Sunday 25 November 2012


I should have really checked the distances and times properly before driving up to Whitehaven from Grange-Over-Sands. We should have really stopped off at a couple of places on the journey up. I should have really tried harder to over take the Danish car in front of me which was going terminally slow.  Then again it is hard to find a place on the A595 to overtake with all the twists and turns on the road. I practically punched the air when they finally turned off at St Bees. Then again we should have turned off there too as St Bees is supposed to be a lovely place.  On the plus side of the one and a half hour journey it was a pretty drive.  The A595 harks back to 60s and it's scenery you'd find in an episode of "Heartbeat".  The weather was also good with pretty blue skies.  At Egremont I did find the cheapest petrol in Cumbria,  Although passing by Sellafield was a bit spooky for obvious reasons.

Whitehaven is a harbour town on the Cumbrian coast.  Technically it isn't a part of the Lake District although it's not too far from Ennerdale Water.  Whitehaven has a compact town centre that is part pedestrianised. The buildings reminded me of the old buildings in Dublin close to the River Liffey, with their rendered frontages painted in various colours. If it hadn't been a bright and sunny day I think Whitehaven could have been a bit depressing.  It has a down-at-heel edge despite the obvious regeneration monies being pumped into tarting up the town.

We parked on the edge of the town centre near the Leisure Centre in the pay and display car park. It was a short walk into the centre where we found a mix of local shops from a tattoo parlour to cafes and little gift shops. There was an outdoor market too, but is wasn’t particularly inspiring as it was full of the usual cheap tat.

The charity shops weren't very exciting to be honest with you. Although that day they weren't particularly busy as the elusive summer sun drew people outside to the pubs and BBQs.

Whitehaven is a down-to-earth town with some chav type elements. One man with his chest puffed out was walking a staffy type dog.  The dog was showing its dominance by barking at all the other dogs.  One brave street artist asked whether the chap wanted a portrait of his dog, but the dog owner declined.  For some bizarre reason I had an image in my head of him and the dog looking rather proud from an oil painting over his mantelpiece.  Although in reality the spot above the mantelpiece would be pride of place for the 50 inch plasma telly.

The harbour was lovely and it should be with the amount of regeneration money that had clearly been pumped into the town. There were banners along the harbour front indicating the Olympic torch had been along here. There were plenty of seagulls making a nuisance of themselves. One psychopathic seagull was terrorizing all the other birds.  Another regurgitated its food to share with another seagull and then ate it again. They are so disgusting and this did nothing to quell my seagull phobia.

We did notice a pub called the Vagabond with a painted sign of the cover of Bob Dylan’s "Nashville Skyline" album. I bet this place did some live music, although I did think Whitehaven could be a hairy night out at times.

If it weren't for the sunshine I don’t think this would have been such a nice place to visit. Definitely take in a few towns on the way there to break up the monotony of the journey. I'm still kicking myself we didn't visit St Bees, which is the beginning of the coast-to-coast walk.  My friend spent her honeymoon walking the coast-to-coast raising lots of money for Christie's Hospital and the Bolton's Women's Refuge in Bolton.  Her fine, if not barking mad, efforts were justifiably splashed over the local press, although she did draw the line at Granada Reports filming her wedding.

It's worth visiting Whitehaven, but make sure you visit a few other towns to break up the journey, although Sellafield doesn't quite float my boat.

Sunday 18 November 2012


Todmorden is nestled in the Pennines on the border between Lancashire and Yorkshire.  Over the years it has been in both these counties at some point.  After the last boundary change Todmorden is now in West Yorkshire under Calderdale Council. 

Over the years I’ve been known to pop by Todmorden when in the neighbourhood.  I have had ambivalent feelings towards it, but finally I’ve begun to warm to the place.  Its neighbouring town is the rather quaint and middle-class Hebden Bridge.  The gentrification effect of Hebden Bridge has begun to make inroads into Todmorden and it has begun to polish up its act.  Whilst it doesn’t have the quaint prettiness of Hebden Bridge, it has an eccentric element to it which may explain why the locals nickname it ‘Oddmorden.’ 

One thing which is distinct about the town is the large railway bridge that cuts through the town. Apparently it used to have lots of railway stations around the town as it was a hub for a few railway lines. The town itself is built from the local stone, so it has that Pennine town character which is distinctive.

Todmorden has a market which is both indoor and outdoor.  If you have read previous blog entries, you may know I have ambivalent feelings towards markets.  This one is a nice mix between the cheap tat, interesting vintage, alternative and farmers market style.  The indoor market is nice; whilst it’s not huge it has a good mix of stalls.  As you enter the market there is a smart looking coffee stall selling proper coffee and also a little florist too.  There was a wool stall where I managed to pick up some cheap wool for my epic knitting project.  Outside amongst the cheap tat stalls you can find some nice homemade cakes, weirdy beardy mystical stuff and craft stalls.  A rather bizarre sight was of a toy Collie dog tied to the railing advertising dog beds for £2.99. Top marks to Todmorden for this market.
Clearly as Hebden Bridge is the nice shiny, high achieving and middle class cousin to Todmorden’s slightly scally, working class roots, the town has bucked up its ideas.  There was a little cobbled street in Todmorden which now possesses an art gallery, nice gift shops and Thai restaurant-cum-pub.  We also found an antique shop round the corner that had a mad, mounted badger head.  I dare not think whether it was real or not – as you can see it was truly scary.

Next to the antique shop is the Bear Café, a nice vegetarian café that also doubles as a whole food and health shop with lots of natural lotions and potions.  I managed to get some tea tree oil and Dead Sea mud stuff for my troublesome scalp.  The frontage to the shop was lovely with its double fronted Victorian windows and restored original sign above the shop. 

There are a few charity shops in the town and whilst there is nothing wildly exciting to report it’s nice to have a potter round them.  If you are into vintage you’re bound to find something to catch your eye.

Oddly enough the local off-licence does some nice wine.  I always remember we picked up a good bottle of wine called Giddy Goose Sauvignon Blanc from here years ago.

On previous visits we have found quite a good second hand bookshop on the edge of town.  You can’t miss it as it has that old style transparent yellow blind which is to stop the stock fading in the sun.  I hope it’s still there.
On the outskirts of the town, up a little road and on the side of the hill is the Top Brink pub.  It has been going for years and seemed to do well.  We’ve eaten there a couple of times and it does nice food – not quite your gastropub stuff just well-made food without the fuss.  It’s a lovely pub in the middle of nowhere with fab views of the Pennine Hills and sheep.

Whilst Todmorden is not as slick and smart as nearby Hebden Bridge, it has bags of character with lots to interest visitors.  There is a micro-brewery and art gallery called Bare Arts - I love the odd fusion of beer and art.  The fact it has been going 12 years shows there must be something in it. The town also has its own community theatre called the Todmorden Hippodrome, which holds regular amateur shows and has a youth theatre.  Once you get under the surface of a town you find these little gems that makes the place vibrant.  I’ve definitely warmed to this little town, although it was a shame the weather was so dull the day we went.  So when you’re next passing through Todmorden on your way to Hebden Bridge, take a pit stop here and have a wander – it’s definitely worth a visit.

Sunday 11 November 2012


I took the A451 from Stourbridge to Kidderminister, which was a lovely leafy road through the countryside.  I managed to hit three counties on that road: Staffordshire, Worcestershire and the West Midlands.  It’s a beautiful run with a few pubs en route offering lunches.  The roadside borders were alive with elderflowers and poppies punctuating the hedgerows.  It was a perfect example of the English countryside.

Somehow I managed to take the wrong turning and ended up in Wolverley.  So a quick spin round on a roundabout and I was back on the right route.
I don’t know what I was expecting from Kidderminster, but it wasn’t this.  The name Kidderminster sounds quite affluent and leafy, but in reality it wasn’t a well-to-do place.  On the route into the town centre there was a really scruffy row of shops with dodgy looking shops.  One shop was called Amsterdamned – I can only assume it was a hydroponics shop.

I parked at the Swan Shopping centre.  Again, like Stourbridge, it was one of those awful 70s built concrete precincts and as ever was fairly uninspiring.  The main shopping streets were pedestrianised and there was an outdoor market selling cheap tat.  I did notice there were hi-vis tabards available for kids with phrases like ‘Daddy’s Little Helper’ in both yellow and vivid pink.  

There was a poster promoting a John Denver tribute act due to play in the town.  I’m curious to find out why would anyone want to be a John Denver tribute act and also why would then would they play Kidderminister of all places?  Then again the legendary Robert Plant comes from Kidderminister, so it's probably not that odd.  The musical life of a town can be rather bizarre at times. 

Looking up you could see how the old original buildings were incorporated into the new featureless buildings.  I assume that was something the town planners insisted upon when the precinct was being built.  That said the town hall did look nice and historic. 
There was a big retail park to the rear of the main pedestrianised shopping area – M&S, Next, DW Sports shop and fitness and Debenhams.  I found myself in Debenhams browsing the racks and bought myself a top to go with my brown boots.  It was quite odd not having Neil with me.  I’m so used to him looking bored and posting on Facebook whilst I’m shopping.  In Holland and Barratt I saw a distressing sight of a fat bloke in a vest – it was not a good look unless you are David Beckham.

I grabbed a bite to eat in Frankie and Benny’s as I was starving and needed something to cheer myself up as it was turning into a depressing visit.  Although I think the staff weren’t used to people eating alone.  That’s something I find annoying in restaurants as they are not geared up for solo diners - it’s as if I had leprosy or something. 

Charity shops were plentiful in this town.  One old lady in a charity shop had clearly made the effort in her appearance to go out shopping, which was nice to see.  I’m still kicking myself as I did not buy a pair of bright yellow, glass vases I spotted in one charity shop.  If they had been cheaper I would have definitely bought them.
Time was running out on my car park ticket and I was quite glad to go.  Kidderminster was a non-descript town and any heritage the town had was subsumed into a red brick precinct hell.  The place was definitely more chavvy than Stourbridge.  I can hazard a guess local people tend to head to nearby Birmingham on a Saturday afternoon rather than spend time shopping here.

Sunday 4 November 2012


Neil was going to the annual Kaleidoscope meet up in Stourbridge and I didn't want a repeat of last year.  He managed to get on the wrong train home and ended up going south instead of north.  Only by the miracle of Blackberry, when I was at my friend’s fortieth birthday party, I got him on the right train home.  This time I was driving, so if we got lost, we’d be lost together.

Before the journey had started I was having problems with Google maps and iPhone maps as they were giving me some torturous route through Wolverhampton centre.  “Sod that” I thought as it was a sure fire way of getting lost.  I wanted lots of motorway with minimal A routes.  Indeed I found a route that was five miles longer, but five minutes shorter with little chance of getting lost – perfect!

Anyway M60, M62, M6 (a road I have always called the work of the devil and which most people would agree with), M5, Junction 3, A456 and A491.  Apart from the variable speed limit on the M6 (shakes fist at the devil) and some road works on the A491 we got there in a little over 2 hours.

We parked in the Ryemarket multi storey car park.  It was one of those grim 70s concrete hells with the most awkward supporting pillars that makes it difficult to open car doors.  A lovely old lady gave us her pay and display ticket for us to use - what a great start to our trip!

We found the Talbot Hotel in the heart of Stourbridge and I bade farewell to Neil.  I wasn't fussed about spending seven hours watching old telly clips and rare Top of the Pops shows as I had plans – there were two towns to visit.  The first being Stourbridge and the other being Kidderminster.  Not exactly Northern towns, but I can encroach into the Midlands from time to time.

Stourbridge town centre is surrounded by a ring road; you could say it’s a modern day moat cutting the town centre off from the rest of the town.  Later that day I was seriously cheesed off by that ring road as it was difficult to find the right turn off for the car park when I returned from Kidderminster.  It can really do your head in trying to remember which lane to keep in for the turn off.

Back to Stourbridge – admittedly it wasn't the most exciting town in the world.  There was a 70s precinct hell in the shape of the Ryemarket.  It had a mouse mascot called Ryely, which in truth looked a bit scary.  The public toilets were clean and well maintained, although they had the weakest hand dryers known to man.  There was a Waitrose which is my barometer of affluence, but I didn't see much signs of it in the town.
The high street had the most proliferation of shops.  There were lots of charity shops and I popped into a couple.  I noticed wool seemed to be a popular donation in this town.  Although without Neil to check out the records I can’t say whether the shops were good, bad or indifferent on the musical front.

I did try to find somewhere to eat, but there wasn't an amazing selection.  I did eventually have a coffee in Costa on my return from Kidderminster and I managed to confuse the staff with my drinks order – soya, decaf, cinnamon latte.  Poncey I know, but that’s how I like it.  I did notice a bookshop not only doubled as a coffee shop, but also offered a counselling centre and pregnancy support service.  I know bookshops are struggling and need to diversify, but this goes to another level of multi-tasking.  Admittedly I do think it’s a brilliant idea and if this manages to keep the bookshop open good on them.

It’s a down to earth town that’s a bit chavvy in parts.  I did notice one strange, old lady with white hair styled with tight curled hair to the front with long, straight hair at the back.  It was quite a bizarre look and she looked fierce.  It was as if she found a style she liked in the 60s and is resolutely sticking with it.

The buildings were a mish-mash of styles, era and sizes, all of which were tightly packed together to make up the streets.  There was a little arcade which ran between a couple of streets with a charity shop, café and spiritual centre, which was nice.  Although there was the saddest looking market called Smithfield Market tucked away on a side street.  Only a handful of purpose built stalls were open selling handmade jewellery, cards and reading glasses.  How they could make ends meet I’ll never know.  

Stourbridge is really missing a proper shopping experience as you would be hard pressed to do all your Christmas shopping here.  Although I did notice on my many circles of the ring road there was a rather large building site and I'm hoping this is a new shopping centre as Stourbridge does need some retail revitalisation.

Finally 7pm came and I retrieved Neil from the Talbot hotel.  He had a great day watching old Top of the Pops episodes and chatting to his friends, whilst annoying the other people at the event with their animated banter.  I too had an interesting time doing solo town visits; however I did miss having Neil on my travels as you need to share this sort of thing with another person.  Next year I think Neil will be risking the railway to get to Stourbridge and now at least he has his own Blackberry to find his way home.