Sunday 28 July 2013


Chester is a cracking little city to visit.  We’ve been to Chester quite a few times over the years and it’s a rather beautiful place to find yourself in.

A few years back we spent a night at the Crowne Plaza between Christmas and New Year.  It was a nice hotel, but I can find it really hard to sleep in hotels.  The breakfast was nice, but we were overrun by a coach party of OAP’s who were hogging the breakfast buffet.  The best thing was seeing Chester dusted in a light coating of snow, which made it look even prettier.
Getting to Chester is a relatively simple process from Manchester: M60, M56 and M53.  You do have a choice of junctions to turn off at and I never know which one is the best.   The one which leads you to Hoole Road is the worst as it’s always full of traffic.  Then again it’s always worth taking a detour to Hoole as it’s a sweet little happening suburb.

Parking in Chester is a major poo – this is why they have a park and ride service.  If you take the Hoole Road route there is an open air car park near the Hoole Road roundabout.  It is cheap, but always busy.  There is also pay and display parking near the council flats – again always busy.  Stupidly we went to Chester on a race day so it would be wasting our time trying these places.  In the end we parked in Pepper Street Car park and paid about £7 for 4 hours parking – very pricy if you ask me.
Chester is always a good shopping experience.  Not only does it have your usual high street chains but also a good selection of independent shops.  We noticed there were a couple of vintage shops this time.  Penny Lane is near the centre of Chester.  I have to say whilst it does sell vintage items, its main trade is selling new clothes which have a vintage feel.  I had to leave Neil in there browsing the racks of second-hand records.  There was a more interesting shop on Brook Street  called Becnicks Wonder Emporium, which was more interesting and had a little café.  I loved the scary knitted cats and the furniture in the shop.  It definitely had more of a vintage feel than Penny Lane.
There is a fab second hand book shop on the city walls near Northgate Street called Bluecoat Books, which is must see place for book fans.  Whilst it’s packed full of books, it is well organised, cheap and not overwhelming.  As Chester has a university, it does a good line in academic books.

The charity shops in Chester have gone downhill since our last visit.  There are simply less charity shops and with the growth in vintage shops there is just less decent stuff available. The Oxfam on Bridge Street is now seriously lacking in music and that was always a good place to go.  Then again the Oxfam on Frodsham Street is always worth a look for books. In one charity shop I overheard one of the assistants saying some charity shops had closed due to high rents.  I had noticed where there used to be a vintage book shop on Bridge Street had now turned into Jigsaw.  I would take a guess the rents had something to do with that too.
In Age UK we witnessed a crazy incident.  Neil was browsing through the vinyl records whilst I was perusing the books.  A couple of girls aged about 10 started yelling at each other.  One girl had picked up a bright orange gorilla and the other girl wanted it.  It was getting heated and the screaming girls began to wrestle with each other to get hold of the £1.95 gorilla.  Their Mums were just ignoring them, so the shop assistant had to intervene and take the gorilla off them saying only one of them could buy it.  One girl ran off to her mum to get the money, whilst the other was busy counting out her pocket money.  Obviously the girl with the pocket money got it.  As I was leaving the shop, the other girl stormed out in a diva huff when she found out the other girl had got it.  I wish I had filmed it as not only would I have got £250 from You’ve Been Framed, but also it was genuinely funny and would have been a You Tube classic.
Whilst the centre of Chester is a standard shopping experience, I found that Faulkner Street and Brook Street are more interesting as it reminded me of the Northern Quarter in Manchester.  I was pleased to find Abakhan, a cheap haberdashery shop that sells fabric by the kilo.  Sadly with my repetitive strain injury I can’t buy wool any more.  There’s a growing multicultural community in Chester which is shown by the number of ethnic food shops that have popped up along here.  There’s a tanning salon that does spray tans that were medium, dark or double dark.  Surely they could have said light, medium or dark instead?  A shop assistant in a mini supermarket was discussing with her colleague that she didn’t mind lone working on a Saturday night as she always had her under-the-counter panic alarm if there was a robbery.  These two streets may not be the most glamorous places in Chester, but I certainly find them the most interesting.
As it was the Chester Races we found lots of people dressed to the nines looking glam.  Although once some of the ladies opened their mouths their accents betrayed their Liverpool heritage and the glamorous illusion was shattered.  It was quite funny as the day wore on as the suited and booted blokes got steadily trollied with alcohol and their smart appearance descended into a beery messiness.

If I haven’t convinced you to go to Chester, then try Chester Zoo.  I know some people aren’t keen on zoos, but this is definitely the best I’ve seen.  The chimps are always happy, the penguins do jazz hands to visitors and most importantly the elephants are content.  The elephants are incredibly gentle in how they relate with their family group.  They are so hypnotic I could watch them all day.  It’s always best to come at feeding time to see the animal interaction. 
Chester is a very pretty city with the black and white Tudor style architecture and Roman history.  There is the river and park on its banks if you want to take a break from shopping.  You can also walk round the city walls or pop into the Cathedral.  The opportunities to do stuff here are endless.  No wonder we like taking a trip to here, although the parking is pants. 
For those who love photography you really can’t get enough of this place as there is a photo opportunity on every corner.  Although for architectural photography 6am would be the best time in this city as the city is pretty busy during shop hours.
So how shall I end this blog?  I’m sure I’ve not even got everything in as there is so much to write about.  So let’s finish on these five words - Go to Chester, its great!

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Hoylake, Wirral

Hoylake is famed for its golf - not that it’s any concern of ours. My uncle did try to teach me and my brother to play golf, but failed through our lack of ability and apathy. Although, if I recollect correctly, we did have a moment in the 80s watching late night golf on BBC2 – kids these days don’t know the meaning of boredom like we had in the 70s and 80s.

Anyway Hoylake is a couple of miles down the road from West Kirby, which was rather handy for our purposes.

We arrived about 3.30pm and parked on the main road where there is free parking. The town was very quiet, almost ghost town like apart from the Monte Carlo restaurant.  The restaurant has a pavement terrace which is very reminiscent of Parisian cafes and people sat there were looking rather glam.  If we'd come a few hours earlier I reckon the village would have been busier.

The village itself is very well-to-do and was covered in homemade bunting. The shops are located on the main road and it can be a bit of a hike to get from one end to the other.  There was a good mix of shops including a specialist baking supplier, an antiques shop and a ladies' designer agency called ‘The Way We Wear’.  The Quirky Little Café was still doing good business with customers enjoying a coffee in the afternoon sun, sat on the pavement tables and chairs.  Even the benches in the village are swish with metal ends made to look like thick marine rope.

The charity shops are classy too.  Although you do have to make it to the town before 4pm, otherwise you find some of them have already closed.  In one charity shop they had a cute white dog door stop with a sign ‘doggy not for sale’ stuck on its bum.  Hoylake is definitely a stop for the more discerning charity shop explorer.

What I did find with Hoylake, unlike Heswall and West Kirby, was a fine strand of eccentricity.  Whilst walking down the road we found a plate with a picture of birds attached to the tree.  Also Trendy Pooches bizarrely had what appeared to be a self-service dog washing machine called the 'K9000 Dog Wash'.  Brilliant idea – you can wash the dog without messing up your bathroom.

There was a new housing development being built in the village and I liked the fact the developer had allowed the locals to display local art on the hoardings to promote the local arts festival.

I couldn’t help but think there was a distinct community spirit here.  Not only with the arts festival, but also there was a community shop in the town promoting local activities.  After our visit I Googled it and was amazed to find the excellent Hoylake village website and the community development intentions behind it.  You need people to take action to keep towns and villages thriving in this economic climate - Hoylake has these kinds of people.

The beach is about a five minute walk from the village centre.  It was certainly more quiet than West Kirby.  There were some people on horseback trotting down the promenade.  The tide was so far out you could not see the sea, only the wind farm on the horizon harvesting the sea breeze.  We did try to walk along the beach, but we managed to find the part of the beach with really stodgy sand that was hard to walk on.  I’m still finding bits of sand in my car.  Hoylake’s promenade and beach is definitely one for those who want some quiet contemplation by the sea.

I was honestly charmed by Hoylake – not by the well-to-do nature of the place, but by its community spirit and slight eccentricity.  I can understand why people want to live here.  It’s definitely worth a visit, but make sure you get here a bit earlier than we did.

Sunday 14 July 2013

West Kirby, Wirral

Only five miles down the road from Heswall is WestKirby.  So we popped on the A540.  The drive itself is nice, occasionally catching views of the Dee Estuary.  You can tell this is a well-to-do part of the world with the large, well maintained houses and serious looking gates.

Parking in West Kirby was straightforward as we found a parking bay outside an antiques shop with two hours free parking.  Although we had to be careful not to overstay our welcome as there were plenty of parking enforcement officers in force.

West Kirby, whilst a well-to-do town like Heswall, is a bit more your new money sort of town.  The shops are more on trend.  There are plenty of beauty shops offering tans, nail art and a variety of lotions and potions that in another century would have been considered witchcraft.
The buildings in the town are predominantly of Victorian origin – large, ornate and often with mock Tudor black and white panelled features.  The Dee Hotel looked rather lovely with its faux Tudor features, despite the fact it was a Wetherspoons pub with drunken young lads smoking fags outside.  Along some of the streets had wrought iron ornate canopies hanging above the shopMarina s.  I always associate this with posh Victorian spa towns and seaside resorts.  I guess the Victorians had the same inclement weather as we have now.  I noticed the shop keepers had retained lots of the original Victorian features and I can’t help but think this is why West Kirby looks so lovely.

As it was a beautiful day West Kirby was busy.  Unlike Heswall the beach and the Marine Lake is a big draw to the town.  The train station in West Kirby is about 300 metres from the beach and a large influx of people had come in for the day from Birkenhead.  I spotted some scally young men in sports gear heading towards the beach with beer and they were bearing their milk white chests, which were clearly untouched by sun or hard work.

We walked along the promenade by the Marine where the posh boys were playing with their boats and marine toys, whilst the pensioners were watching on from the prom.  The promenade is surprisingly under- commercialised.  There seemed to be only one stall selling fish and chips.  The purpose built toilets were packed with people getting changed for the beach.  In addition there was a first aid point to look after those who had spent too much time in the sun.  Morrisons supermarket was also doing great business from the day trippers who were buying food and drink for the beach.
The beach itself was a wide expanse of sand.  You could hardly make out where the sea was and there were plenty of families enjoying the sun shine.  The promenade was full of pensioners and people with mobility issues who thought better of getting clogged up with sand.  There were dog walkers too taking a constitutional with their pooches.  One Bichon Frise really owed the strip.  It was pulling its owner along saying hello to the all pensioners, sniffing other dogs’ bums and generally looking cool.  This dog was channelling 1970s John Travolta and all it needed was the Bee Gee’s Saturday Night Fever soundtrack to complete the effect.  The dog’s owner was just happy to be along for the ride, laughing at his dog’s antics.

We managed to find the charity shops after doing a detour through the town and promenade.  Whilst the young families from Birkenhead were on the beach soaking in the rare British sunshine, their Grandmas or, to use the Scouse term, their Nans were off rummaging through the nearby charity shops.  The shops appeared to be well stocked.  However for me the Heswall charity shops inched it in terms of quality.
We definitely caught West Kirby on a good day.  The sunshine definitely makes a huge difference to a place.  I quite like the fact this place hasn’t been over-commercialised and remains a classy place to do the whole beach family thing. 

Sunday 7 July 2013

Heswall, Wirral

Unbelievably Neil had a Saturday off and it was a sunny day – this is like a constellations aligning event.  So we decided to head somewhere different by the sea and the posh part of the Wirral was calling our names.

We headed out on the M60, M56, M53, A5137 and A540.  Although the latter bit about the A540 isn’t exactly true – I got lost.  I took the wrong turning.  I think we did a detour through Heswall Village, which was very pretty.  It was worth getting lost as we kept catching stunning glimpses of the River Dee.  Eventually, more by luck than design, we found the town centre.
We had heard of Heswall as the blessed John Peel was born here.  It’s a lovely very well-to-do neighbourhood on the shores of the Dee estuary with views of Wales on the opposite side.  So what’s not to like?

The town itself is quite unassuming.  We parked in the pay-and-display near the Aldi.  First thing first we needed to grab a bite to eat as Neil is never on the best of form without food.  We popped along to the Ravenscroft (yes, it was actually named after John Peel).  However there was a noisy crowd watching the Rugby so we went to the Johnny Pye where the Rugby was still on, although the crowd was older and less rowdy.  The food was fine for the price – nothing special or exciting.  I hate to admit it, but I think the food might have been nicer at the Ravenscroft.

Next on the agenda were the charity shops.  The only bit of research I do before visiting a northern town is checking out how many charity shops it has.  Seven in total – Oxfam, Barnardos, Roy Castle, Claire’s House, two Age UK’s and Wirral Hospice.  The Roy Castle Foundation seems to have some of the better stuff.  There was some nice reasonably priced furniture downstairs and upstairs had the best books section in Heswall.  One thing that annoyed me was the posters on the stairs with celebs supporting the cause.  I have no problem with people showing their support, it’s just that there are some celebs who do it for their own PR purposes – yes you, Heartbeat’s Trisha Penrose and you, Atomic Kitten’s Jenny Frost!  I had a ‘grrr’ moment on the stairs because of that it has to be said.  On the whole, musically speaking the charity shops were rather dull and that was the same on the book front.  However if you are a fan of decanters there were plenty in stock.

The town seemed to have an older, wealthy clientele.  Zimmer frames on wheels seemed quite popular with the older folk.  There was a Country Casuals - always my indicator of 50 plus dominance.  M&S Simply Food was on the edge of town - my check for well-to-do-ness.  I did see a bright yellow convertible Lamborghini struggling to park - definitely a check for new money/no class.  There was a shop called Ann Margaret that looked really old school.  It was a lingerie shop for the older lady.  The most exciting thing in the shop window amongst the cotton nightdresses were the Playtex boulder holder style bras.
There are plenty of cafes and restaurants around Heswall.  Somehow we missed the bookshop as I thought it was just a café.  The restaurants tended to have a Mediterranean feel.  We had some lovely ice cream at Archer's.  I had Jaffa cake and Rum & Raisin flavour, whilst Neil had Jaffa cake and Amaretto.  The Jaffa cake one was lovely which had candied orange rind in it, although Neil would have preferred more chocolate.  I wish we stopped and had a sundae instead as they looked yummy.
There were some classy independent shops including a proper florist, bridal shop, butchers and a furniture shop with lots of on-trend white furniture in the window.  There were a few off licences too that were trying to look respectable including ‘Ship In A Bottle’, which had a very literal sign.
There are also plenty of dog owners in this town.  We spotted a grey and white border collie outside a shop.  Surprisingly it had only a partial tail.  It did seem quite a young and nervous dog, so we didn’t stroke it.  Instead I took a picture of it and got a lovely shot of it with its shadow clear in the bright sunlight.

One thing for sure you need to be patient whilst passing through Heswall as there are plenty of traffic lights.  Thankfully Heswall is on the main road to West Kirby and Hoylake, so if you are planning a posh Wirral road trip the journey is fairly straightforward.

We spent a couple of hours in the town and, whilst it isn’t the most vibrant of places, it’s definitely worth stopping off for a quick visit to the charity shops and a bite to eat.  If I went again I would definitely seek out the shore as the glimpses of the Dee Estuary were quite beautiful.