Sunday 7 December 2014

An Insider’s Guide to Manchester: Christmas Markets

It’s that time again - the Christmas Markets are up and running in Manchester City Centre.  I’m actually quite a big fan of the Manchester Christmas Markets, although year on year it’s getting busier.  As a result it gets really uncomfortable to navigate especially on a Friday evening and the weekends.  So I thought it would be useful to have a street by street guide to the Christmas Markets:

Albert Square is the main draw for Christmas Markets, especially on a Friday evening when it becomes a huge draw for the workers having their celebratory ‘thank god it’s Friday’ drink.  It does tend to have a later closing time than the other markets, so you can understand the appeal.  The crepes stand appears to have a permanent queue.  Weirdly I find the mulled wine not as good from here compared to the other markets across Manchester city centre.  I find it can be really intense in here with the amount of people, so I don’t tend to spend much time here as the other markets are easier to navigate and can be better than what is on offer here

A quick tip, if you want cheap bulbs for the garden go to the Dutch gardening stall on Albert Square two days before the end of the markets as they do sell off their stock cheap.  Last year I went on the last day of the Markets and they had sold out.  My Dad’s garden has looked fabulous year on year courtesy of this stall with the fantastic array of tulips you can find here.

Brazennose Street market is across the road from Albert Square and leads down to Deansgate and Spinningfields.  There tends to be more craft and sweet stalls along here, but if you are looking for drink then there is a seated Bavarian Bar which helps to keep drinkers safely away from browsers.  It’s definitely more civilised along here compared to Albert Square.

There is a stall along here my friend loves as they do massive chocolate muffins which are covered in chocolate, mini rolls and chocolate based sweets.  I’ve tried one of these and I don’t know how you can eat one in just one sitting and not be sick.  Definitely one to share.

Across the road from Brazennose Street is the start of the Spinningfields Markets.  This isn’t part of the official Manchester Council Christmas Markets.  You can tell this as, unlike the wooden stalls across most of the Christmas markets, they have normal mobile stalls.  You have to give the stallholders credit for selling their goods exposed to the elements.  These stalls tend to be artisan food from local producers, crafts and vintage. 

In the centre of Spinningfields there is an ice rink and on Friday it was packed.  Personally there is no amount of mulled wine that would get me skating, but people seemed to be having a good time.  I did like the look of the food stalls which tended to be more English BBQ in style and I did make a mental note to go back and try something.

If you love Pringles crisps then your life would not be complete without visiting the Pringles Christmas Tree (made out of green and red Pringles tubes) and taking a selfie with it.  Completely bizarre!

My favourite market is the one along King Street.  It’s a French themed market (but not entirely French) and quite frankly the best food you can find across all the markets.  We always make an annual pilgrimage to the French food stall that does Provencal chicken and garlic potatoes.  They do a vegetarian option too with garlic mushrooms, which is possibly one of the few savoury veggie fast food options available at the markets other than the garlic bread stall nearby.  The crepe stall is good along here, but I think the ladies at the crepe stall are getting fed up of being asked for Nutella crepes.  A friend mentioned they had the best mulled wine at the French bar along here.  I have to say the French bar is definitely the most civilised of the bars at the markets.  It’s not all about the mulled wine here.

I love the French Soap stall along here opposite Hermes.  The fine milled French soap is long lasting and smells great.  You can get 5 bars of soap for £10 here and each year I stock up on this soap.  Definitely better value than Lush or Body Shop.

St Ann’s Square is the second largest Christmas Market.  It’s not as cramped as Albert Square and in the main part focuses on food, drink and traditional gifts.  Small kids will be entertained with the singing Christmas tree, although the nativity scene opposite is very much overlooked these days.  You could almost say it is emblematic of the commercialisation of Christmas.

The food choices tend to be more interesting here with roasted chestnuts, chocolate covered fruit and massive marshmallow sweets.  The mulled wine along here packs an added punch with the option of shots - the raspberry liquor is fab but lethal.

The market moves seamlessly along to New Cathedral Street (between M&S and Harvey Nicks).  It tends to focus on the arts and crafts.  Definitely the place to pick up Christmas gifts for friends and family.  There is a German style enclosed bar along here for people who want to be out of the cold, but it’s always packed.

Most years, Exchange Square has always seems to be a calmer market option than most and the removal of the stupid big wheel to Piccadilly Gardens has been beneficial.  However with the road works along Cross Street and the redevelopment of the Triangle means the market is much smaller this year.  The stalls that lined the length of the seating area has gone, although the Dutch pancake stall is still there for those mini pancakes, which are far easier to eat than the French crepes.  The Hog Roast is still knocking out pork sandwiches and mulled wine (very good) but on a smaller scale than last year. Mango Rays cocktail bar is going strong too, which is great fun and an alternative to mulled wine.  Tampopo, whilst strictly not part of the Christmas Markets, have an open air street food restaurant next to the market, which is a welcome addition to the pork based food options available.

Because of the works at Exchange Square, the markets have extended into Cathedral Gardens between URBIS and Cheetham’s School of Music.  It’s a pretty good space which isn’t too crowded.  I noticed some the stalls which can normally be found in Exchange Square have moved here.

My only disappointment with the markets this year is the decision to have stalls along Market Street.  I find Market Street hideously busy on the weekends without the addition of Christmas stalls.  So I’ve purposely avoided them as I can’t deal with the crowds along here at the weekend.   Hopefully it’s just a one off because of the road works along Cross Street.

Manchester Christmas Markets are ace, but each year they grows bigger and bigger and busier and busier.  Timing is everything when planning a good trip to the Markets.  Weekends and Friday evening you basically take your sanity and patience into your own hands.  Personally I would recommend taking an afternoon off work and explore the markets without being jostled and cursing drunk people.  It is a much more pleasant Christmas shopping experience, especially with a mulled wine to keep you warm.   

These markets have evolved beyond their German origins and embrace the whole of Europe and beyond.  It’s great to see local arts, crafts and food producers selling their wares too as it’s important to support local businesses at this time of year.  I do think these Markets are a genius idea to keep the city centre alive, especially with competition from out-of-town shopping centres.  For me these markets add that Christmas sparkle to Manchester and make the chore of Christmas shopping a much more pleasurable experience. 

Sunday 23 November 2014

Chorlton, Greater Manchester

I've got to 'fess up now - I've fallen out of love with Chorlton. I spent nine years of my life there and I have to break it to you that there's more to life than Chorlton. Let's start with why I fell out of love:

Back in 1999, Chorlton was an okay Manchester backwater with teachers, social workers and musicians. Cheap rents are always good as well as a solid Irish community to keep pretentious behaviour in check. Marvellous, count me in!

However, by 2008, Chorlton had become burglary central and we had an attempted break in.  I also realised I hardly ever went to the centre of Chorlton anymore as most of the shops I'd liked had been turned into another bloody bar, cafe or artisan something or another. Taxi!

 So what turned me off Chorlton?

5) The normal and very handy shops being turned into bars, restaurants or fancy overpriced shops.  I still mourn the demise of You, Me & Us.  It was your perfect stop gap odds and sods shop before you had to hit B&Q. OK, what they sold didn't last, but lasted long enough to do your DIY job. 

4) Ordinary pubs became poncified. In this world there should be room enough to have a nice, normal pub with reasonably priced beer in civilised surroundings - what more can a person ask for? I was disappointed The Feathers became a Tesco Express.  It was not because it was another victim of the Tesco invasion of the high street, but it was the one pub I could purposely avoid that showed sports. Then again I do find these new bars never last long and there are only a handful that stick around.

3) I used to like shopping in supermarkets before I lived in Chorlton.  Safeway, now Morrisons, made me lose the will to live as it was particularly awful. I found the staff were bats and the fresh food section not exactly fresh. There was something rather depressing about the place and I’ve never recovered my supermarket mojo – even Booths doesn’t quite do it for me.  The other alternative supermarket in Chorlton, Unicorn irritated me too.  This was in part due to some of the staff acting that they were above serving on the tills. 

2) There is a big deal about getting kids into the ‘right’ primary school in Chorlton – I’d hate to be a head teacher here having to deal with all the competitive, middle class parents.  However a friend of mine said it’s not about getting your child into the right primary school, it’s about getting your child into the right feeder school for your secondary school of choice.  When those particular secondary schools are not that great compared to schools outside of the Manchester City Council area, I do wonder about the logic of families living in Chorlton. Okay if your kid survives Manchester secondary schools as there are some brilliant colleges, but I used to see a steady stream of Chorlton kids walking up to Stretford Grammar School or getting on the bus to the other side of Manchester.  Maybe having competitive middle class parents will help improve the local secondary schools, but I suspect their kids will be sent off to private schools instead.

1) I remember going to Camden for the first time in the 1990s and I hated it.  Partly because of young people walking round in their own egotistical bubbles, but I also found older people marginalised.  I fear the same is happening to Chorlton and it’s sad.  I like a neighbourhood that has a good mix of ages, but I think it rips the heart out of a community where there are fewer older people than in other places.  This is not helped when local shops are being converted into bars, restaurants and specialist shops to attract the youth and middle class pound, whilst the pensioner pound is not being catered for at all.

OK, I must balance this moan fest by telling you about the five things I still love about Chorlton: 

5) I’ve always loved the Irish Club on Edge Lane.  Having been in many Irish clubs in Ireland, when I first stepped into this place I knew it was a proper Irish Club and not one of those plastic paddy places.  It had some obligatory features from the home country, but it was very functional and no nonsense.  The Irish aren’t very big on interior design and it’s always function over form.  It felt like I was back in Ireland.  Okay, many of the nights I’ve been to weren’t Irish in the least, but I loved the familiarity of the place that made it more relaxing for me.

4) I love fabrics and can often be found sewing patchwork.  Leon’s is like a fun palace for all things fabric, at pretty reasonable prices too.  Just on the edge of Chorlton it can be found opposite Chorlton Park.  There is some parking outside, but reversing into the main road isn’t my idea of fun, so I park at the KFC car park a couple of minutes away.  I could spend hours and a fortune in here.  There is a pile-them-high policy here, so you need to give yourself time to have a good root through.

3) I think the best foody place in Chorlton is the Barbakan.  If you like your bread interesting and European this is the place for you.  They also do a fine range in cheese, deli meats and those hard to find European foods.  It gets so busy here that they have a ticket machine so everyone gets served in order.  They also do good sandwiches too for the nearby office workers.  I used to time my visits here for about 4pm on Saturday when they would bag up their rolls and sell them cheap.  They would end up in the freezer for me to use them for my work sandwiches.  It has been going for years and I found out my former neighbour and fabulous Italian cook sends her son here to stock up on stuff – so for me that is a seal of approval.

2) I am biased, but Kingbee Records is the best record shop in Manchester and possibly the UK.  If you have ever read ‘High Fidelity’ by Nick Hornby you will completely get the charm of this place.  I’ve been to record shops all over the world and Kingbee stands out as one of the best.  Why?  It’s reasonably priced, the staff are knowledgeable, it’s stocked full of interesting stuff and it’s not pretentious. It may seem unassuming compared to some too-cool-for-school record shops, but I prefer it that the staff focus on the music and not on the look of the shop.  Most importantly I know the staff go the extra mile for customers. Recently Neil, whilst on holiday, spotted a record one of his customers was after and picked it up for them. Needless to say, the customer in question was thrilled that he found it.  I’m amazed that Neil actually remembered it.

1) The best thing about Chorlton, other than Kingbee Records, is the fact this place is a cat friendly suburb.  Over the years I’ve met loads of kitties on my walks around Chorlton.  In fact, a ten minute round trip to the Londis on Beech Road, would turn into a 30 minute journey as we checked in with all the cats en route.  We used to nickname all the cats and I’d make up stories about them being at the “Catnip Pub”.
Here are some of them I remember:

·    Nipper – A small ginger cat who always sat on a wall along Kingshill Road.  His name was Oscar, but we called him Nipper as he would nip you if you stroked him for too long.

·    Queen Liz – A small, long-haired calico cat who had a gorgeous fluffy white ruff around her neck – sadly she was killed by a pair of feral dogs.

·    Big Bad Tom - A stray, big, black tom cat who used to hang around with Queen Liz – he disappeared soon after her death.  I’d like to think he went all Bruce Willis and hunted down Queen Liz’s killers.

·    Floozy - A little black and white cat who used to be friendly to all the people who passed by our flats.  She social-rolled every person who passed by.

·    Evil - An evil looking white and black cat who used to torment the cats on Albemarle Road.  He ended up at our flats tormenting Floozy, so I took him back to Albemarle Road whilst drunk.  He wasn’t too happy about being handled and I bore the scars to prove it.

·    Three legged cat – A very friendly cat who used to sunbathe with all the local kitties on Albemarle Road. 

·    Pearl - A faded ginger and white long haired cat who had seen better days on Beech Road. 

·    Stepford Cats – There were a family of cats who used to live on Hackness Road who all looked the same.  There is something unnerving about a group of identical cats staring at you.

·    Poppy – Real name and our favourite.  She staged a house invasion and ended up spending 6 months with us as an overnight guest.  She had fallen out with her owners when they got a new kitten.  We could have adopted her, but she had a nice life around the flats so we didn’t take her when we moved.  Another neighbour took her in and last time we saw her she was still patrolling the flats being her usual diva self. 

Chorlton, love it or loathe it, is one of those places that has a lot going on.  You could probably eat out here for a month and not repeat yourself.  Having lived here for as long as we did I can see all the changes both good and bad.  I completely see why it would be one of the destinations of choice for people working at Media City, but I think it’s no longer a suburb of Manchester as it has lost some of its northernness.  It tries too hard to be cool and different, and as a result I personally think it has lost its original quirky charm which I fell in love with.  Still I’m glad to say the cats still rule and Kingbee rocks to its own groove.

P.S. Please vote for me at the  2015 Blog Awards UK under the Travel and Most Innovative categories.  

Here are the links


Most Innovative

Monday 10 November 2014

2015 Blog Awards UK - Public Vote

Life in Northern Towns has been entered into the 2015 Blog Awards UK under the Travel and Most Innovative categories.  

Help me celebrate five years of Life in Northern Towns by voting for the blog.  
Thousands of miles, three laptops and two cars have gone into the creation of this blog, so it would be lovely to win a nice, shiny award.  Here are the links to vote:


Most Innovative

Many thanks for your support!

Sunday 9 November 2014

Tyldesley, Greater Manchester

What do you do on a grey Saturday afternoon in Greater Manchester when you don’t want to go far?  Bizarrely we decided to go to Tyldesley.

Tyldesley is tucked away off the East Lancs Road (A580) about 12 miles west from Manchester city centre.  It’s well signposted and easy to find, although they do have a one way system to cope with the traffic.  The traffic was particularly bad through the town as it seemed to be the main route to nearby Atherton.  We parked in a free car park off Elliott Street which was handy, although the nearby Morrisons is another good place to park.

We’d been to Tyldesley previously for a meal at the Spring Deer Chinese Restaurant (fine by the way) and had a drink at the Railway pub on Wareing Street (nice and had a jukebox, but we sat in a loud spot so not good for conversation).  I liked the fact the local taxi firm is in a local shop, so you can shelter from the elements whilst waiting for a taxi.

On this second visit, whilst Tyldesley appears to be an unassuming town, there seemed to be a touch more going on than in nearby Hindley which we visited a couple of months or so before.  However the weather was rather changeable and there weren’t too many people about.

Architecturally, Tyldesley is nothing to write home about.  In the 19th century and early 20th century Tyldesley was known for textiles and coal mining.  The town centre red brick buildings seem to date from the 19th century.  The pubs seem to be the most interesting buildings, although I did love the stone built bank on Elliott Street and the Top Chapel was a Grade II listed building.
Obviously I did check on Yell and there appeared to be three charity shops in the town, but I think there were actually four.  However the Wigan and Leigh Hospice shop closes at 12.30pm and we missed out on that one, which was a real shame as that seemed to have the most interesting stuff from the window display.  Neil had a stroke of luck with one of the charity shops and found some obscure chart hit single for one of his customers at Kingbee Records.  It only cost 20p, although to be honest it’s not worth much more than that as it’s more for people who are Top 40 singles chart completists.  

One thing for sure in Tyldesley is that you won’t go short of a drink with the number of pubs in this place.  I’d heard from Neil’s Mum that Tyldesley is locally known as a good night out.  From all the Soul Music posters dotted across the town, I couldn’t help but think there is a soul music community in these parts.  I guess with the close proximity of Wigan, birth place of Northern Soul, there probably is a thriving community.   

I did notice that there were a good range of specialist shops here.  If you like model railways there is “JPL Models”.  Want a hi-vis jacket? Then go to “LDH Clothing.”  If you like riding, there’s the bizarrely named shop called “Mares R Back” - must be a pun on something to do with horses.  However I loved the sign for “Billys Cheap as Chips” cycle shop, which was so bright, basic and to the point. It was also great that the fitness clubs (Dance and Fitness Centre, the Centurions Boxing Club and Wing Chun Kung Fu) were right on the high street too rather than hidden away in a leisure centre or some industrial estate as it really gives a sense of community.

I found Tyldesley an unassuming but practical town, which seemed to serve the local community needs well.  Not exactly a thrilling day out, but handy for those specialist things you can always get in mainstream places. However there was a bit of a Saturday half day going on as some of the shops closed early, so it’s best to visit here on Saturday mornings.  In the main it seemed to be quite a traditional town, far enough from Manchester to not be caught up in the 21st century pace of life, but near enough not to be completely isolated.  

Sunday 19 October 2014

Lancaster, Lancashire

We'd been to Lancaster on a couple of occasions, but recently I'd been wondering why we didn't go there more often.  It was within my one hour drive time limit and it's quite a nice city - so what was stopping us?

It was actually the drive into the city that reminded me why we don't come here often.  We were stuck in a queue of traffic before we got into the city.  Then we were caught in a myriad of road works, missed parking opportunities and then we were heading towards the M6. Woah there! We had to spin around again and on our second time navigating the one way system we got parked in St Nic's Shopping Centre.  Honestly I was beginning to lose the will to live.

The parking at St Nic’s Shopping Centre was one of those grey and grimy multi-storey car parks.  The sound of the air con system for the shopping centre reminded me of being on a ferry going to Ireland.  It cost £2.40 for 2 hours, which is pretty reasonable for city centre parking. 

Neil, whilst he has a fabulous memory for all things music, has a pretty shocking memory for all things travel related.  I had to keep reminding him of places we had been to before, like grabbing a sandwich at Subway and where the charity shops were.

Despite the circle of traffic hell that encloses the city, Lancaster is a nice pedestrianised city.  The stone buildings stand on the hillside that Lancaster is built upon.  It reminded me more of the Yorkshire towns we had visited rather than some of the red brick industrial towns in surrounding areas.  Sacrilege I know, considering the bad blood between Yorkshire and Lancashire, but to paraphrase Roy Walker from Catchphrase "I say what I see".

Obviously the charity shops were a big draw for us and we had a good rummage through the shops.  There are plenty of them too.  When we thought we had got to the end of them, we would turn a corner and find some more.  Neil didn't find much though.  Whilst there were records to buy, the shops had overpriced them and Neil drew the line.  The Oxfam Books here is pretty good in part due to Lancaster being a university town so the stock ends up being a little more interesting.  I overheard in another charity shop there was a young lad who trawled the charity shops every day.  Part of me wanted to go up to him to check what he collected. 

Whilst Neil was scouring the charity shops, I checked out some other shops.  There was a gift shop that had already geared up for Christmas and I had to stop myself from buying presents - October is way too early for this sort of thing.  I stumbled into Bellwood and Wright fine art shop by accident.  I was mesmerised by the Peter Blake prints they had on display, but had palpitations when I saw the prices.  Seriously I could buy an amazing bathroom for the price and they are just prints.  Still they did look remarkable.

Lancaster is a good mix of high street chains and independent shops.  There were a couple of shopping centres for the high street chains and the shops of the streets tended to be independent.  There were lots of little cafes dotted around and it made me laugh that a pet shop also doubled as a fancy dress shop.

The good thing about any university town is the fact the book shops are ace, even the second hand ones.  There are two Waterstones in Lancaster - the one with threadbare carpets in the precinct and the gorgeous one which had the air of a library with the lovely upper gallery skirting the edges of the shop.  Nothing beats a good academic book shop as they tend to have a diverse range of non-academic books too.  I could spend hours in a shop like this, but time was pressing and I had to move on. 

There used to be an indoor market in Lancaster, but that appeared to have closed down for refurbishment.  Instead there were outdoor markets spread across the pedestrianised streets.  Some stalls were farmer markets, others were crafts and others were just cheap tat.  Funnily enough I think that's a good mix.  I do wonder if the indoor market will survive the refurbishment as I recollect on previous visits there was a second hand record stall – I do have a soft spot for these and haberdashery stalls too.

It has to be said Lancaster was teaming with young people.  It was that time of year when the students are back in college and university.  In fact Lancaster has two universities – Lancaster University, one of the best rated universities in the country, and the University of Cumbria.  Lancaster seemed geared for students, who no doubt contribute to the city immensely.  Whilst Lancaster is technically a city it doesn’t feel like one and it feels more like a large northern town.  That’s why I think it has an attraction for students who want city amenities and culture, but not the scale of cities like in Manchester or Liverpool where you can feel lost and anonymous.  Given that Lancaster is close to the countryside, the sea and Cumbria, it’s a great base for students who enjoy outdoor pursuits.

Time was not on our side so we headed off as we didn't want to get stuck on the M6 because it was Blackpool illumination time.  Lancaster is a nice compact city, which is easy to navigate once you have managed to park.  I like the fact it has managed to retain a lot of its character and the students give the place a buzz during term time.  Navigating the city in a car is a real chore, so if you are planning to visit bear this in mind or just get the train.  Lancaster is quite different from the surrounding towns and seems quite classy in part due to its pre-industrial revolution heritage.  No doubt at some point we will be back, but fingers crossed they will have sorted out the road works by then. 

Sunday 12 October 2014

Garstang, Lancashire

Map out, well actually my iPhone map app (we are in the 21st century after all) and I was trying to find places to go that take under an hour from Manchester.  It’s getting harder to find places we haven’t been or I haven’t yet written about, but I remembered I hadn’t written about Lancaster.  In order to make the journey worthwhile I needed to pick another location.
I’d never really heard of Garstang, so a quick Google and a check on Yell for charity shops, this place seemed like a winner.

Getting to Garstang from Manchester is easy – M61, M6, M55, first junction off onto the A6 and follow the signs.  It was quite a misty morning driving to Garstang along the A6, but I could just make out the countryside.  I reckon on a nice day you have pretty views as it’s not far from the Trough of Bowland.
In all honesty I didn’t know what to expect when we got to Garstang.  However when I saw there was a Booths Supermarket I knew two things:
  1. That’s where we were parking.
  2. Garstang is a classy town as Booths is the northern equivalent of Waitrose.  As superficial as that may sound, supermarkets can be a giveaway to a place’s economic circumstances.  Waitrose aren’t going to pitch up in deprived areas like Harpurhey because no one will be able to afford to shop in them.

Anyway, the plus point for parking at Booths is that the car park is free, although there are other car parks to choose from.
It was lunchtime so we grabbed a bite from Garstang Fish and Chips opposite Booths.  It was a drizzly day, so we decided to eat in the restaurant part of it.  We may be in our 40s, but we were the youngest customers in there.  I think they had been offering an OAP special that day as it seemed to be quite busy.  I ordered fish and small chips and Neil ordered battered sausage and chips.  Normally I’m disappointed with chips from a fish and chip shop, but these were nice, crisp and golden.  The fish was fab too with a nice batter.  Neil liked his battered sausage too.  We both agreed it was a fine chippy and wish our local one was like it.  There were a couple of old blokes with deep voices chatting.  One of them was saying how he wasn’t keen on walking along the promenade and wouldn’t do it by choice.  However if his wife wanted to he would do it and even hold her hand.  Quite sweet really.

After our nice lunch we cut through an alley to High Street where most of the shops were.  It’s a compact little town really, with predominantly independent shops.  As it was midweek and midday we were some of the youngest people in town.  There was a good selection of shops including a pet shop, an art gallery and a tiny market hall selling fresh produce.  I do think some of the shops in town are more geared towards weekend trade as Garstang strikes me as a place where neighbouring communities flock to.  Interestingly Garstang was the first Fair Trade Town in the world.
Obviously we were also here to check out the charity shops as we’d found 5 listed on Yell.  I wasn’t disappointed by them and I think there were actually more than 5 charity shops.  Funnily enough that morning before we set off, I’d chucked in the bin my bag which had fallen apart in London.  Normally I buy most of my bags new, but I spotted a nice black leather, satchel style bag in Croston House for £11.99.  I’m sure it had hardly, if at all, been used.  Apparently it had only been put out that morning and I simply couldn’t leave the shop without it.  Neil on the other hand didn’t have any joy.  He kept finding immaculate, picture sleeve copies of Val Doonican and Bachelors records from the 60s – sadly not collectable in the slightest.

Further down the road there was a charity furniture shop – the name escapes me – but if you are looking for good quality furniture, this place is for you.  The shop resembles more a professional furniture store and the volunteers seemed to be doing a fine job.  I was very tempted with the writing bureau they had.

There are plenty of traditional looking pubs in Garstang and most of them do food.  I’m sure these pubs are packed out at the weekend between the food and the sports.
It was time to move onto Lancaster, but not before we went into Booths.  I really like Booths supermarkets as they are very pleasant shopping experiences, in part due to the layout which is spacious and not crammed to the rafters with stock.  But I like all the interesting brands they have, which you don’t always find in other supermarkets.  We picked up some cakes – I had a rocky road and Neil had a brownie – both were nice.  Upstairs were the café and toilets.  The café seemed a nice place and to me it more resembled a community centre on over 60s luncheon club day, which is a good thing in my world.  However I did manage to get stuck for 10 minutes with all the OAPs queuing for the three ladies toilets.  They say with age comes wisdom, but also a weak bladder. 

Garstang was such a pleasant surprise I can’t believe we hadn’t been here before. It’s a genteel little town and a complete world away from nearby Blackpool.   It’s probably livelier on the weekend with families, but those charity shops are well worth a visit alone.

Sunday 5 October 2014

Blackburn, Lancashire

The last time I went to Blackburn it was for an interview and I was on crutches.  Funnily enough the crutches meant I really couldn’t go for a wander around the shops after the interview.  This time I was crutches free, so I was free to explore.

You can get to Blackburn from Manchester three different ways: the shorter distance but longer time scenic route through Bolton on the A666; or if you are coming from east Manchester the M60, M66, M65 and off at junction 6; or what we did: M61, M65 and off at junction 4 for the A666.  I wouldn’t recommend the route we took as there was football on at Blackburn Rovers and this route takes you right past the grounds.  However I can recommend that the train is definitely the best way to get to Blackburn from Manchester.

We parked up on the edge of town at a pay and display car park on the corner of Weir Street and Mincing Lane.  Whilst there were not many spaces, it was a pleasant surprise to find out that this car park is free on a weekend – result!

Blackburn is an old mill town whose heyday was at least a good century long gone.  The streets are a mix of Victorian and modern buildings.  King Georges Hall is a pretty impressive Victorian building that spans the length of the street.  The library, although it was being refurbished, looked interesting under all the scaffolding.  The Lloyds bank has really nice Victorian ironwork and architecture too, which was worth photographing.  The council appear to have spent a considerable fortune on street art too.  It looks impressive, but there is possibly a little too much of it.
I noticed a handmade gift shop on a side street that did really nice pretty things made by local artists.  It was so new I could smell the new paint and there was no name above the shop.  I’m sure it was part of some initiative to get new businesses into the town centre.  Many of the other small shops in Blackburn are fast food places, so it’s nice to see something different on offer to local shoppers.

As we walked up Mincing Lane we caught sight of a florist which was named ‘Petallica’, which made us laugh.  I really hoped the owner was a heavy metal fan with a shop name like that.

There are still a number of Victorian pubs open.  One of these pubs has been renamed Bar Ibiza and had fierce looking, heavily tattooed blokes having a cigarette outside.  I think they must have been waiting to watch a football match on the TV.  In fact having tattoos seemed to be a big trend in Blackburn.  The most notable one I saw was on a burly, bald bloke looking after his kids – it was a large tattoo of Freddie Mercury on his arm complete with crown and autograph.  Not what I was expecting, but the guy must have been a committed Queen fan.
Obviously we were here to check out the charity shops and normally I double check my smart phone for the addresses of these places.  However this was impossible as the mobile signal in Blackburn is pretty ropey.  Normally in northern towns you can be pretty much guaranteed a 3G signal and 4G in cities, but Blackburn was cruising between no service and GPRS.  So we winged it instead and probably missed half of them.  I really liked Rebound, which is a bookshop-cum-café.  The lady upstairs was chatting to a customer about her weight loss tablets.  It was good to see there was a real community vibe going on.  We pottered through some other shops, but Neil didn’t find anything and I regret not buying a rather nice Denby coffee jar I saw.

We headed into the Mall shopping centre and I managed to pick up a patchwork book for £1 in the Waterstones sale.  The Mall seemed to be the main draw for Blackburn as the outlying streets were very quiet and the Mall was teaming with families and screaming kids.  Blackburn is a rather multi-cultural town and this was self-evident in the market, which is in the basement of the centre. 
Often in northern towns the markets are housed in purpose built Victorian buildings, but in Blackburn they had built it in the shopping centre basement.  I have to say I was mightily impressed with this market as it didn't feel like I was walking through a market.  It didn’t have self-contained boxed in units, which gave it an airy and light feel.  It was more like walking into a nice supermarket with lots of fresh and interesting produce on display.  Weirdly it reminded me of the Whole Foods Stores in the USA.  The TCK Deli was doing some seriously good business and was definitely the most popular food stall.  It does halal food, but the whole community seemed to use it which is great to see.  Whilst I hadn’t been overawed by Blackburn at this point, this place really made me think that markets still have a place in the 21st century.  Just by altering how you present a traditional market can breathe new life into it by bringing in light and having modern fixtures.  Top marks to the Market!

I’m a bit of a magpie at heart and when I see something sparkly I gravitate towards it.  This time it was the golden carving above the door to the cathedral - it was so distinctive and eye catching.  We decided to have a wander around the cathedral and it’s different from most Church of England churches we have visited.  Whilst it looked rather traditional from the outside, inside there was something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  Interestingly it had modern art huge canvases on the walls depicting the Stations of the Cross, which zinged of colour.  I’d seen this done before at the Hidden Gem in Manchester and I think its fab to embrace the modern in such a traditional space.  There was an organist playing very avant-garde music on the organ.  Whilst most of the windows had clear glass, in the centre above the altar there was abstract stained glass, which cast coloured light into the church.  In addition, there was a crown of thorns that encircled the perimeter of the altar. As we were walking down the aisle there was a modern representation of Jesus on the cross.  Now I’ve been to many churches and have seen some very modern ones, but this one really stood out, not just for all the modern art, but something else.  I spoke to one of the helpful volunteers and he pointed out that one of the main differences this cathedral has is the amount of light the windows let in.  That was what I couldn’t put my finger on and it really doesn’t half make a difference to the place.  Interestingly this place wasn’t completed until 1977, although parts of the church date back to 1826, which explains why St Mary the Virgin and St Paul’s has embraced so much modern art into its building.
Initially I hadn’t been that impressed with Blackburn as it looked like an average northern town on first viewing, but on further investigation things are not as they seem.  It’s clear that there is a move afoot to bring Blackburn into the 21st century whilst honouring the past, which I really think they have got right in both the market and the cathedral.  However they seriously have to sort out that mobile signal. Obviously there is still a whole lot of work to do in Blackburn and it will take decades to realise, but Blackburn has made it to my revisit list and that’s a good thing.

Sunday 28 September 2014

A Northerner in London Town: Oxford Street, Hammersmith and the British Museum

Every year we find an excuse to go down to London: sometimes for a mini break; other times to meet friends and relations; but this year we were very fortunate to get tickets for the blessed KATE BUSH! I put this down to adopting the strategy of choosing a date not released to the fan club, hitting the refresh button from 9:29am onwards and not using Ticketmaster.  The strategy worked and it meant we were in London for 22 hours.

This time we stayed in Travelodge by Euston Station – small room, noisy air con and on street level next to a road junction.  In its defence it was cheap and clean, but I think Ibis or Premier Inn will be taking our business next time.

As we had a few hours to spare we decided to head down to Berwick Street just off Oxford Street.  We decided to walk so we could check out the Fopp in the Waterstones branch on the corner of Gower Street.  Shock horror, Fopp had gone!
We continued onto Tottenham Court Road and window shopped past Heals and Dwell.  Mistakenly I’d swapped my handbag on this trip and discovered the one I was using was literally disintegrating.  I thought Paperchase might offer a solution, but sadly nothing was to my tastes.

Eventually we found our way to Oxford Street, it was 4.30pm and it was the closest place to hell I could possibly imagine.  In Manchester, the main shopping area Market Street had been pedestrianised over 30 years ago.  Oxford Street is one street in desperate need of pedestrianisation.  The pavements were jammed packed full of people jostling each other, some obliviously walking down the street with eyes glued to their smart phone (a contradiction in terms) or just stopping still for no reason, almost creating a human pile up.  Honestly, how Londoners can shop along here on a weekend without getting an anti-social behaviour order is beyond me.

Thankfully we found refuge in Berwick Street in Soho.  This used to be a seedy street, but every year I visit here it becomes marginally more salubrious.  This year I noticed Sister Ray had moved shops to across the road.  Neil found the shop much smaller than the previous shop and more uncomfortable to browse in.  I also found there were more fabric shops along here, although my search for craft cotton was a real struggle.  These fabric shops are more for the fashion students who were busily searching through the racks of material for their new creations.  I love the little pharmacy-slash-gift shop, as they always stock a wide range of hard to find beauty stuff.  They saved me from having to order specialist shampoo from Amazon.

Back to the fray of Oxford Street.  Stupidly I wanted to go to John Lewis to check out their haberdashery department.  First of all we had to cross over at Oxford Circus and my patience was wearing very thin.  It was chaos with tourists having no idea of where they were going and Londoners speeding past them.  The police was needed to do some crowd control here.

Eventually we made it to John Lewis. However I couldn’t find what I was looking for in the haberdashery department and I was given short shrift by a very snooty perfume lady whilst trying some perfume.  I suppose a frazzled, sweaty, red faced northerner with a disintegrating handbag didn’t seem like a likely sale.  However her attitude meant that I will be buying my perfume from House of Fraser in Manchester as they were superb the other week, helping me to navigate through the racks of perfume to find something I liked.

Obviously we were here to see the goddess that is KATE BUSH, so we decided to sack the whole Oxford Street shop experience off and head to Hammersmith.

The Tube is always the best way to get around London quickly, but navigating it is another matter:
  •          Trying to get the right ticket for the right zone
  •          Then hopefully the ticket machine will work
  •          Trying to find the right platform through the maze of tunnels
  •          Remembering to stand on the right hand side of the escalator otherwise you’ll be unceremonially pushed to one side by some hard boiled Londoner
  •        Try not to look into the dark tube tracks, otherwise you’ll spot some baby rat scurrying along that will make you jump out of your skin
  •          Always  go to the far end of the platform to find the quietest carriage
  •          No eye contact on the tube and if you are people watching you will come across as some weirdo.

All of these I’ve managed to do at some point.  Sometimes it’s good to be a northerner on the tube by being polite, saying excuse me, letting someone have a seat who needs it and clearing abandoned newspapers from seats for others as it really confuses people.

Anyway, finally we got to Hammersmith and it was quite weird really as I was expecting to work our way through masses of tunnels, but it dropped us in the centre of a shopping centre.  Thankfully the Hammersmith Apollo was well signposted and we found it rather quickly. 

As we were there rather early we found a tiny café bar around the corner called Antipode.  They were doing Kate Bush inspired cocktails, but we stuck to Tasmanian beer which was nice.  The place was very minimal, but had some striking cats-with-wings prints on the wall by Yobkiss.   I’m surprised it wasn’t busier, but it was tucked around the corner from the venue.  The place was a welcome relief from the madness of the day.

I won’t bore you with the details of the Kate Bush concert, other than to say it was the most theatrical music gig I’ve ever been to and I can really understand why she went down this route for a comeback.  I like the fact she challenges what a music gig can be and what it can deliver.  No wonder she hasn’t toured for 35 years as technology had to catch up with her imagination. She sings like a roaring goddess, but speaks like a middle aged mum from Sidcup which makes me love her even more.  There’s a DVD coming out of the gig so you can see how fab she was.  The only thing it won’t convey is the atmosphere of utter love the audience had for her.  I have never seen or will likely ever see this level of devotion by fans ever again – it was a privilege to experience.

Next day we had a morning to kill before our 12.17pm train back to Manchester.  So we had breakfast in Starbucks on Tavistock Square – fine as you would expect.  Then headed across to the British Museum

I’d been meaning to go there for years, but hadn’t managed to pass by.  As it was a Sunday morning and the shops were shut, the place was jam-packed with tourists and families.  I’ve never seen a British museum so full.  I was seriously impressed by Sir Norman Foster’s Great Court which looked amazing and complemented the existing building.  

As we were limited for time we just saw the Egyptian and Greek exhibitions.  Part of me had reservations about how these artefacts had been plundered by the British aristocracy back in the day, but I have to say they did look amazing.  Having been to a number of Egyptology exhibitions in the North of England, nothing compares to the scale and quality of the British Museum’s exhibition.  However, my favourite thing of all we found was in the gift shop – a series of history themed rubber ducks.  They are the best museum gift I have seen ever.  Seriously the Tate or other art galleries should take note of this as I would be up for a Pollock, Hurst or even a Matisse themed duck.  Genius idea!

Anyway my top three takeaways from this trip were that Oxford Street SUCKS on a Saturday, Kate Bush was AMAZING and the British Museum rubber ducks ROCK (plus it’s well work a visit, but perhaps not on a Sunday morning).