Sunday, 4 October 2015

Shrewsbury, Shropshire

I’d been to Shrewsbury numerous times in the 1990s to visit a friend, but this was the first time I’d ever been there sober and without a hangover. This time our trip to Shrewsbury was a pit stop on our way back to Manchester to grab a bite to eat and stretch our legs.

We parked in St Julian’s Friars car park on the edge of town.  It was £2.70 for 3 hours – as you would expect for a busy town.  I believe in the winter time these car parks are allowed to flood as the River Severn flows through the town.

As I learnt with Ludlow, Castle equals hill, and so it was with Shrewsbury.  Needless to say, if you struggle with walking, Shrewsbury can be problematic on that score.
If you like historical cities like York or Chester, then you will love Shrewsbury.  Although technically Shrewsbury isn’t a city, but a town, which is surprising given its long history.  Shrewsbury is packed full of gorgeous architecture and you just can’t help yourself from taking photo after photo.  You can practically tick off the history of British architecture in this town – medieval sandstone castle, Tudor black and white buildings are littered across the town like confetti, Georgian buildings to 20th centre shopping precincts.   Even the railway station looks grand like a Victorian castle.  Getting planning permission in this town must be a nightmare, but it does look really good for tight planning controls. 
We grabbed a bite to eat at a little sandwich shop in the town centre.  I opted for the spinach and mushroom roll as I was getting fed up of eating meat at every meal whilst we were on this trip.  We had to eat in a nearby alley way as it was a miserable wet Monday afternoon.  It was nice despite the surroundings.  In the end, to get warm we ended up sheltering in Patisserie Valerie for a cake and a coffee.

Shopping in Shrewsbury is quite a middle class affair with lots Cath Kitson inspired designs, Farrow and Ball paint palette adorning the shops and Annie Soan chalk paint finishes everywhere.  It has a good mix of specialist independent and classy high street shops like L’Octane, which you’d normally find in the posh parts of cities.  Lifestyle shops are everywhere in Shrewsbury, so if you are looking for something bespoke or handmade this is the place for you.  If you are a big fan of stationery shops like myself, then definitely pop into Write Here.  What did make me jealous were all the classy looking spa places.  In Manchester you normally find spa places in overpriced hotels, dodgy looking places above shops or beauty salons doing groupon offers.
Shrewsbury is a must for charity shop addicts and there were plenty in the town to rifle through.  Many of them sell decent stuff and if you are looking for furniture to upcycle this is a good place to go. My favourite shop was Oxfam Books, because when  Neil had left me for dust as he’d found a pile of records to rummage through, I found a copy of the book I was currently reading and started reading it from the place I was up to.  I know it was very cheeky, but what can you do when you’re a vinyl record widow?

It was weird wandering the streets sober as there are lots of lovely old pubs here which make for a good night out.  As I was walking through the town I was having flashbacks to drunken times in the 1990s.  I recollected the time when me and my friends spent hours in a narrow pub fleecing the general knowledge quiz machine with our collective knowledge.  When I went to Shrewsbury Castle for a Folk Festival and discovered Folk music wasn’t for me – I still haven’t forgiven my friend for making me go.  Then there was the Buttermarket night club which did club nights for over 25s – meat market is one phrase to describe it.  I even remembered the taxi rank shop where I got hiccups and couldn’t stop until I fell asleep.
I’d forgotten what a fab place Shrewsbury is to visit for a day out or better still for a weekend break.  It’s interesting how differently you perceive a place to be in your 40s compared to your 20s.  I found I was spotting things I didn’t realise were there the first time I’d visited.  Shame the weather wasn’t so great and we didn’t have much time, but Shrewsbury is an absolute gem of a place and worth a visit.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Worcester, Worcestershire

We were meant to go to Leominster (pronounced Lemster by the locals), just a 25 minute drive from Ludlow, but when we got there it was closed as it was a Sunday.  Therefore we just popped into to a Wetherspoons and had a very functional Sunday lunch.  Our plans were pretty much scuppered, so after a quick look on Google maps, I found Worcester was a 45 minute drive away (A44).

The drive to Worcester was quite eventful for all the wrong reasons.  Firstly we were running low on petrol and the petrol station in Leominster had run out of unleaded petrol.  We had no idea where we could get petrol and hoped that we had enough to take us to Worcester.  So I decided to drive at a sensible speed and turn off the air-con to Worcester to conserve petrol, which is a complete anathema to me.  Thankfully there was a petrol station Bromyard, so crisis was averted and I could drive at my usual just-legal speed.  The other event was the terrible thunderstorm we had to drive through.  The rain was so heavy the road was a grey blur and the windscreen wipers were at warp speed.  When the rain had cleared up, it was so warm you still couldn’t see the road as it was steaming.  By the time we got to Worcester I was soaked through with sweat and could have drunk a pint of gin and tonic.
We parked at the multi-storey at Crowngate shopping centre and as it was a Sunday it was just £1 for the day.  The centre of Worcester is pedestrianised so that helps to make shopping a little more pleasant.  The shops in Worcester are typically mainstream and just what you would expect in a city centre.  However when you get off the beaten track it gets more interesting with independent shops and intriguing places to eat and drink.

On a Sunday, charity shop opening hours can become a bit hit and miss as they rely on volunteers.  Thankfully in Worcester many of the charity shops were open.  St Richard’s Hospice shop on St Swithins Street was a particular gem, as not only did it have a community café but also had an excellent book section with two older ladies busily processing stock.  I love a good second hand book shop and I could have spent a good hour browsing its shelves.  I’m sure having a university nearby helps boost the diversity of the books in this place.  They also stock vinyl which was a great distraction for Neil.
If you like architecture then Worcester is a great place to visit as there is a lot to see: Tudor – check; Georgian – check; Medieval – check; and even 60s brutalist – it’s got it all. Visually it’s an interesting place and, maybe it’s just me, but I did find some of the architecture reminiscent of parts of central London.  This place would definitely make a fine film location.
We really didn’t know what to expect when we came to Worcester.  Sometimes the Midlands conjures up image of 60’s concrete shopping precincts and whilst Worcester does have a tiny bit of that, it’s packed full of centuries of architecture which is a delight.  All in all, I definitely want to come back here again, as not only is it a pleasant place to visit but also I reckon you could have a good night out here with the amount of bars and restaurants we found.  

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Ludlow, Shropshire

We were meant to go to Hay-on-Wye for a couple of days but couldn’t get booked in anywhere, so I looked at the map and spotted Ludlow. There were two things I knew about Ludlow – one, it has a castle and two, it has a reputation for good food. I thought we might as well give it a go just for the food. 

Getting to Ludlow requires a bit of a trek on the A roads as there is no direct motorway route to the area.  So after having a pit stop in Whitchurch, we continued on the A49, zooming past Shrewsbury and onto Ludlow.  It seemed to take forever, but our patience was rewarded with a nice cottage in a lovely country town.

We’d booked a cottage called Bromley Court for a couple of nights.  It was a mini cottage as the building had been split into two apartments of sorts.  Our apartment had a kitchenette and lounge, with stairs to a roomy bedroom and bathroom.  It had low beams and as we’re both tall we had to be careful not to knock ourselves out.  The kitchenette didn’t have a cooker, but had everything else so you could make sandwiches and drinks, and the owner of the apartment supplied a continental breakfast which was very handy.  It had on-street parking outside and made a great base to explore Ludlow and Shropshire.  It was really good that we could have cottage style accommodation without having to book it for a full week.  Our favourite things about the place were the owner’s two cats.  Ceefer, a big black cat, was very friendly towards us and allowed us to stroke him.  Ellie, the female cat, was shyer but very cute and didn’t get on well with Ceefer. 
Ludlow is rather hilly, but I should have guessed this beforehand as it has a castle and they are normally built on hills.  We had to practically hike up the hill to get to the town centre as it was that steep.  The town itself is a rather lovely country town with lots of “oldie worldie” buildings you would expect to find in that chocolate box version of England.  Lots of black and white buildings and a hodgepodge of architectural styles which shows the evolution of the town.  Every nook and cranny of this town is packed full of places to explore.  You do have to be careful not to get hit by a car though as the pavements are narrow and often it’s easier to walk on the roads.

There are plenty of little independent shops in Ludlow and I was particularly pleased to find Abode, an interior design retailer.  It sells lots of lovely items for the home and most importantly is an Annie Sloan’s paint stockist, so I was able to stock up on paint for a DIY project.  Just off the main street Neil managed to find a record shop called Mod Lang in a side alley.  They stocked lots of second hand vinyl records and to say Neil was in his element was an understatement.  I lost him for about an hour as he worked his way through the 7” singles.

There are plenty of pubs to try out in Ludlow.  Some of them are fancy, with equally fancy prices.  Others cater for the passing tourist trade.  The Rose and Crown is a lovely little place tucked away in a little courtyard. Bizarrely one pub called Ye Olde Bull Ring Tavern holds a bingo night on Sunday nights for the locals.  I’ve never seen a pub so full and yet so quiet that you could hear a pin drop.  We had to practically whisper our order to the bar person.  Thankfully there was a beer garden out the back, so we could at least talk to each other. 
The weekend we were in Ludlow was the final weekend of the Ludlow Fringe Festival.  Part of the festival was a folk event at Ludlow Castle and there were rumours that Robert Plant, yes the same one who sang with the rock behemoth Led Zeppelin, was guesting at the festival.  However after listening to some of the music you could hear outside the castle walls, we knew this wasn’t the kind of festival for us.  Folk music certainly isn’t for me – having been forced to go to a folk gig in the 1990s by friends – I could not be persuaded to go.  It did turn out that he made a guest appearance at the festival, about 10.50pm when quite a few of the festival goers had left to relieve their babysitters.  At this point we had gone to the Church Inn for last orders.  Still there was no amount of drink you could have given me to sit through the 5 hours of folk music preceding his appearance.

Ludlow on a Saturday night is a genteel affair, with older people frequenting the pubs, and teenagers drinking and chatting with friends outside the castle walls.  A group of teenage girls joined up with a group of lads and they shamelessly told them “we weren’t going to talk to you if you didn’t have wine”.  At one point there was a bit of drama when a middle aged lady in floods of tears was escorted from the folk festival by her friends.  Apparently she was upset over her divorce.  Another older gentlemen was complaining to his companion that he felt “obsolete”.  This was better than an episode of Eastenders - well most things are these days.
We went to two food places in Ludlow – The Church Inn and Chang Thai.  The Church Inn specialises in pies, so Neil was rather excited about this prospect.  They did a wide selection of pies, but by the time we ordered, many of the pies had sold out.  In the end what we had was fine, but we were disappointed their pies were of the puff pastry lid variety.  We’ve been spoilt in the past with full pastry pies from the likes of Pieminister, so puff pastry lid pies no longer cut it for us.  On the other hand the Chang Thai was a delightful experience and we enjoyed their food thoroughly.  I find Thai food a safe option these days as you can’t go too badly wrong with it.

Obviously we checked out all the charity shops and I was pleased to find out this middle class town wasn’t ashamed of them.  The town had developed a charity shop trail complete with map.  Neil didn’t find any vinyl records to his tastes in the charity shops, but that was fine as he’d found lots in the record shop.  The good thing to note about Ludlow is that most of the charity shops are open on Sunday too.  Visiting towns on a Sunday can be a hit and miss affair with shop openings, but on the whole Ludlow is open.

We were genuinely surprised to find out how lovely Ludlow was and were pleased with our accommodation too.  There is plenty on offer in this town and the surrounding areas.  It’s worth checking out what’s on at the art centre or when the next festival is on, as they have lots of different events throughout the year.  It’s great to see the locals are really passionate about this town and work hard to keep the place interesting and vibrant. We’ll definitely come back again.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Whitchurch, Shropshire

We’re taking a detour for a few weeks and resurrecting Life in Midlands Towns – our first stop is Whitchurch in Shropshire.

I’d been meaning to go to Whitchurch over the years as many of our road trips have taken us through Cheshire, just over the border, but none of the roads ever led through Whitchurch.  As we were going to Ludlow for a couple of days, I made sure our route took us through Whitchurch so we could stop off and have lunch.

Getting to Whitchurch means getting on the M62, M6, M56, exit junction 10 onto the A49 and keep on going until the B5476 which takes you into Whitchurch.  There is another route that takes you by Chester which is 5 minutes quicker but 10 miles longer.  As I spend far too much time on the motorways these days, I opted for the pretty route instead.
We took advantage of 2 hours free parking in Iceland’s car park on the edge of town.  It’s only a short walk into Whitchurch town centre so it was fine.

My first impression was that it’s a bit like Nantwich, but with less people.  It’s a pretty little place with nice architecture including some black and white buildings (the Natwest looks really good) and lots of Farrow and Ball neutral paints going on with a touch of Cath Kidson in the décor.  It is one of those places that looks typically English, and tourists like to visit, although I don’t really think that many tourists have found Whitchurch, sadly.  Interestingly, Whitchurch has a new Civic Centre built from wood and brick, and whilst it doesn’t blend in with the rest of the town, I like it a lot as it is both refreshingly modern and sympathetic to the existing architecture.  Gold stars for town planning there!
There are quite a few independent shops and pubs in Whitchurch, but it was sad to see quite a few had closed down too.  I guess that’s partly due to the location, which is miles from the nearest motorway and large populations that you’d find in big towns and cities.  On the upside there is still an independent book shop in town, which is always a positive sign although the name “Bookshrop” is a bad pun in my world.  It was great to see in the centre of town there was a farmer’s market.  If we had been going home from our trip, rather than heading off on one, I would have bought a car boot full load of food as it looked so tasty.

We did a tour of the charity shops, naturally.  One shop we noticed was going all-out vintage, which I like to see as it makes a change from the standard charity shops.  However Neil didn’t find much, but Whitchurch didn’t strike me as a music town.  On the other hand I picked up a copy of Tony Parsons’ “The Murder Bag”.  Normally I’m don’t read Tony Parsons as I tend to read crime fiction, though I hadn’t realised he’d started to write crime fiction now too.  I have to say it was a good effort although the ending tailed off a bit.  It was a gripping read though and it only took me three days to finish.  For a first crime novel it was a great start and I look forward to reading more of his crime books. 
We did find a slightly rambling antique centre in Whitchurch and I always love browsing these places.  It was definitely more vintage than antique – honestly who will buy a cross stitch picture for £25 when you can find them for £3 in charity shops?  That said, it was nice enough and you can also pick up some chalk paint there (not the Annie Sloan’s stuff though).  I was a bit more interested in eavesdropping on a conversation where a young lad was talking about what he’ll do when he finishes his apprenticeship.  He plans to go to America, so I guess he must be doing some sort of engineering apprenticeship, as I can’t imagine an admin one will take you that far outside the borders of Shropshire.

We did find something to eat at the local chip shop called Chester’s on Green End.  It was busy and the food was nice.   I had fish and chips and Neil had a battered burger.  In all honesty, battered burger doesn’t float my boat, but Neil always has to order them when he sees them on the menu –  I’m sure this is a Cheshire / Shropshire thing.
We couldn’t stay too long as we had to get to Ludlow, but I was really pleased we’d finally made it to Whitchurch.  It’s one of those places that gets overlooked as it’s in the middle of nowhere and a chore to get to.  We’ve been to other northern Shropshire towns like Market Drayton and Oswestry over the years and it seems Whitchurch has suffered like them from the recession.  This is a nice little place to visit and the locals are really making an effort to make this place somewhere pleasant to come.  So if you are planning a trip to Shropshire, try to stop in Whitchurch for a bite to eat, but don’t blame me if you get stuck behind tractors on the way!

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Batley, West Yorkshire

Batley is just a short drive from Dewsbury.  To be honest, the drive into Batley is rather industrial and down at heel, so my hopes about the place had slid down several notches.  It has a Blackpool feel with large, almost industrial sized night clubs on the edge of town, but without the sea, the illuminations and the crowds.

We parked up behind the main town centre in a small free car park.  You can also get parked in the Tesco car park which is just behind the main street, running through Batley town centre.

Compared to Dewsbury, Batley was pretty much devoid of people and there might as well have been tumbleweed rolling through the town, it was that quiet.  It is clear that some regeneration money has been spent on the main thoroughfare through Batley as it looks neat and tidy, although there are still some empty shops along here.  There is a tiny little precinct near Tesco, but there were no shops open there and it had a funny smell as it has lain dormant for some time.  We did spot a couple of places that had taken some inspiration from thriving towns like Holmfirth and Saltaire. They were making the effort to look classy with Farrow and Ball style neutral paint schemes and vintage decor.
There were a few charity shops and we bobbed in and out of them to pass the time.  However there wasn’t much to find for either myself (books) or Neil (records), though I quite liked the charity shop which specialised in furniture – definitely a place to find stuff to re-upholster.  I did get the impression they were waiting for us to leave so they could close for the day – you can’t blame them as it must have been a really slow day for them.

In all fairness, Batley town centre has some nice architecture going on with several impressive buildings made from sturdy Yorkshire stone buildings.  The Town Hall and the nearby Methodist Chapel look pretty fine, and up the hill there is a well-manicured municipal garden.  However, the place I did really take a shine to was Batley Library, which was originally funded by the philanthropist Carnegie.  As we had nothing better to do, we took a stroll through the library and art gallery.  This was where all the people in Batley were hanging out.  I think the lure of free Internet access on a gloomy Saturday afternoon was the main explanation.  We had a potter through the upstairs art gallery – it was hosting an exhibition by local artists.  We did think we might find a picture of the singer/musician Robert Palmer, as he was originally from Batley, but there was nothing to be found.
One thing is for sure, you will be never short of a drink in Batley.  The place is full of pubs and night clubs – many of them scary-looking.  In the weird and wonderful world of 1960s and 1970s UK variety, Batley holds a bizarre place as being one of the top places for world famous acts to perform.  You can hardly believe that Batley Variety Club saw the likes of Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones and Tina Turner perform on stage.  Nowadays the club is called The Frontier, but it still looks like a throwback to the 1970s.  In all honesty I’d be half interested to go in and see what it looks like now as I hear it hasn’t changed much over the years.
To cheer ourselves up, as it was getting a little depressing, we thought we’d get some ice cream.  However we couldn’t find anything in the local shops and in the end we bought some from the local garage at the edge of town.

We thought our trip to Batley was over, but on the drive out of town we spotted a mill called Redbrick and thought we might as well pop in.  It was such a pleasant surprise.  It’s a discount outlet for a number of classy shops like Heal’s, BoConcept and Kelly Hoppen to name but a few.  My brother would love this place as he’s fond of interior design.  Even though it is a discount outlet it’s still pricey, but a great place to get some interior design inspiration.  The little cafes looked good too with homemade cakes and I bet they do the best business in the place.  Apparently there is another discount outlet up the road called The Mill Outlet, which is a bigger draw for Batley.  We somehow managed to miss it completely, but I think it was due to the road system.  Looking online the Mill Outlet does appear to be more like Boundary Mill in Colne, which is more aimed at older people.  Whereas Redbrick Mill seems to be aiming more at the Saltaire Salt Mill market.

Batley, well what can I say?  You’re now ticked off my Yorkshire list for starters. There is some good architecture going on, but maybe we should have gone there earlier as we may have seen more people about.  This place isn’t really day trip material, unless it’s for a retail trip to the local mill outlets or going on a retro style stag do.  I really can’t say I’ll be back in a hurry, but sometimes you’ve just got to go to places and find out what they are about as you never know what you will find.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Dewsbury, West Yorkshire

After Wakefield, I got a taste for going back to Yorkshire. The only problem was that we’ve been to lots of places in Yorkshire over the years and have visited most of the classy places.  It was time to bite the bullet and visit some of the more down-to-earth places.

Dewsbury has been hitting the headlines over the years for all the wrong reasons.  Part of me was curious to see what kind of place it was and part of me chose it as it’s less than an hour’s drive from Manchester.

Getting to Dewsbury is straightforward – M60 (be patient with the 50 mph speed limit at the moment), M62, exit Junction 25, take a right onto the A644 and try to take the correct turns at the three roundabouts you have to do to get to Dewsbury.  We managed to get parked in a tiny car park opposite the bus station – it cost £1 for 3 hours.
My first impression was that it’s quite hilly and there are a lot of taxis in Dewsbury.  As we headed towards the shops it became evident that Dewsbury had seen better days.  There were lots of empty shops and the ones which were open were cheap shops.

We checked out the charity shops and there were plenty of them.  They seemed to be some of the busiest places in town.  Neil found plenty of vinyl records, but they were of such poor condition there was nothing worth picking up.  On the other hand I did manage to buy a book.  On the whole, the charity shops weren’t that exciting, but over the years I’ve found that charity shops in poor places don’t have quality stuff.

We headed to Dewsbury Market, which has been a big draw for the town over the years.  It’s not that exciting and sells mainly standard market stuff, but it does looks nice with its wrought iron arches and lamps which give the place a bit of character.
We went on the hunt for a bite to eat and eventually found the Sea Urchin chippy.  We had fish and chips – they were fine and it seemed like a popular place with the locals.  There weren’t that many food choices available during the day in Dewsbury, although in the evening it’s probably a different story.

The main thing I noticed in Dewsbury was the architecture – you really need to look up above the cheap shop signs to see how classy this place used to be.  The place is built with solid Yorkshire stone, which gives the place a sense of permanence and character.  There were little arcades near the market which had seen better days, but thankfully there was some scaffolding up and regeneration work was going on, part-funded by the National Lottery.  The Town Hall is a particularly lovely looking civic building, built in the Victorian era, again from Yorkshire stone. 
As we wandered around the side streets we passed the tattoo parlours and random shops like “Guns & Roses” – yes it sells flowers and shooting supplies.  There were some pubs too, which seemed to be traditional styled pubs – all very down-to-earth. 

If Dewsbury was a more affluent area this place would be buzzing – the buildings wouldn’t be going to rack and ruin, they would be turned into cafes, bars and restaurants.  Little independent shops would be cropping up all over the place.  Dewsbury has so much potential to be more than what it is.  This place is certainly crying out for investment, not just in its buildings but also its local economy and its people.

Maybe it didn’t help that it was one of those grey miserable days, but Dewsbury did strike me as quite a depressing place.  You can see how people can get ground down by places where they live when they are unloved and deprived.  I know the media hasn’t painted Dewsbury in the best light, but when you see how few opportunities are available in the town you can understand why people can become disengaged and marginalised.  With all the Council cutbacks you do worry how Dewsbury will fare over the next few years.  I’m not sure I’ll be back in a hurry, but it’s always good to see a place for yourself and not rely on media opinion.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Wakefield, West Yorkshire

Wakefield isn’t really an automatic choice to spend your 43rd birthday.  In my defence it was probably the only time of year I could persuade Neil to go to a sculpture gallery with me – The Hepworth Gallery to be precise.

Getting to Wakefield from Manchester is easy enough – M60, M62, M1, exit junction 41 and the A650 into town.  Word of warning – don’t travel back to Manchester after 3pm on a Friday unless you want to spend time in a traffic jam.  As we were going to the Hepworth Gallery we parked at the gallery’s car park and it cost £5.  If I was going to Wakefield again I probably park at the edge of town on the nearby retail parks, which would undoubtedly be cheaper or free.

The Hepworth Gallery is a relatively new feature to Wakefield, built in 2011 to house the works of Barbara Hepworth and host temporary art exhibitions.  The building itself is a very stark, grey, concrete building in the brutalist style.  It’s definitely not going to appeal to everyone, but all its planes and angles make great photo opportunities.  Inside the gallery the stark architecture continues - if you like polished concrete then this is the place to go.  We wandered through the gallery and it reaffirmed my love for Barbara Hepworth’s abstract sculptures.  There were other exhibits throughout the gallery and there was a group of sculptures that looked like oversized cow poo.  Some of it was gold coloured, but it remained in my mind as cow poop.  The gallery is situated by a weir and large windows overlook it.  If you are of a visually sensitive disposition don’t spend too much time looking out of the windows as it can bring on motion sickness.  As it was a Friday the gallery wasn’t busy and I did notice in one of the education rooms there was a disability group doing some art, which was good to see.  It’s a nice gallery, but rather niche with its focus on sculpture.  I’m not sure this place is going to appeal to everybody, but it’s nice to find places like this in working class towns.
Outside the Hepworth Gallery I was surprised to find a boatyard, especially as it’s over 50 miles inland.  I was fascinated by this and to be perfectly honest I found it more interesting than some of the exhibits inside the museum.

As we’d paid £5 for parking, we thought it would be better to walk into the town centre.  It should have taken 10 minutes, but as we had no idea where we were going, it took 20 minutes instead.  My advice is to look out for the tower blocks and head for them.  Normally doing that would lead you to a dodgy council estate. In Wakefield it leads you to The Ridings Shopping centre - I’d never seen so many tower blocks built on top of one.

The Ridings Shopping Centre is one of two main shopping precincts in Wakefield.   I think it dates back to the 1960s/early 1970s.  As with other buildings dating back from that period, it hasn’t aged well and I found the place quite dark and depressing.  It tended to have the cheap high street shops and as a result drew a lower working class clientele.  We noticed there was a big queue in the middle of the shopping centre.  It turned out that the local police were paying each person £10 to have their photo taken for their video line up database.  It was both depressing and sad to see.

As we wandered through Wakefield we found the other shopping centre, which houses the main high street shops.  This was a much nicer shopping experience as it was brighter, livelier and more modern.  Regeneration money has definitely poured into Wakefield in recent years and nearby Wakefield Market has been rebuilt to combine both an indoor and outdoor market – it looks great.
Apart from the two main shopping centres there are lots of side streets with independent shops, cafes and bars dotted along them - it’s definitely worth exploring them.  The good thing about Yorkshire is the local craft supply shops and there are quite a few in Wakefield.  My favourite is “Wool n Stuff” as it has a great range of fabric and I spent quite a bit of my birthday money in there.  They stock materials that you wouldn’t normally find in Manchester.  It turned out the shop had a family connection to a local textile firm.  I’m fed up with all the floral Cath Kidsonesque fabrics you find in most textile shops these days and it’s brilliant to find shops like this that stock a wider range of designs.  I’d happily revisit Wakefield on the basis of this shop.
We also found a vintage shop on a side street selling records so Neil had to have a browse.  It was quite good and reaffirmed that I should have picked up the £5 typewriter in Stoke as they were going for £25 here.  I was eavesdropping on conversations in here and the general gist of it were cool people being cool with each other, talking about cool happenings in cool places – it was all very cool and everyone was coolly attired. 

Architecturally Wakefield is a mish-mash of lots of periods.  For example: a Tudor style black and white building next to a modern shopping centre; brutalist architecture from the 1960s to the present day; and red brick Victorian side streets.  There are plenty of Victorian pubs across Wakefield although some did appear to be quite intimidating.  On the other hand, Wakefield Cathedral did stand out as a particularly lovely building perched on the highest point of Wakefield.  As it was a sunny day, workers were perched on its steps and walls, enjoying the sun whilst eating their sandwiches. 
We obviously hit the charity shops and there were plenty in Wakefield.  It did make me laugh in one shop where there were some young geeky volunteers who were mucking about with each other.  One of them attempted to test his new found social skills on Neil by engaging him in conversation.  Somehow I think this young lad has social skills more suited for a job in IT rather than working in a shop.  We didn’t find much in Wakefield, but with the vintage shop nearby I reckon they regularly go through the charity shops creaming off the good stuff.

My only knowledge of Wakefield came from David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, which is a seriously grim but gripping story based in 1970s and 1980s West Yorkshire – it doesn’t paint a great picture of the place.  Happily I can tell you Wakefield isn’t like that anymore.  Obviously it has its rough parts and experiences deprivation, but Wakefield is definitely going down the cultural regeneration route with The Hepworth Gallery and the nearby Yorkshire Sculpture Park.  There are some little green shoots of growth going on and it will be interesting to see how that progresses over the next few years.  Still it was a strange place to go to on your birthday, but it did make me smile to see a granny walk down the street with pink streaks in her hair – I just love that random sort of stuff.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Hyde, Greater Manchester

I’d never thought of going to Hyde as it’s one of those places in Greater Manchester that normally falls under the radar – except when it has had serial killers operating in the area (three actually – Shipman and the Moors Murderers).  Anyway, apart from the whole serial killer business, it’s an unassuming town on the side of the Pennines and one of the last outposts before you hit Yorkshire.

I’d been through Hyde as a kid to visit my Uncle in nearby Hattersley.  He lived in a tower block and it was the first time I’d been introduced to the high rise etiquette of showing the visitors the amazing view of Manchester on their first visit.  I don’t have any particular memories of Hyde, but typically my Dad mentioned we had visited the market at some point.  I swear I've visited every market in Greater Manchester in the 1970s and 1980s, but seem to have blocked out my memories of most of them – possibly out of trauma, but probably out of boredom.

Getting to Hyde is straightforward – M60, turn off at junction 24, pick up M67, exit junction 3 and follow the A627 onto the A57.  We parked up by the Clarendon Shopping Centre and it cost £2 for 3 hours.  To be honest it’s kind of optimistic to spend that amount of time in Hyde.
Before hitting the shopping centre we decided to seek out the 8 charity shops I had found on the internet.  Neil was struggling to find any vinyl that didn’t involve easy listening from the 1960s.  Unfortunately he drew a complete blank in the end and I did notice there weren’t many books in the shops either.  I’m still kicking myself for not buying a little writing bureau with a bookcase for £25, although I did buy a 99p Paris tourist scarf to use for a craft project, but had to rearrange a whole window display to retrieve it.

There are plenty of pubs in Hyde, many of which are traditional looking boozers and I reckon it would be an interesting night out here for someone quite brave.  Some of the customers had scary hard worn faces, but Hyde is one of those working class areas where you find people have aged way before their time. 
When we were walking through the streets we heard a woman shouting at her kids.  After listening to what she was saying, we eventually realised she wasn’t actually shouting at them, but her normal speaking voice was very loud.

We were surprised to find there’s an active Asian community in Hyde, as we spotted a local mosque on a side street and it appeared to be the busiest place in town.

Obviously we found the outdoor market outside Clarendon Shopping Centre, but there was nothing exciting to report – just usual cheap stuff.  On the other hand the indoor market was slightly more interesting as there was a record stall selling vinyl records, so I briefly became a record shop widow for about half an hour as Neil browsed through the cheap singles and I ended up walking around the market.  There was a meat stall called “Let’s Talk Tripe” and there was a haberdashery stall which also ran sewing machine classes.  I thought it was a great idea for the haberdashery stall to run classes, as it’s a way to increase the number of customers, especially as you can no longer learn these skills through night classes at your local college.
My favourite shop though was Paper Tulips on one of the side streets.  It’s a craft shop selling reasonably priced nice handmade goods.  I got crotchet envy in the shop, as that is one craft skill I’ve never been able to pick up despite my Mum’s efforts to teach me.  I was genuinely surprised to find a shop like this here, as you expect to find places like this in Chorlton or Manchester’s Northern Quarter.

So what’s 21st century Hyde like?  Very much like 20th century Hyde, but with a snazzy bus station.  There are some interesting older buildings including the Town Hall, the Post Office building which has been turned into a nursery and the Theatre Royal Hyde which the locals are trying to save.  The streets surrounding the main shopping centre have buildings dating back to the Victorian times, with some post war building initiatives.  Clarendon Shopping Centre appears to be a 1960s build with a tower block on top, which is similar to what can be found at Salford Precinct.  There have been some efforts with regeneration including a new bus station and some street art.  There is even an “I *heart* Hyde” campaign going on by the council.  Whilst this seems to be ambitious for a small working class town on the edge of Greater Manchester, it appears to be having some impact when you see places like Paper Tulips and some little modern cafes dotted across the town.
Hyde isn’t the most exciting place in the world to visit, but it did offer some small surprises.  Who knew you could pick up vinyl records in the local market?  If you like your charity shops, then Hyde is definitely a place to go to pick up stuff to upcycle.  Will I visit again?  I’m very tempted to go back to see if that writing bureau is still there.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Middleton, Greater Manchester

Now, I did know I had been to Middleton before, in the 1970s.  I believe a Lena Zavaroni album may have been purchased there, along with some dodgy country and western records for my dad.  Nearly 40 years later I’m back and the shopping precinct, where those records were bought, is still there.

Getting to Middleton is easy – turn off at junction 19 from the M60 and take the A576 to the town centre.  We parked up near the Middleton Arena by the roundabout – parking is free on a Saturday which is good to know.

At first we headed towards Middleton Arena as it looked like a shopping centre, until we got there and I spotted the swimming goggles being sold at reception.  I then realised it was a sports and arts centre.  It’s a nice, modern building which looks completely out of place in Middleton, although that’s not a bad thing considering it provides a public service and brightens up the place.  Middleton is a predominantly Victorian redbrick sort of town, with some ill-judged rebuilding in the 20th century.
We then headed across to the shops on the other side of the roundabout.  The 1970s shopping precinct really dominates this small town, although there are some shops surrounding it and an outdoor market.  There weren’t that many people about, but then again I think the large Tesco nearby draws away most of the people from the other shops.  The outdoor market wasn’t that exciting – the usual cheap stuff.  There appeared to be a table top sale going on for the locals, but sadly there was nothing for us.  The main thing that struck me was the piece of random street art in the centre, which looked like a giant had balanced his gardening equipment into a tent-like structure.
Obviously we did the charity shops, but there wasn’t too much to be found.  We did spot a load of dodgy albums from the 70s which reminded me of my first trip to Middleton – no doubt these records originated from the precinct.  Sadly, Oxfam had closed for the day at 1.45pm precisely, but there were two RSPCA shops doing good business.  In a hospice charity shop, an old man was donating a big bag of plastic bags.  He’d been in earlier and they were running short of plastic bags so he thought he’d help them out.  He also donated £20 too, which was utterly sweet, thoughtful and unexpected in a poor working class town like Middleton.

Finally we made it into the precinct and, to be truthful, it wasn’t the most inspiring place in the world with its dated décor and cheap shops.  Finding the toilets in this place is a complete mystery tour and it took about 10 minutes to find them.  I noticed on one of the walls they had built a Bayeux tapestry-like depiction of the history of Middleton out of brick.  Only in the 1970s would this have been thought a good idea. 

We did get a nice ice cream from the coffee stall which was served by a lady who looked just like Cilla from Coronation Street.  She seemed to know most of the people in the place.
A friend of mine used to do temp work on a stall for a no-win-no-fee solicitors in the precinct and got to know all the local nutters.  I can appreciate how he found working here was soul destroying.  Having worked in deprived areas myself, you are faced on a daily basis with people who have lived hard lives and it takes its toll on people, both physically and mentally.  It’s so hard to see people ground down by life and it is no different here.  It is a surprise to learn that Steve Coogan is from here, along with band members who have been in Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull, InspiralCarpets, The Chameleons, Mock Turtles and most recently The Courteeners. There must be something musical in the water here.
If you are looking for a great photo opportunity, just out of town on Long Street is an amazing looking black and white 17th century pub called The Olde Boar’s Head Inn. It looks so wobbly that it might fall into the street.  I really wish I’d stopped to take some photos and go in to see what it’s like inside.  I’m sure the psychic who had posters plastered across Middleton would be able to commune with the ghosts in this place.

Middleton isn’t that exciting to be honest with you and there wasn’t much to keep us hanging round any longer.  I can’t say I’ll be back in a hurry, but it’s interesting to revisit old haunts to see how they have changed.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Heywood, Greater Manchester

I thought I must have been to Heywood at least once in my life as I knew it had a market, but in all honesty I couldn’t remember when – so it must have been in the 1970s.

Anyway back to the present day – it was one of those days when I didn’t want to travel too far and since Heywood is nearby I thought I’d give it ago.  Getting to Heywood is pretty easy - just get on the M60, exit at junction 19 and follow the A6046 into Heywood.  You can also get there via the M66, exit at junction 2 and take a right onto the A58.  I think the latter route is better as you avoid some of the blasted road works on the M60 at the moment.

We parked up in a nearby car park by a roundabout in the centre of town.  It was free, which was great, and there is also plenty of parking available in the nearby Morrisons car park.
I really didn’t know what to expect of Heywood.  For a split second I thought it had seen better days, but I reckon this place has been resolutely working class from time immemorial.  That said, it wasn’t a disappointment, it just isn’t day-out material.

The architecture is predominantly Victorian red brick terraced shops, although there are some interesting buildings if you look up.  The old reform club has an impressive looking balcony, though unfortunately it’s in need of much TLC.  St Luke’s Church dominates the skyline, but we didn’t go in and we missed out on the beautiful carvings in the southern wing.  You really don’t expect that sort of thing in a local church. My favourite building though was the library.  It’s an Edwardian stone building with pillars and a carved archway entrance.  I love libraries and it’s a shame that they’ve been hit by the cutbacks in recent years.
Nearby was the local war memorial gardens.  Often in towns, war memorials are consigned to dark and dusty corners, but in Heywood it’s an immaculate and well-tended place.  It’s really nice to see a town take pride in these gardens.

We visited the charity shops in the town, but unfortunately we didn’t find much.  There are a few house clearance and second hand shops in Heywood too.  If you are looking to upcycle some old furniture, it’s definitely worth taking a trip here as you will find something.  There is a little vintage furniture shop here, and they had a dressing table in the window which had been painted white and fitted with some new funky handles – it looked great.

Amazingly we found a second hand record shop here and Neil had a rummage.  He actually knew the guy who runs the shop, but had forgotten that it was based here.  It’s packed to the rafters and you really need to bring a packed lunch with you as it will take hours to go through all the stock.  Neil sadly didn’t have much time to go through stuff, but he did say it was a reasonably priced shop.  I never expected to find a shop like this here, but it definitely makes a trip to Heywood worthwhile to pick up vinyl records.

We did have a bite to eat at the Heywood Fish Bar next to the indoor market.  We both had fish and chips and they were the best we’d had for some time.  The fish was freshly done and whilst I’m not a big fan of chippy chips, these were darn good.
The indoor market wasn’t very busy as it was a bright sunny day outside.  However what I did notice was the friendly banter between the stallholders and the customers.  There is a good community vibe happening here, which you don’t often see.  It was a pleasant antidote to the blokes on the street who were shouting random things– no wonder Heywood is locally known as Monkey Town when there are idiots like that here.

There weren’t many people on the streets in Heywood, but I’ve never seen so much traffic pass through one small town.  You do take your life in your hands when crossing the roads here and there must have been lots of traffic accidents over the years.  There is a one way system that cuts through the place to make it easier for traffic, but pedestrians can spend half their time trying to cross the roads.  I think the small retail park must do good business with Morrisons and Dunnes Stores, although I think the majority of the traffic is due to the fact that it’s the main road between Bury and Rochdale.

In all honestly Heywood is not that exciting – it’s just a working class northern town and not a day- trip sort of place.  That said, I found the place alright – great chippy, good second hand record shop and a nice community vibe going on.  No doubt we’ll be back at some point and next time I’ll make sure we see the inside of the church.