Sunday, 30 June 2013

Salford Quays

Over the years I’ve either studied, worked or lived in Salford and have seen Salford Quays evolve from just a piece of wasteland in the mid-90s to a media city in 2013.  So it’s about time I wrote about the place.

One of the more bizarre facts about Salford is the fact it doesn’t have a city centre, despite it being classed as a city.  I’ve been having a good ponder about this and have come to the conclusion Salford Quays is about the closest Salford has to a city centre.  I’m certainly not classing Salford Precinct as the centre of Salford, despite its starring role in the 2011 riots.  Whilst Swinton is considered Salford’s Civic Centre, it just hasn’t got that city centre vibe.

 
Getting to the Quays is fairly straightforward – turn off the M602 and follow the signs.  However I normally scoot into the Quays down Langworthy Road as it’s quicker and has less traffic.  The traffic can be a nightmare at rush hour or when United are playing.  Manchester United’s ground is just over the water in Trafford, so parking can be a real problem on match days.  You can also get a tram to Media City from Manchester city centre, but I think the 50 bus maybe a little faster.  The trams go incredibly slow through Salford Quays as there are some really sharp bends.
There is hardly any on road parking at Salford Quays.  It’s either multi-storey car parks or resident only car park at the nearby apartment developments.  You could park up by Broadway, but I would be worried about my car getting nicked or damaged.  Salford Quays is next to Ordsall (pronounced ‘Oddsall’), one of the most deprived areas in Salford, and crime is unfortunately one of the valid career options for residents.  I used to visit a project there and had to park in a certain place as the Nuns had arrangements with the locals to not nick the cars parked there.  Also morning meetings were a must as it was really quiet at that time.

 
Back to the Quays – one of the best things about the Quays is the buildings.  As there was nothing of note before, Salford Quays has become an architect’s playground.  The first to arise from the banks of the Quays was the Lowry Theatre.  This is my favourite theatre ever:  it has three performance spaces – the Lyric, the Quays and the Studio.  There’s also an art gallery dedicated to the works of LS Lowry, a restaurant, café, bars, gift shop and tourist information centre.  The sightlines are brilliant within the theatre, the seats are modern and spacious, the building has intuitive design and there are no stairs, just slopping walkways so it’s perfect for people with mobility issues.  The interior is painted in a purple and orange, whilst not your standard colour-scheme for a theatre it gives the place a warm atmosphere.  Outside the theatre is silver-grey like a ship that has come in to dock.  I thought they were crazy building a theatre on the banks of the Quays back in the late 90s, but the culture-led regeneration has transformed this area.  Without this and the subsequent developments the BBC would not have moved large chunks of its operation to Media City.
Another building of note is the Imperial War Museum North on the opposite bank of the Quays in Trafford.  This is not only a visually stunning building, but also a really good and touching museum.  I never leave here without crying at one of the exhibitions.  So always bring tissues with you.

 
Media City is the newest addition to the Quays.  Whilst the buildings aren’t as visually stunning as the Lowry and the Imperial War Museum, they are lovely buildings of glass and steel.  I’ve had the opportunity to go into a couple of these buildings and they are serene, ultra-modern buildings designed impeccably to meet the needs of the BBC.  There is even a piazza where the BBC can hold events.  We went to a 6-Music road show there and it was good despite the weather.

 
There is a shopping mall at Salford Quays called the Lowry Outlet.  This is where you will find the main car park.  If you spend over £5 you can get your parking validated and get about 4 hours free parking.  It’s not the most exciting retail experience here.  They focus on having discount outlets for high street shops.  There are some specialist shops like Black and Decker store and art/craft shops that cater for homemade card makers.   I always go to the Gap outlet for jeans and the Nike shop for trainers as you can get good discounts.  My Mum likes the Marks and Spencer’s outlet, whilst Neil is a massive fan of the Cadbury’s shop as it does big bags of mis-shapes along with the regular stock.  At Christmas time there are some pop up shops, so it’s always good to pop along then to pick up presents.  Although if you are a fan of Molton Brown, there is a shop all the year round selling discounted stock.  There is also the Red Cinema too on the first floor if you want to take a break from shopping.
There is a food court there too, but apart from one stall, you do struggle to get some healthy food.  I found the Chicken Cottage to be the spicier version of KFC, which was a pleasant surprise.  There are a couple of coffee shops in the Lowry outlet – a Costa which is always packed and the independent one upstairs that used to be a Coffee Republic.  However I prefer to pop to the Costa over at Media City as it’s quieter and you can watch the glamorous world of the BBC walk on by. 

Over on the Media City side there is an outdoor bar, some restaurants and a Booths Supermarket.  Booths Supermarket is well posh.  It has that Waitrose serene shopping vibe going on.  Whilst it’s not that big, you can really indulge in really nice food you can’t normally get in Tesco or Asda. 
On the restaurant front there is a Wagamama Japanese restaurant here.  It has to be the best one we’ve been to and on the evening we went it was packed.  They have updated the menu and their firecracker chicken is ace.  There are other restaurants here, at the outlet and on the edge of the Quays like Frankie and Bennies, Prezzo and Lime.  It’s handy if you want a pre-theatre meal or are going to one of the BBC filming events e.g. A Question of Sport and Mastermind.  I do recommend you sign up for the BBC audience events, as we got extremely lucky and saw the Pet Shop Boys play with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra for free. 

It’s strange but true but you can also swim, wakeboard and windsurf in Salford Quays.  You can do all this at the unfortunately named Watersports Centre.  They do a lot of open water swimming in the Quays, not my idea of fun, but great for those who do triathlons or charity swims.
I can’t express how extreme the transformation has been to Salford Quays over the past twenty years.  What was literally a wasteland in 1994 where I made student films is now a thriving Media City.  Without the Lowry Theatre and the cultural regeneration it triggered this simply would not have happened. It’s well worth popping down and having a nosey, although bring a jacket as it’s always windy here.
 

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Didsbury Village

It has been years since I’ve ventured into Didsbury Village.  We had been to a family meal at The Didsbury pub which is just next to Fletcher Moss Park, so we decided to have a look around the village.

Didsbury Village is on Wilmslow Road, the main road between Manchester and Stockport.  Whilst relatively easy to find, it’s a pain with all the traffic to get to the village.  Parking is pants too.  There is some parking on the main road, but getting a space is another matter.  We eventually parked on a tiny side street.  I reckon residents must have a nightmare with the parking situation in the Village.  Eventually I did spot a sign for parking behind the main shops, but I had parked at that point.
 
One thing is for sure in Didsbury the locals have a great choice of bars, cafes and restaurants .  I reckon you could easily eat out in Didsbury every night.  There is a good mix of chain and independent cafes and restaurants.  In terms of coffee shops the main chains including Costa and Caffe Nero are here, but there are plenty of independent cafes serving up homemade cakes and artisan coffees.  There are lots of Victorian pubs still open along the road.  Didsbury is noted for being a place to go out on the weekend. As it was a sunny day there were plenty of people sat outside having a drink and chatting with their mates.

The other most notable presence on the main road was estate agents.  There are simply lots of estate agents either selling houses or letting flats.  I did notice there were lots of flats on the way into Didsbury.  Where once a grand Victorian Villa stood with large gardens, now stand 50 flats with a residents car park.  I reckon Didsbury hasn’t been hit as hard as other places in the recession, especially now that the BBC has moved to Media City at Salford Quays.  Even the main street didn’t have too many empty shop fronts.
Since I last visited the Village there has definitely been a change with the shops.  There seems to be less charity shops, with some being taken over by trendy boutiques.  ‘You, Me and Us’ hardware shop has now shut up shop and has been replaced by some trendy shop.  The second hand book shop that also did second hand records on Barlow Moor Road has now closed.  It has now been replaced by a trendy tea shop.  I’m happy to say the sewing shop ‘Sew In’ still remains trading.  In addition, Carringtons the posh off licence is still trading along with The Cheese Hamlet. 

There has been an invasion from the high street with Marks and Spencer’s, Tesco Express and an Aldi.  Marks and Spencer’s looked really busy and I bet the meals for two offer goes down a storm here at the weekend.
Whilst there are definitely less charity shops, it’s still a place to explore to find high quality items.  Neil didn’t find any records though, as he knows Didsbury does get regularly visited by people buying cheap records for resale.  The Oxfam is definitely the best place to browse for books as not only do they have the most, but they also properly categorise them.  As we were a bit late getting to Didsbury we didn’t have chance to check all of them out.

Nearby the Village is the lovely Fletcher Moss Park.  Whilst the council is no longer maintaining the tennis courts, the rest of the park was lovely.  The Botanical Gardens were beautiful despite the fact is did smell of stagnant water from the nearby pond.  The River Mersey runs through the park, however the river has been known to burst its banks here and flood the park.  It’s definitely a place to visit if you want to reconnect with nature in a busy world.  Also worth a visit is Marie Louise Gardens on Palatine Road which is a lovely oasis of calm.
 
Didsbury is the most desirable neighbourhood in the Manchester Council area, with house prices to match.  Whilst the local primary schools are great, as soon as kids hit the age of 10 parents get private tutors in to ensure their child passes the 11 plus to get into the Grammar schools in the Altrincham area or entrance exams into the local independent schools.  It’s a sad fact but the high schools in the Manchester Council area aren’t as good as in some neighbouring council areas.  So you can expect Didsbury’s Alpha Mums to ensure their children get the best education. 

I’m sure the recession did a detour here.  Didsbury is still thriving.  The village was busy with people, the pubs were packed and parking was a nightmare.  The only shops closed were either restaurants to be opened under new management or badly thought out business ideas that didn’t cater for the local community.  There is definitely a community spirit here and the Didsbury Arts festival is at the end of June. It’s worth a visit for a cake, a coffee (a pint even) and a wander.

P.S. More pictures can be found at the Life in Northern Towns page on Pinterest.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Blackpool

Blackpool… I have to admit I’ve been avoiding this place.  We’ve been to nearby Lytham St Anne’s over the years, which is lovely.  However it was time for us to bite the bullet and visit Blackpool.

It’s very easy to get to Blackpool from North Manchester. Just jump on the M61, M6 and M55 and you are there in an hour.  Once you get into Blackpool it’s like entering the largest car park ever.  On a good sunny day or during the illuminations Blackpool can be heaving.  So it’s understandable the local council has worked hard to provide adequate parking.  We had decided to go to the town centre, as the Pleasure Beach doesn’t hold much fun for a couple of 40 odd year olds.  So we parked up and paid £3.50 for 3 hours parking. 
 
Blackpool is very much a Victorian town, which was its heyday.  Red brick buildings dominate the town.  The vast majority of pubs are of the traditional variety.  The shop fronts are bold and brash as befitting a seaside resort.  Before you get into the town centre the side streets are packed with large Victorian terraces, which now serve as local bed and breakfast dwellings for tourists and DSS-funded homeless families. 

However the big fly in the ointment to this trip was the weather.  When we left Manchester it was chucking it down with rain.  Then again that is not entirely unusual for Manchester.  As we approached Blackpool the rain had subsided and we could catch the odd shard of sunshine through the clouds.
Once we had got to the seafront, whilst the rain was holding off, it was windy.  The Irish Sea was very choppy and I felt sorry for anyone sailing on the sea that day.  I’ve spent many sea trips on the Irish Sea to know that choppy seas are the norm.  As it was high tide we decided to walk along the North Pier.  Given the wind and the occasional spatter of rain it was a feat of endurance to walk the full length of the pier.  We found a man bravely fishing at the end of the pier, whilst in a function room we saw a lone organist playing to the seagulls.  We also did spot the odd alcoholic pensioner sipping a pint in the end of pier bar.  This was truly depressing, so we practically ran back down the pier to find some shelter.  The amusement arcade wasn’t much fun either.  Just the usual set of machines set to fleece you.

We decided to eat at the Harry Ramsden’s restaurant on the seafront.  Our decision was in part due to it being a recognisable name and looked safer to eat at than some of the other fish and chip places we had found.  Naturally we had fish and chips.  I noticed the waitress did make sure that Neil had the largest fish.  The food was fine and I’m glad they have stopped serving bread and butter as part of the meal.  I know some people like this, but it makes me feel too stuffed by the end of the meal.
Despite the windy weather the seafront is looking much better these days.  I know millions have been spent to regenerate the seafront and it does look a lot better.  However the shops facing the seafront really do need a makeover to match the sandstone loveliness on the other side of the road.

I noticed the old trams had been replaced with brand spanking new ones.  It’s hard to know whether this is a good thing as the old trams did lend the place character.  Although I reckon the local residents are happier with the new ones.
As the walking along the seafront was proving a challenge we headed into Blackpool Town Centre in search of charity shops.  The charity shops are located in the rough end of town with the fast food shops and the scruffy pubs.  There were quite a few charity shops, but there was nothing exciting to report.  Neil was almost outraged when he found the ABBA ‘Visitors’ album priced at £10.  Apparently it’s only worth £1 in second hand record shops.  Although when we walked past the Winter Gardens ‘Mamma Mia’ the musical was on, so that might explain it.
 
We noticed lots of people in Blackpool had worn faces showing they had led hard lives.  As a result it was difficult to work out people’s ages.  There were quite a few disabled people out and about too on mobility scooters.  From what I have heard about Blackpool it’s a really deprived area and people’s health is not very good as a result.  The seasonal nature of the town means there must be high levels of unemployment here too.  There are lots of seaside towns across the UK in similar circumstances to Blackpool like Morecambe and Rhyl.  It’s sad to see, but these towns haven’t the same appeal to tourists as an all-inclusive in Spain or Turkey.  Blackpool is very much a day trip town or a wild weekend for 18 to 25 year olds.
In the centre of town it does perk up with some modern street art, pedestrianized streets and the Houndshill shopping centre.  There are two theatres in the centre of Blackpool: the Winter Gardens and The Grand.  They show a mad mix of musical theatre, comedians, psychics, cover bands, concerts and some weird cash-in theatre shows like ‘Faulty Towers – The Dining Experience.’
 
Houndshill shopping centre is definitely the classier shopping experience for the locals.  Whilst it’s nothing that exciting with the regular high street names, it’s still better than the rest of Blackpool for shopping.  I now understand why my colleague, who lives in Blackpool, always goes to the Trafford Centre to do her clothes and presents shopping.
We grabbed a coffee and a cake at the local Costa.  I have to say the lady who was doing my decaf coffee was really conscientious, as she noticed my coffee hadn’t developed the crema and knew it would taste bad so did it again.  Not all coffee bar staff would do this and she made me realise why sometimes decaf can taste vile.  Well done lady for explaining that to me!
We missed out the Pleasure Beach as the weather was too bad.  We also didn’t go to BlackpoolTower either.  Neil isn’t a fan of heights and I’m not a fan of windy days on top of a tall tower.  That meant we also missed out on the Tower Ballroom which is supposed to be lovely.  However we had already been somewhat disheartened by our trip and decided to head home a bit early.
Blackpool is a slave to the elements.  On a good weather day this place is buzzing, whilst on a bad weather day it’s dead along the seafront.  We can’t say we’ll be back soon and if we do we will make sure the weather will be good. 
Blackpool is a marmite town – you either love it or hate it.  We know people who absolutely love the place and go back whenever they can.  The local council have also worked really hard to modernise the seafront.  It’s just I’m still not convinced, but I think it’s down to my taste more than anything else. 
 

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Formby

We were supposed to go to Newton-Le-Willows but ended up in Formby instead.  Stupidly I didn’t check the map before heading out and thought the junction on the M62 would be clearly signposted.  It wasn’t and we ended up in Liverpool.  I’ve been meaning to visit more Liverpool suburbs and I remembered that Formby was to the north on the coast.  So we headed north on the ring road.

A special mention needs to be made about the north ring road.  Apart from being terminally boring with the constant stop start with the countless road junctions, there are some crazy road markings.  This means on one side of a junction there will be three lanes of traffic, whilst on the opposite side there will be just two lanes of traffic.  There are no warning signs and no road markings to indicate two lanes merging into one.  God forbid if you find yourself in the middle lane as once you cross over you are faced with the choice of left or right lane and often as not there is a car either side of you.  Twice I got caught in these dangerous road marking traps and twice my heart was in my mouth thinking ‘WTF!!!’  Just be warned, if you find there is an empty middle lane on the north ring road – avoid. 
I thought Formby was a suburb of Liverpool, but it’s actually a separate town.  Once you get through the rolling suburbs of Liverpool on the road to Southport it turns into countryside.  It’s pretty and flat countryside as you would expect on the coast.  There are two signs to Formby – one for the beach and one for the town.  I’ve spent enough drizzly days on northern coastal beaches to know that the town is the better option. 

I had heard that Formby was a well-to-do neighbourhood, but if you didn’t know beforehand you could tell by the large well-maintained houses on the road into the town centre.  Also it did possess my two indicators of posh – a Waitrose and a Marks and Spencer’s Simply Food supermarket.
Parking was straightforward.  There was two hours free parking near the bus stop.  Although there was a Parking Enforcement Officer on patrol, so we knew we could only do the two hours.

One of the things that drew us to Formby was the charity shops – there were plenty of them. They seriously did not disappoint.  We found there were some local ones like the ‘Carla Lane Animals in Need’ and ‘Claire House’.  The local YMCA had quite a range of Wedgewood and Portmerion pottery. If you are ever short of Tena Lady don’t go to the supermarket in Formby, go to Age UK.  Honestly there were stacks of them all over the shop.  I have to say the menswear Barnardo’s is the closest charity shop to challenge Alderley Edge’s Barnardo’s title as the most posh charity shop ever.  Seriously great stuff in there and I reckon the local footballers must donate their clothes here.  A special mention must go to Carla Lane’s Animals in Need as it did have the friendliest black border collie greeting customers – it was so cute.  Neil was having a great time browsing the shops and they didn’t disappoint on the musical front as he picked up some records.
I did notice that Formby did have quite a few doggies.  Obviously the black border collie caught my eye, but there was an amazing looking border collie with piercing blue eyes outside a café bar.  I would have taken a picture but its owner was there.  I did take a picture of a ginger mutt outside Oxfam.  I felt sad for it as it was shivering in in the drizzle waiting for its owner.

There are plenty of cafes to grab a coffee and a cake.  There are your usual chains like Café Nero and Costa, but we went to Cup and Cake.  The café had cute pastel décor and the staff were very friendly and helpful.  Most importantly their cupcakes were delicious – well worth a visit.
 
I liked the fact amongst the charity shops, cafes and independent shops there were not only one, but two bookshops.  Result!!!  With the serious pressure of online shopping, it was so nice to see actual independent bookshops.  I really hope they have loyal customers.

Just on the edge of the town centre, opposite the Police Station is Formby Pool.  I seriously got leisure centre envy.  I work for a Leisure Trust and as much as we have some lovely sites, I was jealous.  Formby Pool looks as if it has been transported from Scandinavia: slatted, silvered wooden panelling; tinted glass; angular architecture; and landscaped grounds with a manicured tree lined path.  I loved what they did with the glass to the pool.  They had vertical opaque lines which obscured the swimmers, but you can still see the pool.  This is a very good thing as having worked in a leisure centre you do see some sights.  All I can say is: hairy, overweight men in tight speedos – a seriously terrifying look.  Even worse than middle aged cyclists in unforgiving lycra.  There needs to be a ban on lycra for over 40s!
 
I do recommend a trip to Formby, especially for the charity shop explorers.  It’s such a genteel town with a lot to offer and the people are really friendly.  My word of advice is not to travel through Liverpool as it takes an age to get there, but take the M62 and M57 or if you live in West Manchester, the A580 and M57 instead.  Also try to go on a sunny day so you can check out the beach too.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Congleton

For quite some time I’ve been trying to get Neil to revisit Congleton.  The last time we went it was rather a depressing day, however I noticed there were plenty of charity shops to explore and I was itching to return.  This time I bribed him – I will take him to Nantwich so he can look in Oxfam and have a battered burger (barf), but we had to visit Congleton as well.  So our deal was struck.

We took the A534 from Nantwich to Congleton.  You can also take the M6 and get off at Junction 17 then pick up the A534 as it’s quicker.  However there was a traffic jam so we took the cross country route.
Congleton is not your typical leafy Cheshire town, as you drop down the hill into the town centre you notice old mill factories dotted around.  Apparently Congleton had an industrial past making textiles and these mills are the last remaining remnants of that past.
Parking in Congleton is straightforward and we parked at the pay and display next to the bus station.
We did notice a café at the bus station called Bear Grill’s and then we spotted the local bus company was called Bear Town.  As we walked through the town we kept spotting bears in shop windows.  What’s with this bear thing in Congleton?  Apparently  Congleton got the nickname of ‘Bear Town’ in the 17th Century for being notorious as a town for bear baiting, especially as legend has it that it sold the town bible to buy a more aggressive bear.  Sometimes it’s quite unnerving to find out these apparently cute nicknames are based on something much more sinister.  I’m sure this doesn’t happen anymore.
The town itself is a real mix of buildings  from black and white style, to the imposing Victorian Town hall, to rather dull 20th Century shopping centre.  Despite it looking quite pretty in parts, the town was surprisingly quiet for a Saturday afternoon.  On closer inspection, there were quite a few empty shop fronts.  It seems Congleton has taken quite a battering in this economic recession. 
We were here for the charity shops and Neil had a good rummage for stuff.  I didn’t find much in the way of books, but I did see the most amazing tiles of a bull’s head as we went into the Oxfam.  Throughout Congleton I kept finding Victorian mosaics and tiles on shop walls or entrances.  I love the fact these little details remain, which gives so much character to a place.
 
There is a cheap tat market hidden in the modern red brick shopping centre at the back of the main pedestrianized street.  I’m not a fan of these markets, but apparently twice a month they do have a farmers market.  Hurrah!  I love a good farmers market.
Thankfully Congleton has a number of independent shops that are stemming the tide of the recession.  There was Simply Retro selling vintage clothes and stuff; I loved The StationeryCupboard as it catered for all my stationery whims; and I noticed that Bryans haberdashery shop still sported old school signage.   You can actually buy new music in a physical format at A&A Music shop as well as buy musical instruments – this is a rare thing in this day and age and should be supported.
There are plenty of fabulous looking traditional pubs in Congleton.  I reckon it could be a lively night out, especially on the weekend with people coming in from the outlying countryside.  I know there are popular Northern Soul and Comedy nights here in the town, which is great to see.
 
Whilst it’s clear Congleton is suffering economically there is so much hope on the horizon here.  There is real civic pride in Congleton, not only from all the Civic pride awards by the war memorial, but from the fact they have community street art to brighten up the place and local calls for action in empty shop windows.  I was so pleased to see a local artist collective who has a home at the Electric Picture Theatre.  I’m a massive fan of cultural regeneration, where artists and craft makers help to regenerate the local economy.  We know Kev and Linda who regularly put on music nights in Congleton.  They also put on the Going Up The Country Festival each year, which is an indie-pop music event.  Sadly we couldn’t make it this year, but it’s a fab idea that brings people into the town.  I’ve seen this type of cultural regeneration make a real impact in northern towns like Clitheroe and Grassington.  It just needs some likeminded locals to make the difference.

I’m glad I managed to drag Neil to Congleton.  In the last few years since our last visit there has been a move in the right direction to jazz up the place.  There is still a long way to go and I doubt it will ever trouble the likes of Wilmslow and Nantwich in fabulousness.  However there is clearly a sense of civic pride in Congleton with people here trying to make a positive difference and that is brilliant!  Go team Congleton!!!