Sunday, 23 August 2015

Whitchurch, Shropshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Batley, West Yorkshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Dewsbury, West Yorkshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Wakefield, West Yorkshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Hyde, Greater Manchester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Middleton, Greater Manchester

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Heywood, Greater Manchester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.