Sunday 26 May 2013


Just 11 miles from Otley, over the border in North Yorkshire, is the spa town of Harrogate.  I love spa towns, they are always classy places and Harrogate is no exception.

It takes about an hour and a half to get to Harrogate from Manchester.  There is no quick way to get there. It’s 55 or so miles using M62 and then a variety of A roads, or 72 miles using M62 and A1.  Either way it’s one and a half hours.  At the moment even longer as there are road works on the M62 with the average speed limit of 50 miles per hour.  I’m seriously considering curtailing trips to Yorkshire on the basis of these road works.

We’ve been to Harrogate a few times over the years.  My friend Shaun loves Harrogate and can always be found here in December doing his Christmas shopping.  I’ve stopped overnight here on a business trip and it’s all very civilized apart from the kids hanging around outside the supermarket at night.
As we spent more time than anticipated in Otley, our trip to Harrogate was just a two hour quick whizz around the town.  We parked at a pay-and-display by the park as you drive into Harrogate.  It can be expensive to park in Harrogate, especially if you park at the Harrogate International Conference Centre like we did the last time we came here.

It was a lovely day and as we walked into Harrogate all the pubs were jam packed full of people drinking in the beer gardens.  Any sign of sunshine and it’s practically a national holiday in this country with people flocking to the pub.  We noticed a number of convertible cars with their tops down cruising through the town - it must have been their first outing this year.
Harrogate has a pedestrianized shopping area, which is good for a safe wander.  It’s a classy place and there are plenty of classy shops in Harrogate.  Obviously there was the obligatory Betty’sTea Room.  It has all your usual high street shops along with your classy chains like The White Room and Molton Brown, so there is no real need for the locals to head off to nearby Leeds. 

In the past we’ve explored the antique shops here.  Unfortunately as time was pressing we hadn’t the chance to browse round them.  I definitely would check out Space which does 20th century vintage and retro antiques.  It’s a fun shop to browse round and there I found out the vase I bought for my Mum in the 80s was worth about £40.
The town is predominantly populated with rather impressive Victorian buildings made of Yorkshire stone.  On the road into Harrogate you couldn’t help but notice the grand Victorian Villas that line the streets.  Given the well-to-do nature of the town, as it’s a commuter town for the wealthy who work in nearby Leeds, there is little to indicate there is a recession going on.  It’s only when you get off the main drag of shops where you find the odd empty shop.

Harrogate is well known for being a conference town.  The large Conference Centre is on the edge of the shopping area.  If there is a conference on it can be hard to find parking.  The nearby streets are often packed with people with conference passes hanging from lanyards having a crafty smoke or a gossip with other delegates.  I would definitely jump at the chance at going to a conference here as it’s a nice place to go and I would bunk off the networking sessions to go visit the town centre.
Our main focus of our trip to Harrogate was the charity shops.  Classy towns often mean classy charity shops.  Neil was in his element browsing the vinyl records and I was happy browsing the rather well organised and extensive book section.  If I was at a conference here and needed something to read I would definitely head to the charity shops rather than the nearby WHSmiths as they have a great range of books: British Heart Foundation and Oxfam spring to mind.

Typically my favourite places in a town are not necessarily the posh places, but the dubious little side streets with interesting independent shops and often lots of charity shops (cheap rents).  In Harrogate that street is called Commercial Street.  In recent times I’ve gotten into patchwork and there are a couple of fabric shops that are worth a visit: The Remnant House which is packed full of fabric at really cheap prices; and the White Rose Sewing and Craft Centre for all your crafting needs.  Neil is a fan of a tiny, but filled to the rafters, second hand book shop along here called Books for All.  He found another ‘Top of the Pops’ annual to add to his growing collection.
If you are looking for a classy weekend away in North Yorkshire, Harrogate is the place for you – even the dogs are classy here.  Harrogate is packed full of hotels for all budget ranges.  Although beware not all hotels are hotels, some are just glorified B&B’s - check out Tripadvisor for recommendations.  Years ago I stayed in a ‘hotel’ for a work trip.  It was more a bed and breakfast and it really wasn’t that nice in my single, uncomfortable bed.  The nightlife wasn’t that exciting, but that was more down to who I was with rather than the town itself.

Our two hours were up and we headed off back to Manchester.  However you really have to spend a whole day here to experience the loveliness of this town. I’ve yet to find a tolerable drive back to Manchester from Harrogate, however it’s worth the aggravation as not only is it a classy town, but you also get to drive through some beautiful countryside.


Sunday 19 May 2013


We’d been meaning to go to Otley in West Yorkshire for some time.  Neil knows one of the former Mayors of Otley, Jonathan Kirkland, who is a fellow pop quiz fanatic and Boris Johnson lookalike.  So we were curious to find out what Otley was like. 

To get to Otley from Manchester is a bit of a pain.  We took the route via Bradford so you need to take the turn from the M62 onto the M606 and follow the signs leading to LeedsBradford International Airport.  Go past the airport, turn left onto East Chevin Road and this takes you into Otley.  Whilst it’s a real chore driving on the A roads to Otley, the final bit is worth it.  You see fantastic views of the surrounding countryside as you drop down into Otley, which is situated in the bottom of the valley.  I’m still sure there is a better way to get there.
Parking in Otley was a chore too.  I don’t know how long we whizzed around the streets looking for parking, but the road system is not built for modern traffic.  The little car park we found was packed and eventually we found some free on-street parking outside The Cove Chippy and Restaurant.
It was early afternoon and Neil is never much company when he’s hungry, so we popped into The Cove restaurant.  Despite the overwhelming smell of detergent and fish, we both had a nice fish and chip lunch.  The batter on the fish was absolutely lovely and it should be as the place had won an award in 2008.
Otley itself is a nice compact town built with solid Yorkshire stone.  Whilst it’s not as fancy as nearby Harrogate, the local buildings exuded that Yorkshire no nonsense charm and heritage.
The town is a shopper’s delight in terms of gift shops and specialist independent shops.  We found there were lots of little courtyards and tiny street off the main rows of shops where you can find little gems and charity shops.  We even found a second-hand record store on one side street and I left Neil to browse there.  I also liked the fact there were plenty of second-hand bookshops to wander around as well as antique shops.  There was also a health food shop that doled out good advice as well as sell stuff.  I did find the local witchy store nearby the ‘The Ammo Box’ military surplus store – what a culture clash!
Otley is packed full of cafes offering all sorts of offerings.  We liked the name of one called ‘The Rumblin Tum’, which had won an award in 2011 for outstanding customer service.  There was also a chippy called ‘Chip-in-Dales’.  It turns out Otley has links to the furniture maker Chippendale and not the dance troupe The Chippendales.  The statue of Thomas Chippendale (furniture maker) can be found by the local art gallery, which was adorned with balloons when we saw it.
There are loads of charity shops in Otley and so obviously we had to look in all of them.  Neil did find some vinyl records to purchase.  The shops were packed full of people browsing.  There were a couple of charity shops with decent book sections including Oxfam.  I’m sure one had a café attached.  I really liked one which had gone to the effort of decorating the music section with a collage of old pop posters.  It reminded me of my bedroom wall when I was a teenager.
There is a market in Otley on a Saturday.  I’m amazed they could fit it in on the small streets.  There was a good mix of stuff on offer from cheap tat to farmer’s market type stuff.  I did notice one stall was selling Cath Kitson style bags, but with the label ‘City Girl’ instead – there was some serious copyright infringement going on with those bags.
What surprised me were all the little galleries that could be found in Otley.  There seems to be a cultural heart to the place, which is always good to see. 
There were plenty of pubs in Otley.  I could imagine you would have a rather good night out in this town.  As it was one of few sunny days this year, the pubs were packed full of people enjoying a pint and the sunshine.  Alfresco drinking in the UK is often seen as an endurance sport rather than a pleasurable activity, however today it was the latter.
One of the many good things about Otley is that there are plenty of cute, small dogs in the town.  So I kept prodding Neil and pointing out ‘cute dog!’ Sadly I couldn’t find a real life dog to photograph, so instead I took a picture of the cute Dog and Cat RSPCA collection box.
Apart from loving the name ‘Otley’, it has plenty to offer a visitor passing through in terms of shopping, food and drink.  It’s a lovely place to spend browsing round the shops, especially as there are not too many high street chains cluttering up the street.  Whilst Otley is definitely more like Harrogate’s common cousin, its down-to-earth charm is endearing and one thing is for sure we’ll be back – as long as I can find a quicker route from Manchester.
P.S.  If you want to see more photos of our trips pop over to Life in Northern Towns on Pinterest.

Sunday 12 May 2013


Normal services have resumed after a brief foray down South.  We’re back in the North – hurrah!!! 

So where do you go on a rainy Saturday afternoon in Manchester?  Not far for sure.  So after a short trip over the M60 ring road we visited Sale.
Sale is a nice little suburb in south Manchester.  Sale is a part of Trafford Council, one of the rare Conservative controlled areas of Greater Manchester.  The Trafford borough is an area of extremes from the uber wealthy areas of Hale and Bowdon compared to the down-at-heel areas such as Old Trafford and Stretford.  Sale firmly fits in-between them – a middle class neighbourhood with chav elements from Sale West and Northern Moor.

We have quite a bit of a back history with Sale.  Neil lived there as a kid.  My best mate lives there.  More recently, for the last 14 years, we’ve been regulars at the Pop Quiz at the Railway Pub.
One of the plus points of choosing Sale as a place to visit is that it has a really good range of charity shops.  The charity shops are in close vicinity to each other so it’s very easy to ping-pong from one to another.  Sale charity shops are firmly mid-range, with an interesting selection of books.  I picked up a copy of ‘Girl,Interrupted’ by Susanna Kaysen.  It’s a cracking read and I would definitely recommend it as an insight into mental illness.  Neil has found it rather miss than hit for record finds.  Although Marc Riley, a 6 Music DJ, used to trawl these shops for a feature on the short lived, but much loved radio show ‘Mint’.

The rest of the shops on the pedestrianized main street and precinct are fairly high street and predictable.  The precinct is one of those 1970s concrete style uninspiring numbers, whilst the pedestrianized high street is a mix of new and Victorian buildings.  Unfortunately the recession has hit here and there were a number of empty shop fronts.  Textile Direct were having a closing down sale and I picked up a few bargains. 
The main supermarket in the town is Sainsbury’s.  Although word of warning, the car park can be very busy and much to my annoyance car accidents can occur – long story.  So watch out.  There is a Marks and Spencer’s food shop which is rather handy.  Although I hope they have sorted out the air-conditioning as it could be Siberian in the height of summer.

Parking in Sale is very controlled.  Private housing is very close to the town centre and as a result they run a residents permit scheme.  Although you can, if you are lucky, find two hours free parking.  Otherwise there’s on-street metered parking, multi-storey or paid parking at the local supermarkets.  They are pretty hot for parking control in Sale, so follow the restrictions. 
The great thing about Sale is that it’s on the Metrolink tram line.  I reckon it takes about 20 minutes to get from Manchester city centre to Sale.  Although the line does pass nearby to Manchester United’s ground, so on a match day the Metrolink can be hellish.  So it’s worth checking out the times of the matches.  The same goes for Lancashire Cricket ground, but they have a much nicer clientele.  The biggest drawback to the tram link is that it’s too closes to the canal.  At night you can see some of the canal’s furry residents scurrying about.

The canal cuts through the centre of Sale and you find lots of barges parked up here.  If you are thinking of taking a canal holiday, definitely stop off here.  There is the King’s Ransom pub on the canal side.  The locals use the canal pathway for jogging and dog walking.  It’s a lovely place to get respite from city living too.
There are plenty of restaurants in Sale.  We tend to frequent the Massala Lounge for our Quiz related meals out.  It’s pretty good.  There used to be a fantastic Spanish restaurant in the early 2000s, but sadly that’s closed.  I would check out Tripadvisor for current recommendations.  A few coffee shops such as Café Nero and Costa have sprung up in recent years, which confirms Sale’s status as a nice neighbourhood.

We, well Neil more than me, are regulars at the Sale Pop Quiz at the Railway pub.  The Railway is a down-to-earth pub near the canal, which cuts through the town.  A few years back it had a well needed makeover, although it does still attract the odd nutter – now that is too long a story.  John, the barman is fab.  It’s a dog friendly pub too.  Shilling, a dog of indeterminate origin, is known to go begging round the tables for crisps and pork scratching’s.  Recently there was a gorgeous sheepdog and German Shepherd cross who kept carrying its ball around the pub – much cuter than Shilling.  Word of warning about the Tuesday night pop quiz – it’s hard, really hard.  The quiz consists of many short music clips rather than music trivia.  Unless you are really good, like a music genius, don’t bother.  Seriously, it’s hard stuff and for some bizarre reason the only things I’m quite good at recognising are 1950s intros.
A real draw to Sale is the Waterside Arts Centre.  I remember when it was just a dodgy car park, but the Council have managed to transform it into an Arts and Council services centre with a nice canal side walkway.   It also has restaurants and a large bar.  I’ve only been to the art gallery bit and that was lovely.  We must check out a gig there someday soon.
There are some chav / nutter elements to Sale, but that is to be expected with some of the tough council estates on the Sale borders.  All-in-all I think Sale is ace and worth a visit.  Make sure you pop into the Railway to say hello to John and have a pint.  It may not be the classiest pub in Sale, but it’s one of the friendliest. 

Sunday 5 May 2013

A Northerner in London Town – Chelsea & South Kensington

Our final day in London and we decided to go ‘up west’ to Chelsea and South Kensington.  We were definitely going up in the world from Soho, but would I like it?

As I’d done in my Achilles tendon we had to face the tube.  We hopped on at Euston and took the Northern line to Leicester Square and took the Piccadilly line to South Kensington.  Obviously the tube is the work of the devil, but needs must when the Achilles tendon is busted.
Our destination was the Victoria and Albert Museum.  At South Kensington tube station there is a tunnel which leads you directly to the doors of the museum.  This is great as you avoid killing yourself on the busy roads above.

I dragged poor Neil through the exhibitions and hoards of school kids looking bored doing assignments.  He only got interested when we found some of the 70s and 80s exhibits with bits of gadgetry.  It’s a nice museum, which is all very lovely and civil with their helpful staff.  We even caught sight of the artist GraysonPerry striding though the museum, probably off to have a high powered meeting or peruse the collections not on display.  I have to report he was in normal dress rather than in full transvestite gear. 

Sadly we were a couple of days too early for the David Bowie exhibition.  There had been so much fuss in the press about it that we wished we could have seen it, although we later found out the exhibition was practically sold out.  So instead we went to see the next best thing and hit the gift shop.  Thankfully it was full of Bowie merchandise.  I bought an orange Bowie tote bag and Neil shelled out on limited edition 7 inch singles.  The ladies at the counter were cooing over Neil’s vinyl purchases.  I have to say they did look pretty good. 
London is a small world and we bumped into a journalist Neil knew in the V&A gift shop.  The lucky cow had got to see the Bowie exhibition at a press viewing the night before.  She was well impressed with the exhibition and came back to stock up on Bowie merchandise. 
Before we left the museum we were hanging around the entrance to the Bowie exhibition.  There were some private viewings going on for what appeared to be Russian Billionaires.   Thankfully I managed to catch a glimpse of one of Bowie’s outfits as the door opened.  I have to say what I saw looked amazing.
Opposite the V&A was the Natural History Museum.  I’m always cautious with Natural History places as I have a bit of a phobia of taxidermy.  However we managed to find the Space and Minerals annex and popped in.  The great thing about museums in the United Kingdom is that the vast majority of them have free entrance and both the V&A and the Natural History Museum are free.
The Natural History Museum annex we went in was good.  It was all very informative, but I have to admit it wasn’t as good as the New York Natural History Museum space exhibit we saw last year.  We didn’t go into the rest of the museum – partly due to laziness, partly due to taxidermy and partly due to wanting to go to Chelsea.
We hopped on the tube to Sloane Square and found the Kings Road.  Our first port of call was the Saatchi Gallery.  I had been here previously and was really impressed by the place.  I used to religiously make a trip to the Tate Modern every time I came to London.  However I ended up getting very bored with the place as it was like a module in 20th century modern art.  When I went to the Saatchi gallery for the first time I was very impressed with the vibrancy of their contemporary art exhibitions so I was keen to revisit the place.  This time there was contemporary Russian exhibition.  Whilst my first experience of the gallery had been joy, this time I found it was rather depressing, if not stomach churning at times with the naked drunk people pictures.  It was so depressing even one of the exhibits committed suicide.  I should have realised from my A’Level History the Russians are not known for being a happy-go-lucky nation.
Anyway to cheer ourselves up we took a trip to the local Patisserie Valerie.  Sadly it was a little lacklustre as Neil’s chocolate profiterole cake tasted defrosted, whilst I’d had better carrot cakes in my time.  It’s a shame as we’ve had much better tasting cakes from the Manchester branches.
The other reasons for going to Chelsea were the lure of the shops on the Kings Road and more specifically charity shops.
Along the Kings Road there were plenty of independent boutiques and artisan bakeries mixed in with high end high street chains.  I was pretty impressed to find a branch of Anthropologies as I didn’t think they operated outside of the States.  I’m praying one day Sephora will set up a branch in London.  When that happens I will be breaking the bank at their nail bar buying up their entire ‘Sephora by Opi’ range.
Chelsea is very lovely, but very different from Hampstead.  Whilst Hampstead is a little understated well-to-do, Chelsea is multicultural bling-tastic mega rich. 
The Chelsea charity shops were super posh.  A notable mention goes to the Red Cross on a side street where they had a half price sale, but you still need a credit card to afford the items.  We ping-ponged across the Kings Road visiting all the charity shops: I picked up a nice purple, unused hand bag, however Neil was struggling to find decent vinyl records.
We finally got to the World’s End council estate and the Kings Road comes down to earth with a bump.  So we decided to wander down the side streets. The side streets had these amazing white terraced mansions: all uniform, white, with black wrought iron railings and gates.  Oddly enough down one of these side streets I found what appeared to be a park, but was in fact a private garden that took up a huge chunk of land.  I found this disappointing.  I know this is a mega rich neighbourhood, but with so little green space in this part of town, it seems so greedy for one family to have sole access to such a large green space.
We got to the Fulham Road in South Kensington and wandered back towards London town.  The charity shops along here veer from uber posh designer pad to old ladies compulsive hoarder house.  We spotted a brash foreign gentleman having an animated conversation with some people in a local street front café.  There were foreign nannies pushing prams, as well as unfeasibly waif-like women floating down the street in oversized sunglasses clutching the latest designer handbag. 
Another detour down a side street and a wander past some glorious houses and we hit Old Brompton Road.  It was so lovely to wander past Christie's which is so understated, but opulent.  I so wanted to go in and have a peak at the antiques.  However I don’t think scruffy white Nike trainers would cut it in here.
On a side street we found a cluster of charity shops.  Whilst walking down the street I saw a familiar looking old lady in a fur coat.  I was puzzled, who was she?  It took a pint and a tube journey to jog my memory.  It was MISS MARPLE!  Julia MacKenzie.
We dropped in for a pint at the Zetland Arms where an over eager bar man was chatting up a Russian princess.  It was a busy pub doing fancy pub lunches, although I have to say there was a completely random range of people in this pub – it was very multicultural with the rich and local lushes rubbing shoulders.

South Kensington and Chelsea are definitely some of the wealthiest parts of London.  London is a very multicultural city and South Kensington and Chelsea are no different.  The multiculturalism here is pristine and sanitised with a massive scoop of bling.  On reflection, however nice this part is I still love Soho more – warts and all.