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. 

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Cheadle and Gatley, Greater Manchester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Ashton-in-Makerfield, Greater Manchester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 7 December 2014

An Insider’s Guide to Manchester: Christmas Markets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Chorlton, Greater Manchester

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

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

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

 So what turned me off Chorlton?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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