every shop.  There was a hospice charity shop which was really overpriced – although in fairness, with the proximity of so many vintage shops, they probably have a policy to mark up the stock so the vintage shops don’t profit on their donations.  Neil managed to get locked in one charity shop when he was browsing through the records upstairs.  I was a bit panicked and tried to phone him.  Thankfully the shop assistant checked the shop before she left and Neil managed to get out.  A practical point to note is that most charity shops in Knaresborough close about 4.00 pm so it’s better to get there earlier than we did.
Entrance to Frazer Theatre in Knaresborough

Knaresborough is a great little place to go, and one to consider for a weekend away as it’s close to the countryside, especially when it’s only a short drive from Harrogate too (fab place, you must visit).  Our only advice is to get there earlier in the day, as it begins to close around 4ish – otherwise it’s another fab Yorkshire town to visit.
Six Poor Folk Cafe, Bar and Kitchen

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Wetherby, West Yorkshire

It was our first road trip of the New Year so where do we go?  We’ve been to loads of places in the North over the years, so finding somewhere new to go that’s nice can be more miss than hit.  So to ensure a hit on our day out, I wanted to go to Knaresborough as we’d been there before but I hadn’t written about it.  However, to make that journey worthwhile we needed to visit another town. I dusted off the atlas and found Wetherby, which is about 8 miles from Knaresborough – well, that is if you take the right route.

Getting to Wetherby from Manchester is straightforward enough – M60, M62, M1, A1, exit junction 45 and then follow the signs into Wetherby on to the A168 and A661.  I was very pleased to see on the way into town, a sign stating “Historic Market Town” – Wetherby looked to be a promising visit after all.  As for parking, I got a little confused and ended up going through the town.  Luckily we found 2 hours free parking on the edge of Wetherby town centre just off Crossley Street.  We had to laugh at the name of the gymnasium next to the car park – it’s called “Sunny Gym”!
Side street in Wetherby
Copyright Anne-Marie Marshall
We cut through the car park and found ourselves on Westgate where we found our first charity shop of the day.  According to my Yell app, there were supposed to be 7 charity shops, but in reality there seemed to be many more.  The shops were teeming with older people browsing and chatting to staff.  There are some pretty good charity shops in Wetherby and Neil picked up some cheap vinyl records and CDs. Neil will definitely want to come back here again for the charity shops alone.

You will always find a place to eat in Wetherby with its wide selection of cafes, pubs and restaurants.  As it was a cold day we wanted to eat indoors somewhere and we found the Wetherby Whaler chip shop which had a restaurant upstairs.  It’s a nice, clean place and seemed to be popular with the locals.  Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and need them more often, but I noticed the toilets were well maintained and pleasant.  The fish and chips we ordered were tasty and we’d certainly come back here again.
Swan and Talbot Pub in Wetherby
Copyright Anne-Marie Marshall
Wetherby is full of independent shops, which is always great to see.  I loved the pet shop with the animal tableau outside and there was a pie shop that caught Neil’s eye, especially the pies with black pudding in them.  Each Saturday you can find in the local town hall an antiques market.  It’s not a big market, but it was well organised and there was a camaraderie between the stall holders.  I also noticed there’s a farmers and craft market every second Sunday of each month.  This town seems like it has got its act together with lots of activities planned throughout the year.

The architecture in Wetherby is typically sturdy as it’s made from Yorkshire stone.  We did spot the odd building built in the 1960s and 1970s, but they look much more dated than the buildings which have been here for hundreds of years.  The place is very well maintained and you can tell people here really take pride in the town.  I wish this was the case everywhere.
Wetherby Town Hall
Copyright Anne-Marie Marshall
Whilst Wetherby is not really a touristy type of place, it seemed to me to be a nice middle class commuter town (well it does have an M&S supermarket after all) for people working in either Leeds or York.  It’s great to go to towns with no expectations of them, as you come with no preconceptions and just see it for what it is.  In this case we were pleasantly impressed with Wetherby and would definitely revisit.  
Small public garden
Copyright Anne-Marie Marshall

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Abergavenny, Monmouthshire

The final stop on the Welsh part of our road trip was Abergavenny, on the edge of the Brecon Beacons.  We had no clue what to expect there and were curious to find out.

We parked at the local car park on the edge of the main shopping area – it was £1 for 2 hours, but on a market day it’s better to get the £1.50 ticket for 3 hours.

Abergavenny is an old-school sort of town and very down to earth.  The central shopping precinct is a typical, functional concrete mid-20th century building with many high street names.  However surrounding the precinct is where you will find more interesting shops and some interesting period buildings.  Many of the buildings are in typical Welsh style with painted rendered walls – all of which add character to the town.  The two buildings which stood out for me were the Abergavenny Baptist Church and Abergavenny Market Hall.  Both buildings used dark rough-hewn stone and sandstone in their construction to create a distinctive look.
Abergavenny Market Hall
Copyright Anne-Marie Marshall
The town was busy as the kids hadn’t gone back to school yet and the pavements and side streets are quite narrow so you end up walking in the road, trying to dodge traffic.  The A40 runs through the heart of the town too so there is always plenty of traffic and you need to use the pedestrian crossings to navigate the town safely.

First thing we did was to find food.  We ended up at a little takeaway called the Codfather and had a generous portion of fish and chips - they were nice too.  Then there was the mission to find the local toilets.   I tried the local public toilets which weren’t great – lack of tissues and the overwhelming smell weren’t pleasant.  However Neil on the other hand used the toilets in Nicholls department store which were much nicer.

Obviously we were here to check out the charity shops and found plenty to choose from.  As we were in Wales it wasn’t clear whether some were charity shops or just local independent shops.  So I ended up being the Sherpa trying to suss out what was a charity shop and what wasn’t.
Street in Abergavenny
Copyright Anne-Marie Marshall
There are plenty of independent shops in Abergavenny, which was great to see.  I did notice there were a number of empty shop units in the town and also there weren’t that many pubs either.  The recession has clearly hit this place, but the independent trade is keeping it afloat.  I found a few craft shops, which is always a joy for me.  One shop specialised in fabric and I picked up a few pieces in their sale.  There was a good wool shop too, but sadly I couldn’t buy anything as I can’t knit anymore. Neil found a house clearance shop, but the owners were impatiently waiting for Neil to finish browsing so they could shut up shop for lunch.  It’s definitely worth popping in Nicholls, which is a classy independent department store.  We’d seen one in Brecon and apparently they have a tiny chain of shops in South Wales.  It’s quite a pleasant upmarket place and the café seemed to be full of families and ladies-who-lunch. 

My favourite place was Abergavenny Market Hall as it was hosting the regular Wednesday flea market, which proved popular with the locals too.  It reminded me of the Sunday flea markets you find in New York – jammed packed full of interesting and quirky stuff.  I loved the realistic looking flying pigs which were hanging above the stalls and I had to take a few pictures of them.  Neil found some record stalls and picked up some nice 80s 7 inch singles.  I didn’t pick up anything, although a couple of the locals were commenting on my camera.  They have a wide range of different markets here over the month including a farmers, craft and antiques markets.  If I lived near here I would definitely be visiting this place on a regular basis.
Flying pigs in Abergavenny Market Hall
Copyright Anne-Marie Marshall
We had only planned to stay in Abergavenny for a couple of hours, but now wished we’d spent a bit longer here.  I really didn’t expect the place to be quite as interesting as it was, because it didn’t strike me as a tourist destination.  Clearly the community likes to shop local and it’s great to see a place like this teeming with people.  If we were ever in the vicinity again, I’d definitely pay another visit, particularly to the Market Hall.
Abergavenny Colseum
Copyright Anne-Marie Marshall

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Hay-on-Wye, Powys

The base we chose for our South Wales excursion was Hay-on-Wye.  Obviously I’d heard about it due to the annual book festival, but also because my friend is a book fanatic and has visited this place to stock up his library.

Getting to Hay-on-Wye from anywhere is a chore as it’s in the middle of nowhere, well, on the edge of the Brecon Beacons close to the English border.  As we were coming from Manchester we had the choice of three routes – the A5 through the west of Shropshire, the A49 through the east of Shropshire or the longer route via the M6/M5.  Unfortunately the first two routes were ruled out for us due to the Creamfields festival in Cheshire, so we had to take the M6/M5 route.  All I’m saying is: don’t be fooled into thinking that driving on a Sunday down the M6 will be a breeze – roadworks plus Birmingham equals traffic hell.  That’s before the random cross country journey that involved finding an alternative route because of a car accident.   It was one of the few times I wished for a sat nav, as the iPhone was useless as the signal cross country was either non-existent or GPRS.  It felt like we were guided by divine intervention rather than anything else.  So what should have been a three hour journey took four hours instead. 
Hay-on-Wye itself is a lovely stone built town, full of character and rather well-to-do.  At the centre of the town, on a hill, is Hay-on-Wye Castle – its remains overshadow the little town.  These types of country towns have evolved over centuries and as a result the architecture is a real historical mixed bag.  There’s the distinctive Clock Tower that overlooks the town.  The small stone built Butter Market plays host to the various markets that pop up.  I lost Neil to the Butter Market for a couple of hours as there was a record fair going on. There are lots of places to explore and if you are an architecture photographer get there early as the streets get very busy late morning into late afternoon.

We stayed in the Old Black Lion on the edge of Hay.  It’s a pub, restaurant and B&B which dates back from the 17th century, although parts of it date from the 13th century.  It’s one of those characterful places with low beams and wibbly-wobbly floors, and it probably plays host to a local ghost or two.  You feel like you are drunk climbing the stairs to the bedrooms as the stairs are at an odd angle.  If you are tall like us, then be really careful as you could quite easily knock yourself out on the beams. 
Our bedroom overlooked the car park and the fields beyond so you really felt connected to the countryside.  The room was decorated in red and gold and had an en-suite bathroom.  As with these old buildings, en-suites can be a bit bizarre and our en-suite was split level with the shower on one level and the toilet and sink on another.  It was also dicey for both Neil and myself as you had to mind your head going down the steps otherwise you could give yourself concussion.  The breakfasts were really nice too with ingredients sourced locally and I would wholeheartedly recommend the restaurant for lunch and evening meals as they were the best we had on our stay.  The Beef and Butty Bach was ace and the Choc and Port Cake is divine.  If you are staying Sunday in Hay it’s best to book a table here as not all the restaurants are open on a Sunday evening.  I’d definitely come here again.

Obviously Hay-on-Wye is known for books and we explored most of the book shops.  I was surprised how pricy some of the second hand bookshops were, but my book fanatic friend did say later that he doesn’t get as many books as he used to in Hay because of the prices.  That said, my favourite bookshop was the Hay Cinema Bookshop on the edge of town.  It’s massive and I don’t think I’ve been into a larger bookshop – you could lose yourself for days in here.  The cheapest place to find books is at Hay Castle which has an assortment of cheap books and you pay for them by leaving money in the honesty box.

There is more to Hay than books and if you like your craft, vintage and locally-made stuff, this place will have something for you.  It made me laugh to look in one vintage shop where they had a sign in the window with the words “best quality old tat”– so true.  Another vintage shop was called “Nantique” – top name.  The Old Electric Shop had the classic combo of café, art gallery, upcycled furniture and vintage clothes - definitely a place to go to get inspiration for craft projects.  A special mention goes to the Fudge Shop who make their own delicious fudge and were very helpful too.  They recommended the Thursday markets as you can get really good sourdough bread from there.
We did visit the local charity shops too.  Plenty of books obviously, and Neil found some vinyl to rummage through.  The St David’s Charity Shop was particularly overpriced, but the rest were fine, even Oxfam to Neil’s astonishment!

There are quite a few pubs in Hay-on-Wye and as we were staying three nights we managed to visit most of them.  The Blue Boar seemed pretty busy doing mainly food.  It was nice to see generations of a family happy to be having a meal together.  There was also an American couple giving a running commentary of their trip to everyone in earshot.  The ThreeTuns, again another pub that specialises in food and in particularly pizza.  They seem to attract a younger clientele and it made me laugh to see the most sedate middle class hen-do known to man in the pub.  Honestly they were so tame – the bride wore a classy sash and crown, her friends were dressed in sensible walking gear and they probably drank a maximum one bottle of wine between them.  The Rose and Crown was a very different affair – it seemed to be the only bar showing sport in Hay and was only ever busy when there was a match on.  It had a funny smell and the barman looked as if he’d been a roadie in the 1970s.  We only had one drink in here, but the music was the best we had heard in Hay.  The Kilvert was particularly quiet too as we were the only ones in there, but I think that was because it was a Tuesday evening rather than anything else.  We did drink in the Old Black Lion too and they have a nice back room which is lovely to relax in with a glass of wine or a pint.  The locals seemed to hang out at the local social clubs - the Conservative Club and the Royal British Legion.  However we didn’t go in there as we were so occupied with the other places.

The other place we ate in was Tomatitos, which is a cracking little tapas bar.  It was very busy and it’s good to get there early.  The tapas was the best I’ve had for a long time – the chorizo was lovely and tender, the meatballs were tasty and everything was absolutely spot on.  My book fanatic friend really rates this place too and it comes up as one of the best places to eat in Hay according to Trip Advisor.

Hay-on-Wye is a nice place to visit and clearly knows how to rock its book angle for the tourists like ourselves.  What impressed me most about Hay was not the books, but the place itself.  It’s such a lovely part of the world and whilst the weather was not particularly great during our visit, we had a good time exploring the place, taking photos and having really good food.  I’d be back like a shot and if you are ever in this part of the world, you must visit.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Chepstow, Monmouthshire

All I knew about Chepstow was that it had a racecourse and that’s it.  I didn’t know it was in Wales as its name sounds English, but apparently Chepstow is the English name for the place.

We took the scenic route along the River Wye from Monmouth to Chepstow along the A466.  It’s only 16 miles, though as it’s a winding road it took much longer than anticipated and not good for passengers who get travel sick.  The plus points of choosing this route is that it’s pretty and you pass Tintern Abbey.  Sadly we didn’t have time to stop, but it did look good.

Parking in Chepstow is straightforward as there’s a big car park behind the main shopping area which costs £1 for 2 hours.
Chepstow is quite a compact town and certainly not as busy as Monmouth, but that could be just the time of day.  The architecture is rather mixed with new developments amongst the medieval and historic buildings.  At the top of the hill there is the Town Gate which dates from the medieval times and in the car park you can still see the remains of the Port Wall which used to protect the town.  There is also some random street art too with a surprising statue of a naked man complete with genitals.

Obviously we were here for the charity shops and they didn’t disappoint.  I found the shops were particularly good for books, especially newly published ones.  I picked up the Amy Poehler book “Yes Please” for a song at £1.50.  I’d have bought more books if I hadn’t already purchased them at full price.  I also picked up a practically new clutch bag for £2.99.
There were some good overheard conversations to be had in the charity shops and I spent far too much time eavesdropping on them.  One was a lady who was discussing her career change – she’s so much happier now.  The other was the concerned grandparents who were hoping their grandson will finally pass his driving test to improve his job prospects.  I forget, living in a city, how important it is to drive when you live in the countryside.  It’s practically a rite of passage to pass a driving test where there’s very little public transport available.

There are a few antique / vintage places in Chepstow and Neil spent almost an hour trawling through them.  He did pick up a good haul of vinyl records and CDs. I know he’d happily come back here again just for these shops.  As a result of this I spent quite a bit of time looking through the craft shops, exploring the tiny shopping arcades and taking photos.  Damn the traffic in this town though, as it makes it hard to take photographs of buildings without a blurred car in shot.
Neil noticed the WiFi was particularly good in Chepstow too and you could get a half decent O2 signal (3G).  He’s rather obsessed with these things and mobile phone coverage – it’s possible he may have a social media addiction.

Chepstow is definitely a good place to visit in South Wales; a bit quieter than Monmonth and easier to navigate without getting killed in the process.  We had already eaten but there are lots of cafes and restaurants to get something nice to eat.  If we are ever in the area again, we’d definitely stop off and have a wander.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Monmouth, Monmouthshire

Monmouth had been recommended to us as a place to go in South Wales by a friend who knew about our weakness for visiting towns and charity shops.

Traveling across South Wales is not like traveling across a city or between urban conurbations where the roads are straightforward and speedy.  The 33 mile drive took over an hour from Hay-on-Wye to Monmouth which I couldn’t believe.  This was not helped by Neil as he’s not a fan of winding roads, so I had to take them at sane speeds to avoid that inevitable phrase “Are we there yet?  I feel sick”.  All the same it was a pretty drive and we took a route along the B4348, A465 and A466. 

We parked up in a car park behind the main shops in the town centre.  It was a very busy car park and people were hovering like vultures trying to nab a spot.  We were very lucky to get a parking spot quickly and paid £1.50 for 3 hours.
Monmouth is a busy town and I’ve never seen so much traffic pass through one place.  How people cross the main street without getting hit by a car on a daily basis is a miracle.   This posed problems for me as I wanted to take photos of the buildings and kept getting random trucks and cars in shot.  The street was busy too, with old people, families and tourists.  I was genuinely surprised how popular this place seemed to be.  Given the amount of pubs and places to eat it seems to be a popular destination for tourists.  Behind the main shops I did spot a gardening shop-cum-café called the Potting Shed.  It was a nice little quiet spot where you could enjoy a cup of tea and a slice of cake away from the hubbub of the town.
Architecturally, Monmouth is a rather pretty mix of rendered buildings which have evolved over the centuries.  The baroque 18th century ShireHall is certainly the star of the town, with its perfectly symmetrical frontage looking grand and refined overlooking Agincourt Square – it’s clearly well maintained by the local council.  On the edge of town is the Monnow Bridge which is the oldest surviving medieval bridge with a gate house in the UK.  It’s certainly worth a look and makes a good photo opportunity as well as a chance to feed the local ducks who live underneath it.

We were here for charity shops, and Monmouth did not disappoint.  Neil found a couple of CDs but managed to get stuck in Mind behind a mum and her screaming child.  The child wasn’t impressed with the shop as she thought it was “smelly”.  It wasn’t by the way, she was just tired and grumpy.  I did have a charity shop regret here as I found a pottery goblet but didn’t buy it.  As we walked around, I was bugged that I didn’t pick it up, so I went back only to find it had been sold already.  Damn – I never learn!

I was impressed that Monmouth had a few craft shops and I spent some time browsing the fabrics.  In one shop the assistant was upcycling a chair with vivid red chalk paint as it was a bit of a slow day.  Needless to say I ended up buying more fabric for my stash.

Neil grabbed a bite to eat and had an uninspiring pasty, whereas I went to Caffe Nero and got a nice latte.  It amused me to hear the staff discussing how well other chains had done over the weekend.  It’s funny to see the competitiveness in the coffee trade. 

All in all, Monmouth was definitely a successful trip for us – pretty, pleasant and some decent charity shops. The only downside was the traffic and I was certainly happy not to get run over – something from past experience I wouldn’t recommend.  This is the kind of place you could easily spend a night or two in if you fancied a short break in this part of the world.  

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Brecon, Powys

We took a few days off work and decided to take a road trip to South Wales as we’d never been together before.  We were staying in Hay-on-Wye for three nights and that provided a great base to explore the surrounding area.

It was Bank Holiday Monday and we weren’t too sure whether any of the surrounding towns would be open.  So we had a look on the map and found Brecon was about 16 miles away.  The plan was if it was closed then we’d have a drive around the Brecon Beacons.  It took us about half an hour to drive there and we took a route along the B4350, A479 and A470.  We parked up at Lidl where you get 1.5 hours of parking for free.

On first impression, Brecon seemed like a tidy Welsh town built on a hill.  Whilst the majority of buildings are modest, often colourfully rendered, there are some fine architectural buildings.  The Greek revival Brecknock Museum, whilst undergoing renovations, looks really grand with its imposing columns and sturdy symmetrical design.  St Mary’s Church in the centre of town is suitably old and weathered and has evolved into its current form from the Norman times.  We didn’t see the cathedral as we explored the town, but if we’d known we’d have visited it too.

The first thing we did was get some food.  I wasn’t too fussed about getting fish and chips so Neil decided to get his own from a nearby chippy.  It took an age for Neil to get served, but it was worth the wait.  I sampled one of his chips and they were the best chippy chips I have ever had.  My intentions to eat something healthier went straight out the window and I bought myself a portion of chips - they were heaven.  Often chippy chips smell nicer than they taste and are soggy.  However these were proper crispy and so fluffy inside - chippy must double fry them.  The chippy’s name is Coracle Fish Bar and, although it does get very mixed reviews on Trip Advisor, the chips are fantastic.

Fortified with chips, we explored Brecon.  Even though it was a Bank Holiday most of the shops were open.  The charity shops weren’t that exciting to be honest and that’s possibly because there is an overpriced antique shop in town picking up the best stuff.  To be truthful it’s a bit of a stretch to call it an antique shop as to me it seemed like a vintage shop.  I do think in recent times there has been a blurring of lines between what is considered antique (rare old stuff that people want) and what is classed as vintage (old stuff).

There was a Fairy Fair going on off one of the side streets.  We didn’t know what to expect so we peaked in.  It was all a bit odd and hippyish.  There was some bloke giving a talk and we couldn’t get through to the stalls as the place was very crowded with people watching him speak.  So we made a swift exit.

Surprisingly the indoor market was open and we popped in.  It’s one of those traditional indoor markets with some permanent stalls as you walk in and a big space full of trestle tables for the temporary stalls.  If you wanted carpets this was the place to go as it was full of them.  Otherwise we found people selling cheap stuff you normally find at traditional markets.  Although if you are visiting it’s worth checking out what’s on at the markets as they do have a monthly farmers market as well as host craft and antiques fairs. 

Before we left we nipped into a sweet shop to buy some ice cream.  However we were stuck in a queue for ages as there were two indecisive Irish ladies trying every type of fudge as they were buying holiday gifts for their families.  Thankfully the shop assistant managed to serve us between a bout of indecisiveness.  It was worth the wait though as it was nice Welsh made ice cream. 

Whilst Brecon didn’t strike me as a touristy place, more of a down-to-earth town serving its local community - it was a nice place to stop off and spend a couple of hours exploring.  Bank holiday probably wasn’t the best time to go, but we did get to see most things and I got dog envy seeing all the cute pooches in town.  If I was ever in that neck of the woods again I would definitely stop off to try the chips as they were brill.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Morley, West Yorkshire

Following a recommendation, we went to Morley in West Yorkshire.  It is a suburb of Leeds, on the south side of the city, so very easy to get to from the M62 - just exit junction 27 and follow the signs.

Driving into Morley, I noticed there was a new leisure centre, a concrete skate park and a newish play area with space nets.  To be honest the space nets impressed me most.  Ever since my days working on council play areas, I’ve always had a soft spot for space nets as they look great and have a hint of danger.  Perfect for a play area in my books as lots of playgrounds nowadays are really safety conscious and have become really dull places.  I was brought up in the 1970s where every playground had at least one piece of equipment with health and safety disaster written all over it that was so much fun to play on.  How I managed not to break a bone on one of these things was a miracle – OK, I did chip a tooth and split my knees open on countless occasions.
Morrisons car park is the most convenient place to park, as it’s behind the main shopping area and you can park for free for three hours.

Morley can be classed as a suburban northern town, a feeder town to the nearby city close by, but distinctive enough to retain its identity.  It’s a down to earth, working class town – pensioners with hard worn faces, cash strapped teenagers hanging out with mates and frazzled parents tussling with errant children.  Having explored some other West Yorkshire towns recently, Morley isn’t as down at heel as Dewsbury and Batley.

Morley Town Hall is the most impressive building in town. Built in the 19th century, it was inspired by Roman architecture complete with Corinthian columns built from Yorkshire stone.  The majority of the buildings in town tend to be boxy Yorkshire stone buildings built in the Victorian and Edwardian periods.  Surprisingly we found a statue of Ernie Wise in town – we had no idea he had a connection to Morley!
The main shopping area in Morley is pedestrianised and there is a tiny concrete precinct that leads to Morrisons supermarket.  The precinct is not very exciting and the most popular feature was the gorgeous bear type dog sitting with its owner.  The dog was practically a deity with locals paying homage by stroking its sumptuous fur.  It took a significant amount of self-control not to do it myself.

On the main pedestrianised street there was a choir busking to 90s dance tracks.  I know I should appreciate the hard work they put in to learning these songs, but I wasn’t keen.  The arrangements were a bit odd and the pianist sounded a bit inexperienced.  Maybe if it had been 80s songs I would have appreciated them more.  Still I wanted to punch the air when they finished.  In my defence I was traumatised by my experience singing in the school choir as a teenager - I find it difficult to listen to choirs without experiencing some sweat inducing flashback. 
There’s also an indoor market in Morley.  It’s a bit of a maze with no natural light, but it is well maintained with a good selection of stock and popular with locals.  I liked the fact it had a good stationery stall as I have a weakness for paper based products and pens. 

Further up the road, there was a table top sale going on in the back of a furniture shop.  Even though the sale was due to close there were still lots of people browsing.  It was more like a community event and people were catching up with each other whilst grabbing a brew at the café.  I think it was a cunning ploy by the furniture shop to get people in to see the furniture.  It was one of those furniture shops that is aimed at older people, stocking sensible biscuit coloured furniture, which are not too low down so OAPs are still able to get up without help.
One thing is for certain, there are lots of charity shops in Morley, although one thing missing was a decent second hand book section.  Normally Oxfam covers that particular base, but due to a staff shortage they weren’t open.  Neil had a very good day picking up vinyl records and also found a “Question of Pop” board game too.  In one shop a young volunteer was discussing his ‘A’ Level results – he got a D in Chemistry.  My eyes used to glaze over in chemistry with the periodic table - I took physics instead.  Not the best choice as it turned out because I was taught by a psychotic teacher who hated teaching.  The lad in the shop was considering studying at Huddersfield University.  I just wanted to say to the lad, “Spread your wings – go further afield.”  I was lucky when I was a student as I received a full grant, rather than now where you have to pay £9k per year for the privilege.

I had no expectations of Morley and as a result I was pleasantly surprised.  There are lots of towns in West Yorkshire struggling these days, but Morley seems to be coping.  Morley is by no means a tourist destination, but it’s alright and does its job.  Obviously nearby Leeds is the main attraction in this part of the world, but as a random trip to check out the charity shops, Morley is a good option.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Bradford, West Yorkshire

The first time I went to Bradford was on a Saturday in the 1970s, driven by my Dad in a mustard yellow van.  Bizarrely he wanted to show Bradford to me and my brother as it had a large Asian community and looked so different to other places – apparently the advertising hoardings were even in Arabic.  As we lived in Cheetham Hill at the time, my brother and I were well versed in multiculturalism so it wasn’t a big deal.  However I think my Dad was having a culture shock moment and was fascinated by it all.

We’d already visited some of Bradford’s suburbs for the blog including Shipley, Saltaire and Keighley, but never quite got around to the city.  Having had a drunken conversation at a “do” recently with someone who works in Bradford, I knew I had to go and see it for myself.

Getting to Bradford from Manchester is straightforward – M60, M62, exit junction 26 onto the M606, exit junction 3 onto the A6177 and headed down the hill towards the city centre.  I had no idea where to park, so when we got to the city centre we parked at the NCP on Hall Ings Road and paid £6 for 3 hours parking.  The place was less than a quarter full so you’d think they would do a weekend rate.
Two things hit you when you walk into Bradford: the architecture and the people. 

Firstly there is the City Hall, which is one of those wonderfully impressive gothic Victorian civic buildings, built at the height of its economic success in the 19th century.  As it was a Saturday I wasn’t sure if I could go in to check out the inside, but given there were lots of people outside in fancy outfits, no doubt this place is busy at the weekends with weddings.
Outside the City Hall there was a big family event happening and the place was packed full of people.  The kids were trying out all the activities like trampolining and climbing on a mobile climbing wall, although one of the most popular was kids playing with large cardboard boxes.  Kids are like cats in many ways as you can buy them something nice, but they will have more fun playing with the packaging it came in.

Wandering through Bradford, it’s always good to look up and see the fine architecture.  If you look at the shop fronts you will find many of them are rough and ready, but looking up you will see what fine buildings they are.  It would have been interesting to see these buildings in their heyday, although you can tell many of these buildings have been cleaned up over the years - there are vast swathes of pigeon-proof netting protecting the buildings from bird poop.

The Alhambra Theatre is another building of note in Bradford.  You can’t miss it with its domes and columns – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a theatre like this.  The white and blue colour scheme just makes the place pop out against the surrounding Yorkshire stone buildings.  I wonder if the inside of the theatre is as distinctive as the outside?
Another thing you will notice walking around Bradford is that it is built on a hill.  You almost have to invest in sturdy walking boots to hike up the steep hills.  I’d been told there is a new development happening in Bradford where they were renovating the tunnels into shops and bars.  I tried to find them, but I believe at the time it hadn’t opened.  I think they are supposed to be focusing on getting new and young businesses into the area.

The shops in Bradford are not that exciting – your usual high street names.  We did manage to find a side street with some independent bars and shops, which seemed to be looking at the Northern Quarter in Manchester for inspiration.  There was one place that did beer and vinyl records, which sounds like the perfect combination.

As with most northern towns, there is a market hall.  Sadly it wasn’t the most exciting of places as many of the stalls had closed down and the others that remained open were selling the usual market stall fodder.  I do think if the market hall had more light and was redecorated it might attract more people.
We obviously checked out all the charity shops and they were probably some of the busiest places in the city centre.  Whilst most were not that exciting Neil managed to find some vinyl records.  My favourite shop was the Oxfam which had a great bookshop on the first floor.  The good thing about Bradford being a university town is that you do get a better quality charity bookshop.  I ended up buying a Mitford Sisters book as I started reading it when Neil decided to go through their large music section.

We grabbed some fish and chips at “The In Plaice” (terrible pun I know) opposite the City Hall.  The food was fine and it seemed to be really popular with the locals.  We also grabbed a 99 cone at an ice cream van that was doing brisk trade at the family fun day.  We had tried getting an ice cream at an ice cream and milk shake place, but they were giving us the hard sell (it’s ice cream for goodness sake!) and we left.  Sometimes a nice Mr Whippy is all you need, rather than a vast selection of ice cream that often looks better than it taste.

If you visit Bradford, a visit to the National Media Museum is a must, especially if you have kids.  Neil has an interest in old TV programmes and so when he saw all the BBC stuff, he took lots of pictures.  It’s quite a dark museum with all the audio-visual exhibits which could be a bit claustrophobic at times.  Obviously, as with all museums these days, they had a good café and gift shop.  However, my favourite exhibit was the computer section.  In the floor they had a glass display of the timeline of personal computers.  My only disappointment with the display was that they didn’t include a Commodore 64, which was my brother’s first computer.  Honestly it was THE personal computer of the 1980s – the gaming industry was started through that machine. It really is amazing how computers have transformed our lives over the past 30 years, and I don’t think we really appreciate how radical their impact has been.
At the beginning, I mentioned the two things you notice about Bradford are the architecture and the people.  Bradford is a deprived city and much of this deprivation is written across the faces of the people who live here.  At the family fun day there was a massive turn out and when I started looking at the people I realised there was a big turn out as the event was free.  There were families who were clearly on benefits and this was all they could afford to do with their kids.  There were many people who were of indeterminate ages as they looked old, but dressed younger than they looked - some hard lives have been lived here.  I was genuinely surprised not to find as many Asian people in the city centre as I’d expected.  It had been Eid, so possibly people were with their families at home.  However it’s possible that many keep to the suburbs, as I’ve been told there are many thriving shopping areas that cater for the community outside of the city centre.

Bradford was an experience and certainly one of the most deprived city centres I’d been to in a long time, despite the regeneration that has gone on.  There is so much to do and I can understand why people I know who work in the city are keen to see it flourish.  I do hope the new development with the tunnels gets off the ground and triggers some much needed economic growth. Having been to Leeds I do understand how people and money tends to gravitate there rather Bradford, which is a real shame as there is potential.  Fingers crossed that the good people of Bradford have the energy and motivation to make great things happen here in these trying times.