Sunday, 8 March 2015

Allerton, Merseyside

We haven’t really explored the suburbs of Liverpool for this blog and, to be honest, I really don’t know much about them.  On the advice of a friend, we decided to take a trip to Allerton, which is about 6 miles south east of Liverpool city centre.

Getting to Allerton from Manchester is easy – hit the M62 and go to the end of the motorway, take a left onto the A5080, then the A5058, go through the roundabout and left on to Allerton Road. You could park on a side street, but we ended up parking at Tesco car park near the fire station.  We had been through Allerton on previous occasions as I tend to prefer going to Liverpool city centre this way.  I worry if I go the other way I’ll get lost and end up in the Mersey Tunnel going to Birkenhead. Just as an aside, is it me or are Liverpudlian drivers rather polite and considerate drivers? 

Anyway back to Allerton…  As it was lunch time we thought we would get something to eat from a chippy. Bizarrely we couldn’t find a chippy on the main road.  Maybe we weren’t looking in the right places, but I didn’t expect that.  We then tried to get in a local pub for some pub grub, but it was packed out.  In the end we went to Sayers for a pasty and cake in their little café.  It was fine and I do love a Bavarian slice, which to me is just a slightly larger vanilla slice.
Allerton itself is quite a non-descript neighbourhood really, although not in a bad way.  It seemed a normal neighbourhood and not rough in the slightest as you may perceive Liverpool to be.  Wide main roads, almost like dual carriageways are tricky to negotiate and you really need to use the pedestrian crossings. 

The buildings on the main road are predominantly red brick, two storey shops built in the late Victorian and early 20th Century.  Some have black and white revival decoration on the upper storeys to make it look a little classier.  On my travels I’ve noticed that buildings which are or were banks were purpose built and often are the few buildings in suburbs which have some architectural style about them.   St Barnabus Church which stands on the corner of Penny Lane is a large imposing dark brick building from the Victorian era.  I do think it would benefit from some power washing to get rid of the decades of pollution, but sadly I think that will cost more than the church can afford.
There are plenty of shops in Allerton and they are a mix of local independents and some high street shops.  Obviously we were here for the charity shops, of which there are plenty.  We had a good browse through the shops, though Neil was struggling to find much vinyl.  Unfortunately he didn’t find anything, but I found another book to add to my Scandi-Noir crime book library.  I found many of the charity shops incredibly neat and tidy.  Although the one place Neil did find vinyl in, the Oxfam on Smithdown Road, was overpriced.  On the other hand it did have plenty of furniture in good condition.

The good thing about Liverpool are the people and the fact they are rather chatty.  This did lead to a rich seam of overheard conversations.  One lady was chatting about a seven day cruise she was going on around the Canary Islands.  An American lady was trying to find a suit for a child for Easter (poor kid) and the ladies in the charity shop were giving some good advice – John Lewis, M&S and wedding shops.  There were posh students hanging out with their equally posh mate who was working in the Oxfam.  It seemed like it was more of a social event than anything else.  There was an immaculately dressed lady walking down the street having a heated discussion on her mobile.  She had a high-pitched scouse accent which almost sounded comedic.  I do find the scouse accent a strange beast.  I guess I’ve mainly heard the scouse accent on TV, often in comedies, so to me it has an almost artificial quality about it.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a number of scouse friends, but their accents have been much softer, maybe as they no longer live in Liverpool.
The charity shops weren’t that exciting, but I really enjoyed Penny Lane Emporium.  Downstairs it was selling fireplaces – they seemed a bit pricy.  But upstairs they were selling vintage furniture and bits n’ bobs. I’m always fascinated by the stuff that people upcycle to sell on.  The staff were talking to a customer about the vintage pop up shops in the city centre.  I do like the concept of the pop up shop as they keep the high street fresh and it’s good for new businesses to get started.  With a bigger budget I would have bought a few things from here.
In the end we must have covered over a mile along Allerton Road and Smithdown Road.  I’m sure we hit more than just Allerton, as suburbs tend to blend into one another in the cities.  I’m glad we’ve finally stopped off here as Neil had been bugging me to go here on previous journeys to Liverpool.  Okay, whilst it wasn’t exciting, it was fine and if you are a Beatles fan then it’s a good place to go for a photo opportunity on Penny Lane.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Widnes, Cheshire

I had enticed Neil into Ikea in Warrington with the promise of meatballs and cake. However, the novelty wore off quickly, especially when there was almost a punch up between three Scouse kids in the canteen.  Obviously we had to go to a nearby northern town to regain the semblance of sanity we had lost in Ikea.  So where do you go?

The list of northern towns we have not been to has over the years become well and truly limited.  One place we hadn’t been to was Widnes, which is a short drive from Warrington.  I’d been under the misapprehension that Widnes was in Merseyside, however it is not so.  It’s in fact part of Halton in Cheshire.  Anyway I had no expectations of Widnes apart from the fact it had lots of charity shops.  In many respects that’s the best attitude to take when visiting Widnes as it couldn’t disappoint me.

The best way to get to Widnes is to take the M62 and get off at Junction 7 and take the A577 into town.  Word of warning when you are leaving Widnes: do not go back to the M62 via Warrington, otherwise you will get stuck in traffic with all the lights, past the endless retail parks that encircle Warrington.

When we got to Widnes I had to double check we were in the right location as it looked like we were driving into a retail park.  Apparently we were at the town centre and parked in Morrison’s car park – it was free so all was good.

Next to Morrison’s is both the indoor and outdoor market.  We ventured into the indoor market first as it was one of those cold and blustery days that chill you to the bone.  It wasn’t a very exciting place and the outdoor market stalls were half empty with hardly anyone browsing.  Part of me thought the cold weather had a lot to do with this.  These markets are very traditional, focusing on food, clothes and cheap tat.  I was disturbed to see one stall that had lots of dolls’ heads on the counter; then again I find dolls rather disturbing in general.

The town centre itself is pedestrianised and links up all the small shopping precincts in the area.  I did notice there were hardly any major high street chains in the town centre apart from cheap pound stores and grocery shops.  It reminded me of Leigh where major high street chains are a rarity. 

All the coffee shops and cafes are independent.  The Albert Grill was doing a Viking breakfast and I’m curious to find out what is different in a Viking breakfast to a full English breakfast.  We were pleased to see it had a Les’s Fish Bar – it’s a small fish and chip chain across Cheshire.  If we had known about this we would have skipped lunch at Ikea and had it here.  Neil is very fond of their battered burger (yuk!). I have to say these cafes seemed to be popular with the locals and it’s good to see this as I do get bored of seeing Costa Coffee in every town.

There were plenty of charity shops in Widnes and obviously we toured the lot.  Unfortunately they were very disappointing on the vinyl records and books front.  It did seem to me that most stuff was deceased old ladies’ belongings and not a huge amount of stock either.  It was heart breaking to hear a woman dragging her child out of one charity shop, as the child was screaming at her to buy a toy.  The woman was trying to convince her child that all the toys were broken.  In reality she couldn’t afford to buy her child one.  It’s a sad state of affairs when someone can’t afford to buy their child a toy from a charity shop.

Widnes does have more than a whiff of desperation in the air and many of the old people looked wizened from hard lives.  We spotted Fiddler’s Ferry Power station on the edge of the town and I guess Widnes must have had an industrial past.

On a more positive note, we did see a community art shop in the precinct and there were signs promoting local artists in the local shopping arcade.  It was unfortunate that the community art shop was closed, though it did have some interesting pictures in there.  I remember they had an amazing framed picture of the Liver building and some pretty pieces of abstract art.

It made us laugh to see Neil’s full name emblazoned above a jewellery shop in the town.  Obviously we made tits of ourselves taking random photos of the shop sign to the bemusement of the locals.  In fact we did take lots of pictures of shop signs as some were silly – Mushy Ste’s was the name of a fish and chip shop.  Also why call a Chinese buffet restaurant “Panda Panda”? Surely one panda in the title is enough?

We had intended to go to the waterfront (Widnes is on the banks of the River Mersey) as I fancied taking pictures of the Silver Jubilee Bridge which spans the river.  However, the weather was very windy, so much so we nearly tripped up over a child whilst trying to avoid packing paper that was being blown down the street.  We simply had to pass on that as it was too cold.

Widnes really isn’t an exciting place to visit.  It’s just an everyday northern town thrown up in the Victorian era to service people working in industry.  Architecturally it’s dull apart from the Silver Jubilee Bridge and Fiddler’s Ferry Power station.  I did notice the Council were trying to entice people to the town with the sign “Try Widnes” – I tried it and you can have it back.  Like anywhere in the world you can find interesting places and you can find dull places.  Widnes falls into the dull category. Then again, on the upside, going to places like this makes you appreciate where you live.  Widnes, I can’t say it has been a pleasure, but you have been ticked off the list so let’s leave it at that. 

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Cheadle and Gatley, Greater Manchester

It was that hiatus between Christmas and New Year when things are not quite back to normal.  Boredom had kicked in and the only option, other than eating oneself into a diabetic coma, was to get out of the house.

We didn’t want to go far, so we decided to go to Cheadle in south Manchester.  Cheadle is easy to get to as you can hop on the M60 and exit at Junction 2 onto the A560.

We’d been to Cheadle before and it’s a nice well-to-do neighbourhood in Stockport.  It’s quite an old suburb with buildings dating back to the 1800s.  There has been a church in Cheadle since the 1200s and the current church is a Grade I listed, stout and sturdy stone building, rebuilt in the Victorian era. 

You know a neighbourhood is good when there is a John Lewis department store at the nearby retail park (it’s larger and classier than the Trafford Centre store).  Parking is easy here and there is a pay and display car park behind the main shops.  I would like to tell you how much it cost, but a nice lady gave me her parking ticket which still had a couple of hours on it.

It was a Monday and Cheadle was quiet apart for the traffic streaming through the High Street.  As we passed through a tiny shopping arcade (more a cut through to the main road) we spotted a classic sandwich shop pun name, “Baguette-Me-Not”.  Sadly it had closed down, but top marks for the name. 

The shops in Cheadle seemed to be traditional, well established independent shops.  There are plenty of places to eat, get your hair done and pick up those bits and bobs between the weekly supermarket shop.  The pubs looked rather cosy and traditional – no doubt you could have a gastro-pub style lunch here.

The biggest draw for us were the charity shops – there are plenty in Cheadle.  I managed to pick up a nice rug for my little home study for £14.99.  Much nicer than you could find new for that price in IKEA.  Neil was struggling to find vinyl records though.  We noticed that some of the charity shops were closed.  Initially we thought it was because they couldn’t find enough volunteers to keep them open at this time of year.  However it turned out it was because there was a power cut in Cheadle that affected half the shops.  It was such a shame as there were still a few more to browse through. 

We’d been here before and behind the George and Dragon pub there used to be a shed selling antiques and collectables.  Sadly everything appeared to be locked up and it has probably closed down.

As the power cut had curtailed our visit to Cheadle we moved on to nearby Gatley.
We’d only ever passed through Gatley before to get to the M56, so it was a novelty to stop here.  Thankfully there is free on street parking and we parked up near the Sue Ryder shop. 

We didn’t spot anything exciting in the Sue Ryder shop, but we noticed across the road there was a house clearance shop called “Remember When”.  It was one of those stacked to the rafters’ shops and Neil found some records to browse through.  I went down into the cellar to look at the furniture and had a paranoid moment.  I was worried that I could get trapped down there.  As I’m not good with confined spaces I made a swift exit upstairs.  It was rather cold in the shop with a musty old- stuff smell, so I didn’t spend much time in there. 

Afterwards we had a wander through the village and it’s one of those nice leafy places that people escape to from the madness of the city.  Mather’s Bakery showed most signs of life as it had a little café inside.  The Prince of Wales pub looked rather traditional and had a nice view of the green.  I had to do a double take at the Tesco Express as it was cunningly disguised in a 19th century building, painted in heritage colours.  No doubt that was part of the planning permission, but I wish they would take more care when they infiltrate the other high streets.  I always remember Royal Leamington Spa had a heritage style policy on shop frontages and the town looked so much better for it.

We also noticed the dog walkers were checking in with each other, which shows a nice sense of community here.  Although sometimes it makes me laugh when I see dog owners take on characteristics of their pets - the poodle owner shared the same upright posture and gait of his dog.

Gatley is a world away from nearby Wythenshawe, which is a massive council estate in South Manchester.  When I used to work in Wythenshawe, the aspiration of people living there was to move to Gatley as it was seen as moving up in the world.  Whilst in reality Gatley is a rather sleepy village compared to nearby Cheadle, I can quite understand the appeal of the place, although being on the flight path to nearby Manchester Airport means triple glazing is a must to live here.

Whilst it wasn’t the most exciting trip out, especially with the power cut, it was good to see somewhere different.  Both Cheadle and Gatley are nice little suburbs, handy for the airport and the motorway.  Not exactly day trip material, but if you want have a pub lunch or check out some charity shops, Cheadle and Gatley are both worth a visit.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Ashton-in-Makerfield, Greater Manchester

To be honest, Ashton-in-Makerfield isn’t top of my list for a day out in the North West.  However, it’s good sometimes to go somewhere you’ve never been before.  Ashton-in Makerfield is one of those places located between Wigan and St Helen’s just off the East Lancs Road (A580) near the M6 junction 23.

Getting there is supposed to be easy, but I managed to miss the turn off as it was badly signed and had to turn around at Haydock industrial estate to get back to the junction.  I never knew the road to Ashton-in-Makerfield (A49) went past HaydockRacecourse.
Parking in Ashton-in-Makerfield is fairly straightforward as there is the Gerard Centre at the back of the main shops.  You have to practically drive out of the town centre to get to it, but the bonus is that it’s free.

I hadn’t any idea what Ashton-in-Makerfield would be like and on first impression it appears to be a solid working class town.  Midway between Manchester and Liverpool, it is no doubt a commuter town with affordable housing.  Not exactly exciting, but I’m sure it benefits from the nearby proximity to Haydock Racecourse.

At the rear of the main road shops is an open air market.  The stalls aren’t the most aesthetically pleasing as they are old shipping containers which have been adapted for market life.  I guess they are good for the market stall holders as they are secure and provide shelter, but they do look grim.  Maybe if they had some graffiti art on them it would make them look more appealing.  However, I did like the fact there was also a mini car boot sale going on as you never know what you will find. 

Nearby there appeared to be an indoor market called the Greensway Centre, but it wasn’t like your traditional indoor market as it’s more like a shopping arcade.  It’s comprised of a warren of little shops with French style windows, selling all kinds of stuff – sweets to mobile phone repairs.  Eventually you find your way to the unassuming entrance on the main street.  You really would not expect to find this unless you knew about it, or like us, accidentally stumble upon it.

Gerard Street appears to be the main shopping street in Ashton-in-Makerfield and was teaming with traffic passing through.  The street has lots of traditional style shops and cheap discount stores.  It’s one of those functional towns where you can do you day-to-day business and pick up bits and bobs between the weekly trips to the supermarket.  In these towns I always look out for the tattoo parlour to see what terrible pun they use as a name and thankfully Ashton’s didn’t disappoint – “Inkjections”. 

One of the most interesting looking places was “Blend ‘n’Shake”, an American style milkshake bar and café.  If we hadn’t eaten at the nearby KFC (btw very efficient service), we would have ended up in here as it looked interesting. 

I was amused to find there was a dog parlour called “Shampoodles”, which was next to “Fairy Tails Doggy Daycare”.  I wouldn’t have expected much demand for this kind of service in Ashton, but they must love their dogs here.

It wasn’t a particularly busy Saturday, but I did notice a lot of drunk men wobbling down the street.  It turned out these drunk men were waiting for their coach to pick them up and return them back to Birmingham.  Some had gone to the local off-licence to buy more beer for the journey back.  There are lots of traditional looking Victorian pubs in the town, so they must benefit from visitors to Haydock who decide to make a night of it.  After looking at this group of blokes, I reckon it could be a hairy night out here.

There are quite a few charity shops in Ashton-in-Makerfield and it would have been rude not to explore them.  Neil picked up a couple of albums in the shops and I liked the YMCA shop that did a good line in furniture.  It’s in places like these off the beaten track you can find interesting stuff – I was tempted by a cross stitch cat, but managed to resist.  Neil caused a stir in one shop as he was taking a picture of the front of the shop.  They didn’t realise it was because Neil is a grammar pedant and found some dodgy punctuation usage on one of their posters.

Admittedly it wasn’t an exciting trip and we weren’t here long, but Ashton-in-Makerfield was livelier than Newton-Le-Willows, a nearby well-to-do area but extremely quiet, and Golborne which had shut up shop for the afternoon. It’s the sort of place, if I was passing through again, I would stop to check out the charity shops.  However it’s not a place I would go to as a destination unless I was going to nearby Haydock for the races.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

An Insider’s Guide to Manchester: Christmas Markets

It’s that time again - the Christmas Markets are up and running in Manchester City Centre.  I’m actually quite a big fan of the Manchester Christmas Markets, although year on year it’s getting busier.  As a result it gets really uncomfortable to navigate especially on a Friday evening and the weekends.  So I thought it would be useful to have a street by street guide to the Christmas Markets:

Albert Square is the main draw for Christmas Markets, especially on a Friday evening when it becomes a huge draw for the workers having their celebratory ‘thank god it’s Friday’ drink.  It does tend to have a later closing time than the other markets, so you can understand the appeal.  The crepes stand appears to have a permanent queue.  Weirdly I find the mulled wine not as good from here compared to the other markets across Manchester city centre.  I find it can be really intense in here with the amount of people, so I don’t tend to spend much time here as the other markets are easier to navigate and can be better than what is on offer here

A quick tip, if you want cheap bulbs for the garden go to the Dutch gardening stall on Albert Square two days before the end of the markets as they do sell off their stock cheap.  Last year I went on the last day of the Markets and they had sold out.  My Dad’s garden has looked fabulous year on year courtesy of this stall with the fantastic array of tulips you can find here.

Brazennose Street market is across the road from Albert Square and leads down to Deansgate and Spinningfields.  There tends to be more craft and sweet stalls along here, but if you are looking for drink then there is a seated Bavarian Bar which helps to keep drinkers safely away from browsers.  It’s definitely more civilised along here compared to Albert Square.

There is a stall along here my friend loves as they do massive chocolate muffins which are covered in chocolate, mini rolls and chocolate based sweets.  I’ve tried one of these and I don’t know how you can eat one in just one sitting and not be sick.  Definitely one to share.

Across the road from Brazennose Street is the start of the Spinningfields Markets.  This isn’t part of the official Manchester Council Christmas Markets.  You can tell this as, unlike the wooden stalls across most of the Christmas markets, they have normal mobile stalls.  You have to give the stallholders credit for selling their goods exposed to the elements.  These stalls tend to be artisan food from local producers, crafts and vintage. 

In the centre of Spinningfields there is an ice rink and on Friday it was packed.  Personally there is no amount of mulled wine that would get me skating, but people seemed to be having a good time.  I did like the look of the food stalls which tended to be more English BBQ in style and I did make a mental note to go back and try something.

If you love Pringles crisps then your life would not be complete without visiting the Pringles Christmas Tree (made out of green and red Pringles tubes) and taking a selfie with it.  Completely bizarre!

My favourite market is the one along King Street.  It’s a French themed market (but not entirely French) and quite frankly the best food you can find across all the markets.  We always make an annual pilgrimage to the French food stall that does Provencal chicken and garlic potatoes.  They do a vegetarian option too with garlic mushrooms, which is possibly one of the few savoury veggie fast food options available at the markets other than the garlic bread stall nearby.  The crepe stall is good along here, but I think the ladies at the crepe stall are getting fed up of being asked for Nutella crepes.  A friend mentioned they had the best mulled wine at the French bar along here.  I have to say the French bar is definitely the most civilised of the bars at the markets.  It’s not all about the mulled wine here.

I love the French Soap stall along here opposite Hermes.  The fine milled French soap is long lasting and smells great.  You can get 5 bars of soap for £10 here and each year I stock up on this soap.  Definitely better value than Lush or Body Shop.

St Ann’s Square is the second largest Christmas Market.  It’s not as cramped as Albert Square and in the main part focuses on food, drink and traditional gifts.  Small kids will be entertained with the singing Christmas tree, although the nativity scene opposite is very much overlooked these days.  You could almost say it is emblematic of the commercialisation of Christmas.

The food choices tend to be more interesting here with roasted chestnuts, chocolate covered fruit and massive marshmallow sweets.  The mulled wine along here packs an added punch with the option of shots - the raspberry liquor is fab but lethal.

The market moves seamlessly along to New Cathedral Street (between M&S and Harvey Nicks).  It tends to focus on the arts and crafts.  Definitely the place to pick up Christmas gifts for friends and family.  There is a German style enclosed bar along here for people who want to be out of the cold, but it’s always packed.

Most years, Exchange Square has always seems to be a calmer market option than most and the removal of the stupid big wheel to Piccadilly Gardens has been beneficial.  However with the road works along Cross Street and the redevelopment of the Triangle means the market is much smaller this year.  The stalls that lined the length of the seating area has gone, although the Dutch pancake stall is still there for those mini pancakes, which are far easier to eat than the French crepes.  The Hog Roast is still knocking out pork sandwiches and mulled wine (very good) but on a smaller scale than last year. Mango Rays cocktail bar is going strong too, which is great fun and an alternative to mulled wine.  Tampopo, whilst strictly not part of the Christmas Markets, have an open air street food restaurant next to the market, which is a welcome addition to the pork based food options available.

Because of the works at Exchange Square, the markets have extended into Cathedral Gardens between URBIS and Cheetham’s School of Music.  It’s a pretty good space which isn’t too crowded.  I noticed some the stalls which can normally be found in Exchange Square have moved here.

My only disappointment with the markets this year is the decision to have stalls along Market Street.  I find Market Street hideously busy on the weekends without the addition of Christmas stalls.  So I’ve purposely avoided them as I can’t deal with the crowds along here at the weekend.   Hopefully it’s just a one off because of the road works along Cross Street.

Manchester Christmas Markets are ace, but each year they grows bigger and bigger and busier and busier.  Timing is everything when planning a good trip to the Markets.  Weekends and Friday evening you basically take your sanity and patience into your own hands.  Personally I would recommend taking an afternoon off work and explore the markets without being jostled and cursing drunk people.  It is a much more pleasant Christmas shopping experience, especially with a mulled wine to keep you warm.   

These markets have evolved beyond their German origins and embrace the whole of Europe and beyond.  It’s great to see local arts, crafts and food producers selling their wares too as it’s important to support local businesses at this time of year.  I do think these Markets are a genius idea to keep the city centre alive, especially with competition from out-of-town shopping centres.  For me these markets add that Christmas sparkle to Manchester and make the chore of Christmas shopping a much more pleasurable experience. 

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Chorlton, Greater Manchester

I've got to 'fess up now - I've fallen out of love with Chorlton. I spent nine years of my life there and I have to break it to you that there's more to life than Chorlton. Let's start with why I fell out of love:

Back in 1999, Chorlton was an okay Manchester backwater with teachers, social workers and musicians. Cheap rents are always good as well as a solid Irish community to keep pretentious behaviour in check. Marvellous, count me in!

However, by 2008, Chorlton had become burglary central and we had an attempted break in.  I also realised I hardly ever went to the centre of Chorlton anymore as most of the shops I'd liked had been turned into another bloody bar, cafe or artisan something or another. Taxi!

 So what turned me off Chorlton?

5) The normal and very handy shops being turned into bars, restaurants or fancy overpriced shops.  I still mourn the demise of You, Me & Us.  It was your perfect stop gap odds and sods shop before you had to hit B&Q. OK, what they sold didn't last, but lasted long enough to do your DIY job. 

4) Ordinary pubs became poncified. In this world there should be room enough to have a nice, normal pub with reasonably priced beer in civilised surroundings - what more can a person ask for? I was disappointed The Feathers became a Tesco Express.  It was not because it was another victim of the Tesco invasion of the high street, but it was the one pub I could purposely avoid that showed sports. Then again I do find these new bars never last long and there are only a handful that stick around.

3) I used to like shopping in supermarkets before I lived in Chorlton.  Safeway, now Morrisons, made me lose the will to live as it was particularly awful. I found the staff were bats and the fresh food section not exactly fresh. There was something rather depressing about the place and I’ve never recovered my supermarket mojo – even Booths doesn’t quite do it for me.  The other alternative supermarket in Chorlton, Unicorn irritated me too.  This was in part due to some of the staff acting that they were above serving on the tills. 

2) There is a big deal about getting kids into the ‘right’ primary school in Chorlton – I’d hate to be a head teacher here having to deal with all the competitive, middle class parents.  However a friend of mine said it’s not about getting your child into the right primary school, it’s about getting your child into the right feeder school for your secondary school of choice.  When those particular secondary schools are not that great compared to schools outside of the Manchester City Council area, I do wonder about the logic of families living in Chorlton. Okay if your kid survives Manchester secondary schools as there are some brilliant colleges, but I used to see a steady stream of Chorlton kids walking up to Stretford Grammar School or getting on the bus to the other side of Manchester.  Maybe having competitive middle class parents will help improve the local secondary schools, but I suspect their kids will be sent off to private schools instead.

1) I remember going to Camden for the first time in the 1990s and I hated it.  Partly because of young people walking round in their own egotistical bubbles, but I also found older people marginalised.  I fear the same is happening to Chorlton and it’s sad.  I like a neighbourhood that has a good mix of ages, but I think it rips the heart out of a community where there are fewer older people than in other places.  This is not helped when local shops are being converted into bars, restaurants and specialist shops to attract the youth and middle class pound, whilst the pensioner pound is not being catered for at all.

OK, I must balance this moan fest by telling you about the five things I still love about Chorlton: 

5) I’ve always loved the Irish Club on Edge Lane.  Having been in many Irish clubs in Ireland, when I first stepped into this place I knew it was a proper Irish Club and not one of those plastic paddy places.  It had some obligatory features from the home country, but it was very functional and no nonsense.  The Irish aren’t very big on interior design and it’s always function over form.  It felt like I was back in Ireland.  Okay, many of the nights I’ve been to weren’t Irish in the least, but I loved the familiarity of the place that made it more relaxing for me.

4) I love fabrics and can often be found sewing patchwork.  Leon’s is like a fun palace for all things fabric, at pretty reasonable prices too.  Just on the edge of Chorlton it can be found opposite Chorlton Park.  There is some parking outside, but reversing into the main road isn’t my idea of fun, so I park at the KFC car park a couple of minutes away.  I could spend hours and a fortune in here.  There is a pile-them-high policy here, so you need to give yourself time to have a good root through.

3) I think the best foody place in Chorlton is the Barbakan.  If you like your bread interesting and European this is the place for you.  They also do a fine range in cheese, deli meats and those hard to find European foods.  It gets so busy here that they have a ticket machine so everyone gets served in order.  They also do good sandwiches too for the nearby office workers.  I used to time my visits here for about 4pm on Saturday when they would bag up their rolls and sell them cheap.  They would end up in the freezer for me to use them for my work sandwiches.  It has been going for years and I found out my former neighbour and fabulous Italian cook sends her son here to stock up on stuff – so for me that is a seal of approval.

2) I am biased, but Kingbee Records is the best record shop in Manchester and possibly the UK.  If you have ever read ‘High Fidelity’ by Nick Hornby you will completely get the charm of this place.  I’ve been to record shops all over the world and Kingbee stands out as one of the best.  Why?  It’s reasonably priced, the staff are knowledgeable, it’s stocked full of interesting stuff and it’s not pretentious. It may seem unassuming compared to some too-cool-for-school record shops, but I prefer it that the staff focus on the music and not on the look of the shop.  Most importantly I know the staff go the extra mile for customers. Recently Neil, whilst on holiday, spotted a record one of his customers was after and picked it up for them. Needless to say, the customer in question was thrilled that he found it.  I’m amazed that Neil actually remembered it.

1) The best thing about Chorlton, other than Kingbee Records, is the fact this place is a cat friendly suburb.  Over the years I’ve met loads of kitties on my walks around Chorlton.  In fact, a ten minute round trip to the Londis on Beech Road, would turn into a 30 minute journey as we checked in with all the cats en route.  We used to nickname all the cats and I’d make up stories about them being at the “Catnip Pub”.
Here are some of them I remember:

·    Nipper – A small ginger cat who always sat on a wall along Kingshill Road.  His name was Oscar, but we called him Nipper as he would nip you if you stroked him for too long.

·    Queen Liz – A small, long-haired calico cat who had a gorgeous fluffy white ruff around her neck – sadly she was killed by a pair of feral dogs.

·    Big Bad Tom - A stray, big, black tom cat who used to hang around with Queen Liz – he disappeared soon after her death.  I’d like to think he went all Bruce Willis and hunted down Queen Liz’s killers.

·    Floozy - A little black and white cat who used to be friendly to all the people who passed by our flats.  She social-rolled every person who passed by.

·    Evil - An evil looking white and black cat who used to torment the cats on Albemarle Road.  He ended up at our flats tormenting Floozy, so I took him back to Albemarle Road whilst drunk.  He wasn’t too happy about being handled and I bore the scars to prove it.

·    Three legged cat – A very friendly cat who used to sunbathe with all the local kitties on Albemarle Road. 

·    Pearl - A faded ginger and white long haired cat who had seen better days on Beech Road. 

·    Stepford Cats – There were a family of cats who used to live on Hackness Road who all looked the same.  There is something unnerving about a group of identical cats staring at you.

·    Poppy – Real name and our favourite.  She staged a house invasion and ended up spending 6 months with us as an overnight guest.  She had fallen out with her owners when they got a new kitten.  We could have adopted her, but she had a nice life around the flats so we didn’t take her when we moved.  Another neighbour took her in and last time we saw her she was still patrolling the flats being her usual diva self. 

Chorlton, love it or loathe it, is one of those places that has a lot going on.  You could probably eat out here for a month and not repeat yourself.  Having lived here for as long as we did I can see all the changes both good and bad.  I completely see why it would be one of the destinations of choice for people working at Media City, but I think it’s no longer a suburb of Manchester as it has lost some of its northernness.  It tries too hard to be cool and different, and as a result I personally think it has lost its original quirky charm which I fell in love with.  Still I’m glad to say the cats still rule and Kingbee rocks to its own groove.

P.S. Please vote for me at the  2015 Blog Awards UK under the Travel and Most Innovative categories.  

Here are the links


Most Innovative

Monday, 10 November 2014

2015 Blog Awards UK - Public Vote

Life in Northern Towns has been entered into the 2015 Blog Awards UK under the Travel and Most Innovative categories.  

Help me celebrate five years of Life in Northern Towns by voting for the blog.  
Thousands of miles, three laptops and two cars have gone into the creation of this blog, so it would be lovely to win a nice, shiny award.  Here are the links to vote:


Most Innovative

Many thanks for your support!

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Tyldesley, Greater Manchester

What do you do on a grey Saturday afternoon in Greater Manchester when you don’t want to go far?  Bizarrely we decided to go to Tyldesley.

Tyldesley is tucked away off the East Lancs Road (A580) about 12 miles west from Manchester city centre.  It’s well signposted and easy to find, although they do have a one way system to cope with the traffic.  The traffic was particularly bad through the town as it seemed to be the main route to nearby Atherton.  We parked in a free car park off Elliott Street which was handy, although the nearby Morrisons is another good place to park.

We’d been to Tyldesley previously for a meal at the Spring Deer Chinese Restaurant (fine by the way) and had a drink at the Railway pub on Wareing Street (nice and had a jukebox, but we sat in a loud spot so not good for conversation).  I liked the fact the local taxi firm is in a local shop, so you can shelter from the elements whilst waiting for a taxi.

On this second visit, whilst Tyldesley appears to be an unassuming town, there seemed to be a touch more going on than in nearby Hindley which we visited a couple of months or so before.  However the weather was rather changeable and there weren’t too many people about.

Architecturally, Tyldesley is nothing to write home about.  In the 19th century and early 20th century Tyldesley was known for textiles and coal mining.  The town centre red brick buildings seem to date from the 19th century.  The pubs seem to be the most interesting buildings, although I did love the stone built bank on Elliott Street and the Top Chapel was a Grade II listed building.
Obviously I did check on Yell and there appeared to be three charity shops in the town, but I think there were actually four.  However the Wigan and Leigh Hospice shop closes at 12.30pm and we missed out on that one, which was a real shame as that seemed to have the most interesting stuff from the window display.  Neil had a stroke of luck with one of the charity shops and found some obscure chart hit single for one of his customers at Kingbee Records.  It only cost 20p, although to be honest it’s not worth much more than that as it’s more for people who are Top 40 singles chart completists.  

One thing for sure in Tyldesley is that you won’t go short of a drink with the number of pubs in this place.  I’d heard from Neil’s Mum that Tyldesley is locally known as a good night out.  From all the Soul Music posters dotted across the town, I couldn’t help but think there is a soul music community in these parts.  I guess with the close proximity of Wigan, birth place of Northern Soul, there probably is a thriving community.   

I did notice that there were a good range of specialist shops here.  If you like model railways there is “JPL Models”.  Want a hi-vis jacket? Then go to “LDH Clothing.”  If you like riding, there’s the bizarrely named shop called “Mares R Back” - must be a pun on something to do with horses.  However I loved the sign for “Billys Cheap as Chips” cycle shop, which was so bright, basic and to the point. It was also great that the fitness clubs (Dance and Fitness Centre, the Centurions Boxing Club and Wing Chun Kung Fu) were right on the high street too rather than hidden away in a leisure centre or some industrial estate as it really gives a sense of community.

I found Tyldesley an unassuming but practical town, which seemed to serve the local community needs well.  Not exactly a thrilling day out, but handy for those specialist things you can always get in mainstream places. However there was a bit of a Saturday half day going on as some of the shops closed early, so it’s best to visit here on Saturday mornings.  In the main it seemed to be quite a traditional town, far enough from Manchester to not be caught up in the 21st century pace of life, but near enough not to be completely isolated.  

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Lancaster, Lancashire

We'd been to Lancaster on a couple of occasions, but recently I'd been wondering why we didn't go there more often.  It was within my one hour drive time limit and it's quite a nice city - so what was stopping us?

It was actually the drive into the city that reminded me why we don't come here often.  We were stuck in a queue of traffic before we got into the city.  Then we were caught in a myriad of road works, missed parking opportunities and then we were heading towards the M6. Woah there! We had to spin around again and on our second time navigating the one way system we got parked in St Nic's Shopping Centre.  Honestly I was beginning to lose the will to live.

The parking at St Nic’s Shopping Centre was one of those grey and grimy multi-storey car parks.  The sound of the air con system for the shopping centre reminded me of being on a ferry going to Ireland.  It cost £2.40 for 2 hours, which is pretty reasonable for city centre parking. 

Neil, whilst he has a fabulous memory for all things music, has a pretty shocking memory for all things travel related.  I had to keep reminding him of places we had been to before, like grabbing a sandwich at Subway and where the charity shops were.

Despite the circle of traffic hell that encloses the city, Lancaster is a nice pedestrianised city.  The stone buildings stand on the hillside that Lancaster is built upon.  It reminded me more of the Yorkshire towns we had visited rather than some of the red brick industrial towns in surrounding areas.  Sacrilege I know, considering the bad blood between Yorkshire and Lancashire, but to paraphrase Roy Walker from Catchphrase "I say what I see".

Obviously the charity shops were a big draw for us and we had a good rummage through the shops.  There are plenty of them too.  When we thought we had got to the end of them, we would turn a corner and find some more.  Neil didn't find much though.  Whilst there were records to buy, the shops had overpriced them and Neil drew the line.  The Oxfam Books here is pretty good in part due to Lancaster being a university town so the stock ends up being a little more interesting.  I overheard in another charity shop there was a young lad who trawled the charity shops every day.  Part of me wanted to go up to him to check what he collected. 

Whilst Neil was scouring the charity shops, I checked out some other shops.  There was a gift shop that had already geared up for Christmas and I had to stop myself from buying presents - October is way too early for this sort of thing.  I stumbled into Bellwood and Wright fine art shop by accident.  I was mesmerised by the Peter Blake prints they had on display, but had palpitations when I saw the prices.  Seriously I could buy an amazing bathroom for the price and they are just prints.  Still they did look remarkable.

Lancaster is a good mix of high street chains and independent shops.  There were a couple of shopping centres for the high street chains and the shops of the streets tended to be independent.  There were lots of little cafes dotted around and it made me laugh that a pet shop also doubled as a fancy dress shop.

The good thing about any university town is the fact the book shops are ace, even the second hand ones.  There are two Waterstones in Lancaster - the one with threadbare carpets in the precinct and the gorgeous one which had the air of a library with the lovely upper gallery skirting the edges of the shop.  Nothing beats a good academic book shop as they tend to have a diverse range of non-academic books too.  I could spend hours in a shop like this, but time was pressing and I had to move on. 

There used to be an indoor market in Lancaster, but that appeared to have closed down for refurbishment.  Instead there were outdoor markets spread across the pedestrianised streets.  Some stalls were farmer markets, others were crafts and others were just cheap tat.  Funnily enough I think that's a good mix.  I do wonder if the indoor market will survive the refurbishment as I recollect on previous visits there was a second hand record stall – I do have a soft spot for these and haberdashery stalls too.

It has to be said Lancaster was teaming with young people.  It was that time of year when the students are back in college and university.  In fact Lancaster has two universities – Lancaster University, one of the best rated universities in the country, and the University of Cumbria.  Lancaster seemed geared for students, who no doubt contribute to the city immensely.  Whilst Lancaster is technically a city it doesn’t feel like one and it feels more like a large northern town.  That’s why I think it has an attraction for students who want city amenities and culture, but not the scale of cities like in Manchester or Liverpool where you can feel lost and anonymous.  Given that Lancaster is close to the countryside, the sea and Cumbria, it’s a great base for students who enjoy outdoor pursuits.

Time was not on our side so we headed off as we didn't want to get stuck on the M6 because it was Blackpool illumination time.  Lancaster is a nice compact city, which is easy to navigate once you have managed to park.  I like the fact it has managed to retain a lot of its character and the students give the place a buzz during term time.  Navigating the city in a car is a real chore, so if you are planning to visit bear this in mind or just get the train.  Lancaster is quite different from the surrounding towns and seems quite classy in part due to its pre-industrial revolution heritage.  No doubt at some point we will be back, but fingers crossed they will have sorted out the road works by then. 

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Garstang, Lancashire

Map out, well actually my iPhone map app (we are in the 21st century after all) and I was trying to find places to go that take under an hour from Manchester.  It’s getting harder to find places we haven’t been or I haven’t yet written about, but I remembered I hadn’t written about Lancaster.  In order to make the journey worthwhile I needed to pick another location.
I’d never really heard of Garstang, so a quick Google and a check on Yell for charity shops, this place seemed like a winner.

Getting to Garstang from Manchester is easy – M61, M6, M55, first junction off onto the A6 and follow the signs.  It was quite a misty morning driving to Garstang along the A6, but I could just make out the countryside.  I reckon on a nice day you have pretty views as it’s not far from the Trough of Bowland.
In all honesty I didn’t know what to expect when we got to Garstang.  However when I saw there was a Booths Supermarket I knew two things:
  1. That’s where we were parking.
  2. Garstang is a classy town as Booths is the northern equivalent of Waitrose.  As superficial as that may sound, supermarkets can be a giveaway to a place’s economic circumstances.  Waitrose aren’t going to pitch up in deprived areas like Harpurhey because no one will be able to afford to shop in them.

Anyway, the plus point for parking at Booths is that the car park is free, although there are other car parks to choose from.
It was lunchtime so we grabbed a bite from Garstang Fish and Chips opposite Booths.  It was a drizzly day, so we decided to eat in the restaurant part of it.  We may be in our 40s, but we were the youngest customers in there.  I think they had been offering an OAP special that day as it seemed to be quite busy.  I ordered fish and small chips and Neil ordered battered sausage and chips.  Normally I’m disappointed with chips from a fish and chip shop, but these were nice, crisp and golden.  The fish was fab too with a nice batter.  Neil liked his battered sausage too.  We both agreed it was a fine chippy and wish our local one was like it.  There were a couple of old blokes with deep voices chatting.  One of them was saying how he wasn’t keen on walking along the promenade and wouldn’t do it by choice.  However if his wife wanted to he would do it and even hold her hand.  Quite sweet really.

After our nice lunch we cut through an alley to High Street where most of the shops were.  It’s a compact little town really, with predominantly independent shops.  As it was midweek and midday we were some of the youngest people in town.  There was a good selection of shops including a pet shop, an art gallery and a tiny market hall selling fresh produce.  I do think some of the shops in town are more geared towards weekend trade as Garstang strikes me as a place where neighbouring communities flock to.  Interestingly Garstang was the first Fair Trade Town in the world.
Obviously we were also here to check out the charity shops as we’d found 5 listed on Yell.  I wasn’t disappointed by them and I think there were actually more than 5 charity shops.  Funnily enough that morning before we set off, I’d chucked in the bin my bag which had fallen apart in London.  Normally I buy most of my bags new, but I spotted a nice black leather, satchel style bag in Croston House for £11.99.  I’m sure it had hardly, if at all, been used.  Apparently it had only been put out that morning and I simply couldn’t leave the shop without it.  Neil on the other hand didn’t have any joy.  He kept finding immaculate, picture sleeve copies of Val Doonican and Bachelors records from the 60s – sadly not collectable in the slightest.

Further down the road there was a charity furniture shop – the name escapes me – but if you are looking for good quality furniture, this place is for you.  The shop resembles more a professional furniture store and the volunteers seemed to be doing a fine job.  I was very tempted with the writing bureau they had.

There are plenty of traditional looking pubs in Garstang and most of them do food.  I’m sure these pubs are packed out at the weekend between the food and the sports.
It was time to move onto Lancaster, but not before we went into Booths.  I really like Booths supermarkets as they are very pleasant shopping experiences, in part due to the layout which is spacious and not crammed to the rafters with stock.  But I like all the interesting brands they have, which you don’t always find in other supermarkets.  We picked up some cakes – I had a rocky road and Neil had a brownie – both were nice.  Upstairs were the café and toilets.  The café seemed a nice place and to me it more resembled a community centre on over 60s luncheon club day, which is a good thing in my world.  However I did manage to get stuck for 10 minutes with all the OAPs queuing for the three ladies toilets.  They say with age comes wisdom, but also a weak bladder. 

Garstang was such a pleasant surprise I can’t believe we hadn’t been here before. It’s a genteel little town and a complete world away from nearby Blackpool.   It’s probably livelier on the weekend with families, but those charity shops are well worth a visit alone.