Sunday, 6 April 2014

Oldham, Greater Manchester

About 6 miles from Rochdale is Oldham and we took the A671 through Royton.  It’s not necessarily the quickest route to Oldham, but I didn’t realise at the time.

I’ve been to Oldham a few times over the years and almost worked there.  On a good day, as the place is so high up, you can see the whole of Greater Manchester and beyond.  On the day we visited, the drizzle hung over the town and we couldn’t see a thing.
We ended up parking in the Spindles Shopping Centre car park as it had a special Saturday offer of 3 hours for a pound.

The Spindles shopping centre is like any other across the UK - slightly dated with the usual high street shops and the obligatory E-Cig store and stalls, which have spread like a rash across northern towns.  It does have a Debenhams, which is a touch more fashionable than the Beales in Rochdale.  I swear there must be something inscribed in law that northern towns must have a department store for old ladies to frequent and take advantage of the pensioner weekday specials.  Believe me it’s a rare thing not to find a department store in a Northern Town, whilst Debenhams is your standard store, Hoopers in Wilmslow is the classiest I’ve ever seen and Beales is more your traditional little old lady store.
I have to say Oldham was a bit quiet the day we went.  Maybe it was the drizzle that had driven off people to the Trafford Centre.  It’s guaranteed that the Trafford Centre will be packed on a wet Saturday afternoon – it’s now the default wet day out for people in the North West or West Yorkshire. 
We ended up walking through the open air market.  It was a strange experience if truth be told and needs a bit of the back story.  Oldham has been a rather divided place between the White and Asian communities for quite some time.  In 2001 tensions got so bad between the two communities there were racially motivated riots.  If memory serves me correctly they had to merge two high schools (now Waterhead Academy) to help integrate the two communities.  So what had this to do with the market?  As we were walking through this market it dawned on me it was completely Asian, both the stalls and the customers.  We were the only white people in the market.  I’ve grown up with northern markets and I have never experienced this before and to be honest it was a bit of a culture shock.  There has always been an Asian presence in these markets, but this was different and I’m not entirely sure this does much for community cohesion.  I did use Google to get more information and found there were plans in 2012 by the Council who run the markets to make it an Asian market.  However this plan completely flies in the face of the work that has been done to integrate the community.  All that aside, it was interesting to see how different this market was to most other northern markets.  I found it surprising that sweetcorn was being sold as a fast food and the smell permeated throughout the whole market.  We didn’t make it into the indoor market though and things may have been different in there.

Obviously we did a tour of the charity shops in Oldham.  There wasn’t much to find.  Although I noticed that one charity shop had been opened in what appeared to be a boutique in a previous incarnation.  It certainly helped to defuse the charity shop vibe of the shop.  We found an Oxfam and Neil was unimpressed with the vinyl record pricing policy once again (overpriced).  I was actually disappointed that there wasn’t many books in this store, as normally Oxfam have a really good second-hand book section.  Obviously this depends on the donations.
Bizarrely we found some girls outside Oxfam filming a middle aged bloke on their mobiles singing ‘Hey Baby’, whilst they were providing backing vocals.
Opposite Oxfam we saw a sea of taxis waiting for passengers.  I don’t think I’ve seen so many taxis in one spot.  It was if that they were providing an alternative to the local bus service.  Quite a strange sight really.

Even stranger was seeing the Old Town Hall boarded up.  This vast Grade 2 listed building lying empty was in truth rather depressing.  After our visit I had to google what on earth was happening with the building.  Apparently it’s the most endangered Victorian structure in England and Wales according to the Victorian Society.  Although there were plans announced in 2012 to convert the building into a cinema and restaurants, but clearly nothing has happened yet.

Once you walk out of the centre Oldham gets a bit rough around the edges.  I can’t help but think Oldham needs some TLC in terms of regeneration. 
The drizzle and Neil’s headache prevented us from going further to explore the Oldham Coliseum, which had been renovated in 2012.  The Coliseum has a reputation for doing good theatre work and I almost ended up working there (long story).  They have a new writing programme, which seems really interesting. 

An honourable mention needs to go to Oldham Community Radio station.  It’s run on a shoestring with a dedicated band of staff and volunteers.  I remember they had the coldest radio station building known to man, but the devotion to keep it going is admirable.  This reminds me to mention that Oldham has snow alerts signs in the town as it’s so high up in the Pennines hills that it gets snowed in from time to time.  I’m pretty sure the Council also sends snow warnings to their staff so they don’t get stuck.
Whilst Oldham is marginally better in terms of shopping than Rochdale, I am rather worried about the place.  I’ve never seen a place quite as divided as Oldham, although I do know great efforts have been made to resolve this situation.  Also the fact they have closed the old Town Hall is truly weird and I’ve never come across that in a northern town of this size.  Civic pride is a big thing in the North and this does fly against it.  I really hope the powers-that-be get their collective acts together and sort all it out.  You can understand why people go elsewhere to shop, but that doesn’t mean it’s right or good for the town. Over the years I’ve met people from both sides of Oldham’s cultural divide and I’ve found them down-to-earth, funny and warm with a cracking accent, but one thing is for sure, they deserve better than Oldham offers them at the moment. 



Sunday, 30 March 2014

Rochdale, Greater Manchester

Although I’ve lived in Manchester for over 40 years Rochdale has been a bit of a mystery to me.  The first time I went it was just to Rochdale Infirmary as my Dad needed a spot of day surgery.  Otherwise Rochdale to me was the last town before Yorkshire.

The day we went wasn’t the best.  The weather was your stereotypical Manchester day – wet and grey. 
Getting to Rochdale is straightforward – M60 clockwise, straight onto M62 towards Yorkshire, exit junction 20 and follow the signs for Rochdale town centre.

We ended up parking in a little pay and display car park up a cobbled hill, somewhere behind the Town Hall.  The parking was cheap, but after we paid, a lady pointed out that parking was free.  We had missed the free parking sign completely as it had been obscured by a rubbish bin.
One thing to visit Rochdale for is the Grade 1 listed TownHall, which is a brilliant example of Victorian Gothic Revival architecture.  It was designed by the same architect who built Manchester Town hall.  We weren’t too sure whether it was open to the public on a Saturday so we didn’t go in.  Having looked at pictures of the interior I would love to come again and see it in the flesh.  I bet this place is a popular wedding venue and given all the posh cars parked outside it on this Saturday I’m sure it was being used for that purpose that day.  A weird story I found out about the place was that Hitler liked the place so much, he had intended to take the town hall back to Germany brick by brick if Germany won the war.
In the town square there was an event going on with all the local community groups in a large tent promoting their services.  The fire service were there doing their community outreach. There was also a tiny stage too with a band singing about Rochdale in the drizzle.  It's good to see this sort of activity as it shows the community cares.
We wandered into the town centre and found a shopping centre with the Beales department store, a market and a main shopping street.  There were lots of unkempt, old style shops signs dotted across the town, which gave the place a scruffy appearance.  Bizarrely there was a bed shop which had speakers in the first floor window with a DJ in the shop window blasting out Northern Soul songs.  In between the songs there were announcements to buy beds.  As marketing promotions go this is definitely one of the most unusual I’ve seen.

As usual we checked out the charity shops.  Surprisingly there were lots of videos and cassettes being sold in these shops.  Although the shops weren’t overwhelmed with stock, which can only mean two things – they don’t get many donations or that the charity shops are very popular so they run low in stock.  That said the shops were clean and tidy so they were easy to browse.  Neil didn’t find any vinyl to buy though.
Rochdale wasn’t very busy that day, possibly due to the weather.  The majority of people were older people, some of which had hard lived in faces.  I swear some people looked older than they actually were.  We also noticed there was a prominent Asian community in the town.  I knew from my community radio days there was a big community as they have a Muslim radio station called Crescent Radio.
After this first visit I had the opportunity to go back to Rochdale.  This time the weather was much better and Rochdale does seem better with a bit of sunshine.  People in Broadfield Park were chatting and soaking up the sun.  This park overlooks the town centre and has a good view of the surrounding area. 
This time I also got to meet a few locals and I was really impressed by how friendly and proactive they were.  Yes - Rochdale has really struggled since the decline in the local industry and this has had a negative impact on people.  From speaking with people who know Rochdale, the place apparently has gone downhill over the past twenty years.  It’s hard not to notice the deprivation in the town, especially as it was the first time I’ve ever seen a food bank.  I really hope that the new tram line can bring the regeneration to Rochdale it sorely needs.  Regardless of all this the community spirit in Rochdale shines through and the desire to make a positive difference to the place is impressive.  It should be expected as Rochdale does have a tradition of social equality as it was the birth place of the cooperative movement. 
Rochdale does seem out of time from other northern towns I’ve visited and it has had more than its fair share of troubles. However, beauty can be found in this town through its town hall and, most importantly, its people.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Ellesmere Port and Cheshire Oaks

The story of why we ended up in Ellesmere Port was a suggestion from Neil to go to Ed’s Diner at Cheshire Oaks.

Whenever we are in London we always end up at Ed’s Diner for a burger and a hotdog.  The food from this American styled diner is always good and it was great to find out recently that they are now opening branches across the UK.  Neil was keen to sample the pulled pork hot dog again so we trotted along to Cheshire Oaks via the M60, M62, M6 (damn the road works on the Thelwall Viaduct), M56 and M53. 
Parking in Cheshire Oaks on a Saturday is a nightmare.  I really didn’t know what to expect to see at Cheshire Oaks and there were car parks in front of the shops.  However, ignore this and head for the multi storey car park. It saves a world of pain of cruising around the open air car park looking for a precious space. 

Cheshire Oaks is really a large, nicely built precinct with some top name designer outlet shops.  It attracts a wide range of people from middle class and working class families, all on the same mission - looking out for cut price quality goods.  It was really packed with people and it was driving me nuts.  So we cut to the chase and headed to Ed’s Diner.
We had to queue at Ed’s Diner to get a table.  Unlike the Ed’s Diners we’d been to in London it was full of families who wanted something classier than a McDonalds.  One of the reasons why Neil likes this place is the 50s and 60s music. However the kids were noisy and we could barely hear what was playing.  The food was good (pulled pork burger & pulled pork hotdog).  The staff were efficient and friendly.  The service was quick and the place was clean.  You really can’t fault Ed’s Diner and it is well worth a visit for an American Diner experience.

Cheshire Oaks was simply doing my head in with all the people.  I do think I’m a bit antisocial at times.  The next time we come back here to sample Ed’s Diner we will go during the week when it’s much quieter.
Ten minutes down the road is Ellesmere Port.  I’d only every heard of this place as one of my childhood neighbours had family there. 

Driving into Ellesmere Port there appeared to be lots of council housing and working class terraces.  If it wasn’t for it being a bright day, I think this place would seem quite grim.

We parked in a pay and display car park near the station, where it was 50p for two hours.  Although we later found there was an ASDA up the road, which probably did free parking.
Ellesmere Port has definitely seen better days.  On the main high street many shops had been closed down.  All there seemed to be were takeaways, discount shops, off licences, pawnbrokers and a Polish shop.  However the Fab Lab did seem interesting, selling locally made goods.  It appeared to be some local regeneration project to help people develop skills and gain employment, which is great to see.    
The architecture in Ellesmere Port seemed to be a mix of Victorian red brick and 1950s / 1960s concrete creations.  It’s quite likely this place was bombed during the Blitz in the Second World War and may explain why there are so many post war civic buildings.

Whilst it was a bright day, the wind was making it hard for us to walk down the high street.  We got to the precinct and decided to take shelter there.

The charity shops are situated around the precinct.  We found a Salvation Army, Local Federation for the Blind shop, British Heart Foundation and Claire House Childrens Hospice.  I really can’t say we found much in them.  The books were pretty dull, although I did find the biography section did cover a number of reasonably local celebs including Gary Barlow, Paul O’Grady and Steven Gerrard.  Neil didn’t find any records to buy
The precinct wasn’t that exciting either with the usual high street names, electronic cigarette shop, Costa and the bizarrely named National Milk Bars café.  I popped into The Works and picked up a cheap autobiography by Carrie Fisher (ace writer by the way).

The shoppers seemed down to earth older people, some of which appeared to have had hard lives.  The young and middle aged people clearly head off to nearby Cheshire Oaks or Chester for their shopping experiences.
There was an indoor market and this was definitely where the heart of the community lies.  At the centre of the market was a seating area which was served by three or four food stalls.  If it could be fried, it was served here.  I noticed there were lots of old people having their Saturday afternoon treat. 

Around the eating area were all the stalls.  Some appeared to be bric-a-brac and handicraft stalls, but there were your usual suspects including a mobile phone stalls selling chavy mobile phone covers whilst doing cheap repairs and unlocking.  The two pet shops were doing well.  It was great to find both a haberdashery and wool stall as I’m fond of making stuff.  Oddly there was a stall selling freshly baked scones – it must be a local thing.  You really could do your weekly shop here and from the looks of things the older people do. 
Neil managed to find a record stall in the market and I was prepared to wander around the market on my own whilst he browsed.  However after flicking through one box there was a shake of the head and the word ‘overpriced’ was uttered. 

We could have gone to see if there was a waterfront, but we weren’t inspired to explore any further.  Enough was enough so we decided to home. 
I really can’t say I was impressed with Ellesmere Port and when I spoke to my Dad about the trip he did ask ‘Why?’  He’d worked there years ago and wasn’t that impressed either.  On the other hand Cheshire Oaks is probably a good enough reason to travel up the M53, although after experiencing the intensity of a Saturday afternoon maybe best visit on a weekday. 

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Maryport, Cumbria

We hit the road from Workington to Maryport and took the coast road (A596).  It’s a rather bleak industrial route as we passed lots of large factories.  The view of the sea was obscured in part by the railway which hugged the coast side and it was a very grey and drizzly day.

We followed the signs for the car park, which was conveniently behind the main street in Maryport.  It was a pay and display car park but seemed reasonably cheap.  A dog was watching us intently from a nearby car and a local cat managed to evade our clutches as it passed through the car park. 
There was a little alleyway that took us through to the main shopping street.  Our main priority was to look through the charity shops first as it was getting late in the afternoon.  I noticed most charity shops closed at 3.30pm and we literally had 15 minutes to do them all, which we managed by the skin of our teeth as there was nothing much to see. 
After our mad charity shop dash, we explored the other shops.  We found a little bakery and bought ourselves a couple of cakes – a choux bun and a slice of carrot cake.  They filled a gap but weren’t the most exciting cakes we’ve ever had.
We noticed there were lots of ladies standing in the shop doorways watching the world go by, whilst having a cigarette.  Some were chatting with passers-by or with each other.  In my mind this scene seemed to echo another age, where folks were friendlier and the internet was a figment of someone’s imagination.
Maryport architecturally is your typical British seaside place with small, old buildings covered in colourful render to protect them from the elements..  There were lots of pubs and some hotels in the town.  I can imagine spending a cosy evening down the pub having a pint or two here.  I’m sure during the summer they have some tourists, although it’s definitely off the beaten path for Cumbria and about an hour’s drive to the M6. 
We did find the Carlton Market Hall which was a sweet vintage inspired café with arty market stalls.  The guy on the café was enthusiastic and we just had a wander round checking out the local art and gifts.  It was definitely a nice place to rest your weary feet and have a cup of tea.  Although doing a little post-visit research for this entry, I’m not entirely sure it will be open in 2014 as it’s up for sale.

Despite the drizzly weather we wandered down to the marina.  It was deserted.  The tide was out from the marina and the seagulls were on the sand trying to find some food.  It was one of those watercolour days were you could just barely make out the Scottish coast across the Solway Firth.  We noticed as we walked along the promenade there were paving bricks with words carved on.  Clearly the marina had had some form of regeneration in recent years and the Council decided to get the locals involved in a community art project.  The paving bricks had become weathered over the years and moss was collecting in the carved words making some words hard to read, however it somehow added to the charm. 
Across the marina was the Wave Centre, which is a local tourist attraction with a theatre, bistro and climbing facility.  However we didn’t get that far as the poor weather drove us back into the town. 
The shops were already closing up for the day and the kids were making their way back from school.  There wasn’t much else to see in Maryport especially as the weather wasn’t up to much and we had a two hour journey in front of us to get back to Cartmel. 

On the day we went, Maryport was a very sleepy town, although it was much nicer than Workington to visit.  I sincerely hope this place is busier in the summer when the weather is better and there are more tourists about.  However I’ve got a sneaking suspicion this place is struggling to keep afloat as there were plenty of empty shops, which is a worry for the town’s economy.  Maryport is definitely worth a visit especially if you want a place to get away from modern life for a few days and despite the bad weather I also found it was still a good place to take photos. 

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Workington, Cumbria

After our visit to Cockermouth we headed west on the A66 to Workington.  More often than not I like going to places I know nothing about and the only thing I check is whether it has charity shops.  So after a quick Google I knew Workington was good to go on the charity shop front.

Workington is an industrial, working class town perched on the Cumbrian coast.  It’s quite an isolated part of the world and is at least one hour away from either the nearest city or the M6.
On driving into Workington the place appeared to be a little on the grim side with lots of industrial developments and some unloved buildings.  We parked up in the local pay and display car park near to the local shopping centre.
The shopping centre was basically pedestrianised streets, served by regular high street chains.  Clearly regeneration money had been spent in recent years to make the shopping centre inviting with random street art and in Washington Square there appeared to be a multimedia installation.  I expect this is where they hold local events like the annual Christmas lights and stuff. However there were still a few empty shops including a branch of HMV, which is always sad to see.
What I really noticed walking around the shopping centre were the people.  It was like walking onto a set of a soap opera where everyone knows each other.  Gangs of kids congregated outside shops having a gossip, a punk mother dragging her teenage goth kid shopping and hard faced young girls were pushing prams.  I reckon Sport Direct must do great business considering half the population appear to wear sports gear.
There were plenty of charity shops in Workington and we popped along to most of them.  We didn’t find much to buy but I did notice most of them were very clean and tidy.  Whilst some charity shops I’ve visited over the years can resemble an episode of Obsessive Compulsive Hoarder, I really do appreciate a well ordered charity shop and gold stars should go to the ladies of Workington who run these shops.
Apart from the shopping precinct the architecture of the town was typical of an English port town with old buildings covered in render with small windows and Victorian red brick terraces.  Surprisingly the bus station is housed in a 1920s Art Deco building, which apparently was the first purpose built bus station in Britain.  Workington Library appears to have had a makeover in recent years and it’s great to see it houses a community run café.  There are a few independent shops on the edge of the town and Rosie’s Corner gift shop caught my eye with its colourful retro shop front.
We were intending to walk towards the port area, but the weather was a bit wet and the town hadn’t filled me with much joy to explore it any further.  In the end we headed back to the car and decided to make a trip to nearby Maryport instead.
I can’t say I was that impressed with Workington, then again it doesn’t pop up as a tourist destination for Cumbria.  It’s an industrial town that’s off the beaten track and with that you do get deprivation.  Clearly regeneration money has been spent on the town to create a half decent shopping area, which is needed as the nearest city is over an hour away by car.  However, personally I can’t really find a reason to go back there in a hurry.


Sunday, 9 February 2014

Cockermouth - Second time around

The one place I wanted to revisit from our last trip to Cumbria was Cockermouth.  Just outside the Lake District, Cockermouth is a rather classy town.  On our holiday we made two abortive attempts to get to Cockermouth, however we spent too much time in other towns to get there before the shops closed.  The third time we made it our first visit of the day to make sure we actually got there.

Although getting to Cockermouth from Cartmel is a bit of a chore and with Neil’s travel sickness we had to take the longer, but slightly quicker route – M6 and A66.  Admittedly at this point in the holiday I was getting pretty bored of the M6, but it’s the best way to get from the southerly tip of Cumbria to the northerly parts.
This time I remembered that Cockermouth did the whole parking permit thing for its residents and you have to drive through Cockermouth to find the little car park behind the shops.  It was only 11am and the car park was packed and we just managed to find the only space in the place. We made sure this time to get parking for more than one hour as there is plenty to see in Cockermouth – that’s if you like antiques and charity shops.
One thing you notice about Cockermouth is that it’s really well maintained.  Lots of pretty street furniture, the rendered walls of the buildings always seems freshly painted and there is simply no litter here.  Parts of Cockermouth reminds me of the residential areas of Luxembourg and Paris.  I think it’s the colours of the rendered buildings and general neatness of the place.  That said there are plenty of buildings that remind you that you are in an English town – stone built buildings and the pubs.
 If you like antiques and a touch of vintage, Cockermouth is the place for you.  There are lots of antiques shops to explore.  Some are little more than vintage shops run by hipster types selling overpriced old stuff and much to Neil’s annoyance, trying to sell vinyl records at silly prices.  I daren’t think how many times did I hear the refrain from Neil ‘In Kingbee that would be in the 50p box’ at something that was priced £10.  I could literally spend a day and a fortune in Cockermouth Antique and Craft Market, Cockermouth Antiques and Collector’s Corner Antiques as they are so jammed full of stuff.  There’s so much to see antiques wise you really need to spend a whole day or two.  There is also an antiques auction room called Mitchell’s Antiques.  I’m really wanted to see an auction in full swing, however the day we went it sadly wasn’t on.  Apparently there is a household auction held every Thursday and the nearby café cashes in on this by offering auction day specials.
The other good thing about Cockermouth are the charity shops.  Neil managed to find a Stevie Nicks and Michael Jackson album for 50p each in a tiny back street charity shop.  In the Oxfam I bought a Tracey Emin memoir called ‘Strangeland’.  The slightly odd shop assistant tried to engage me in conversation about Tracey Emin, but what more can I say than I find her interesting and that’s why I’m buying the book.  By the way the book was a disturbing read unsurprisingly.  Seriously social workers really needed to be called in when she was a teenager.  For me it really explained why she does her work, but how she didn’t become a teenage single mum with a horde of kids living in a council estate is a miracle and a testament to her strength of character.
We decided to grab a bite to eat at The Castle Bar, which is nice old pub that does gastro pub food. We ate in the restaurant upstairs and the staff were nice. Neil had the tempura chicken and I had the southern style chicken.  Both were good, although the chips weren’t the best.  Despite the simplicity of the chip (potato & hot oil) I do think, more often than not, most places don’t get them right.  However I really enjoyed their salad, as on holidays I tend to eat unhealthy food and by day four I’m desperate for a good salad.

We could have gone to the birthplace of Wordsworth as his home has been turned into a museum by the National Trust, but as you know dusty old romantic poets don’t float my boat.  So we gave that swerve.  Probably an interesting place though, but just not for me.
I do like Cockermouth a lot.  It’s a nice and peaceful place, just a little off the main tourist route.  The antiques and charity shops aside, there are plenty of independently owned shops in this town which are well worth visiting.  There are even two bookshops, which is a miracle in this day and age for a town of this size.  Definitely a place to stay for a weekend, however the only drawback is the fact it’s already 45 minutes away from the M6.  Then again if you are planning to spend a weekend exploring the north Lakes, Cockermouth provides a good base that isn’t overly touristy.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Penrith, Cumbria

It was the tail end of the afternoon when we got to Penrith and the town was winding down.  Kids were coming home from school making a detour to the sweet shop to stock up on supplies.

Parking in Penrith is a little tricky.  There is some on street parking, however they have a residents only disc system, so we ended up in a tiny pay-and-display car park behind some shops.  Although it’s probably best to park in Sainsbury’s for free as it’s close to the town centre.
At the centre of the town there are some tiny pedestrianised streets around the Angel Lane area.  To be honest I doubt if you could get any cars down these tiny streets.
In the main town square we found J & J Grahams Grocery Store.  It’s a pretty good shop selling all sorts of locally sourced food.  If you like cheese there is plenty to choose from, although Neil who isn’t a cheese fan struggled with the smell of it in here.  This is definitely a place to stock up on supplies if you are staying in Cumbria.  There truly isn’t anything better than freshly baked quality bread and you will definitely find some in this place.
Penrith is quite a Victorian town architecturally especially near the town centre.  The red brick buildings seemed to have a more Scottish element than I had anticipated.  The sturdy red stone gives the place a real character and a sense of place.  The Council have clearly spent quite a lot of money around the town centre making the place look good with new pavements and street furniture.
There were a few charity shops here, although at 4pm we did notice that some had started to close.  This is perfectly understandable as Penrith during the week isn’t that busy.  If you are planning to come during the week it’s best to get here before 2pm.
The majority of shops in the area are independently owned, which is always good to see, however there were some empty shops too.  Off the main street we found Costas Tapas Bar which was colourfully decorated.  It’s always nice to see places make the effort to brighten up the place.   You can find a little shopping centre with high street chains on the edge of town near Sainsbury’s.  However you do need to go to the likes of Carlisle for a fuller shopping experience. 
Under the George Hotel there is the Devonshire Arcade with little shops and a café.  On a previous visit we ate in the café there, but as it was late in the day it had already shut up shop.  It’s a nice place to shelter when the weather is bad.
I can’t say Penrith was very exciting on this visit.  On a previous visit we found a very sociable cat, but this time the cats were shy.  It didn’t help that we visited on a day when the market wasn’t on - market days are Tuesday and Saturday with a farmers market once a month.  My main piece of advice is to visit Penrith earlier on a market day to experience the best of this place.


Sunday, 26 January 2014

Wigton, Cumbria

There were only two reasons why we visited Wigton: it wasn't far from Carlisle; and it had charity shops.  Otherwise we hadn't a clue what to expect from this place other than Melvyn Bragg and Anna Ford come from here..

We parked up behind the Original Factory Shop as it had free parking and most of the street parking was disc permit only for residents.

Wigton is quite an unassuming market town with lots of buildings dating back at least a couple of centuries.  The streets were quite narrow too and this made it a little dicey to negotiate in the car.  At the town centre they had a rather bling looking monument with a gold cross at the top and a well tended flower bed.  Clearly the locals take pride in their town.

We had a quick trot around the charity shops.  One shop had already closed for the day, so we just went in the Oxfam and Cerebral Palsy shop. The lady in the Cerebral Palsy shop was very chatty.  I don't think she had many customers in that day.  Weirdly there was a bloke walking down the other side of the street who randomly popped a balloon outside a shop.  The woman was rather taken aback by his actions.  I thought he was particularly mean spirited soul.  I mean who walks down a street and pops balloons?  A miserable sod in my books.  Anyways that was the most exciting thing that happened in Wigton.

The local Greggs had a little seated section in the shop.  I'd never seen this before, although it was a little sad to see a little lad with his parents, tucking into a sausage roll for his tea.  I always associate Greggs sausage rolls with Wythenshawe as most mornings I would see kids in prams stuffing their faces with them for breakfast.  The locals used to call them 'Wythenshawe Dummies'.  For me it's always said to see kids eating them as whilst they are cheap and filling, they are devoid of real nutritional value.

There isn't much to see in Wigton really.  Essentially it's a nice middle class suburb of Carlisle where you bring up your kids.  As it was half three in the afternoon there was a rush of kids leaving school for the day.  They seemed to be well behaved and they were darting in and out of the shops, no doubt buying sweets with their pocket money.  There was a bit of school-pick-up rush hour too on the roads with parents picking up their kids to take them to their after school activities.  I'd be seriously bored if I were a teenager in this town.  Although I'm sure many escape to university only to come back in their 30s to bring up their own kids here.

Wigton has quite a few independent shops which are nice to see.  There is a regular market day on Tuesday, which we managed to miss by a day.  In future I do need to check out in advance when market day is as I keep missing them.  The local health shop was rather helpful and they did recommend some organic skin cream for my on-going scalp problem. 

It was time to depart from Wigton as it really doesn't take long to explore this little heritage market town.  I felt guilty parking in the Original Factory Shop car park without buying anything, so I picked up some sweets to justify using the car park.  I can't imagine I'll be back here again any time soon, except if we're passing through, then we might stop to check out the charity shops.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Carlisle, Cumbria

On our trip to Cumbria we wanted to explore places outside of the Lake District for a change as it can get really touristy.  One place I’d only ever passed through, but never stopped at, was Carlisle.  Technically a city, it certain felt more like a town, and is the most northerly place we have visited for the blog.

Thankfully to get to Carlisle from Cartmel is easy enough as you pick up the M6 and drive north.  Although Cumbria is a rather big county and it takes about one and a half hours to get from the south to the north.  It’s quite a desolate stretch of motorway and whilst the scenery is lovely when the weather gets bad driving is pretty torturous on this stretch of motorway.
Getting to Carlisle is pretty darn easy as you just veer off at junction 43 and follow the signs into town.  However getting parked is an entirely different matter.  Maybe I was being dim, but the signs for parking around Carlisle send you round in circles and I could not for the life of me find the entrances to these mythical car parks.  In the end we headed to the edge of town and parked in the Asda car park as we needed a drink and a trip to the toilets. 

We walked into Carlisle along possibly one of the most depressing stretches of roads I had been down in a long time, the A6 – London Road and Botchergate.  This clearly was the rougher end of town with unloved houses and cheap shops.  On the plus side there were lots of charity shops to trawl through and Neil managed to find some cheap vinyl records.
The charity shops along here perform a vital social service to the local community.  One charity shop had a little café selling cheap drinks.  You could see some of the people browsing through the shops had mental health issues and some of the young girls had really hard faces which can only stem from really rough lives.  Despite this the old ladies who ran these shops were really friendly and kept their shops in immaculate condition.
Outside these shops were young teenage lads dressed in tracksuits roaming round like a pack of wolves on bikes.  Years ago they would have been working in factories on apprenticeships, these days they are NEETs (Not in Employment, Education or Training) wandering the streets, trying to score dope and making a general nuisance of themselves. 
Weirdly I noticed lots of people were smoking and I couldn’t spot any electronic cigarette shops.  Maybe that trend hasn’t quite made it to Carlisle just yet.  Certainly a business opportunity if I ever saw one.
I managed to drag Neil into the centre of Carlisle from the piles of vinyl records.  This is where Carlisle gets classier.  At the central roundabout there is the wonderful Citadel, which is comprised of two towers that dominate the entrance to the city.  Apparently they have recently been restored and you can visit them too.
As we were hungry we went to Nando’s and the food was as you expect from a high street chain.  The staff were friendly and surprisingly it wasn’t too busy either.  At the Trafford Centre I’ve never seen the Nando’s without a queue or not busting at the seams.  Although I think Neil would have been happy with just a battered burger or battered black pudding from the nearby takeaway.  To be honest I think he likes any meat product served in batter.
Wandering into Carlisle you find the shopping areas are pedestrianized which is really good.  What I did notice about Carlisle is that the architecture appeared to more Scottish in origin than English.  The buildings look really impressive, solidly built in local stone with a touch of the gothic about them.  The station is definitely a place to visit with its Victorian gothic façade.
As we only had a couple of hours of free parking at ASDA we had to curtail our visit to Carlisle.  We didn’t get to do all the shops in Carlisle, but then again quite a lot of them are high street chains. 
We would definitely come back to Carlisle again so Neil could look through the cheap records in the charity shops and for me to have more time to explore the city centre further.  Carlisle has a lot to offer with its history, the friendly locals and being the only city in Cumbria, however it definitely has its deprivation problems which were sad to witness.  Next time though we will find a car park closer to the town centre.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria

Barrow.  What can you say about the place when only two words suffice?

Thankfully the trip to South Lakes Zoo down the road fortified us with enough good vibes to cope with a trip to Barrow.
A short trip down the A590 brought us into the town centre and we parked in the pay and display car park behind the impressive Town Hall.   It has to be said the Town Hall is the most beautiful building in town, although it’s doesn’t have much competition in that respect.

We headed into the shopping precinct and passed the indoor market which was shut for the day.  The precinct was very quiet, although clearly there had been some regeneration work to bring it into the 21st century.  Then again there were still plenty of shops empty and boarded up.  The Specials “Ghost Town” started to play in my head.  If there had been tumbleweed rolling through the town it would have set the scene perfectly.
We pinballed along the precinct, from charity shop to charity shop.  Nothing much could be found in the precinct charity shops.  The precinct was full of the usual high street shops you would find in most UK towns.  Although once you go down the side streets you will find the local independent shops eking out a living.  If you need to go the toilets Debenhams is your best bet. 
We had visited Barrow before and found a charity shop on one of the main roads that had been chock-a-block full of stuff.  However could we find it again?  Sadly not.  Although we did go down a side street and found what appeared to be a small warehouse sized charity shop run by Age UK.  It was great and full of furniture.  The books were cheap and I picked up a Jo Nesbo book and bizarrely for Barrow a David Sedaris memoir “Me Talk Pretty One Day.”  Never did I think I would find a book by a gay, American satirist in the back streets of Barrow.

Barrow is of a different age.  Once you venture out of the main shopping area it is surrounded by rows and rows of terrace houses.  You could easily film any period drama here from the Victorian period to the 1980s and you would only have to worry about covering up the satellite dishes.  You could also see the faded painted signage peeling on the side of a former corner shop.  The town’s fortunes heavily rely on the shipyard which is just on the edge of town.  On our previous visit we drove by and saw a huge ship or submarine (I’m not entirely sure about these things) being built.  The scale was impressive.  Sadly this time there was no ocean going machine to gawp at as we drove by.
We wandered around the street of Barrow for a couple of hours and to be honest it was somewhat depressing.  The pubs looked desperate and scary.  The bouncer from one of Cartmel’s pubs mentioned that Barrow can be a very ‘lively’ night out and I could see what he meant.  Definitely one to avoid for the more genteel amongst us, although if you like a night out tinged with danger I reckon this could be your town.
Barrow is really isolated on the Furness peninsular, far away from the nearest city.  This place really smacks you in the face with its deprivation.  If you were from a poor family here your opportunities would be truly limited and dependent on the shipyard for employment.  Not only directly but indirectly on the businesses that rely on the custom of the workers.  I dread to think how many people are on benefits in this town.
Our time in Barrow was over as the weather was getting somewhat patchy and the good vibes from South Lakes Zoo were at risk of wearing off.  For a quick exit you can always take the A590 out of town, although I do recommend taking the A5087 coast road back to Ulverston as on a good day you get fab views of Morecambe Bay. 
What else can I say?  Barrow was an experience, though one not to be repeated without a trip to South Lake Zoo first.



Sunday, 5 January 2014

Dalton-In-Furness - South Lakes Zoo

We’d never been to South Lakes Zoo on our many travels to the Lake District and as we knew we were going to Barrow-In-Furness we needed to do something cheery before heading there.

Only a few miles from Ulverston we hopped on the A590 and turned off at Dalton-In-Furness.  We managed to miss the sign to the Zoo, however a U turn later we got there.
Parking at South Lakes Zoo is straightforward as it doesn’t have the acres of parking like Chester Zoo has.  As it was a weekday we parked close to the entrance.  There was a lone attendant manning the box office as it wasn’t busy and the entrance fee was £13.50 per adult.

Walking into the zoo the place seemed really quiet and we wondered whether there would be anyone there.  Thankfully when we got to the main part with the gift shop, toilets and the refreshment area, things were somewhat busier.
We decided to visit the small animals first and we went through double gates and we had the shock of our lives.  South Lakes Zoo is no ordinary zoo.  We’d been to zoos all over the world and never did we find one where the animals roamed with the visitors.  There were at 8 types of lemurs.  The golden brown ones were curled up in balls snuggled next to each other.  The belted ruffled lemurs were trying to find some peace and quiet from the ring-tailed lemurs who ruled the roost here.
The ring-tailed lemurs are just fabulous.  You are not meant to pet them or feed them, but it doesn’t stop them from mugging you for food.  We heard the screams of teenage girls as the lemurs were touching them up.  In the Alpaca section the ring-tailed lemurs were chasing birds out of the pen.  However the alpacas, who are seriously cute, were looking rather stressed and dishevelled from the lemurs’ antics.  I did notice the wallabies were keeping their distance from the lemurs, as without a doubt to the rest of the animal kingdom the ring-tailed lemurs could be irritating, hyperactive, pains in the rear.  Then again to humans they are cheeky, friendly little souls who can melt your heart.

What was lovely about the lemurs was how they interacted with each other.  They are very social animals and I love how they literally piled up on top of each other to sleep.  The young baby lemurs hung onto their mothers back whilst they roamed the area. 
As we left the area and went to the gift shop we saw 3 young ring-tailed lemurs had broken out of the main section and were balanced on the handrail to the shop.  Clearly they were up to some mischief.  Suddenly the ringleader darted into the gift shop and then we heard the shop assistant let out an almighty yell of “OUT!”  She came out of the shop brandishing a pump action water pistol and evicted the ringleader who was trying to break into the store room.  Then she shot at the young lemurs which were stood less than a metre away from where I was standing.  I have to credit the shop assistant for having an outstanding aim as she didn’t hit me once.  I’m sure when she went for the job the job description didn’t include the line “must have an excellent aim with water pistol to scare off shoplifting lemurs”.

I did begin to wonder if the lemurs had broken out of here.  They were agile and frisky little things that could slip out of here without people noticing.  After a quick search on Twitter, sure enough there had been a breakout a few months earlier when a couple of them were spotted on the nearby dual carriageway.  Apparently the zoo had to close to do a head count.  I wouldn’t be surprised if there were families of lemurs roaming wild on the Furness Peninsular or some locals had adopted some stray ones.  Who could say no to a lemur?
Other animals we got up close and personal with were the prairie dogs, which were super cute munching their food.  There was a goat sat on a bench.  I’m not joking – here is the photographic proof.  Although some of the small animals, like the mongooses, who were under lock and key as they would predate some of the other animals.

We popped along to see the giraffes as it was their feeding time.  The zoo had built a large viewing platform into the giraffe pen.  There was a zoo keeper giving a talk whilst feeding the giraffes.  Although I didn’t take in a word of what she was saying as I was staring literally eyeball to eyeball with the giraffes.  IT WAS AMAZING!  They are so beautiful with their long delicate necks and soulful eyes.  I can’t believe how close we got to them.  They were also sharing their pen with the rhinos, but somehow they didn’t have the same magic of the giraffes.

As we walked through the rest of the zoo there were monkeys swinging pole to pole above our heads.  The penguins were swimming in their pool and I believe, like the lemurs, they can get out and intermingle with the visitors.  I did freak out in one shed where there were signs saying there were snakes loose.  I do not do reptiles of any sort especially snakes and made a swift girly exit from the shed.
My biggest reservation about the place was that some animals looked somewhat ill at ease here.  The spectacled bear was looking rather pissed off.   There was a covered bird exhibit, whereas in my world no bird would ever be caged.  That is completely wrong as winged animals should be allowed to fly wherever they want.  The big cats clearly weren’t happy.  There was one big cat in her cage looking mentally ill.  I have massive misgivings about putting big cats in small spaces.  I can completely get why one of them would attack and kill its keeper, which sadly happened here earlier in the year.
Part of me completely loved this madhouse of a zoo.  Seeing the small animals wander and interact was ace.  However there were some animals not cut out for zoo life and however much I love big cats I would rather see them on a safari rather than cooped up in a cage.  This is definitely a unique experience and one to take small children on their first trip to the zoo to see the small animals, especially the lemurs.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Ulverston Revisited

The last time we went to Ulverston it was on a Sunday afternoon and the town was dead.  As it’s just outside of the Lake District, it doesn’t operate on the same opening hours.  This time we went on a Tuesday and the shops were open, so it was a good start.

Parking was very straightforward as we got a space in the little car park just off the main roundabout in Ulverston.  It was a pay and display car park, but it was cheap for two hours.
Ulverston is your typical stone built Cumbrian town.  Some of the narrow cobbled streets in the centre of town have been pedestrianized.  At the centre of the town is a sort of cobbled square up a hill with a monument to the soldiers who died in the First World War at the top.  I like the hodge- podge architecture in Ulverston as it gives the place an identity and real character.
Ulverston is jam packed full of little shops and as a result you don’t get many high street chain shops cluttering up the streets.  There is plenty to see here.  There will be a craft based shop of your choice somewhere.  However we managed to miss the indoor market, not because it wasn’t open – it’s only closed on a Wednesday and Sunday, but it was because we were diverted by the antique and charity shops.  Apparently there is also an outdoor market on a Thursday and Saturday too.  If you are looking to do a big food shopping, Booths supermarkets can be found on the edge of town.  I do like Booths supermarkets as you can really find nice and interesting stuff in them.  I always think they are like a northern Waitrose.

There are plenty of charity shops in Ulverston, however my favourite one is the Oxfam.  It’s has a spiral staircase to get between the floors and it does good books. The book and music section is in the basement, so we had a good root through the stock and I picked up a couple of books.  Neil managed to pick up some books for a change.  I have to say the charity shops did seem pretty busy with people browsing for a Tuesday.
If you like collecting antiques Ulverston is a place for you.  Some shops are just vintage shops (trendy old stuff), but some are proper Antique shops (expensive old stuff) with serious prices.  My favourite shop is just off the main town centre called John C Jackson Antiques.  It’s a big room packed with stuff made for endless browsing, although Neil didn’t find much in terms of records.  It’s always worth popping in to see what they’ve got.

Last time we went to Ulverston I had a bad food experience, however this time we went to Poppies Café instead.  When we looked into Poppies it seemed to be a friendly and busy place.  There were some old ladies having their weekly catch up over some celery soup and a new mother was having a well-deserved coffee whilst tending to her baby.  I ordered one of the specials - venison and cranberry sausage with mash and gravy.  It was really tasty and it was a generous portion so Neil managed to eat some of it too.  He had ordered fish and chips, but I think he preferred what I had.  This place is definitely a place to visit.
If you are looking for a night out, Ulverston has plenty of pubs and little restaurants.  I can imagine on a Friday or Saturday night it can be a lively enough place.  Although with Barrow-in-Furness down the road I’m sure that is where the young people go for the crazy nights out in this part of the world.
Ulverston definitely suffers from being off the main Lake District tourist trail, but has evolved its own local identity with independent shops, markets and local produce.  I know I wasn’t that complementary last time we visited, but it’s about choosing wisely the day you visit.  Sundays are a no-no, but either Saturday or Thursday with the outdoor markets on would be the best time to go.