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.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Cheetham Hill, Manchester - 2015 Update

A long time ago when I first started this blog, I did an entry about growing up the 1970s in Cheetham Hill. Whilst I regularly pass through Cheetham Hill in the car, I thought it was about time I actually stopped off and had a wander round.

Cheetham Hill is the first suburb you hit when driving north out of Manchester city centre.  It has always been a multicultural area due to its close proximity to Victoria Station, where all the Liverpool trains came when it was an international port and before air travel was the norm.  Anyway it remains a very multicultural place and is apparently the most diverse stretch of road in the UK. 

We parked up by the Worldwide Food Store just behind Cheetham Hill Road, by Crescent Road.  It was free which is always good.  There is also a nearby Tesco, which is also good for parking.
It was a bright Saturday afternoon and we were surprised at how quiet it was.  Then I realised we were at the north end of Cheetham Hill, which is close to the Jewish area and obviously Saturday is their Sabbath.  Further down the road towards the centre of Cheetham Hill it was busier as that’s where most of the Asian shops are.  Every day of the week it’s a nightmare to drive through that part of Cheetham Hill as it’s always busy and there is often double parking going on.

So has Cheetham Hill changed much over the years?  Yes and no.  Architecturally nothing much has changed, apart from the precinct being rebuilt and a few new buildings have popped up too.  Further outside of the centre of the shopping area new housing has been built and Manchester Fort Retail Park has been developed on the border of Cheetham Hill and Manchester, which I think has taken some trade out of the original shopping area. OK, so the shop signs have changed, many in garish colours jostling for attention – although my favourite was the spray painted one. The Council have spent much regeneration money on doing up the pavements and street lamps.  However it has always been a rough and ready type of place.  It has always been full of independent shops that span the globe – the only difference between the 1970s and now is that more countries are represented.  Cheetham Hill remains a fundamentally down to earth place where people are trying to earn a bit of cash to keep their heads above water.

Whilst the main road is full of independent shops catering for a multitude of cultures, we visited the new precinct.  I remember Lindy Lou’s children’s clothes shop and the stationery shop where we had bought the nativity set for Christmas in the 1970s.  All of this has gone in the rebuild and the place is unrecognisable.  Weirdly, in comparison to Cheetham Hill Road, there are quite a few empty shops here.  Maybe the rent is too high and Manchester Fort is more appealing to retailers with all the parking.

It was sad to see the old library, which had always been a landmark in Cheetham Hill, was boarded up and for sale.  When I looked through the broken windows I realised the roof was coming in too.  It’s probably a listed building and whoever owns it is waiting for it to fall down so they can build new shops on the site.  Opposite to the library the Robin Hood pub was boarded up too.  When I spoke to a friend and my Dad, they both confirmed this was always a scary pub and no matter what the owners did to it to go upmarket, it always attracted the local nutters.
Speaking of nutters, there were some rather scary looking people hovering around Cheetham Hill.  It has a history of drugs and gangs, and you can see on some people’s faces they have lived hard lives here.  I was surprised to find one guy sporting a permed mullet, which gave me flashbacks to the 1980s when that haircut was the fashion for footballers.

We did go the local charity shops and to be honest there wasn’t much to find.  I think they are very busy throughout the week with the locals and doing a fine social service.  In one charity shop a couple of ladies were debating whether to go to Heaton Park up the road for a fair.  An honourable mention has to go to British Heart Foundation, which took over the local Woolworths to become one of its furniture outlets.  It was jammed full of some good pieces of furniture and electrical items and typical of Cheetham Hill’s multicultural past it had an old Russian typewriter for sale complete with Cyrillic alphabet.
In all honesty I never get nostalgic for Cheetham Hill as a place, only the people that used to live there.  Cheetham Hill does what it has always done, which is provide cheap homes for people who have just arrived in this country - often providing a relatively safe haven for people who have experienced unimaginable circumstances in their home countries.  It is a melting pot of countries, people and colours – a bit crazy, a bit full-on, but for many it’s a place they can call home.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Stoke-on-Trent (Hanley), Staffordshire

The drive from Newcastle-under-Lyme to Stoke-on-Trent was meant to be 11 minutes (3 miles), but it was more like 30 minutes.  What was really confusing driving to Stoke-on-Trent were the signs for the civic centre and the city centre.  Were we on the right road?  After several detours we found ourselves parking up under Go Outdoors after making a failed attempt at parking in another carpark.  There was a strange smell in the carpark and if we had stayed there much longer I’m sure we would have got high.

We were hungry and had a quick wander to see what food options were on offer.  In the end we went to Nom Restaurant, which was surprisingly busy for a wet Wednesday afternoon.  I had a burger which was lovely and Neil had a Pulled Pork Dog.  The food was nice and we shared a dessert.  Thankfully our waiter wasn’t as over eager as the person who seated us – what’s with this over-friendly American style service?  I’m just happy with polite service.
It was at the restaurant, Neil jokingly said to me that after the journey we’d had, we might be in the wrong place.  I had to admit to him his joke may in fact be the truth.  After all the driving round I still had no idea whereabouts we were in Stoke.  It was only after the trip, and I looked it up on Wikipedia, that I found out we in fact were in the right place after all. Apparently Hanley is considered the main shopping area for Stoke.

The weather had turned a bit drizzly when we left the restaurant and we went in search of charity shops.  There are quite a few in the Hanley part of Stoke.  Sadly Neil didn’t find anything, but I’m still kicking myself for not picking up a Silver Reed typewriter in a travel box for £5.  Damn! 
The main shopping area in Hanley is pedestrianised which is handy, although it’s worth checking out the side streets around the main shopping centre as you will find the more interesting shops.  I have to confess we didn’t actually go into the main indoor shopping centre – as soon as I saw it was one of those INTU run places, my brain checked out.  Living in Manchester and having the Trafford Centre nearby, which is also run by INTU, I get very bored with traipsing around mainstream high street chains.  So any chance I have to avoid them, I take it.  In this case it paid off. 

First of all, Webberley’s bookshop – it is fabulous.  Not only is it an independent book shop, but one wing of the shop is bizarrely dedicated to jigsaws and another has a big art supplies section.  I just love shops like this which cover several bases for no real apparent reason.  I could have spent ages in there.
I was a very happy bunny to find there was a branch of Abakhan in Hanley.  For the uninitiated it’s a fabric shop where you can pick up cheap materials for creative projects.  There are branches in the North West and weirdly Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.  I picked up a piece of ‘yellow cats and bow ties’ fabric that I had seen previously in John Lewis for more than double the price I paid for it in here.  Result!

Another place I have to mention is the Tontines Building – it’s a beautiful classic style Victorian building which used to be a meat market.  Now it is home to two rather disparate businesses – Waterstones on one side and Wetherspoon’s Reginald Mitchell Pub on the other.  Sadly it was the Wetherspoon’s side that was doing the brisker trade.  I do wonder if they ever get any crossover business?
I did notice in Hanley there were plenty of pubs and they were doing a fine job of occupying the local nutters who seemed to frequent them during the day time.  I’m sure you could have an interesting pub crawl in this town – definitely one for the brave.

Hanley is a bit of hodgepodge of buildings and architectural styles, from the lovely Edwardian former post office to nondescript 60s office blocks.  Not the prettiest place to go really and definitely not your standard day out material.  However it functions well as a town centre to serve the needs of the local community.  Although technically it’s a city centre, to me it doesn’t have that city centre wow factor.  Maybe it’s due to the fact Stoke-on-Trent is made up of six towns and received city status less than 100 years ago.  If it had been one town from the beginning it would have developed into a very different city.

Stoke-on-Trent, whilst it was very confusing getting there, was OK in the end.  I’m so glad we didn’t get sucked into the shopping centre, as we could have easily missed Webberley’s and Abakhan.  Part of me is still tempted to revisit just to see if that typewriter is there – maybe next time when I’m passing through. 

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Newcastle-Under-Lyme, Staffordshire

For the next couple of posts, I’ve resurrected Life in Midlands Towns. As we’ve visited so many northern towns, we are now struggling to find places to go so we’ve had to branch out.

Recently I’ve been travelling to work and have been passing through Staffordshire quite a bit.  About an hour’s drive from Manchester, I thought it would be good to check out a couple of towns there on a day off.

The first on the list was Newcastle-Under-Lyme which is just a few miles from Stoke-on-Trent.  The journey from Manchester to Newcastle-under-Lyme in fairly straightforward – M60, M62, M6, exit Junction 16, A500 and A34.  It is well sign-posted and they are fond of the roundabout on the A34.  We had a good run on the M6, but for sanity purposes it’s always good to travel along here outside of rush hour, otherwise you will get stuck in traffic.
It was a bit confusing trying to find parking in Newcastle, and after a spin around the town centre we got parked up in the Midway multi-storey car park behind the Roebuck Shopping Centre.  It was £2.10 for 2 hours, although I think you can find free on-street parking.

For a change we visited on a Wednesday afternoon, but unfortunately the weather was rainy.  Our first call of duty was to find a public toilet and the signs for tourists were sending us in the wrong direction.  When we did find the toilet, they had been moved to the side of Wilkos, just opposite the bus station.  On the upside it was free.
The good thing about Newcastle is that the main shopping area is pedestrianised, which makes shopping somewhat safer without the risk of being run over.  Whilst Newcastle has your usual high street shops, there are also a number of interesting independent shops and bars.  The RAWRJuice and Superfood Bar was doing brisk trade on a wet Wednesday afternoon.

The open air market in the main square near the Guildhall was very quiet.  The weather was affecting trade and the pet stall holder was sat on his stall, bedding down for a slow day on the market.
There are some lovely buildings in Newcastle, many of the shops date back to the Victorian period. There were a few cosy looking traditional pubs which looked interesting.  In the centre of town the Guildhall building stands proud over the market square with its clock tower and lovely arched windows.  It dates back to the 18th century and nowadays it’s used by the local Council and Police as a customer enquiries centre. 

Obviously we came to visit the charity shops and there are plenty to choose from.  Neil didn’t have much luck with records and I didn’t find much.  Although, as Newcastle is located in the Potteries region, there was plenty of pottery to find.  I was tempted by a white Wedgewood two-handled tea set for £4, but sadly I don’t have anywhere to put it.  Near St Giles Church there seemed to be a pet shop, though in actual fact it was a charity shop.  It was very busy with browsers and people dropping off donations.  It seemed a popular meeting place for pet lovers.
The weather was getting to us and we needed to get some food, so we decided to venture to nearby Stoke-on-Trent instead.

Newcastle-under-Lyme is a nice little town to visit and have a wander round.  Unfortunately the weather was poor and it was too cold to be wandering around the shops for any length of time.  Whilst it didn’t have the wow factor, it was one of those towns which is developing a good network of independent shops and definitely worth a repeat visit on a good day.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Burnley, Lancashire

One of the notable omissions from the blog has been Burnley in Lancashire, especially as it’s only 30 miles from Manchester.  To be honest, I’d been putting this one off as I knew Burnley was a deprived northern town and it can be depressing to visit a place like that.  However, it was the first proper blue sky day of the year and I thought it was time to bite the bullet and visit Burnley. 

Getting to Burnley from Manchester is easy enough – M60, M66, A56, M65, exit junction 10 and head into town on the A671.  It takes about 40 minutes and parking on a weekend is relatively straightforward.  We found a pay-and-display in one of the Council carparks.

Burnley is very much a Victorian mill town with plenty of buildings from that era.  It’s really worth looking up above the fast food shop signs to see the architecture of the buildings.  They have some class and style, but are in need of some TLC.  It would be interesting to see pictures of them when they were new, with far classier signage.
The centre of Burnley is pedestrianised with a large 1960s precinct dominating the centre.  The sun had brought people out and there were plenty of them pottering around the town.  The shops aren’t terribly exciting – just your standard low-end high street shops.

There is a café in the centre of the precinct, and outside the tables were packed with smokers.  There was a little dog sat on its owners lap with its chin resting on the stainless steel table looking bored, whilst its owner was smoking up a fog looking equally as bored.

There is an indoor market which has been built into the precinct over the main shops.  It is split into two – half is like a proper indoor market with regular stalls whilst the other half is a wide open space for a temporary market.  The day we went the temporary market was selling crafts.  I didn’t expect this, but I was very pleased to see local crafts-people have the opportunity to sell their wares.  In an age of mass produced products, there is nothing quite like something which is personal and handmade.
Obviously we were here for the charity shops and there were plenty to choose from.  Whilst Neil did find some vinyl records, he didn’t buy any as they were rubbish.  I didn’t find much either but the overheard conversations were good.  My favourite was one guy who was volunteering in a shop chattering away to his fellow volunteer.  He said that he’d had seven wives and at one point had three houses.  When we left the shop Neil said he’d probably had so many wives as he wouldn’t shut up.  It was interesting listening to him as I could only make out one in three words.  Years ago when I was at school we used to have a regular maths supply teacher from Lancashire.  The maths teacher had an impenetrable Lancashire accent and I remember there was often a sea of blank faces staring at him as we simply couldn’t understand him.  Listening to the guy in the shop I now realise our maths teacher was from Burnley.

Just one last note about charity shops – we noticed the YMCA had new signage and had gone for an AC/DC inspired font.  I quite liked it and it was certainly better than the previous logo.  In fact we had to double take as I didn’t think it was a charity shop at first.

One of the random things I found in Burnley was that you can do a degree in football here with Burnley Football Club.  It made me laugh, but then again football is big business these days so I guess there is a market for these types of courses.
There wasn’t really much else to see in Burnley, so we hit the road and headed off to nearby Clitheroe to stock up at our favourite sausage shop.

Ok, so was Burnley as depressing as I thought it would be?  No, but I knew that going on a sunny day would take the edge off it.  Then again you can tell there has been plenty of regeneration money pumped into the town, although a few more NHS dentists wouldn’t go amiss round here.

To me, Burnley is another northern town that has seen better days and a place where the kids with ambition will leave for the bright lights of Manchester or Leeds.  I honestly can’t say I’ll be back in a hurry, but Burnley wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be and some good work has been done here to get it back on its feet again. 

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Allerton, Merseyside

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Widnes, Cheshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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