Sunday, 17 August 2014

Ashton-Under-Lyne, Greater Manchester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Stalybridge, Greater Manchester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Hindley, Greater Manchester

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Westhoughton, Greater Manchester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 20 July 2014

West Didsbury, Greater Manchester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Stockport, Greater Manchester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Prestwich, Greater Manchester

What can I say about Prestwich?  To quote The Smiths: "So much to answer for".  I've known this place for over 30 years and know way too much to condense it into a pithy blog post.  I was brought up just over the border in Whitefield, but I went to primary school in Prestwich. We did most of our family shopping there and spent more than enough time delivering newspapers to the area during the mid 1980s. 

So 30 plus years on, how does Prestwich fare?  Actually I think it's better now than in the 1980s. Maybe it's because I'm older and it has more to offer an adult than a teenager.  

Getting to Prestwich is really easy.  If you are on the M60, get off at junction 17 and you are there.  From Manchester city centre, take the A56 (Bury New Road) and drive about 5 miles, or just jump on the Metrolink in Manchester and get off at Prestwich.  It's a real bonus that Prestwich is on the Metrolink line as it does provide easy access to other parts of Manchester.

Parking, on the other hand, can be tricky.  Lots of people tend to gravitate towards the car park on Rectory Lane, but that can be quite awkward to park in at peak times without a disabled parking permit.  There is also one next to Our Lady of Grace Church on Fairfax Road, but that tends to be busy with commuters.  If you don't mind a short walk into Prestwich, Tesco car park is handy.  I always park there if I need to go into Prestwich Village as it saves the hassle and time of trying to find a parking space.

Prestwich Village is pretty much spread out along the A56 / Bury New Road.  There is a shopping precinct called the Longfield Centre.  This is where you will find the majority of the cheap shops, the chemist, library and the Longfield Suite.  From time to time, the fountain gets vandalised with washing up liquid which creates foam icebergs that flow across the random street art furniture.  I know the council has had plans to redevelop the place for years and the precinct in my opinion is in need of demolishing as it doesn't really function as a cohesive space and it spoils what could be a really lovely place.  However the locals are keen to retain the Longfield Suite which is a large function space above the precinct.  It's the heart of community activities and on several occasions I sang here when I was in the school choir.  The ideal scenario would be for the new development to have a function room space, but I think the redevelopment is a long way off with all the cuts by the Council.

Close to the Longfield Centre is a large block of private flats overlooking Fairfax Road.  You really can't miss them as they are the largest structure in Prestwich.  Again it’s another planning controversy, which I won't bore you with the details.  However on the upside on the ground floor level there are a couple of restaurants, a Costa and a pub.  I have to say whenever I go past there, the restaurants are always full of people.  Panama Hatty's is part of a tiny restaurant chain and having been to the branch in Manchester, I would definitely try this one as I've always enjoyed the food. 
On the main road is where you will find the independent shops.  I wish some money could be spent on doing up the shop fronts along here as first impressions along this stretch of road aren't that great.  However there are some little gems along here.  One of my favourites is Ellie Magpie which does handmade gifts, craft courses and has a haberdashery.  Array of Blossom is a tiny florists, which does lovely flowers and they are very helpful. My Dad was pleased to find a traditional hardware shop for all those bits and bobs you need for DIY, without having to make a special trip to B&Q and hike around the store for it.  These places are fab and becoming quite rare on the high street.  If you are looking for a bling-fantastic furniture shop then go no further than Nuvo Interiors.  It's quite an experience to walk around and most things are either black, white or silver.  Whilst it's not to my taste you can't fault the vision of the owners.  There is even a secondhand record shop called Endless Music, although I've not managed to drag Neil in as it's like a bus man's holiday for him.  It's so rare to find record shops in the suburbs these days.

Prestwich, whilst it has a Tesco and an Aldi for your general food needs, also has a Marks and Spencer's Simply Food mini supermarket.  I always think having one of these is a sign of a middle class neighbourhood.  Not quite as good as a Waitrose or a Booths, but still pretty good going.

One thing that brings me back to Prestwich on a regular basis, apart from the Dentist (The Bank Practice if you’re asking, they are very good and I've been with them over 20 years), is the charity shops.  There are lots and you can find some half interesting stuff here.  I have to mention Bury Hospice have opened up a new branch here and it does furniture.  When I've been here I can't help but notice they do get some good donations and is definitely one to check out.  Charity shops are not only a good source of books for me, but also great to eavesdrop on conversations.  Not naming names, I heard a fabulously gossipy conversation in one where they were talking about a couple who had split up.  Apparently the woman had been “acting like a prostitute” since the split by seeing different men.  However the man was really down in the dumps about the split.  I spent way too much time listening to them, but I'm a sucker for local gossip.

If you are a major fan of Coronation Street it's worth popping down to St Mary's Church on Church Lane.  This place has baptised, married and buried most of Weatherfield over the years.  It's a lovely church and worth a little wander.  
 You will also find along Church Lane, the Aumbry restaurant.  There has been a food war in Manchester with high end restaurants vying to get the first Michelin star for the city.  Believe it or not there has been a whole TV series about it.  The Aumbry is one of the contenders for the Michelin star and I've heard good things about the place from friends.  I really hope it gets the star rather than the bigger and flashier restaurants in Manchester.

There have been touches of gentrification going on in Prestwich, which have been inspired by Chorlton in south Manchester.  There is a cafe bar called Cuckoo which would not look out of place in the trendier parts of Manchester.  Also in the offing is Village Greens, a grocery cooperative, in the heart of Prestwich Village in what used to be Blockbuster Video shop.  Last time I was in Prestwich, the shop hadn't opened yet. I'm sure they were inspired by the Unicorn in Chorlton.  I think it's great that there are places like this coming to the suburbs as it adds diversity to the village.  As long as Prestwich maintains a nice mix of traditional, independent and interesting, I think the place has a rosy future to look forward to.

There has been a depopulation of north Manchester to south Manchester over the decades, however I have always been a strong advocate for Prestwich where families are concerned.  If you are looking for a nice suburb with good Catholic schools to bring up children, not far from the Manchester city centre and Media City, with good transport links and fairly reasonable house prices, you really can't go far wrong with Prestwich. Maybe I'm biased, but just looking at the education league tables alone says it all.  

Prestwich, it has been a long time since I've spent my teenage years miserably wandering your streets with my Walkman on, listening to The Smiths and delivering the Manchester Evening News.  Having lived across Manchester over the years, enough water has passed under the bridge for me to appreciate your leafy roads, nice houses and handy transport links.  You have so much potential to become a nicer, classier and less pretentious cousin of Chorlton.  Good luck, Prestwich - I think I may like you now!

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Knutsford, Cheshire

Looking back at my blog I noticed there was a glaring omission from the Cheshire section, namely Knutsford.  However persuading Neil to go back there was another matter.  A bribe of battered burger at the Pepper Street Fryer in Nantwich worked, so he was then held captive in the car for a detour to Knutsford.

We’ve been having rather beautiful weather in the north lately, which is a complete novelty to us sun deprived northerners.  So it was good to take a trip into leafy Cheshire, although my car proved to be an effective sauna until I remembered how to work the aircon.

Getting to Knutsford from north Manchester is simple as you take the M60, M62, M6, junction 19 and follow the signs to Knutsford.  When we lived in south Manchester we used to go M60, M56 and then either the A556 or A538, but I prefer the M6 as it’s both quicker and a shorter drive once you exit the motorway, although you can get a train from Manchester which drops you in the heart of the town.
Parking in Knutsford is straightforward - either you can park on the road for 30 minutes or in the car park on Tatton Street where you can park for 2 hours for £1.

Knutsford is a very well-to-do market town with what I call two indicators of posh – a Waitrose mini supermarket and a Barbour shop.  The town itself is built on the side of a hill and this splits the town centre in two.  Top of the hill is Princess Street and bottom is King Street.  As the streets are so narrow, there is a one way system for the owners of high performance cars and midlife crisis motor bikers to negotiate. 
Knutsford has evolved over the centuries and was recorded in the Domesday Book.  In the 19th century the place was immortalised by Elizabeth Gaskell in the novel Cranford.  With the BBC TV series this place has become a draw for tourists and sure enough we found Japanese tourists taking photos on Princess Street.

Tucked away on Church Street is a tiny indoor market selling pet stuff, cheap odds and ends, plants and locally sourced meat and veg.  Once a month there is an artisan market that pops up too.
King Street seems to be the most popular street and there seems to be an on-going battle between pedestrians and cars to navigate this street as both the pavements and street is so tiny.  It’s not helped by the fact there is parking on the street too. The best eavesdropped conversation was whilst being stuck behind a mother and daughter.  They were discussing career options.  The mother suggested fashion; however, the daughter said ‘I don’t want to spend my days with bitchy girls’.  Looking at the mother, who was clad head to foot in designer gear, I do think she was trying to live her dreams vicariously through her daughter.  An evil thought passed through my head and I thought the daughter could piss her mother off by training to become a doctor or nurse and do something meaningful with her life. 

Walking along through Knutsford was pretty much an encapsulation of the worst excesses of moneyed Cheshire life – a case of style over substance.  Designer boutiques, exclusive bars and restaurants, extravagant florists, bling fantastic jewellers and extravagant cars.  The thing that struck me most was the fact that one restaurant was closed for a private party and had a sign that said ‘guest list only’.  A private party is just that, private.  A guest list is just a conceit. I didn’t half feel like I was lowering the tone in this place with my ten year old car and battered handbag.
The one thing I really noticed about the place was the women.  They were different beings – manicured, honed, tanned (spray), bouffanted, pristine and immaculately dressed.  It must be a full time job for them to look this polished and it must cost a FORTUNE.  The dress sense veered from body con, to maxi dress, to middle aged relaxed matchy matchy casual.  Here is one example of an outfit – a lady was dressed in a leopard print maxi dress, with a matching leopard print oversized bag, gold coloured gladiator sandals and topped off with designer sunglasses used as a posh headband.  I couldn’t help but notice the hair of the middle aged ladies, which was immaculate and must cost a complete fortune to maintain.  The hair colours were quality with no roots showing.  GHD straighteners are a must for the ladies here as there was not so much as a hair out of place or a kink in their dos. 

This place makes you feel seriously self-conscious about the way you look.  I’d hate to be teenage in this town as there must be a huge pressure here to look good.  No wonder the teenager I overheard wasn’t keen on fashion as a career.  I really felt for her as she had some puppy fat and whilst that is a natural part of growing up I bet she felt very self-conscious about the way she looked. She looked great in her rebellious Goth-lite outfit of shorts, velour top and lacy shirt top. You are fine the way you are love, ignore your mother’s advice and do not listen to those bitchy girls. 

Anyway we had come here to check out the charity shops and there are a fair few to go through.  If memory serves me correctly I think the Cancer Research one was very busy.  I know the one in nearby Wilmslow often gets some seriously good donations from the rich ladies who can’t be bothered to trade them in at the dress agency shops.  If you are between a size 8 and size 10 you are seriously well catered for and will get a really nice outfit here.  However when it comes to other things like ornaments and pictures you will struggle.  People here know the price of stuff and are more likely to sell stuff like that to the local antique dealers, which there are many throughout the town.
Neil was extremely frustrated with Oxfam again.  Not only were the vinyl records overpriced, but they were priced beyond what you could pick them up in a record shop or online.  This was compounded by the fact there were some decent singles he would have bought if they were sanely priced.  I remember on previous visits they had a David Bowie record priced at £50, which was in fact a reissue and only worth £5.  People really get the wrong idea about the value of vinyl records.

So what else can I tell you about Knutsford?  It’s very close to Tatton Park and the entrance is by Tatton Street where we are parked.  There are plenty of pubs as well as restaurants and bars, so there is no chance of starving here.  Also I noticed some tiny cottages on Church Hill were in fact holiday lets as they had key code keyholders by the door.  In the past we’ve seen paparazzi photographers lurking outside restaurants on King Street.  At that time I think they were waiting for Kerry Katona when she lived nearby.
As much as Knutsford is physically a pretty town with lots of interesting little shops, I’m not fond of the place.  Maybe it’s the meaningless conspicuous consumption that pervades the place.  Maybe it’s the people as they aren’t that friendly and live in their own manicured bubbles.   Maybe it’s my inner feminist that was railing against the objectification of the local women.  In all honesty I would suggest to the local women to ditch the GHDs and do something that makes your soul sing – focusing on appearances is not a fulfilling activity.  Believe me it was a joy to see a make-up free mum with wild hair taking a silly photo of her son’s bright green tongue.  It was such a pleasant antidote to the artificiality of the place.

Will I go back there?  Probably, if I’m passing through, although it won’t be anytime soon.