Sunday 31 March 2013

A Northerner in London Town - Euston & Bloomsbury

I’ve had a break over the past couple of weeks and ended up in London for a few days.  I thought it would make a change if I did a series of posts about a Northerner’s experiences in London.  So here it is – the first of five posts called A Northerner in London Town.

Every so often we go to London to see the sights, catch a show and walk the streets of London.  The best way to get to London is by train.  Ever since I accidentally booked first class tickets years ago, we try to go by first class, dependent on what cheap deal we can get.  However on this trip I’ve discovered that whilst first class is all very nice, it doesn’t stop you from getting travel sick.  I spent at least half an hour with my head in my hands praying for London to come quickly.  On the way back, as we were travelling by night, I didn’t get travel sick. My travel sickness is caused by visual movement in the peripheral vision, which makes me go green.  Although above all things don’t take the bus to London – with its palpable threat of violence and torturous length it’s a level of hell I never want to experience again.
We’ve stayed in some dodgy dives in London in the past, so now we just go for functional when it comes to hotel accommodation.  We normally stay in the Ibis Hotel next to Euston Station – literally a minute from the station, which is great as you don’t have to drag your luggage across London on the Tube.  It’s nothing special, but it does the job and is better than a Travelodge.  The staff are nice, it’s always clean and the room are uniform so you know what to expect.  We never get the breakfast as it’s overpriced, but when you have London on your doorstep it’s a shame not to sample the delights of London.  Neil got quite addicted to the Cornish pasties at Euston Station.

On this trip I was fed up of going up and down Tottenham Court Road, so headed into the West End down Gower Street.  The buildings along the street are lovely and impressive.  It’s very rare that I wish to be younger but going down Gower Street and passing by the buildings of UCL (University College of London) and RADA I just can’t help but think that being a student in London would be a wonderful thing.  You can so understand why these places attract foreign students and other than New York where else would you want to study? 
On Gower Street there is a fantastic Waterstones with a branch of Fopp attached.  I left Neil browsing the records in Fopp, whilst I explored Waterstones.  Foyles on Charing Cross Road is the best bookshop ever, but this branch of Waterstones comes second.  Academic bookshops are always more interesting than the standard ones as they have a wider range of stock.

We ate at Wagamama just off Gower Street.  You can’t go wrong with Wagamama and this branch was no exception.  I had firecracker chicken which was very spicy and Neil had to finish it off.  For a long time in Manchester we always chose Tampopo over Wagamama, but Wagamama has improved its menu so we are back.  It also helps that they don’t do great prawn starters – I’ve discovered I have a mild allergy to prawns, so I no longer can have coconut prawns from Tampopo.  Believe me I was gutted when I found this out.
Ed’s Easy Diner at Euston Station is always a place we have a bite to eat at.  Neil likes the chili dog, whilst I always go for the burger.  The food comes out when it’s ready, so your companion’s meal can come out before yours and your chips can come at the end of the meal.  It’s a busy, bright and cheerful place - although the toilet doubles as the staff changing room.

We’ve drank in a number of pubs in London, but our favourite pub is the Fitzroy Tavern on Charlotte Street.  The beer is cheap for London and apparently it’s a favourite haunt for Doctor Who fans.  I like the fact it’s always busy with students and office workers.  It’s a proper local pub and a trip to London is never complete without a visit to this place.  Even Neil likes it despite the fact it doesn’t have a jukebox or quiz machine.
Since I’d done my Achilles in dancing at Smile the previous Saturday, my usual levels of walking was severely curtailed so we had to use the Tube.  I have come to the conclusion that the Tube is one of Dante’s seven circles of hell.  We tried to use it off peak, but even then it got busy round the centre of London.  God forbid if you stand on the left hand side of the escalator, otherwise you get pushed out of the way.  You have to be incredibly focused to use the Tube.  My biggest word of the advice is to go to the far ends of the platform as you tend to find the quietest carriages there.  I did find that smiling at old people on the opposite escalators is a nice thing to do as it takes them by surprise.  I think London is hellish for older people and anything you can do to show some humanity to them is welcome.  The Tube does test your Northern patience and good humour though.  I much prefer the borderline passive aggression of the Paris Metro to the outright aggression of the Tube.

One of the most disturbing things I found in London was the lack of women in their late 30s and over in the city.  When I was wandering I just couldn’t help but notice the lack of women of this age.  There are lots of younger women, but for whatever reason I found it hard to find these women except in groups in restaurants or in the theatre.  It’s funny how spaces in a city can be differentiated by age and gender – Soho is very male, Covent Garden is more family orientated, Hampstead is older and female, and Camden is young.  My feminist gene was getting rather disturbed by this phenomenon.  Maybe it’s because I don’t give a damn and will go anywhere.  It does help I’m tall and sturdily built with a determined look in my eye, which means I never get hassled.  Although in supermarkets small people always ask me to get items off the top shelf for them.
Over the years I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the place.  A long time ago I had considered moving there, but there is something so hard about the place which goes against the grain of this Northerner’s soul.  After this visit I’ve come to the conclusion the best way to live in London is either as a student or a multi-millionaire – you need either hope or money to survive this city.  Otherwise the only way I will see this city is as a tourist and to be truthful I’m happy to keep it that way.




Sunday 10 March 2013

Liverpool - Take Two

It’s been about three and half years since I posted on here about Liverpool and since then I still visit the place from time to time.  I went to the Everyman with my best mate to see Macbeth in 2011 – it was an ace production.  Last year I took my brother and his girlfriend to the city – they were pleasantly surprised by the city and the developments.  This year the Glam Exhibition at TateLiverpool was calling us – very good btw.

Getting to Liverpool from Manchester is straightforward – take the M62 westbound to the end of the motorway.  Getting to the city centre is problematic.  You can follow the road signs which take you through Kensington towards the docks and the westerly end of the waterfront.  I never like this route as you just get stuck in traffic and if you’re not careful you will end up in a tunnel going to Birkenhead.  This time I took the route through Greenbank near Penny Lane.  We still got stuck, but we did see a dog parlour called ‘Ultimutt’ which amused us greatly – sadly we didn’t get a picture of the sign.  I would only recommend this route if you are planning to park at the Echo Arena near Albert Docks.
Parking is pricy in Liverpool.  We got stung a few years back at Liverpool One, so now we park by the Echo Arena for £5 for 5 hours.  This place is really handy for Albert Docks and it’s a 5 minute walk to Liverpool One.  The Echo Arena looks really lovely from the outside, although I imagine it would be horrendous when packed with Justin Bieber fans screaming and fainting.
Albert Docks was busy with tourists and there was a massive queue outside The Beatles Story.  We grabbed a bite to eat at Circo, which overlooks the dock.  The place was busy and the food was perfectly fine.  I just think they need a better range of soft drinks – they only had coke, lemonade or orange juice.
Albert Docks has gone to seed over the years.  There are quite a few empty units looking for a purpose.  I remember years ago the place was teaming with bars, shops and restaurants.  I guess with new developments around the city, people are drawn to new places.
We popped along to the Tate Liverpool to see the Glam Exhibition.  It was very good, but there was no sign to say you can’t take photos.  We wouldn’t have tried to take one if we’d seen it, so we were told off by staff for trying.
The Museum of Liverpool is now open along just further along the waterfront and what a fantastic building it is.  There is a touch of the Guggenheim about it with the circular staircase around a glass atrium.  We climbed all the way to the top and we were rewarded with the media and music section.  They allowed people to photograph exhibits in there.  I found it amusing there was a karaoke booth in there with five year olds singing along to The Zutons / Amy Winehouse’s ‘Valerie’.  There was also an exhibition of the author Beryl Bainbridge’s paintings, which were surprisingly good and touching.  The museum was packed full of families and it was a lovely venue which is definitely worth a visit.
The great thing about the Liverpool One development is that it seamlessly links the waterfront to the rest of the city.  Before this development, it was a good five to ten minute hike into the city.  I popped into John Lewis to pick up some lotions and potions from the cosmetics department.  The staff looked scary with their heavy make-up and scouse brows, whilst I felt like some freak for not wearing any make-up.  This John Lewis is much more designer-orientated than the one in the Trafford Centre, although this does not surprise me as I know the locals like to dress well.
We had a good wander round the shops.  It was very busy around Liverpool One, but as we wandered further out it got a bit quieter and there were some empty shops. I have begun to expect this with the recession, however the regeneration of Liverpool still has done wonders to the place.  My brother was shocked when he visited last year, as he hadn’t seen the place since the 90s and he thought it was a dump then.  Now it’s the sort of place you could imagine spending a weekend there.  The investment is paying off and Liverpool is beginning to shake off its scally image.
I’m not a fan of Mathew Street though.  The legacy of The Beatles is tarnished here with bars trying to make a fast buck from the tourist industry.  It’s such a shame that The Beatles are used as a cheap marketing tool.  It gets to the point where I just roll my eyes and just want to get the heck out of there.
We only found two charity shops – Scope and Oxfam Books.  Recently Neil has been won over by Oxfam and this Liverpool branch managed to hold his attention too.  So whilst he browsed the racks, I ended up having a wander round Bold Street and China Town.  Unfortunately I didn’t make it to FACT as Neil finally texted me to say he was ready.

Liverpool is turning into a cracking city and it’s not often I say this but the planners got it right with Liverpool One.  This development really joins up the city.  Although I do think some effort needs to be made to the original shopping areas to bring them up to the Liverpool One standard.  There are some gorgeous Victorian buildings in this city and a little TLC wouldn’t go amiss.  This place has so much potential, however a fine balance needs to be made to respecting its past whilst embracing the future.

Sunday 3 March 2013

Market Drayton

I really wasn’t expecting what I found – to paraphrase The Specials, this place is like a ghost town.  Something is definitely afoot in Shropshire and it’s not good.  Only a few weeks ago we popped to Oswestry and things were looking a little bleak despite the prettiness of the town.  Now visiting Market Drayton, Oswestry appears thriving in comparison.

We drove to Market Drayton from Nantwich along the A529, which is a 30 minute drive.  It’s a pretty country road, but beware of grouse and badgers.  We almost hit a grouse, however the badgers weren’t so lucky as previous motorists had already killed off two of them.
Parking in Market Drayton is straightforward, just head to the pay and display in the centre of town near the Post Office.  A kind soul gave us their parking ticket so we parked for free.  Although given how empty the car park was, I don’t think it makes much money.

We walked in to the town – it was desolate apart from a little dog with a loud bark, dressed in a jacket, tied up outside Cookies Cafe.  I know the weather wasn’t up to much, but this is a Saturday afternoon!  Surely people need to shop?  Clearly not in Market Drayton, which is a shame as it’s quite a pretty town.  It’s a mix of black and white, white rendered and modern buildings; however there were lots of empty shops.  Some of them being high street chains which had closed down in recent years.
There are a number of charity shops in Market Drayton, which seemed to be the main source of economic life in the town.  We had a good browse and I nearly bought a Libertines album until I found out the CD inside was an Art Brut album.  That explains why they had sealed the cover with sellotape.   I also noticed they were selling lots of homemade knitted items and a little collection of knitted teddy bears caught my eye.

It was three o’clock and everything seemed to be closing down for the day: the indoor market, the deli and the bakery.  Apparently there is an outdoor market in town every Wednesday, so hopefully it’s much busier then.

We popped along to St Mary’s Church, as there wasn’t much to do.  It was a shame it was such a drizzly day as I reckon you would get a good view of the surrounding countryside from here.
The town council clearly was concerned with the number of shops closing and they had worked with local artists to create artwork for the empty shops.  I always like this sort of initiative as a) it shows the town cares and b) art brightens up a place.

Shropshire Council has a real job on here to reinvigorate this town.  I am so worried about this place as there are just too many shops closed.  I’d really have to come here on market day to assess how serious the problem is for the town.  This place has potential, but at the moment, if I were a teenager living here, I’d be very depressed and would be on the first bus out of here every Saturday.  It’s so sad to say that the song ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials, written over 30 years ago, has as much meaning now as it did back then.