Sunday 24 February 2013


Cards on the table, I love Nantwich.  Its English country quaintness is something you’d find in a Visit England brochure.  If you have never been to the UK and only watched period dramas Nantwich is how you’d perceive England to be.  We’ve visited here over the years and I just think it’s fab. However Neil has never been that convinced.

Nantwich takes about an hour to get to from North Manchester and is quite straightforward to get to: M60, M62, M6, Junction 16, A500, A51 and B5074, or just follow the signs after junction 16.  There are car parks on the edge of town that are pretty cheap or you can park free for 30 minutes in designated street parking spots.

It was a drizzly and cold winter’s day when we visited.  Neil was determined to get a battered burger from the local chippy and I knew I needed to find the deli that sold Coopers gourmet sausage rolls.

Nantwich has evolved over centuries and has its narrow streets filled with a hotch potch of different styles of buildings.  The planners have pedestrianized streets close to the centre of town, which is great for strolling without the fear of getting flattened by a car.  The church dominates the town square.  There are also some lovely black and white Tudor buildings in the town and you must pop into Nantwich bookshop for a browse. 

What is clear from Nantwich is that it’s a wealthy town.  It has an Aga shop, which for me indicates an upper middle class level of affluence. There are hardly any empty shops and the majority of shops in the town are independents.  The butchers sell game meat, even bunnies (No!!!).  There are some antique shops, boutiques and gift shops.  You could easily spend hours having a good browse around the shops.

There is a market behind the church that sells a mix of cheap tat and craft stuff.  We’ve been to Nantwich previously and there has been a farmers market in the town square.  So it’s worth a quick Google to find out when they are held (probably once a month).

There are plenty of charity shops in Nantwich selling quality stock.  Not quite Wilmslow or Alderley Edge standard, but pretty good.  That may explain why the shops were buzzing with people browsing.  I managed to buy a book in one shop, but the ladies running the shop were having trouble with their new-fangled touch screen till.  Neil has never been too struck by Nantwich, but that was to change today.  Oxfam were doing an offer of three 7 inch singles for £1 and there was a fantastic Northern Soul collection in the sale.  He spent £42 on 98 records.  The ladies in Oxfam had never seen so many records sold in one go.    

Whilst Neil was in Oxfam I managed to find some CoopersSausage Rolls in Welch’s Butchers on Hospital Road.  They are really excellent sausage rolls and well worth trying. #

There were plenty of people with dogs in Nantwich.  I noticed quite a few dog owners owned two dogs.  Partly I guess to keep the other dog company and partly to show off to others they could afford two pedigree dogs.  Whilst I was waiting outside Oxfam for Neil, there was a dog owner trying to stop her little spaniel from going in the shop.  She said ‘Sophie I know your daddy is in there, but you can’t go in’ as she was dragging her away.  There was a Big Issue seller in the town square doing a side line in dog minding.  One of her doggy day care customers bought her a sandwich for her efforts – sweet!

We popped into Pepper Street Fryers restaurant to grab a bite to eat.  It used to be a branch of Les’s Fish bar, which can be found across Cheshire and in Wrexham.  Thankfully for Neil it still did battered burger, whilst I had a lovely plate of fish and chips.  I definitely recommend this place if you fancy a simple bite to eat.   

It’s hard to find fault with Nantwich and the only thing I could criticise the place for was the poor 3G coverage for smart phones. However if you go to Pepper Street there is some free Wi-Fi courtesy of the mobile phone shop.

If you are in the area and have an afternoon to spare definitely go to Nantwich – it is a lovely and pleasant place to visit.  Thankfully Neil is also now converted to the joys of Nantwich with its cheap records, battered burgers and Cooper’s sausage rolls – so we’ll definitely be back here soon.

Sunday 17 February 2013


Oswestry was our first foray into Shropshire, whilst technically not a northern town I’m not averse to taking a detour into Midland Towns when the opportunity takes me.

Earlier we had been to Wrexham and Oswestry is just a 30 minute drive down the A483 onto the A5.  There are a couple of epic road bridges to cross on this road.  You don’t really notice them until you’re driving across and glance to the side and see the sheer drop either side.  It really concentrates the mind to drive across them safely.  As we were driving through the countryside we noticed lots of squished animals, road kill isn’t pretty but it’s something you come to expect as animals are not blessed with the knowledge of the green cross code.

We parked in the Aldi car park on the edge of town as we got about 90 minutes of free parking.  Obviously we did pop in and get a couple of things so I didn’t feel guilty about parking.

Walking into Oswestry we found it to be a nice country town with buildings that had an air of faded gentility that have seen the comings and goings of the town for hundreds of years.   However two things disconcerted me about this town; one, the high number of empty shops; and two, the lack of people.  The latter was surprising as it was a bright and beautiful day, so there was no excuse for people staying in out of the bad weather. The former wasn’t surprising as in recent times lots of big chains have either closed down or have closed loss making stores.  As a result Oswestry was looking somewhat deserted and desolate.  The independent shops and charity shops were definitely keeping this town going.  Although how they are going to fill these large, empty retail spaces is another matter.  It doesn’t help that retail parks which have sprung up on the edge of town with free parking are slowly killing the town centre.

On the plus side Oswestry has lots of charity shops and we had a good rummage through them.  I really loved the Barnardos as it had sofas in the book and music section on the first floor.  You could rest your weary feet here and watch the world go by whilst reading a book.  We nearly missed this section as it wasn’t well signposted in the shop below that the section was upstairs.
There was an outdoor market in the town square and this hid a lovely looking building that would not look out of place in a European city.  As time was pressing we missed the indoor market, which recently won the Best Indoor Council Market for 2013.

There seemed to be plenty of traditional pubs in Oswestry and apparently this is a good town to visit for real ale drinkers.  The Griffin is notable as it has strange statues of full sized men drinking beer above the door – kind of Anthony Gormley type statues but in cream render. 

Some of the potted highlights were:
  • The staff in the Timpsons shop were very helpful.  
  • If you are ever caught short in Oswestry the public toilet near Marks and Spencer’s is good.  You do have to pay 20p for the privilege, but it is an attended toilet and it’s very clean. 
  • It’s so worth finding Gillhams of Oswestry, which is a lovely deli café.  If you have the time it’s worth having a bite to eat here.  The staff had said it had been very busy that day.  However, if you can’t stop for long they do good takeaway pies.  They also stock Coopers sausage rolls which are marvellous.  They are very tasty sausage rolls packed full of flavour and are not overpowered by too much flaky pastry.  We picked up the Oinker and the Pork, Apple and Black Pudding – they were fab especially heated up!
  • They have a Youth Café, which is an excellent concept in such a rural location where there is little for young people to do without the aid of transport.

Later I found out later that Oswestry had been awarded £10,000 from the Portas Pilot to help with the regeneration of the town’s retail centre.  From my brief visit I could see that this town was in need of a boost.  Oswestry is a pretty town, but with so many shops closed down the town and retail parks circling the town like leeches sucking the life out of the town centre, the place is at risk of dying.  I’m a big fan of cultural and food festivals to boost the numbers of people coming to towns like Oswestry.  Whilst it’s not a permanent solution, it gives focus to the activities of the town and brings in new people into the area.  I also like towns that promote their local artisan crafts and food communities.  Another retail park or supermarket chain express shops doesn’t cut it for me. I honestly hope the Council comes up with a good plan to rejuvenate this town, although £10,000 is a drop in the ocean where town centre regeneration is concerned.

Oswestry, however pretty, needs some TLC.  I’m sure if we’re passing through again we will stop off and go to Gillhams to stock up on pies.  I’m just hoping a little bit of retail fairy dust will have worked its magic by then.

Sunday 10 February 2013


I’d never been to Wrexham before and all I knew about the place was that it had a university and a community radio station called Calon FM. Wrexham is just over the border in North Wales and about an hour away in a car from Manchester.   If you’re travelling from north Manchester take the M60, M62, M6, M56, M53, A55 and A483.  For a long time there have been road works around Chester, but I’m thrilled to say these have now disappeared. Yay!

On the way into Wrexham you can see the sports stadium called the Racecourse Ground, which hosts football, rugby, cricket and horseracing.  The new stand looks pretty impressive from the road. It’s a nice leafy drive into town and there are lots of the grand Victorian houses that have been converted into offices.   Once we got into the town centre getting round the town was problematic and after a couple of circuits of the town we found some parking near the ITV Wales HQ.
The centre of Wrexham is pedestrianized, which is great for shoppers, but not so good for cars.  On the edge of the town retail parks have sprung up to house large supermarkets and stores.  In the town centre there’s a good mix of independent and high street shops, with some empty shop fronts.  Many of the independent shops tend to multi-task, often with a little café as a side line.

Wrexham is a warren of streets, alleys and arcades.  This town has evolved over time, with buildings of different eras built next to each other, which gives the place character and a sense of history.  You need to explore the side streets as you will find unexpected gems, although I did double take when I saw the sign for ‘Hog Heaven’.   A first time visitor will easily get lost here and I had to resort to using my smartphone to find where I’d parked my car.
On the edge of the town centre we found the lovely St Giles' parish church.  We had a wander around the grounds and thought we’d seen a massive squirrel.  On closer inspection it was a grey cat having a scratch on the tree.  Unfortunately the cat was a bit shy and slinked off down a side alley.  We would have checked out the interior of the church, but it looked as if they were preparing for a wedding.  It was a shame as it’s considered to be the greatest medieval church in Wales.

We decided to grab a bite to eat at Les’s Fish Bar.  We had to get a takeaway as the restaurant was packed with OAPs and families.  I had fish and chips, whilst Neil tried battered burger and chips.  Mine was nice and freshly done.  Neil is now converted to the joys of battered burger, although I still need convincing of this culinary oddity.  Les’s Fish Bar is a chain of award winning chippies across Cheshire and we had been to one in Crewe that was just as good.
There are plenty of charity shops in Wrexham.  Not just your regular Cancer Research and Oxfam, but also local ones like Hope House, Capricorn Animal Rescue and Nightingale House Hospice.  If you are a charity shop fan there are simply loads of shops to explore in this town.  They are friendly places too, even one volunteer offered coffee to one of the regulars who had just popped in. 

Being a border town, I did wonder what the most predominant accent in the town was. Actually I couldn’t work it out as there was a mix of Welsh accents and English accents as we went shop to shop.  I did catch some Liverpool accents too, as Wrexham isn’t too far from the Wirral.  This place definitely draws people from both England and Wales, so I can understand the linguistic mix of the place.
There are three covered markets to be found in Wrexham: the Meat Market, the People’s Market and General Market.  The Meat Market and General Market are traditional Victorian Markets with high ceilings and wrought iron roof windows.  Whilst the People’s Market is a modern grey steel building, which has a music and DVD shop as you go in.  The People’s Market has a free stall, where people can bring and swap up to three items on the stall.  Or if you did not bring anything, you could leave a donation.  The stall was unmanned; however I did see a lady try on a jacket for size.  I quite like the concept of this stall and showed the honesty of people using it, as I did see some cash donations left there.

There are plenty of pubs dotted across the town.  Some are quite traditional with white rendered walls and traditional signs.  There are also modern sports bars which serve food and advertise the football games they are showing.  I must admit they did look a little scary and I think you would need a local to direct you to more respectable pubs.  Although I do reckon Wrexham might have quite a lively night life as it’s both a university and a border town.
I didn’t know what to expect with Wrexham and I found it to be a busy and down-to-earth town with pockets of prettiness.  I’d definitely stop off again if I was passing through and no doubt Neil would insist on getting a battered burger from Les’s Fish Bar.

Sunday 3 February 2013


I’ve been avoiding going to Huddersfield for a long time.  I’ve passed through in a car and a coach on the way back from the Leeds Festival but it did not instil me with enthusiasm.  Years ago I’d known a person from Huddersfield and her stories of the place weren’t enticing either.  However it was time to bite the bullet and just do it.  It’s only a 35 minute drive from Manchester: the M60, M62, get off at Junction 24 and take the A629 into the town centre.

I’d never taken the A629 into Huddersfield and I was astonished by the lovely Yorkshire Stone Victorian villas on the tree lined road into town.  I really didn’t expect that.  I can quite imagine a lot of these houses had been divided into flat for the local student population.  What I liked too was the new flat development which dotted the road kept faithful to this design heritage.  This gave a real cohesiveness to the visual look of this road.  Top marks to the architects and planners.
It’s dead easy to miss the turn off for the town centre parking and we ended up parking in the Aldi car park on the edge of the town.  This meant we had to negotiate a perilous road to get to the town centre.

You need to look up when you go through Huddersfield town centre.  There are some lovely buildings, however the signage for the cheap shops, pawnbrokers and pay-day-loan shops at ground level can distract from the fact Huddersfield used to be a wealthy town.
Around the train station a huge amount of regeneration work had been done to the square and station.  It looks fantastic and is money well spent.  The George Hotel basks in the reflected glory of this well thought-out development.  There are other attempts at gentrification throughout the town in the little arcades and also around House of Fraser.   A lot more needs to be done to reinvigorate the town though as it’s still a bit identikit high street.   There are a number of high street chains going to the wall, large amounts of retail space is going empty.  That is why having a strong independent economy is important to take up the slack with their individual aesthetic; otherwise the streets will be awash with pound shops and their gaudy shop fronts.

What struck me about Huddersfield was how multi-cultural the place is.  There is a real mix of people from white British to Asian to Afro-Caribbean to Eastern European.  There were specialist food shops for Eastern Europeans and we noticed some Polish people in the charity shops.  Although I knew Huddersfield had a large Asian community due to its industrial heritage and close proximity to Bradford.
There are plenty of charity shops in Huddersfield – some of which were local charities.  I noticed in one shop a customer was negotiating a deal with staff on a job lot of items.  What I love about these places are the people chatting away.  Huddersfield has a fantastic accent.  It’s hard to explain what is special about the Huddersfield accent, but it has a lovely lilt and is very down to earth.  I love the fact they pronounce ‘Huddersfield’ as ‘Uddersfield’. The poet Simon Armitage comes from just outside of Huddersfield and is a prime example of this accent.  Love, love, love!

On this Saturday there was quite a young, chavvy shopping contingent pin-balling their way through the cheap shops.  Whilst Huddersfield is a University town, I think a lot of the more well-to-do residents head towards the Trafford Centre, Leeds or the little Yorkshire towns like Holmfirth.  I did spot a little chain of cafes called ‘Merrie England’ which wattle and daub their walls to give their café a ‘ye olde English’ feel.  They seemed to attract the OAPs for their Saturday afternoon teas.
What really astonished me about the place was the wrought iron market.  What I’m about to write sounds a bit nuts, but the market reminded me of the weekend flea markets in New York.  Okay we’re not talking a Chelsea or Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market – more Harlem or Brooklyn Heights.  There are people selling collectables, junk and stuff they’re clearing out of their attics.  Neil was lost to the record stalls.  I just wandered through the market observing people.  I loved the fact one bloke had literally cleared out his shed with all his bits and bobs.  My Dad would have loved that stall.  There was a very friendly lady selling home-made jewellery.  A bookish bloke was talking culture with the people who run the book stall.  This was such a random market – more car boot sale than a normal market.  There’s an independent spirit to the market with people trying to make a living.  You can get antiques, records, jewellery, laptops, toys, clothes and even Neil made some vinyl purchases.  I really thought this place is wonderful and provides a real social service.

Time was getting on and we headed back to the car via Aldi to get nice, cheap wine.  I simply couldn’t park in the car park without buying something – that’s Catholic guilt in action for you.
Don’t let the hint of chav get in the way of visiting Huddersfield.  Keep looking up – you will see the white lion proudly staring out over the Lion Building and find some lovely carvings and ironwork in surprising places.  Make sure you listen to the local accent.  Finally take a trip to the market and embrace it.  All-in-all Huddersfield is a surprising treat.