Sunday 29 December 2013

Ulverston Revisited

The last time we went to Ulverston it was on a Sunday afternoon and the town was dead.  As it’s just outside of the Lake District, it doesn’t operate on the same opening hours.  This time we went on a Tuesday and the shops were open, so it was a good start.

Parking was very straightforward as we got a space in the little car park just off the main roundabout in Ulverston.  It was a pay and display car park, but it was cheap for two hours.
Ulverston is your typical stone built Cumbrian town.  Some of the narrow cobbled streets in the centre of town have been pedestrianized.  At the centre of the town is a sort of cobbled square up a hill with a monument to the soldiers who died in the First World War at the top.  I like the hodge- podge architecture in Ulverston as it gives the place an identity and real character.
Ulverston is jam packed full of little shops and as a result you don’t get many high street chain shops cluttering up the streets.  There is plenty to see here.  There will be a craft based shop of your choice somewhere.  However we managed to miss the indoor market, not because it wasn’t open – it’s only closed on a Wednesday and Sunday, but it was because we were diverted by the antique and charity shops.  Apparently there is also an outdoor market on a Thursday and Saturday too.  If you are looking to do a big food shopping, Booths supermarkets can be found on the edge of town.  I do like Booths supermarkets as you can really find nice and interesting stuff in them.  I always think they are like a northern Waitrose.

There are plenty of charity shops in Ulverston, however my favourite one is the Oxfam.  It’s has a spiral staircase to get between the floors and it does good books. The book and music section is in the basement, so we had a good root through the stock and I picked up a couple of books.  Neil managed to pick up some books for a change.  I have to say the charity shops did seem pretty busy with people browsing for a Tuesday.
If you like collecting antiques Ulverston is a place for you.  Some shops are just vintage shops (trendy old stuff), but some are proper Antique shops (expensive old stuff) with serious prices.  My favourite shop is just off the main town centre called John C Jackson Antiques.  It’s a big room packed with stuff made for endless browsing, although Neil didn’t find much in terms of records.  It’s always worth popping in to see what they’ve got.

Last time we went to Ulverston I had a bad food experience, however this time we went to Poppies Café instead.  When we looked into Poppies it seemed to be a friendly and busy place.  There were some old ladies having their weekly catch up over some celery soup and a new mother was having a well-deserved coffee whilst tending to her baby.  I ordered one of the specials - venison and cranberry sausage with mash and gravy.  It was really tasty and it was a generous portion so Neil managed to eat some of it too.  He had ordered fish and chips, but I think he preferred what I had.  This place is definitely a place to visit.
If you are looking for a night out, Ulverston has plenty of pubs and little restaurants.  I can imagine on a Friday or Saturday night it can be a lively enough place.  Although with Barrow-in-Furness down the road I’m sure that is where the young people go for the crazy nights out in this part of the world.
Ulverston definitely suffers from being off the main Lake District tourist trail, but has evolved its own local identity with independent shops, markets and local produce.  I know I wasn’t that complementary last time we visited, but it’s about choosing wisely the day you visit.  Sundays are a no-no, but either Saturday or Thursday with the outdoor markets on would be the best time to go.

Sunday 15 December 2013

Keswick, Cumbria

As always with driving through the A roads in the Lake District it takes longer than anticipated to get to your chosen destination.  From Grasmere we took the A591 to Keswick and it’s a joy to drive through wonderful scenery especially in the autumn when the landscape turns to red and gold. 

We’ve been to Keswick on a number of occasions as it’s a nice place.  I find visiting it on a weekday is much more preferable than on the weekend when it’s mad busy.  This time I remembered to avoid the expensive car park at the Pencil Museum and parked at the pay and display behind the main town square. 

Keswick is an excellent base for exploring the northern Lake District.  I keep promising to stay here for a weekend as there is plenty to do in the evening in terms of restaurants, pubs and cultural activities.  Plus there is an absolutely lovely lake, Derwent Water, on the edge of the town.

On the charity shop front I swear there are fewer shops than the last time we visited.  This town seems to be free of the worst ravages of the recession and therefore fewer opportunities for charity shops to move in.  The Oxfam, just off the main town square, is about the best charity shop in town.  It’s a bit overpriced where vinyl records are concern, but there were loads to go through and I had to leave Neil for a good half hour or so to have a good browse.  It also has a great selection of books. 
Keswick has plenty of antique and vintage shops too.  You need to explore the side streets to find them.  I liked Magpie as it was a welcoming jewellery and vintage shop with cubby holes filled with stock.  Unfortunately for Neil all the records in the antiques and vintage shops were again overpriced.

If you are a book lover Keswick will spoil you for choices.  As I mentioned before the Oxfam is a great place to pick up second hand books.  Bookends, just further down the road from the main town square, is a good place to pick up new books and often they will be discounted.  Keswick Bookshop can be a little hard to find as it’s actually above the Skipton Building Society on Station Street.  It’s a good place if you like to pick up out of print collectables.

There are plenty of restaurants and cafes in Keswick, so you are never at a loss to find whatever you like.  We grabbed a bite to eat from The Lakes Fish and Chip shop behind the Moot Hall.  We both had fish and chips and I have to say they were really nice.  I’m not a big fan of chippy chips, but these were lovely.  I do think it helped we had them straightaway as chips do go horrible and soggy when they have been wrapped up for any length of time.  We would definitely go back there again.  Although I did pick up some decaf coffee from a local café, but it wasn’t very nice.  Then again decaf coffee can be bitter at the best of times, but if badly made it’s undrinkable stuff.
Keswick is really brill for independent shops and this is the place to go if you want to pick up souvenirs or presents.  You can pretty much find anything here from handmade soaps, Peter Rabbit memorabilia to walking equipment.  No wonder this place is really busy at the weekends.

The only downside to Keswick is the dodgy reception for O2 phones, although stand outside WHSmiths and you can get The Cloud wifi.  Neil was struggling through the holiday with his enforced digital detox.
Keswick is a nice busy, lake side town with loads to offer the whole family.  Be warned as the weekends during the main tourist season are exceptionally busy, but visiting on the weekday is far preferable although you may miss out on the outdoor market.

Sunday 8 December 2013

Grasmere, Cumbria

Grasmere is known for its association with William Wordsworth, but the first time I’d ever heard of the place was in the lyric of another poet, Morrissey, from The Smiths song ‘Panic’.  So the phrase ‘Hopes may rise on the Grasmere’ always runs through my head when I think about the place.  I first came to Grasmere in the early 90s with my parents for my birthday and I found it a really peaceful and beautiful place, so I like to pop there whenever I’m in the neighbourhood.

Parking is very straightforward in Grasmere, turn off the A591 and to the right is a big pay and display car park with space for coaches.  I did take the liberty to park next to the most glorious vintage silver Bentley.  There were teddy bears on the back seat which was cute.   It’s such a delight to see these cars out and about. It makes such a change from the hordes of Ford Focus’s and Vauxhall Corsas on the roads. 
There is a free public toilet next to the car park, but they weren’t the nicest.  There was a bit of a pong and they weren’t that clean as they’re heavily used.

Grasmere is definitely a tourist destination.  It has the Wordsworth Museum, which to be honest we swerved.  I’ve never been a fan of his romantic ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ sort of stuff and I don’t really get the whole traipsing round a house caught in a time warp with dusty papers under glass.  It’s probably a great museum, but I just wasn’t feeling it.
We wandered into the village where there were plenty of hotels, B&Bs and rental cottages.  If you wanted to live here I bet it must be very expensive to buy a house.

The village is full of independent shops geared for the tourist.  There was one shop called The Good Bag Co which sold nothing but jute shopping bags with catchy slogans for all occasions.  Herdy is a shop that sells products featuring a cute sheep motif.  I like the fact they use a simple idea and roll with it doing mugs, aprons, bags and anything else you can think of.  It’s the sort of place that could only work in a place like Grasmere or on the internet.  In actual fact it does both.  We found other places of interest like the bookshop, the antiques place and the galleries.  Really it’s a classy shopping experience.
Grasmere is famed for its gingerbread and there was a massive queue outside the shop.  A colleague had brought some into work and I tasted some.  Personally I’m not keen on ginger in sweet based products and this gingerbread didn’t convince me otherwise.  However Neil on the other hand liked it.  I guess if you’re into the whole ginger based cake stuff, this is clearly the place for you.

St Oswald’s church is a big draw for tourists as William Wordsworth is buried in the graveyard.  You really don’t have to search the graveyard for his grave, just look round and see where people are congregated as that’s where you’ll find him.  It’s quite an unassuming resting place for one of the poetry greats.
It was too early to have lunch, however we did end up having some English Lakes Ice Cream from a local shop.  I had mint and rum & raisin – it was very yummy.

Grasmere Lake isn’t that close to the village and is supposed to be about half a kilometre away according to the guide books (10 minute walk).  We went in the wrong direction and couldn’t find it.   Unfortunately time was pressing and we had to head back to the car.
I’m very tempted to spend a night or two here, as there are plenty of cafes, a few restaurants and pubs to while away an evening or two.  I can imagine myself sat here as the sun goes down having a glass of wine contemplating life. 

This place is in a stunning location and is overlooked by the rocky Helm Crag.  We were very lucky to catch this place on a beautiful day.  I can understand why it has been so inspirational to poets and artists.  I also completely get why Grasmere has developed into a middle class tourist ghetto.  However most of all I appreciate the way this place reconnects you back to the wonder of nature.  We will be back, but next time we’ll find the lake and have a glass of wine down the pub.

Sunday 1 December 2013

Ambleside, Cumbria

We have a soft spot for Ambleside having stayed in the place 9 years ago.  I consider it to be one of the key tourist towns in the Lake District.  It’s only a short drive from Windermere Town and is just a mile or so north of Lake Windermere. 

Driving through Ambleside is a bit confusing as there are lots of one way streets so you need to keep your wits about you to pick up the road signs. 
Parking is also a bit tricky, but we tend to use the car park behind the library as there is usually plenty of space.  Although if you have trouble walking up hills this car park is one to avoid as it’s very steep.
There are lots of B&Bs in the town and you can understand it with all the cafes, restaurants and pubs in the town.  You are spoilt for choice and can easily spend a few nights here sampling what it has to offer.
The Sunday when we  visited was mad busy with walkers and tourists.  If you are looking to buy walking or mountaineering equipment this is the place for you as there are plenty of shops catering for your needs.

Ambleside only has two charity shops:  Age UK and Oxfam.  Unfortunately only Age UK was open.  I know it’s a Sunday, but Ambleside is busy on a Sunday and I’m sure Oxfam could find a couple of volunteers.  Hey ho.  By the way, Neil found nothing exciting but I noticed it did stock some walking gear.
I’ve noticed over the years visiting Ambleside, high street chain shops are creeping in.  I always think  high street chains are so every day and can be found everywhere, whereas independent shops are unique and in the Lake District they often reflect the distinctiveness of the place.  I do think it’s important to keep Ambleside local, otherwise these high street chains just make the shopping experience bland.
Finally we were hungry and I had the urge for a Sunday lunch.  Surprisingly we were struggling to find a place we liked.  Pubs showing sports were a no-no and some places were just a NO.  Years ago we had a nice meal in Stampers restaurant which is tucked away in the basement of a building on a side street.  I remembered the food was nice, despite nearly concussing myself on one of the low alcoves.  This Sunday they were doing roast beef with all the trimmings so we ordered it.  Stupidly we didn’t have long on our parking ticket and time was counting down.  Our meal came out 15 minutes before our parking ticket was to expire.  Thankfully we are both fast eaters and it was a really lovely meal.  Sometimes I think I could eat a Sunday dinner without the roast meat as everything else is so lovely – Yorkshire puds, stuffing, pigs in blankets, gravy and vegetables.  I was surprised there weren’t more people eating here as the food was ace and it turned out to be one of the best meals we had on our holiday. We managed to eat our meals and pay the bill with three minutes to spare to run to the car.

I do like visiting Ambleside - it’s a great place to pick up gifts for people, you can get a decent meal here, and it’s a good place to base yourself on a holiday if you like having a nightlife.  Go visit and if you are here on a Sunday, go to Stampers as they do a lovely Sunday lunch.

Sunday 24 November 2013

Windermere Town, Cumbria

Up the road from Bowness-On-Windermere is WindermereTown.  Whereas Bowness is the main tourist trap for Lake Windermere, Windermere Town is more of a proper town with train station and supermarkets.

Parking in Windermere is easy with a car park close to the town centre and plenty of free on- street parking.  As it was a Sunday we managed to park on the street.  The good thing about the car park is that there are public toilets, which is handy after a long drive.  It may be 20p for the privilege of using them, but they didn’t smell and were well maintained.
The town itself is fairly self-contained with a one-way system, which helps the traffic as the streets are not wide.

Windermere has quite a few independent shops.  However as it was a Sunday and not a tourist trap half the shops were closed, including most of the charity shops.  Neil was somewhat disappointed by this fact. Then again visiting northern towns on a Sunday is always a lottery where shop openings are concerned.

We’ve been here a couple of times in the past and I was hoping to wander around the big Style Trading shop that dominated the town.  This time I was saddened to find it had now been converted into a Morrison’s supermarket, which is annoying as there is a Booths supermarket in the town too.  I used to love browsing the store for stuff, but wandering around supermarket aisles does not cut it for me.  I suppose it was on the cards as the shop with one of the largest floor spaces in Windermere, but these big supermarkets are like sharks snaffling up all the interesting shops and turning them into bland retail spaces.  It’s disappointing to see the corporatisation of the high street as it turns towns into identikit places.

Whilst it was a slack day on the shopping front, Windermere was doing swift trade in its various cafes and pubs.  The town is topped and tailed by a French and an Italian inspired cafe.  The weather was good and people were braving alfresco eating and drinking.  We were still stuffed from breakfast so we didn’t sample its delights.
Windermere Town proved to be brief visit in the end.  So in summary what can I say about the place?  It’s great for grabbing a bite to eat away from the hustle and bustle of Bowness, but not so brill to visit on a Sunday if you like some retail therapy.


Sunday 17 November 2013

Bowness-On-Windermere, Cumbria

You have to remember there are two towns by Lake Windermere - Windermere, which isn’t on the lake side but up the hill near the train station and Bowness-On-Windermere which is by the lake.  This fact has confused me before.

If you are looking for some retail action on a Sunday in the Lake District, Bowness-On-Windermere is one of the best places to go.  Everywhere is open and it’s always jam-packed full of people.
First and foremost, parking in Bowness-On-Windermere can be a pain.  We tried to get parked in the car park near The World of Beatrix Potter and failed miserably.  Bowness is a very popular destination and you really need to get here early.  In the end we drove up the hill towards Windermere and found a very tight spot on a side road at the edge of Bowness.  On the plus side it was free parking, on the down side it took me ages to squeeze into the space.
As we wandered down the hill the shops tended to be independent shops vying for the tourist pounds with their trinkets and hand-made crafts.  I can’t remember seeing any empty shop fronts and if there were any they were being refurbished.  Bowness is such a tourist destination you would have to be nuts not to be able to make a good living here.

The place is also full of cafes, restaurants and takeaways that even with the pickiest eater would find something to eat.
We were looking for charity shops and although we found a couple, one seemed to have closed down and had been replaced by a Pasty Presto.  That shows how busy a town is when charity shops close down to make way for new business ventures.
We dodged the traffic and managed to get to the edge of Lake Windermere.  Gosh it was really busy not only with tourists but also animals.  The ducks, geese and swans were busy mugging kids for bread and treats.  There were also a bird of prey sanctuary collecting funds to continue their work and they brought some owls out.  The owls were really beautiful creatures although I do have my reservations about keeping them in captivity.  I really hate birds being  caged or tethered, they are designed to fly and I have always been tempted to release them into the wild.

The lakeside was pretty impossible to have a stroll along so we found a little side street with a junk / cheap antique shop.  Neil found some records to browse through but they were just bobbins. 
Bowness-On-Windermere is definitely a good pit stop on a tour of the Lake District.  It has a beautiful lake where you can take a boat trip, there is the Beatrix Potter Experience for the kids, and there are plenty of shops and places to eat.  However the crowds can be pretty intense especially on a sunny day.  I’m not entirely sure if I would want to spend a weekend here, but without a doubt we’ll visit Bowness-On-Windermere again.


Sunday 10 November 2013

Kendal - Part Two

On our trip we have been revisiting different places and Kendal is one of those places.

I do worry about the town, in recent years it has become much quieter.  It was the last Saturday of the month and I was hoping to see a bustling town, but sadly not.  Where do the shoppers go if they don’t go to Kendal?  I’m mystified.
We parked in our usual pay and display spot near the Abbot Hall Art Gallery.  There was a bit of a nightmare with the pay and display machine as it wasn’t issuing tickets.  On previous visits we did notice they were very sharp with the parking tickets.  After an abortive attempt at phoning through to pay on the automatic payment system we just got tickets at the art gallery car park and hoped the parking attendant wouldn’t notice.
As ever there were plenty of charity shops, but they contained nothing too exciting.  We have noticed that a number of vintage / antique shops have sprung up and I can’t help but think they are regularly trawling the charity shops for goodies and reselling them at a much higher mark up.  That said we did find a vintage shop called ‘Junk and Disorderly’ and had a look.  I spotted some old music magazines called ‘Zig Zag’ from the 70s and 80s and pointed them out to Neil for a laugh.  What I didn’t expect was that he bought all 28 of them.  At least they did give him a discount for buying in bulk.  The magazines turned out to be a blessing in disguise, not that they are worth a fortune, but because of Neil’s enforced digital detox the Zig Zag’s kept him occupied during the holiday.
Kendal is full of empty shop fronts and I don’t expect them to be filled that quickly given the lack of shoppers.  Although it was nice to see the open air market in full swing selling not only the usual stuff but also local crafts and food.  Make sure to check out the little yards off the main street, as that’s where the interesting independent shops can be found.  How they keep going is anyone’s guess.
Public information alert!  The only public toilets I could find were in Westmorland ShoppingCentre.  Also the O2 signal is somewhat patchy – mainly GPRS, with a smattering of 3G if you hang outside a high window with the wind in the right direction.
Kendal – I do fret about you!  You’re a nice northern town in need of TLC, interesting shops and,  before I forget,  more shoppers. 

Sunday 3 November 2013

Cartmel – 100th Post!

I can’t believe I’ve made it to blog post 100.  So it’s quite apt the place I’m blogging about is my favourite place in Cumbria – Cartmel.

We’ve been to Cartmel before just on day trips, however we’d always promised ourselves to stay here.  So this year I booked Holly Cottage for late September, which is always a tricky time weather wise.
Getting to Cartmel is straightforward from Manchester – M61, M6 and A590.  Once you turn off the A590 to Cartmel it’s just country roads, not even B roads.  You do have to have your wits about you as there are twists and turns and the roads narrow on occasion.  I was nervous the first few times driving on these roads, but once you get used to them they are easier to navigate.
Our cottage was on the edge of Cartmel near Cartmel Priory.  It’s a beautiful location and the cottage overlooks a field.  The only problem was that it only had on-street parking and Cartmel can be really busy especially as the Michelin starred restaurant L’Enclume was just down the road.  A couple of times we had to park on the main road because of this situation.

The cottage itself was compact, but catered for our needs except it didn’t have Wi-Fi.  We didn’t realise that getting a mobile phone signal for the O2 network was impossible.  According the shop assistant in the Cartmel Village Shop you can only get Orange and Vodafone in Cartmel.  So it meant that I had to use a payphone for the first time this century to call my Mum.  We kept seeing people traipse up the hill with mobiles in hand desperate for a signal.  Although the Royal Oak and the Kings Arms do have free Wi-Fi, so we ended up spending every night in the pub just to connect to the virtual world.  I found it quite liberating to have an enforced digital detox, whilst Neil went through digital cold turkey.
Before you ask we didn’t go to L’Enclume restaurant.  We both have a few food issues and the restaurant doesn’t have a regular set menu.  Anyway you need to book months in advance to get a table.  They do have a more accessible restaurant called Rogan’s which is highly recommended by my best friend, but food issues again meant we didn’t try it.  However we did make friends with L’Enclume’s resident ginger cat called Ben.  On the previous occasions we had seen Ben the cat, but we only knew him as the Cartmel cat.  We googled him and found out his name and history.  Ben is getting old now and seems to have lost some of his teeth as his tongue protrudes from his mouth.  He did seem a little miserable when we were petting him when he was curled up on the cottage door mat.  However he seemed to be ‘on’ when he was sat on the window ledge of the cottage and he was happy to be stroked there.  He has a chilled out personality, but I always think ginger cats have a more outgoing personality than the average cat.

We ate at the Kings Arms and Royal Oak pubs.  Both the pubs have the same owner and they offer 10% discount if you get a discount card from the bar.  I guess it’s to ensure the locals eat here regularly.  I have to say the steak and ale pie from the Kings Arms was the best I’ve ever had.  My only complaint is that in both pubs they seemed to have some over eager members of staff.  At times I just wanted to say ‘will you just back off!’  I did manage to annoy one of the staff by interrupting him mid spiel to ask about the wine.  This really threw him and he tried to put me in my place by saying I will get to that.  That’s when I turned on the nuclear winter mode as I thought there was a hint of sexism in his tone.  Still the food was fine.
The Kings Arms really trades on its food and you really can’t drink at the tables until food service has finished.  They had a general knowledge quiz one night and surprisingly as there were no music questions we came 3rd. On the Saturday night it had a covers band on and I’m surprised they could fit it in, although there was a friendly bouncer on the door who seemed to be in his 60s.  He was telling customers about the times he used to do the door in Barrow.  Bouncing in Cartmel must be a walk in the park in comparison.  It really is a cosy pub and it mixes traditional pub with modern touches.  The Royal Oak is a much more traditional pub with its open fires and low beams. However the Kings Arms edges itself into the best pub in Cartmel position.

There are two other pubs in Cartmel – the Cavendish Arms and the Pig and Whistle.  We never made it to the Cavendish Arms as it always seemed empty.  On the other hand we made it to the Pig and Whistle several times.  It’s owned by the L’Enclume and they do food.  However we never got round to eating here.  We just had drinks although they did seem to have problems with the beer pumps as all the beer we had tasted of cider.  We ended up just having bottled beer.  This pub is dog friendly and we met a few pooches on our visits.  One retriever got excited when I walk through the door and jumped up at me.  Thankfully I’m used to over-exuberance from dogs as they always seem to like me, just a little too much at times.  One night there was an open-mic night for musicians.  There was an American bloke singing early Bruce Springsteen songs sounding remarkably like him, but looking nothing like him.  This pub attracted a much younger clientele who seemed to be on some sort of mission, even the bar staff.  One of the bar staff was an actor and had just got a part in a Sky Arts drama.  A London lady who sounded like Minnie Driver was permanently perched at the end of the bar holding court with the young professionals.
The shops in Cartmel weren’t your average shops.  The only real local shop for residents was the Londis.  Cartmel Cheeses doubled as a bakery and I bought the most amazing Danish I’ve ever had.  Although Neil couldn’t bear going near the place as he hates the smell of cheese and believe me it smelt really cheesey.  There was a wine shop that also doubled as a kitchenware supplier.  The Cartmel Village shop is full of food gift items and of course home of the world famous Cartmel Sticky Toffee pudding.  I found the best brown sauce ever by Hawkshead Relish, it’s even better than HP sauce. 
There was an antiques fair at the local community centre, which we had to pay to get in.  I didn’t find anything, although I was thinking this antiques fair was a rouse by the local pensioners to sell their bric-a-brac to top up their pensions.  There were signs across Cumbria promoting it and I was surprised they said it was just for a few days.  I bet it’s on throughout the year.
There is a river running through the village and young families would feed the ducks between Rogan’s and the Kings Arms.  At times it was like a duck riot going on and you could hear them quacking in the pub.  I think the ducks should have been nervous as Rogan’s did serve duck on their menu.

Cartmel Priory was just across from where we were staying.  It’s a beautiful building and when we wandered through it was full of old ladies preparing for Harvest festival celebrations.  It’s lovely to see a community come together, especially as they were trying to raise money to repair the roof of this lovely church.  The only problem with the church was the fact the clock chimed every hour of the day.  Neil kept waking up either at 3am or 4am because of the bongs. 
All in all Cartmel is about the loveliest place in Cumbria.   Grasmere is nice too, but overrun with tourists. Cockermouth is fab, but a pain to get to.   Whereas Cartmel is just picture postcard perfect, handy to get to and set in a beautiful part of the world where you can actually see the stars at night – well worth a stay! 

Sunday 27 October 2013

Grange-Over-Sands Revisited

Last year we had a brilliant holiday in New York, so when organising this year’s holiday I knew it was never going to meet the same level of fabulousness.  So what do you do after visiting the best place ever?  In our case, we headed off to the Lake District for the week.

For the past couple of years we’ve spent time in Grange-Over-Sands, which is a perfectly pleasant place.  However this time we decided to stay in Cartmel, which is apparently the most beautiful village in Cumbria.
Our first port of call was Grange-Over-Sands.  Astonishingly for the end of September in Cumbria the weather was beautiful.  Looking back at our other trips this was the first time I’ve ever seen the place in nice weather and it really makes a difference.
We did the charity shops and whilst they weren’t exciting I noticed one of the charity shops had closed since our last visit.  It’s always sad to see, but I remember from previous visits it was always a case of roulette whether it was open or not.  Now it’s a clothes shop.

As we were staying in a cottage, it was the first time we had a kitchen to cook in.  The great thing about the Lake District is that there are plenty of good food shops.  We were recommended a butcher in Grange-Over-Sands called Higginsons.  The shop was packed full of people and the stock looked way better than what you find in the supermarket.  We stocked up on sausages for breakfast and they were lovely especially the Welsh Dragon flavour.  I wish there were more butchers like this where we live.
Grange Bakery does good bread too – I think I preferred it to the fancy bakery at the Cheese shop in Cartmel and it’s cheaper too.  For general supplies there is a Cooperative mini supermarket in the town.  Not exciting but good for bits and bobs.  You really have to head to Ulverston or Kendal to do a proper big shop.
On the edge of Grange-Over-Sands there is a lovely café/cake shop called Hazelmere Café.  The café is always packed full of people, so we decided to get a cake take away.  Neil had a gluten free chocolate torte and I had a vanilla slice.  I had to say mine was lovely, but we decided to eat it by the nearby man-made lake.  This was a mistake as there were loads of insects and had very demanding seagulls trying to mug us for our cakes.  Unfortunately I managed to drop part of Neil’s torte, so the birds did have a feast on us.  I was surprised to find ducks that looked like Darth Vader with their sinister helmet-like heads.

There is a rather good bookshop in Grange called DaisyrootsBook Centre.  Spread over two floors it’s a nicely organised bookshop with space to move around.  There is nothing more overwhelming than a bookshop over stocked with books.  Normally I walk out of these shops as they are so oppressive and you can’t find anything.  However in Daisyroots you could easily spend hours browsing the shelves and actually find stuff.
We booked in the At Home Café and Bistro again for a meal.  As I was driving we didn’t get to sample their nice wine list.  I had lamb and Neil had steak and both were perfectly fine.  You do get plenty of veg with the main meals, which is good for me but Neil just had the potatoes. 

Sadly we didn’t get to the Commodore Inn, but it looks like they have regular bands on and events.  Whereas the scary sports bar from previous visits had been transformed into a bar that does food.

I have to say the weather makes a huge difference when visiting Grange-Over-Sands.  You can have a pleasant stroll, without darting into the nearest pub for shelter.  You also need to watch where you are going and try not to trip over the little balls of black fluff being walked by their owner.  I can’t believe you can get dogs that small and fluffy - they must be as light as a feather. When it’s grey and drizzly the place is deserted and your spirits sink.

It’s good to revisit places to see what has changed – in the case of Grange not much.  I doubt we will ever stay over in the town again, but we’ll definitely visit again especially as Higginsons the Butchers, and the Hazlemere Cafe are worth the trip.


Sunday 20 October 2013

Leek, Staffordshire

Technically it’s not the north, but Leek is only 13 miles from Macclesfield so we are back in Life in Midland Towns territory for this week’s blog post.

We took the A523 from Macclesfield to Leek.  It was a nice journey through the Staffordshire country side with spotted sheep scattered across the undulating hills.  I can’t ever remember seeing spotted sheep before.  We passed some cyclists clogging up the country lanes.  They were channelling their inner Bradley Wiggins on their high spec bikes and bedecked yellow lycra tops – never a good look on a middle aged man.
Leek is surprisingly industrial when you hit the outskirts of town with a chemical works and the disused mills.  In Cheshire or West Yorkshire those mills would have been converted into fancy flats, however in Leek the mills had broken windows and young saplings growing out of the roofs.  There was also a football club having a home game in a random football league I’ve never heard of (then again that could mean the premiership for all I know about football).

We were trying to find a car park, however we found a side street with no parking restriction close to the centre of town.  So we parked up for free and walked into the town centre.
We hadn’t a clue what to expect.  At the centre of town was a clock tower monument dominating the skyline, whilst one side of the road had a sixties style shopping centre and the other side had a hodge-podge of 18th and 19th century buildings.

The sixties style building was uninspiring and there were a few empty shop fronts.  On the other side it was more interesting.  There was a little cobbled side alley covered by a glass atrium, which had an array of independent shops, cafes and restaurants.  It provided a classy respite from the rest of town.
Leek is full of charity shops and we had a good root through them. Neil did find some cheap 7 inch 90’s singles to buy.  The shops were popular with the locals and I noticed a young family were going from shop to shop picking up cheap toys and clothes for their children.  That’s one of the unsung benefits of charity shops as they truly provide a social service for families in need.   
There are two markets in Leek – the outdoor market in the town square and the Butter Market, which is an indoor Victorian market for the regular traders.  I noticed the Butter Market had notice boards packed full of flyers for local events.  I guess these are what we used to use to find out what was happening in a town pre-internet days – how retro!  This Saturday the outdoor market was predominantly a second hand market with people selling collectables or bric-a-brac.  It’s like a miniature version of Huddersfield’s Saturday market.  However it was 3pm they were packing away for the day, so we pretty much missed it. 
Leek on the surface does look to be a town with chavvy elements.  You can’t escape the hard lived in faces of some of the local residents wandering through the town, some walking their staffie crosses or taking a drag on their mate’s e-cigarette.  There were kids determined to kill or at least maim themselves playing chicken with traffic on scooters.  However I did notice Leek had some classier elements with the little cobbled arcade, a side street with nice antiques shops and some boutique pet shops.  There was also a pop up shop, which is great to see as there is nothing sadder on the high street than a dusty closed down shop.  I was impressed to find an independent book shop too – gold star to Leek!
Leek is pretty much off the beaten track, the nearest city Stoke-on-Trent is over half an hour drive away and the M6 even further.  I really can’t imagine many visitors heading into town unless they were passing through or visiting family.  It does have some historic market town charm, apart from the 1960’s shopping parade, with nice traditional black and white pubs, mock Tudor Victorian buildings and a cobbled town square.  There appears to have been no major developments in the town centre in recent years.  Quintessentially Leek is how foreign tourists perceive an English market town to be, albeit a touch down at heel.  Would we come back again?  Only if we were passing through.

Sunday 13 October 2013


We’ve been here a few times and probably due to laziness I haven’t written about the place.  So I’m rectifying the situation.

Macclesfield is in that part of Cheshire that is a ball ache to get to – not close to any motorway and a myriad of ways to get there.  This time we went M60, A34, A555, A5149 and A523.  Sometimes I’ve come through Wilmslow and even travelled via Buxton on the A537.  The A537 is special, it’s nicknamed the Cat ‘n’ Fiddle and probably one of the most dangerous roads in the country.  Needless to say I loved driving down this road and it’s the kind of road that demands you to drink a gin and tonic at the end of it to celebrate completing it in one piece.  This is definitely a road for a person wanting to experience a Top Gear moment.
Back to Macclesfield – I’ve always had a mixed experience of the town.  Often it has been the last town on a day trip when half the charity and interesting shops have closed.  This time I made sure it was the first stop of the day.
We park on the edge of town near Chester Gate.  We got 2 hours parking for a £1 which is not bad.  In my opinion Chester Gate is the most interesting part of town.  I consider it Macclesfield’s equivalent of Manchester’s Northern Quarter – a bit rough round the edges but rocking an interesting vibe.

There are a number of charity shops along Chester Gate and some of which are for the more local ones.  I always like Windyway Trust shop as they always have pictures dotted around the shop of the cute animals they are looking after.  These charity shops are very busy, although you really have to be sharp to pick up a bargain or a collectable as there are a number of local vintage shops who no doubt scour these shops for antiques only to sell them for 10 times what they paid for them. 

The more mainstream charity shops such as Scope, Cancer Research and Oxfam are located in the centre of Macclesfield.  In Scope there was a dispute as a woman had thought she had left her mobile phone charger there earlier in the week.  The shop assistant insisted they had checked and there was no phone charger in the shop.  In the end the shop assistant had to stop the woman from going into the back room.  Sue Ryder shop on the edge of town is the largest of all the charity shops and does a good line in furniture.  If you are on a budget and need to pick up some cheap furniture this is the place to visit.
As I mentioned there are some Vintage shops on Chester Gate.  I’m somewhat disappointed with Macvintage as despite looking the part of a vintage shop they are seriously overpriced especially where vinyl records are concerned.  My favourite vintage shop along here is Déjà vu.  I’m still kicking myself for not picking up a Japanese embroidery picture I saw there.  Whilst it’s a narrow shop it is spread out over 3 floors and 6 rooms.  I love wandering from room to room and whilst we’re not talking high end antiques here they have some interesting items at what seemed to me reasonable prices.  Neil didn’t find anything to pick up from their collection of vinyl  though he did find some awful album covers to post on Facebook.  Déjà vu is definitely a place to visit.

As we wandered into town there were plenty of independent shops that have popped up.  The Big Issue seller was very scary sounding whilst he hawked his wares.  There are plenty of restaurants and cafes too to grab a bite to eat.  There is both a Caffe Nero and a Costa to rest your weary feet, along with some independent cafes which looked interesting.  We decided to get fish and chips from Silktown Fryer.  Whilst we did ask for a small portion of chips, we still got a mighty helping.  I have to say they were good too.

The main shopping area is a pedestrianized zone, which adds to a safer shopping experience.  Not surprisingly, in this economic climate, there are a number of empty shops dotted about.  This is not helped by the fact there is an out of town shopping area on the outskirts of the town.  The main shopping area isn’t the most thrilling shopping experience as it had standard high street chains vying for trade. 
Architecturally Macclesfield is a traditional market town with a hodge-podge of shops which have evolved over the centuries.  As a result this gives the place real character.  The Town Hall in the centre of town is a rather grand building, which looked more like a stately home than civic building. On the outskirts of the town there were some large Mill buildings and apparently Macclesfield used to be a hub for silk making.  Chester Gate being  a little rough round the edges has a few boarded up shops and pubs, but the locals have painted murals on the frontages which really helps to brighten up the place.

After this trip I’m really quite impressed with Macclesfield as it’s definitely working its independent shopping experience.  For me that is one of the best things about the place.  I do think the nice weather helped as rain and drizzle can really dampen one’s spirits when visiting northern towns.  No doubt we’ll be back at some point, especially as I’m still wondering if Déjà vu have that silk embroidery.


Sunday 6 October 2013

A Northerner in London Town - The Tourist Edition

A Northerner in London Town makes a brief return to Life in Northern Towns.  We took a weekend trip to London recently to visit my cousins from Canada and my brother and his partner who normally lives in Dublin.

It was my cousins’ first trip to London so obviously they wanted to do the tourist version of London.  When we first started to visit London we used to do all the tourist haunts.  However the more you visit London the more the city unfolds its secrets to you.  So it was a really nice change for us to see London again through the eyes of first time visitors.

The one thing a first timer needs to do when visiting London is not to use the Tube where possible.  It should only be used when you need to travel more than two miles.  Also you will not jump out of your skin at Chancery Lane tube station like I did when a rat scampered across the platform.  My preferred way to view London is on foot, however after four hours of constant pavement pounding this can be a chore.  My cousins decided to opt for the open top tour bus and whilst it's £28 for 24 hours access, I have to say I saw parts of London I'd never seen before.  Whilst it can be rather chilly on the top deck, it’s great to see London this way.  You can get to see the architecture of London and have some good photo opportunities.  My cousins liked the tour narration you get when you plug into the onboard sound system.  I liked how they gave you free headphones for it.  The tour bus we used also had a Thames boat trip as part of the deal, which my cousins thought was good.  Sadly we didn’t have the time to do this trip.

We decided to go up to the Tower of London on the tour bus, however the EDL decided to inconvenience us and we spent about an hour staring at the Shard as we inched ourselves towards Tower Bridge.  Unfortunately the bus had to turn back, so we jumped off the bus and headed toward the Southbank.

I really like the Southbank as you get some fab views of London and they have some good visitor attractions like the Tate Modern, Festival Hall and London Eye.  We walked along the Thames and the views meant that I went into over drive with Instagram - the Gerkin, City Hall and the melty car building. 

In all the times I've been to London I have never crossed Tower Bridge.  It really is an amazing and iconic structure in London.  Thankfully as there were some really dramatic clouds over London that day I got some magic shots of Tower Bridge and the Thames.  Unfortunately due to the EDL we missed out on visiting the Tower of London.  However my cousins managed to go there next day and they recommended the tour.

We also missed out on getting inside St Paul's Cathedral too as we were running late, but it is an amazing building.  I noticed one of the priest's stood on the steps of the cathedral chatting to one of his congregation.  It looks such an everyday moment, however the back drop of St Paul's provided a counterpoint to this scene.  You sometimes forget this is still a full operational church with masses and a congregation.

My cousins were staying by Westminster and it was great to see the epic Houses of Parliament and Big Ben up close and personal.  When I was a teenager I ended up going inside the building on a school trip and it really is a stunning building.  Nearby was Westminster Abbey and my cousins thought it was a really beautiful building.  I did have to remind them it used to be a Catholic church back in the day before Henry VIII started to get bored with his wives.  I always think Catholic churches and cathedrals really rock with their grandiose art, whereas Protestant churches are just a bit plain.

As my cousins are from Canada their history only goes back 200 years, whereas London goes back over 2000 years.  They came to London to experience the history this place has and I guess we sometimes take for granted the history, the architecture and the stories this place holds.

Covent Gardens is a must for tourists and as we wandered through it there was a  mass of humanity who had the same idea.  On a Saturday the crowds are mental and it's hard to push through the throng of people watching all the street entertainment.  We had a nice ice cream at Covent Garden market.  It has to be said Covent Garden is really intense on a Saturday and definitely more civilised to visit on a weekday.

Leicester Square turned out to be an excellent meeting place for everyone.  Whilst my cousins were staying in Westminster and my brother on the Southbank, we were staying at the Premier Inn next to Euston Station.  Leicester Square was a central place and is on the tube line.

We stayed at Premier Inn for a change as our usual hotel Ibis Euston was fully booked.  Whilst it doesn’t look much from the outside, inside the place was fine.  Check in was super quick as we had checked in online.  I like the fact you have to use your key card to access the lifts.  The rooms were functional, clean and comfortable.  Given that we spent the majority of our time in London sightseeing, I don’t see the point of booking anywhere extravagant. Safe, clean and functional in close proximity to Euston is fine.  They also offer luggage storage which was handy.

Neil and I ended up at Buckingham Palace on Sunday.  We'd been here before and witnessed the murderous antics of a vicious seagull cannibalising a baby moorhen in nearby St James Park.  Things were much more civilised this time round.  In this part of London you do get a respite from the hussle and bussle the city has to offer.  London is so built up with everyone on top of each other, however the parks and open spaces around London offer a real respite from this madness.  Buckingham Palace was still surrounded by tourists even on a Sunday.  Although there was no changing the guards ceremony that day, you could still see the soldiers in their iconic red uniform and black bearskin standing in their sentry boxes.  They must get really bored.

Eating in London can be hit and miss.  We are fond of Ed's Diner and we found a branch near Leicester Square.  This place was bright, clean and not too busy.  The menu has been updated to include pulled pork.  I had a burger with pulled pork - it was delicious.  The chips are good too.  Simply food well done - you can't fault Ed's Diner.

The trip was really good as I got to meet my family, however the journey back to Manchester was horrendous.  All trains were cancelled due to a fault at Leyton Buzzard.  So after a mad dash to Kings Cross we got back on the East Coast trains via Leeds.  Later we found out we were very lucky as most people got stranded in London for the night.

What I learnt from my cousins during this trip is that London is vast and sometimes it’s hard to jam in all you want to do in the limited time you’ve got.  If you are not an art fan, then don’t force yourself to go into art galleries as there is too much to see in London.  You need to prioritise what you want to see.  Bus tours rock as they make you see more of London than you would normally see on foot.  Finally they made me appreciate that London oozes history and not to take it for granted.