Sunday, 19 October 2014

Lancaster, Lancashire

We'd been to Lancaster on a couple of occasions, but recently I'd been wondering why we didn't go there more often.  It was within my one hour drive time limit and it's quite a nice city - so what was stopping us?

It was actually the drive into the city that reminded me why we don't come here often.  We were stuck in a queue of traffic before we got into the city.  Then we were caught in a myriad of road works, missed parking opportunities and then we were heading towards the M6. Woah there! We had to spin around again and on our second time navigating the one way system we got parked in St Nic's Shopping Centre.  Honestly I was beginning to lose the will to live.

The parking at St Nic’s Shopping Centre was one of those grey and grimy multi-storey car parks.  The sound of the air con system for the shopping centre reminded me of being on a ferry going to Ireland.  It cost £2.40 for 2 hours, which is pretty reasonable for city centre parking. 

Neil, whilst he has a fabulous memory for all things music, has a pretty shocking memory for all things travel related.  I had to keep reminding him of places we had been to before, like grabbing a sandwich at Subway and where the charity shops were.

Despite the circle of traffic hell that encloses the city, Lancaster is a nice pedestrianised city.  The stone buildings stand on the hillside that Lancaster is built upon.  It reminded me more of the Yorkshire towns we had visited rather than some of the red brick industrial towns in surrounding areas.  Sacrilege I know, considering the bad blood between Yorkshire and Lancashire, but to paraphrase Roy Walker from Catchphrase "I say what I see".

Obviously the charity shops were a big draw for us and we had a good rummage through the shops.  There are plenty of them too.  When we thought we had got to the end of them, we would turn a corner and find some more.  Neil didn't find much though.  Whilst there were records to buy, the shops had overpriced them and Neil drew the line.  The Oxfam Books here is pretty good in part due to Lancaster being a university town so the stock ends up being a little more interesting.  I overheard in another charity shop there was a young lad who trawled the charity shops every day.  Part of me wanted to go up to him to check what he collected. 

Whilst Neil was scouring the charity shops, I checked out some other shops.  There was a gift shop that had already geared up for Christmas and I had to stop myself from buying presents - October is way too early for this sort of thing.  I stumbled into Bellwood and Wright fine art shop by accident.  I was mesmerised by the Peter Blake prints they had on display, but had palpitations when I saw the prices.  Seriously I could buy an amazing bathroom for the price and they are just prints.  Still they did look remarkable.

Lancaster is a good mix of high street chains and independent shops.  There were a couple of shopping centres for the high street chains and the shops of the streets tended to be independent.  There were lots of little cafes dotted around and it made me laugh that a pet shop also doubled as a fancy dress shop.

The good thing about any university town is the fact the book shops are ace, even the second hand ones.  There are two Waterstones in Lancaster - the one with threadbare carpets in the precinct and the gorgeous one which had the air of a library with the lovely upper gallery skirting the edges of the shop.  Nothing beats a good academic book shop as they tend to have a diverse range of non-academic books too.  I could spend hours in a shop like this, but time was pressing and I had to move on. 

There used to be an indoor market in Lancaster, but that appeared to have closed down for refurbishment.  Instead there were outdoor markets spread across the pedestrianised streets.  Some stalls were farmer markets, others were crafts and others were just cheap tat.  Funnily enough I think that's a good mix.  I do wonder if the indoor market will survive the refurbishment as I recollect on previous visits there was a second hand record stall – I do have a soft spot for these and haberdashery stalls too.

It has to be said Lancaster was teaming with young people.  It was that time of year when the students are back in college and university.  In fact Lancaster has two universities – Lancaster University, one of the best rated universities in the country, and the University of Cumbria.  Lancaster seemed geared for students, who no doubt contribute to the city immensely.  Whilst Lancaster is technically a city it doesn’t feel like one and it feels more like a large northern town.  That’s why I think it has an attraction for students who want city amenities and culture, but not the scale of cities like in Manchester or Liverpool where you can feel lost and anonymous.  Given that Lancaster is close to the countryside, the sea and Cumbria, it’s a great base for students who enjoy outdoor pursuits.

Time was not on our side so we headed off as we didn't want to get stuck on the M6 because it was Blackpool illumination time.  Lancaster is a nice compact city, which is easy to navigate once you have managed to park.  I like the fact it has managed to retain a lot of its character and the students give the place a buzz during term time.  Navigating the city in a car is a real chore, so if you are planning to visit bear this in mind or just get the train.  Lancaster is quite different from the surrounding towns and seems quite classy in part due to its pre-industrial revolution heritage.  No doubt at some point we will be back, but fingers crossed they will have sorted out the road works by then. 

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Garstang, Lancashire

Map out, well actually my iPhone map app (we are in the 21st century after all) and I was trying to find places to go that take under an hour from Manchester.  It’s getting harder to find places we haven’t been or I haven’t yet written about, but I remembered I hadn’t written about Lancaster.  In order to make the journey worthwhile I needed to pick another location.
I’d never really heard of Garstang, so a quick Google and a check on Yell for charity shops, this place seemed like a winner.

Getting to Garstang from Manchester is easy – M61, M6, M55, first junction off onto the A6 and follow the signs.  It was quite a misty morning driving to Garstang along the A6, but I could just make out the countryside.  I reckon on a nice day you have pretty views as it’s not far from the Trough of Bowland.
In all honesty I didn’t know what to expect when we got to Garstang.  However when I saw there was a Booths Supermarket I knew two things:
  1. That’s where we were parking.
  2. Garstang is a classy town as Booths is the northern equivalent of Waitrose.  As superficial as that may sound, supermarkets can be a giveaway to a place’s economic circumstances.  Waitrose aren’t going to pitch up in deprived areas like Harpurhey because no one will be able to afford to shop in them.

Anyway, the plus point for parking at Booths is that the car park is free, although there are other car parks to choose from.
It was lunchtime so we grabbed a bite from Garstang Fish and Chips opposite Booths.  It was a drizzly day, so we decided to eat in the restaurant part of it.  We may be in our 40s, but we were the youngest customers in there.  I think they had been offering an OAP special that day as it seemed to be quite busy.  I ordered fish and small chips and Neil ordered battered sausage and chips.  Normally I’m disappointed with chips from a fish and chip shop, but these were nice, crisp and golden.  The fish was fab too with a nice batter.  Neil liked his battered sausage too.  We both agreed it was a fine chippy and wish our local one was like it.  There were a couple of old blokes with deep voices chatting.  One of them was saying how he wasn’t keen on walking along the promenade and wouldn’t do it by choice.  However if his wife wanted to he would do it and even hold her hand.  Quite sweet really.

After our nice lunch we cut through an alley to High Street where most of the shops were.  It’s a compact little town really, with predominantly independent shops.  As it was midweek and midday we were some of the youngest people in town.  There was a good selection of shops including a pet shop, an art gallery and a tiny market hall selling fresh produce.  I do think some of the shops in town are more geared towards weekend trade as Garstang strikes me as a place where neighbouring communities flock to.  Interestingly Garstang was the first Fair Trade Town in the world.
Obviously we were also here to check out the charity shops as we’d found 5 listed on Yell.  I wasn’t disappointed by them and I think there were actually more than 5 charity shops.  Funnily enough that morning before we set off, I’d chucked in the bin my bag which had fallen apart in London.  Normally I buy most of my bags new, but I spotted a nice black leather, satchel style bag in Croston House for £11.99.  I’m sure it had hardly, if at all, been used.  Apparently it had only been put out that morning and I simply couldn’t leave the shop without it.  Neil on the other hand didn’t have any joy.  He kept finding immaculate, picture sleeve copies of Val Doonican and Bachelors records from the 60s – sadly not collectable in the slightest.

Further down the road there was a charity furniture shop – the name escapes me – but if you are looking for good quality furniture, this place is for you.  The shop resembles more a professional furniture store and the volunteers seemed to be doing a fine job.  I was very tempted with the writing bureau they had.

There are plenty of traditional looking pubs in Garstang and most of them do food.  I’m sure these pubs are packed out at the weekend between the food and the sports.
It was time to move onto Lancaster, but not before we went into Booths.  I really like Booths supermarkets as they are very pleasant shopping experiences, in part due to the layout which is spacious and not crammed to the rafters with stock.  But I like all the interesting brands they have, which you don’t always find in other supermarkets.  We picked up some cakes – I had a rocky road and Neil had a brownie – both were nice.  Upstairs were the café and toilets.  The café seemed a nice place and to me it more resembled a community centre on over 60s luncheon club day, which is a good thing in my world.  However I did manage to get stuck for 10 minutes with all the OAPs queuing for the three ladies toilets.  They say with age comes wisdom, but also a weak bladder. 

Garstang was such a pleasant surprise I can’t believe we hadn’t been here before. It’s a genteel little town and a complete world away from nearby Blackpool.   It’s probably livelier on the weekend with families, but those charity shops are well worth a visit alone.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Blackburn, Lancashire

The last time I went to Blackburn it was for an interview and I was on crutches.  Funnily enough the crutches meant I really couldn’t go for a wander around the shops after the interview.  This time I was crutches free, so I was free to explore.

You can get to Blackburn from Manchester three different ways: the shorter distance but longer time scenic route through Bolton on the A666; or if you are coming from east Manchester the M60, M66, M65 and off at junction 6; or what we did: M61, M65 and off at junction 4 for the A666.  I wouldn’t recommend the route we took as there was football on at Blackburn Rovers and this route takes you right past the grounds.  However I can recommend that the train is definitely the best way to get to Blackburn from Manchester.

We parked up on the edge of town at a pay and display car park on the corner of Weir Street and Mincing Lane.  Whilst there were not many spaces, it was a pleasant surprise to find out that this car park is free on a weekend – result!

Blackburn is an old mill town whose heyday was at least a good century long gone.  The streets are a mix of Victorian and modern buildings.  King Georges Hall is a pretty impressive Victorian building that spans the length of the street.  The library, although it was being refurbished, looked interesting under all the scaffolding.  The Lloyds bank has really nice Victorian ironwork and architecture too, which was worth photographing.  The council appear to have spent a considerable fortune on street art too.  It looks impressive, but there is possibly a little too much of it.
I noticed a handmade gift shop on a side street that did really nice pretty things made by local artists.  It was so new I could smell the new paint and there was no name above the shop.  I’m sure it was part of some initiative to get new businesses into the town centre.  Many of the other small shops in Blackburn are fast food places, so it’s nice to see something different on offer to local shoppers.

As we walked up Mincing Lane we caught sight of a florist which was named ‘Petallica’, which made us laugh.  I really hoped the owner was a heavy metal fan with a shop name like that.

There are still a number of Victorian pubs open.  One of these pubs has been renamed Bar Ibiza and had fierce looking, heavily tattooed blokes having a cigarette outside.  I think they must have been waiting to watch a football match on the TV.  In fact having tattoos seemed to be a big trend in Blackburn.  The most notable one I saw was on a burly, bald bloke looking after his kids – it was a large tattoo of Freddie Mercury on his arm complete with crown and autograph.  Not what I was expecting, but the guy must have been a committed Queen fan.
Obviously we were here to check out the charity shops and normally I double check my smart phone for the addresses of these places.  However this was impossible as the mobile signal in Blackburn is pretty ropey.  Normally in northern towns you can be pretty much guaranteed a 3G signal and 4G in cities, but Blackburn was cruising between no service and GPRS.  So we winged it instead and probably missed half of them.  I really liked Rebound, which is a bookshop-cum-café.  The lady upstairs was chatting to a customer about her weight loss tablets.  It was good to see there was a real community vibe going on.  We pottered through some other shops, but Neil didn’t find anything and I regret not buying a rather nice Denby coffee jar I saw.

We headed into the Mall shopping centre and I managed to pick up a patchwork book for £1 in the Waterstones sale.  The Mall seemed to be the main draw for Blackburn as the outlying streets were very quiet and the Mall was teaming with families and screaming kids.  Blackburn is a rather multi-cultural town and this was self-evident in the market, which is in the basement of the centre. 
Often in northern towns the markets are housed in purpose built Victorian buildings, but in Blackburn they had built it in the shopping centre basement.  I have to say I was mightily impressed with this market as it didn't feel like I was walking through a market.  It didn’t have self-contained boxed in units, which gave it an airy and light feel.  It was more like walking into a nice supermarket with lots of fresh and interesting produce on display.  Weirdly it reminded me of the Whole Foods Stores in the USA.  The TCK Deli was doing some seriously good business and was definitely the most popular food stall.  It does halal food, but the whole community seemed to use it which is great to see.  Whilst I hadn’t been overawed by Blackburn at this point, this place really made me think that markets still have a place in the 21st century.  Just by altering how you present a traditional market can breathe new life into it by bringing in light and having modern fixtures.  Top marks to the Market!

I’m a bit of a magpie at heart and when I see something sparkly I gravitate towards it.  This time it was the golden carving above the door to the cathedral - it was so distinctive and eye catching.  We decided to have a wander around the cathedral and it’s different from most Church of England churches we have visited.  Whilst it looked rather traditional from the outside, inside there was something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  Interestingly it had modern art huge canvases on the walls depicting the Stations of the Cross, which zinged of colour.  I’d seen this done before at the Hidden Gem in Manchester and I think its fab to embrace the modern in such a traditional space.  There was an organist playing very avant-garde music on the organ.  Whilst most of the windows had clear glass, in the centre above the altar there was abstract stained glass, which cast coloured light into the church.  In addition, there was a crown of thorns that encircled the perimeter of the altar. As we were walking down the aisle there was a modern representation of Jesus on the cross.  Now I’ve been to many churches and have seen some very modern ones, but this one really stood out, not just for all the modern art, but something else.  I spoke to one of the helpful volunteers and he pointed out that one of the main differences this cathedral has is the amount of light the windows let in.  That was what I couldn’t put my finger on and it really doesn’t half make a difference to the place.  Interestingly this place wasn’t completed until 1977, although parts of the church date back to 1826, which explains why St Mary the Virgin and St Paul’s has embraced so much modern art into its building.
Initially I hadn’t been that impressed with Blackburn as it looked like an average northern town on first viewing, but on further investigation things are not as they seem.  It’s clear that there is a move afoot to bring Blackburn into the 21st century whilst honouring the past, which I really think they have got right in both the market and the cathedral.  However they seriously have to sort out that mobile signal. Obviously there is still a whole lot of work to do in Blackburn and it will take decades to realise, but Blackburn has made it to my revisit list and that’s a good thing.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

A Northerner in London Town: Oxford Street, Hammersmith and the British Museum

Every year we find an excuse to go down to London: sometimes for a mini break; other times to meet friends and relations; but this year we were very fortunate to get tickets for the blessed KATE BUSH! I put this down to adopting the strategy of choosing a date not released to the fan club, hitting the refresh button from 9:29am onwards and not using Ticketmaster.  The strategy worked and it meant we were in London for 22 hours.

This time we stayed in Travelodge by Euston Station – small room, noisy air con and on street level next to a road junction.  In its defence it was cheap and clean, but I think Ibis or Premier Inn will be taking our business next time.

As we had a few hours to spare we decided to head down to Berwick Street just off Oxford Street.  We decided to walk so we could check out the Fopp in the Waterstones branch on the corner of Gower Street.  Shock horror, Fopp had gone!
We continued onto Tottenham Court Road and window shopped past Heals and Dwell.  Mistakenly I’d swapped my handbag on this trip and discovered the one I was using was literally disintegrating.  I thought Paperchase might offer a solution, but sadly nothing was to my tastes.

Eventually we found our way to Oxford Street, it was 4.30pm and it was the closest place to hell I could possibly imagine.  In Manchester, the main shopping area Market Street had been pedestrianised over 30 years ago.  Oxford Street is one street in desperate need of pedestrianisation.  The pavements were jammed packed full of people jostling each other, some obliviously walking down the street with eyes glued to their smart phone (a contradiction in terms) or just stopping still for no reason, almost creating a human pile up.  Honestly, how Londoners can shop along here on a weekend without getting an anti-social behaviour order is beyond me.

Thankfully we found refuge in Berwick Street in Soho.  This used to be a seedy street, but every year I visit here it becomes marginally more salubrious.  This year I noticed Sister Ray had moved shops to across the road.  Neil found the shop much smaller than the previous shop and more uncomfortable to browse in.  I also found there were more fabric shops along here, although my search for craft cotton was a real struggle.  These fabric shops are more for the fashion students who were busily searching through the racks of material for their new creations.  I love the little pharmacy-slash-gift shop, as they always stock a wide range of hard to find beauty stuff.  They saved me from having to order specialist shampoo from Amazon.

Back to the fray of Oxford Street.  Stupidly I wanted to go to John Lewis to check out their haberdashery department.  First of all we had to cross over at Oxford Circus and my patience was wearing very thin.  It was chaos with tourists having no idea of where they were going and Londoners speeding past them.  The police was needed to do some crowd control here.

Eventually we made it to John Lewis. However I couldn’t find what I was looking for in the haberdashery department and I was given short shrift by a very snooty perfume lady whilst trying some perfume.  I suppose a frazzled, sweaty, red faced northerner with a disintegrating handbag didn’t seem like a likely sale.  However her attitude meant that I will be buying my perfume from House of Fraser in Manchester as they were superb the other week, helping me to navigate through the racks of perfume to find something I liked.

Obviously we were here to see the goddess that is KATE BUSH, so we decided to sack the whole Oxford Street shop experience off and head to Hammersmith.

The Tube is always the best way to get around London quickly, but navigating it is another matter:
  •          Trying to get the right ticket for the right zone
  •          Then hopefully the ticket machine will work
  •          Trying to find the right platform through the maze of tunnels
  •          Remembering to stand on the right hand side of the escalator otherwise you’ll be unceremonially pushed to one side by some hard boiled Londoner
  •        Try not to look into the dark tube tracks, otherwise you’ll spot some baby rat scurrying along that will make you jump out of your skin
  •          Always  go to the far end of the platform to find the quietest carriage
  •          No eye contact on the tube and if you are people watching you will come across as some weirdo.

All of these I’ve managed to do at some point.  Sometimes it’s good to be a northerner on the tube by being polite, saying excuse me, letting someone have a seat who needs it and clearing abandoned newspapers from seats for others as it really confuses people.

Anyway, finally we got to Hammersmith and it was quite weird really as I was expecting to work our way through masses of tunnels, but it dropped us in the centre of a shopping centre.  Thankfully the Hammersmith Apollo was well signposted and we found it rather quickly. 

As we were there rather early we found a tiny café bar around the corner called Antipode.  They were doing Kate Bush inspired cocktails, but we stuck to Tasmanian beer which was nice.  The place was very minimal, but had some striking cats-with-wings prints on the wall by Yobkiss.   I’m surprised it wasn’t busier, but it was tucked around the corner from the venue.  The place was a welcome relief from the madness of the day.

I won’t bore you with the details of the Kate Bush concert, other than to say it was the most theatrical music gig I’ve ever been to and I can really understand why she went down this route for a comeback.  I like the fact she challenges what a music gig can be and what it can deliver.  No wonder she hasn’t toured for 35 years as technology had to catch up with her imagination. She sings like a roaring goddess, but speaks like a middle aged mum from Sidcup which makes me love her even more.  There’s a DVD coming out of the gig so you can see how fab she was.  The only thing it won’t convey is the atmosphere of utter love the audience had for her.  I have never seen or will likely ever see this level of devotion by fans ever again – it was a privilege to experience.

Next day we had a morning to kill before our 12.17pm train back to Manchester.  So we had breakfast in Starbucks on Tavistock Square – fine as you would expect.  Then headed across to the British Museum

I’d been meaning to go there for years, but hadn’t managed to pass by.  As it was a Sunday morning and the shops were shut, the place was jam-packed with tourists and families.  I’ve never seen a British museum so full.  I was seriously impressed by Sir Norman Foster’s Great Court which looked amazing and complemented the existing building.  

As we were limited for time we just saw the Egyptian and Greek exhibitions.  Part of me had reservations about how these artefacts had been plundered by the British aristocracy back in the day, but I have to say they did look amazing.  Having been to a number of Egyptology exhibitions in the North of England, nothing compares to the scale and quality of the British Museum’s exhibition.  However, my favourite thing of all we found was in the gift shop – a series of history themed rubber ducks.  They are the best museum gift I have seen ever.  Seriously the Tate or other art galleries should take note of this as I would be up for a Pollock, Hurst or even a Matisse themed duck.  Genius idea!

Anyway my top three takeaways from this trip were that Oxford Street SUCKS on a Saturday, Kate Bush was AMAZING and the British Museum rubber ducks ROCK (plus it’s well work a visit, but perhaps not on a Sunday morning).

Sunday, 14 September 2014

An Insider's Guide to Manchester: Manchester Museum

I've been to lots of northern towns, cities, suburbs and villages over the years for this blog, but at no point have I written about Manchester, my home city.  The reason being I couldn't condense 40 plus years of knowledge into one pithy post.  So to get over this hurdle I've developed a new feature - An Insider's Guide to Manchester.  Each post will focus on one aspect that Manchester has to offer - good, bad or indifferent.  My first post in this series is Manchester Museum.

The first time I went to Manchester Museum I was on a school trip with my primary school. The trip has always stuck in my mind as I'd never been to a museum before and never to this part of Manchester which is on the edge of the city centre near the suburbs of Victoria Park, Hulme and Rusholme.  

Manchester Museum is part of the University of Manchester and is housed in a wonderful Victorian building that stretches down Oxford Road.  I always remember I was meant to complete a worksheet on the trip, but typical me, I got distracted by the building and all the shiny stuff so didn't finish it.  Since then, once in a while, I take a trip to the museum for a shot of history and culture.
I'd been meaning to go to the Museum's cafe called Cafe Muse for a long time.  Finally I got round to it during this summer whilst I was at a loose end. The food was nice (I had a hot roast turkey ciabatta with cranberry sauce), although the cafe was jam-packed with families as it was the summer holidays.  Thankfully I found a quiet little spot in an alcove with a couple of foreign students.  It's a complete must for museums to have a good cafe these days and this seemed pretty good.  The foreign students were having pasta and a salad, which looked really nice too.  I made a note to self to try the salad the next time I visit.

The museum is housed in a beautiful Victorian building and it is a pleasure to wander through the exhibits.  As it was the summer holidays, the museum was geared towards a younger audience with rooms set aside for children's activities. 

One of the major draws to the museum is the Egyptology section, which is well presented in low light to protect the exhibits.  A while ago it was in the news as one of the exhibits kept mysteriously moving in circles.  It turns out it had a convex base which made it susceptible to vibrations from the busy road outside.  My main reservation is the exhibition of mummified remains.  Whilst they are thousands of years old, it's still human remains and I'm really not keen about viewing them.  It's just a personal opinion, although the museum does show them with dignity.

I really like the main gallery area of the museum as it reminds me of when I first visited as a child with school, when I was too distracted with looking at everything to fill in the worksheet. It has a Victorian feel to this section with the display cabinets and the wrought iron staircase connecting the levels.  The only drawback for me with this section are the stuffed animals.  Unfortunately I have a longstanding phobia of taxidermy, which stems back to childhood when one of my Mum's cousins used to have a stuffed fox in her hallway which looked really spooky.  That said I love the use of neon in this section, which gives the space a contemporary feel and some much needed light.  On the top level they have multicoloured light boxes which cast coloured light to the ceiling.  I'm a sucker for inventive lighting within buildings.  Also in the top level of the gallery there is a picnic areas for families to eat their packed lunches.  Whilst I think this is just for the summer, it's a nice touch as the cafe is too expensive for families on a budget.  I believe the picnic space will be moving to the basement from September, which will be next to the new lab opening for schools.

My favourite exhibition was about the history of Whitworth Park.  It was tucked away in a quiet corner of the museum which seemed to be a kid free zone.  I was surprised to see this exhibit as it was all about local social history, but I really love this sort of thing as it captures moments in time and you can see how places have evolved. There was a young couple sat down watching one of the films about the park.  This echoed how young couples back in the day used to stroll through Whitworth Park as a date location.

Manchester Museum is a good cultural day out for families and the museum certainly caters well for them.  It's great how museums have a multitude of purposes from educating young people, to a family day out, a daytime date for young couples, a meeting place for friends to have a chat over a coffee and cake, a shot of culture for others and a photo opportunity for photographers.  There is no doubt I will go back to the museum and the cafe, although next time I go I'll try to go midweek when the kids are at school, as they kept running into shot when I was taking photos.

Other Information

Transport details:

Bus - It's on one of the busiest bus routes in Europe so getting from the Bus Station at Piccadilly Gardens is so easy.  Buses include 42,43,142,143 - plus a whole host of other ones too numerous to mention (see website for details).

Parking - Travelling by car is relatively straightforward and the Museum is a short drive from the Mancunian Way/M602 and Princess Park Way (A5103), both of which will eventually connect you to the M60. 

There are two car parks about 5 minutes walk away - the University's own one on Booth Street West (£3 for 3 hours) or the NCP on Booth Street East (£2.40 for 2 hours).  

2 hours free parking can be found slightly further away on the side streets near the Royal Northern College of Music and Manchester Metropolitan University (Rosamond Street West, Higher Chatham Street, Lower Ormond Street, Cavendish Street).  If you go on the weekdays when the Universities are open these parking spaces are generally busy, but on the weekend you can take advantage of the single yellow line parking, although check parking signage for restrictions to avoid any parking tickets.

Museum information:
Details of opening times and exhibitions can be found on their website - follow link.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Withington, Greater Manchester

We'd originally intended to go to Cheadle, though after getting stuck on Upper Brook Street for 45 minutes, time was ticking on and we decided to sack that one off and go to Withington instead.

Many moons ago in the late 1990s, I lived in Withington in a smelly shared house with a group of current and ex-students.  Funnily enough that's how I got to meet Neil, but that's a story for another time.  On the whole it was fun, although the bathroom was a nightmare on many levels - six people, one bathroom; the ceramic snake at the end of the bath did not help with my snake phobia; and there was the time when the it was invaded by mushrooms which popped the tiles off the wall.  Eventually I left, in part due to Withington as I witnessed a scary incident in the local shop and the local kids were becoming a nightmare.  Once I had to step over a group of them as they were lying across the pavement.  So it was interesting to see how much it had changed.

Getting to Withington from the centre of Manchester is easy - just head down Oxford Road onto Wilmslow Road and keep on going.  Withington is on possibly the busiest bus route in Europe so you hardly have to wait more than a couple of minutes for a bus.

I couldn't seem to find a car park in Withington, but with so many residential streets close by it’s not hard to find a parking space.  In and around Copson Street there are also one hour free parking bays, so we did that.

I think there are two distinct parts to Withington – Wilmslow Road and Copson Street. 

Copson Street is a scruffy little street which is home to the nearest mini supermarket - the Cooperative (formerly Somerfield when I lived there).  I popped into the local fruit and veg shop and bought a mini rose bush for £1.99 which was a bargain.  The florist doubled as a general store type of shop.  The local bakery looked really nice and I loved how they were selling individual portions of their cakes.  It can be too much buying a whole cake when there are only two of you to eat it, so individual versions are a brill solution as you can buy what flavour you want without stuffing your face.  I honestly think you should support these local shops as often they can be cheaper than the supermarket and you buy the amounts you need as things are sold loose.

Wilmslow Road in Withington is rather narrow and as I recollect you would often get stuck on the bus trying to pass through.  The shops along here are marginally classier than on Copson Street.  There is a little boutique called Mockingbirds which stands out with its vintage inspired designer clothes.  Fuel vegetarian café bar was busy with customers.  It’s also known as a small music venue with events on most nights.  Typical of a student suburb, there was still a launderette going.  These are now a dying breed.  It’s hard to find places where you can wash and dry a large duvet, other than pay extortionate prices at a dry cleaners.  You might as well go out and buy a new one instead.

One thing is for sure, we were spoilt by the number of charity shops in Withington as there are loads and some we'd never heard of.  Neil didn't have much success, although he did spot a Kingbee customer looking for cheap records.  I'm a fan of travel books and I found a book about the Pennine Way by the poet Simon Armitage.  I think he’s great and has the most fabulous Yorkshire accent when he reads his poems on the radio.  Other than that there wasn't much to catch our eyes.  Although I did notice an Asian lady buying a rather nice vintage dressing table in one of the charity shops.  There wasn't much in the way of overheard conversations either, but clearly there were regulars who came in to chat to staff about holidays and general stuff.

Withington is an interesting place in terms of residents, as for two thirds of the year it’s vibrant with the transient students who live in the large Victorian terraces and flats that surround the centre.  I used to live on Lausanne Road and when we walked down the road there were loads of 'To Let' signs.  Outside one house there was a skip full of old mattresses and broken furniture.  It seemed the landlord was preparing for their new intake of students in September.  For the other third of the year Withington is very quiet and at this time you notice who the real local residents are, many of whom live on the council estates near Yew Tree Road. 

As we were visiting in August, it was the locals we noticed and to be honest they are far more interesting than the fresh-faced students.  There was an older gentleman dressed head to toe in beige - overcoat, trousers and even waistcoat, although he was wearing a white shirt too.  We’d spotted him wandering through the charity shops chatting to staff.  Surprisingly he had a taxi waiting for him.  The taxi had a Lancashire taxi licence plate, so I think he, like us, was visiting old haunts.  

So had anything changed in about 16 years?  Yes and no.  The old cinema, where we once accidentally walked into a showing of "Saving Private Ryan", had been demolished and was just a boarded up wasteland.  However odds on there will be flats built there shortly.  The White Lion pub has become a mini Sainsburys.  Pop Art record shop has closed.  The second hand book shop has gone too.  Many bars have come and gone, but the Victoria and Albert Pubs remain along with the estate agents and array of fast food outlets.   

Some places become gentrified over the years, but not Withington.  I think with the transient student community, businesses fly in and out of the place trying to make a fast buck.  However there is a constant with the working class community who live here and keep the place ticking over and stop the place from becoming too pretentious (a good thing in my book). 

Withington is a mish-mash of cheap shops, fast food outlets and bars, not like its classier neighbours Didsbury Village and West Didsbury just up the road.  Just walking along Wilmslow Road you're visually assaulted by all the shop signs vying for your attention.  There is nothing subtle about Withington. It's a functional place that serves a purpose and the sort of place you pass through unless you are born there.  I really can't get wistful about the place with my having previously lived there; that's reserved for Sheffield anyway.  It served a purpose, which I'm grateful for and thank for being a part of my life, but life moves on and so has Withington.  

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Alderley Edge, Cheshire

Whilst Wilmslow can be a bit chav-bling-tastic, Alderley Edge is like its classier cousin. It's the  Posh Spice to Ginger Spice.  Funnily enough Victoria Beckham lived in Alderley Edge back in the day when David played for Manchester United.

Yes - Alderley Edge is very much a part of the 'footballers and new rich' set.  In Cheshire, Alderley Edge is locally known as being a part of the golden triangle, which includes Hale Barnes and Knutsford.  Much of the wealth is concentrated here and it's no wonder it's considered one of the wealthiest areas in the UK.

Getting to Alderley Edge is relatively straightforward if you come from Wilmslow as you just go down the Alderley Road onto the A535 and then on the B5087.  Or if you are coming from Manchester - M60, exit junction 3 onto the A34, then pick up the A535 and B5087.  It's probably quicker using the latter route as you can use the Handforth bypass.
Parking is relatively straightforward as there is a little pay and display car park we tend to use behind the main shops.  However last time we went it did have some terrible pot holes.  Actually you might be better using the car park at the little Waitrose on the main road.  

Our car seemed conspicuously out of place amongst all the flash cars with personalised number plates.  For some people in Alderley, they park where they like and there was one woman who was unconcerned that her 4x4 had received a parking ticket.  It sure would be nice not to worry about such "trivialities".  

If you are stopping at Alderley Edge it does make a good afternoon lunch location as it has loads of bars and restaurants to choose from.  We'd already eaten beforehand, but I quite liked the look of the Botanist.  I couldn't help but notice many places offered your standard pub menu, but with a twist and fancy presentation.  If you have the right connections, you could seriously clean up here if you opened a bar/restaurant.  Instead we went to Costa for a cold drink as it was really hot and sticky that day, so much so I felt like I was having a hot flush.
Costa was fairly busy, caffeinating the neighbourhood.  One lady was nursing her coffee, scrolling through her smart phone, whilst another was on her laptop trying to type through the racket made by the neighbouring large family.  The family looked like visiting walkers having a break.  Just above Alderley is a National Trust site called the Edge.  Essentially it's an escarpment where you can get a great view of the Cheshire Plains and beyond on a good day.  It's also known as a supernatural attraction and there are plenty of legends about the place including the Wizard of the Edge.  It's just off the Macclesfield Road out of the village.  You can either follow the signs or stop where you see loads of cars on the side of the road.  We weren't feeling that adventurous on a hot summer's day, so we stayed in the village.

The village has a long history and goes back to the bronze age.  There are some lovely buildings in the town.  I particularly like the stone built building which houses a branch of Barclays Bank.  Further up is the 19th century tudor style building, which is home to the De Trafford pub, part of the Chef and Brewer chain.  I do keep meaning to try this place out as the Chef and Brewer food is generally pretty good.
Now when it come to charity shops, Alderley Edge is in the premier division.  If you are a size 8 to 10 go to Barnardos and bring your credit card.  Seriously it's the best charity shop for designer women's clothes I've seen.  The shop was naturally packed, but Neil was waiting outside as it doesn't do vinyl records. 

There are a number of charity shops in Alderley Edge, but the newest edition is an Oxfam.  We'd noticed the Oxfam in Wilmslow wasn't as good as it used to be and the book section was no longer as extensive.  It seems with the opening of the branch in Alderley Edge, the book section has transferred to here.  I liked it and so did Neil as he managed to pick up some vinyl records.  I think it was the first time he found anything here as I've always equated posh towns and villages to crap music taste.  Nantwich being an exception, but I do think that was a one-off-someone-died donation.

As you go on the charity shop trail in towns, you  recognise other people on the same trail.  This time it wasn't a person I recognised, but a lovely beagle dog whose owner traipsed from shop to shop hanging outside each shop waiting for his wife who was busily trawling through the shops.

The majority of Alderley shops are independently owned and reflect the demographic of the place.  There was a cheese shop, running shop and a rash of estate agents.  Nothing is just a simple shop - a home wear shop is an interior design shop. A kitchen shop was described as selling "exquisite bespoke kitchens".  Even the local bakery was serving up some lovely looking baked goods I've never seen in a local bakery.  You can't help but admire the spin they do to make things classier than they are.
Alderley Edge is clearly classier than its neighbouring town Wilmslow.  It's more low key, with dashes of designer style.  I couldn't help noticing the locals were promenading down the street in their high class smart casual clothes holding the designer bag of the moment.  I'm sure there's an internal social politics that would be interesting to unpick here, but that's for another time.  I can also imagine Alderley Edge does draw wannabe WAGS who stop over at the Premier Inn in the hope of picking up a Premiership footballer in a local bar.  Not that I would recognise a footballer if I bumped into one.  Seriously football is an overrated sport and has completely jumped the shark in terms of respectability and integrity.  I've been to two football matches in my life, once to Manchester City and the other time to Manchester United.  The only reason was to accompany my brother who had no one else to go with - he was desperate and I considered it a charitable act.

Alderley Edge is a lovely part of the world, far enough from the hustle and bustle of Manchester, but handily on a quick rail route to the city.  You can quite easily see why it has become the desirable neighbourhood of choice for the wealthy.  However I'm in no doubt there is a local snobbery and obsession with conspicuous consumption, which taints this lovely place.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Ashton-Under-Lyne, Greater Manchester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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