Sunday 27 October 2013

Grange-Over-Sands Revisited

Last year we had a brilliant holiday in New York, so when organising this year’s holiday I knew it was never going to meet the same level of fabulousness.  So what do you do after visiting the best place ever?  In our case, we headed off to the Lake District for the week.

For the past couple of years we’ve spent time in Grange-Over-Sands, which is a perfectly pleasant place.  However this time we decided to stay in Cartmel, which is apparently the most beautiful village in Cumbria.
Our first port of call was Grange-Over-Sands.  Astonishingly for the end of September in Cumbria the weather was beautiful.  Looking back at our other trips this was the first time I’ve ever seen the place in nice weather and it really makes a difference.
We did the charity shops and whilst they weren’t exciting I noticed one of the charity shops had closed since our last visit.  It’s always sad to see, but I remember from previous visits it was always a case of roulette whether it was open or not.  Now it’s a clothes shop.

As we were staying in a cottage, it was the first time we had a kitchen to cook in.  The great thing about the Lake District is that there are plenty of good food shops.  We were recommended a butcher in Grange-Over-Sands called Higginsons.  The shop was packed full of people and the stock looked way better than what you find in the supermarket.  We stocked up on sausages for breakfast and they were lovely especially the Welsh Dragon flavour.  I wish there were more butchers like this where we live.
Grange Bakery does good bread too – I think I preferred it to the fancy bakery at the Cheese shop in Cartmel and it’s cheaper too.  For general supplies there is a Cooperative mini supermarket in the town.  Not exciting but good for bits and bobs.  You really have to head to Ulverston or Kendal to do a proper big shop.
On the edge of Grange-Over-Sands there is a lovely café/cake shop called Hazelmere Café.  The café is always packed full of people, so we decided to get a cake take away.  Neil had a gluten free chocolate torte and I had a vanilla slice.  I had to say mine was lovely, but we decided to eat it by the nearby man-made lake.  This was a mistake as there were loads of insects and had very demanding seagulls trying to mug us for our cakes.  Unfortunately I managed to drop part of Neil’s torte, so the birds did have a feast on us.  I was surprised to find ducks that looked like Darth Vader with their sinister helmet-like heads.

There is a rather good bookshop in Grange called DaisyrootsBook Centre.  Spread over two floors it’s a nicely organised bookshop with space to move around.  There is nothing more overwhelming than a bookshop over stocked with books.  Normally I walk out of these shops as they are so oppressive and you can’t find anything.  However in Daisyroots you could easily spend hours browsing the shelves and actually find stuff.
We booked in the At Home Café and Bistro again for a meal.  As I was driving we didn’t get to sample their nice wine list.  I had lamb and Neil had steak and both were perfectly fine.  You do get plenty of veg with the main meals, which is good for me but Neil just had the potatoes. 

Sadly we didn’t get to the Commodore Inn, but it looks like they have regular bands on and events.  Whereas the scary sports bar from previous visits had been transformed into a bar that does food.

I have to say the weather makes a huge difference when visiting Grange-Over-Sands.  You can have a pleasant stroll, without darting into the nearest pub for shelter.  You also need to watch where you are going and try not to trip over the little balls of black fluff being walked by their owner.  I can’t believe you can get dogs that small and fluffy - they must be as light as a feather. When it’s grey and drizzly the place is deserted and your spirits sink.

It’s good to revisit places to see what has changed – in the case of Grange not much.  I doubt we will ever stay over in the town again, but we’ll definitely visit again especially as Higginsons the Butchers, and the Hazlemere Cafe are worth the trip.


Sunday 20 October 2013

Leek, Staffordshire

Technically it’s not the north, but Leek is only 13 miles from Macclesfield so we are back in Life in Midland Towns territory for this week’s blog post.

We took the A523 from Macclesfield to Leek.  It was a nice journey through the Staffordshire country side with spotted sheep scattered across the undulating hills.  I can’t ever remember seeing spotted sheep before.  We passed some cyclists clogging up the country lanes.  They were channelling their inner Bradley Wiggins on their high spec bikes and bedecked yellow lycra tops – never a good look on a middle aged man.
Leek is surprisingly industrial when you hit the outskirts of town with a chemical works and the disused mills.  In Cheshire or West Yorkshire those mills would have been converted into fancy flats, however in Leek the mills had broken windows and young saplings growing out of the roofs.  There was also a football club having a home game in a random football league I’ve never heard of (then again that could mean the premiership for all I know about football).

We were trying to find a car park, however we found a side street with no parking restriction close to the centre of town.  So we parked up for free and walked into the town centre.
We hadn’t a clue what to expect.  At the centre of town was a clock tower monument dominating the skyline, whilst one side of the road had a sixties style shopping centre and the other side had a hodge-podge of 18th and 19th century buildings.

The sixties style building was uninspiring and there were a few empty shop fronts.  On the other side it was more interesting.  There was a little cobbled side alley covered by a glass atrium, which had an array of independent shops, cafes and restaurants.  It provided a classy respite from the rest of town.
Leek is full of charity shops and we had a good root through them. Neil did find some cheap 7 inch 90’s singles to buy.  The shops were popular with the locals and I noticed a young family were going from shop to shop picking up cheap toys and clothes for their children.  That’s one of the unsung benefits of charity shops as they truly provide a social service for families in need.   
There are two markets in Leek – the outdoor market in the town square and the Butter Market, which is an indoor Victorian market for the regular traders.  I noticed the Butter Market had notice boards packed full of flyers for local events.  I guess these are what we used to use to find out what was happening in a town pre-internet days – how retro!  This Saturday the outdoor market was predominantly a second hand market with people selling collectables or bric-a-brac.  It’s like a miniature version of Huddersfield’s Saturday market.  However it was 3pm they were packing away for the day, so we pretty much missed it. 
Leek on the surface does look to be a town with chavvy elements.  You can’t escape the hard lived in faces of some of the local residents wandering through the town, some walking their staffie crosses or taking a drag on their mate’s e-cigarette.  There were kids determined to kill or at least maim themselves playing chicken with traffic on scooters.  However I did notice Leek had some classier elements with the little cobbled arcade, a side street with nice antiques shops and some boutique pet shops.  There was also a pop up shop, which is great to see as there is nothing sadder on the high street than a dusty closed down shop.  I was impressed to find an independent book shop too – gold star to Leek!
Leek is pretty much off the beaten track, the nearest city Stoke-on-Trent is over half an hour drive away and the M6 even further.  I really can’t imagine many visitors heading into town unless they were passing through or visiting family.  It does have some historic market town charm, apart from the 1960’s shopping parade, with nice traditional black and white pubs, mock Tudor Victorian buildings and a cobbled town square.  There appears to have been no major developments in the town centre in recent years.  Quintessentially Leek is how foreign tourists perceive an English market town to be, albeit a touch down at heel.  Would we come back again?  Only if we were passing through.

Sunday 13 October 2013


We’ve been here a few times and probably due to laziness I haven’t written about the place.  So I’m rectifying the situation.

Macclesfield is in that part of Cheshire that is a ball ache to get to – not close to any motorway and a myriad of ways to get there.  This time we went M60, A34, A555, A5149 and A523.  Sometimes I’ve come through Wilmslow and even travelled via Buxton on the A537.  The A537 is special, it’s nicknamed the Cat ‘n’ Fiddle and probably one of the most dangerous roads in the country.  Needless to say I loved driving down this road and it’s the kind of road that demands you to drink a gin and tonic at the end of it to celebrate completing it in one piece.  This is definitely a road for a person wanting to experience a Top Gear moment.
Back to Macclesfield – I’ve always had a mixed experience of the town.  Often it has been the last town on a day trip when half the charity and interesting shops have closed.  This time I made sure it was the first stop of the day.
We park on the edge of town near Chester Gate.  We got 2 hours parking for a £1 which is not bad.  In my opinion Chester Gate is the most interesting part of town.  I consider it Macclesfield’s equivalent of Manchester’s Northern Quarter – a bit rough round the edges but rocking an interesting vibe.

There are a number of charity shops along Chester Gate and some of which are for the more local ones.  I always like Windyway Trust shop as they always have pictures dotted around the shop of the cute animals they are looking after.  These charity shops are very busy, although you really have to be sharp to pick up a bargain or a collectable as there are a number of local vintage shops who no doubt scour these shops for antiques only to sell them for 10 times what they paid for them. 

The more mainstream charity shops such as Scope, Cancer Research and Oxfam are located in the centre of Macclesfield.  In Scope there was a dispute as a woman had thought she had left her mobile phone charger there earlier in the week.  The shop assistant insisted they had checked and there was no phone charger in the shop.  In the end the shop assistant had to stop the woman from going into the back room.  Sue Ryder shop on the edge of town is the largest of all the charity shops and does a good line in furniture.  If you are on a budget and need to pick up some cheap furniture this is the place to visit.
As I mentioned there are some Vintage shops on Chester Gate.  I’m somewhat disappointed with Macvintage as despite looking the part of a vintage shop they are seriously overpriced especially where vinyl records are concerned.  My favourite vintage shop along here is Déjà vu.  I’m still kicking myself for not picking up a Japanese embroidery picture I saw there.  Whilst it’s a narrow shop it is spread out over 3 floors and 6 rooms.  I love wandering from room to room and whilst we’re not talking high end antiques here they have some interesting items at what seemed to me reasonable prices.  Neil didn’t find anything to pick up from their collection of vinyl  though he did find some awful album covers to post on Facebook.  Déjà vu is definitely a place to visit.

As we wandered into town there were plenty of independent shops that have popped up.  The Big Issue seller was very scary sounding whilst he hawked his wares.  There are plenty of restaurants and cafes too to grab a bite to eat.  There is both a Caffe Nero and a Costa to rest your weary feet, along with some independent cafes which looked interesting.  We decided to get fish and chips from Silktown Fryer.  Whilst we did ask for a small portion of chips, we still got a mighty helping.  I have to say they were good too.

The main shopping area is a pedestrianized zone, which adds to a safer shopping experience.  Not surprisingly, in this economic climate, there are a number of empty shops dotted about.  This is not helped by the fact there is an out of town shopping area on the outskirts of the town.  The main shopping area isn’t the most thrilling shopping experience as it had standard high street chains vying for trade. 
Architecturally Macclesfield is a traditional market town with a hodge-podge of shops which have evolved over the centuries.  As a result this gives the place real character.  The Town Hall in the centre of town is a rather grand building, which looked more like a stately home than civic building. On the outskirts of the town there were some large Mill buildings and apparently Macclesfield used to be a hub for silk making.  Chester Gate being  a little rough round the edges has a few boarded up shops and pubs, but the locals have painted murals on the frontages which really helps to brighten up the place.

After this trip I’m really quite impressed with Macclesfield as it’s definitely working its independent shopping experience.  For me that is one of the best things about the place.  I do think the nice weather helped as rain and drizzle can really dampen one’s spirits when visiting northern towns.  No doubt we’ll be back at some point, especially as I’m still wondering if Déjà vu have that silk embroidery.


Sunday 6 October 2013

A Northerner in London Town - The Tourist Edition

A Northerner in London Town makes a brief return to Life in Northern Towns.  We took a weekend trip to London recently to visit my cousins from Canada and my brother and his partner who normally lives in Dublin.

It was my cousins’ first trip to London so obviously they wanted to do the tourist version of London.  When we first started to visit London we used to do all the tourist haunts.  However the more you visit London the more the city unfolds its secrets to you.  So it was a really nice change for us to see London again through the eyes of first time visitors.

The one thing a first timer needs to do when visiting London is not to use the Tube where possible.  It should only be used when you need to travel more than two miles.  Also you will not jump out of your skin at Chancery Lane tube station like I did when a rat scampered across the platform.  My preferred way to view London is on foot, however after four hours of constant pavement pounding this can be a chore.  My cousins decided to opt for the open top tour bus and whilst it's £28 for 24 hours access, I have to say I saw parts of London I'd never seen before.  Whilst it can be rather chilly on the top deck, it’s great to see London this way.  You can get to see the architecture of London and have some good photo opportunities.  My cousins liked the tour narration you get when you plug into the onboard sound system.  I liked how they gave you free headphones for it.  The tour bus we used also had a Thames boat trip as part of the deal, which my cousins thought was good.  Sadly we didn’t have the time to do this trip.

We decided to go up to the Tower of London on the tour bus, however the EDL decided to inconvenience us and we spent about an hour staring at the Shard as we inched ourselves towards Tower Bridge.  Unfortunately the bus had to turn back, so we jumped off the bus and headed toward the Southbank.

I really like the Southbank as you get some fab views of London and they have some good visitor attractions like the Tate Modern, Festival Hall and London Eye.  We walked along the Thames and the views meant that I went into over drive with Instagram - the Gerkin, City Hall and the melty car building. 

In all the times I've been to London I have never crossed Tower Bridge.  It really is an amazing and iconic structure in London.  Thankfully as there were some really dramatic clouds over London that day I got some magic shots of Tower Bridge and the Thames.  Unfortunately due to the EDL we missed out on visiting the Tower of London.  However my cousins managed to go there next day and they recommended the tour.

We also missed out on getting inside St Paul's Cathedral too as we were running late, but it is an amazing building.  I noticed one of the priest's stood on the steps of the cathedral chatting to one of his congregation.  It looks such an everyday moment, however the back drop of St Paul's provided a counterpoint to this scene.  You sometimes forget this is still a full operational church with masses and a congregation.

My cousins were staying by Westminster and it was great to see the epic Houses of Parliament and Big Ben up close and personal.  When I was a teenager I ended up going inside the building on a school trip and it really is a stunning building.  Nearby was Westminster Abbey and my cousins thought it was a really beautiful building.  I did have to remind them it used to be a Catholic church back in the day before Henry VIII started to get bored with his wives.  I always think Catholic churches and cathedrals really rock with their grandiose art, whereas Protestant churches are just a bit plain.

As my cousins are from Canada their history only goes back 200 years, whereas London goes back over 2000 years.  They came to London to experience the history this place has and I guess we sometimes take for granted the history, the architecture and the stories this place holds.

Covent Gardens is a must for tourists and as we wandered through it there was a  mass of humanity who had the same idea.  On a Saturday the crowds are mental and it's hard to push through the throng of people watching all the street entertainment.  We had a nice ice cream at Covent Garden market.  It has to be said Covent Garden is really intense on a Saturday and definitely more civilised to visit on a weekday.

Leicester Square turned out to be an excellent meeting place for everyone.  Whilst my cousins were staying in Westminster and my brother on the Southbank, we were staying at the Premier Inn next to Euston Station.  Leicester Square was a central place and is on the tube line.

We stayed at Premier Inn for a change as our usual hotel Ibis Euston was fully booked.  Whilst it doesn’t look much from the outside, inside the place was fine.  Check in was super quick as we had checked in online.  I like the fact you have to use your key card to access the lifts.  The rooms were functional, clean and comfortable.  Given that we spent the majority of our time in London sightseeing, I don’t see the point of booking anywhere extravagant. Safe, clean and functional in close proximity to Euston is fine.  They also offer luggage storage which was handy.

Neil and I ended up at Buckingham Palace on Sunday.  We'd been here before and witnessed the murderous antics of a vicious seagull cannibalising a baby moorhen in nearby St James Park.  Things were much more civilised this time round.  In this part of London you do get a respite from the hussle and bussle the city has to offer.  London is so built up with everyone on top of each other, however the parks and open spaces around London offer a real respite from this madness.  Buckingham Palace was still surrounded by tourists even on a Sunday.  Although there was no changing the guards ceremony that day, you could still see the soldiers in their iconic red uniform and black bearskin standing in their sentry boxes.  They must get really bored.

Eating in London can be hit and miss.  We are fond of Ed's Diner and we found a branch near Leicester Square.  This place was bright, clean and not too busy.  The menu has been updated to include pulled pork.  I had a burger with pulled pork - it was delicious.  The chips are good too.  Simply food well done - you can't fault Ed's Diner.

The trip was really good as I got to meet my family, however the journey back to Manchester was horrendous.  All trains were cancelled due to a fault at Leyton Buzzard.  So after a mad dash to Kings Cross we got back on the East Coast trains via Leeds.  Later we found out we were very lucky as most people got stranded in London for the night.

What I learnt from my cousins during this trip is that London is vast and sometimes it’s hard to jam in all you want to do in the limited time you’ve got.  If you are not an art fan, then don’t force yourself to go into art galleries as there is too much to see in London.  You need to prioritise what you want to see.  Bus tours rock as they make you see more of London than you would normally see on foot.  Finally they made me appreciate that London oozes history and not to take it for granted.