Sunday 29 June 2014

Prestwich, Greater Manchester

What can I say about Prestwich?  To quote The Smiths: "So much to answer for".  I've known this place for over 30 years and know way too much to condense it into a pithy blog post.  I was brought up just over the border in Whitefield, but I went to primary school in Prestwich. We did most of our family shopping there and spent more than enough time delivering newspapers to the area during the mid 1980s. 

So 30 plus years on, how does Prestwich fare?  Actually I think it's better now than in the 1980s. Maybe it's because I'm older and it has more to offer an adult than a teenager.  

Getting to Prestwich is really easy.  If you are on the M60, get off at junction 17 and you are there.  From Manchester city centre, take the A56 (Bury New Road) and drive about 5 miles, or just jump on the Metrolink in Manchester and get off at Prestwich.  It's a real bonus that Prestwich is on the Metrolink line as it does provide easy access to other parts of Manchester.

Parking, on the other hand, can be tricky.  Lots of people tend to gravitate towards the car park on Rectory Lane, but that can be quite awkward to park in at peak times without a disabled parking permit.  There is also one next to Our Lady of Grace Church on Fairfax Road, but that tends to be busy with commuters.  If you don't mind a short walk into Prestwich, Tesco car park is handy.  I always park there if I need to go into Prestwich Village as it saves the hassle and time of trying to find a parking space.

Prestwich Village is pretty much spread out along the A56 / Bury New Road.  There is a shopping precinct called the Longfield Centre.  This is where you will find the majority of the cheap shops, the chemist, library and the Longfield Suite.  From time to time, the fountain gets vandalised with washing up liquid which creates foam icebergs that flow across the random street art furniture.  I know the council has had plans to redevelop the place for years and the precinct in my opinion is in need of demolishing as it doesn't really function as a cohesive space and it spoils what could be a really lovely place.  However the locals are keen to retain the Longfield Suite which is a large function space above the precinct.  It's the heart of community activities and on several occasions I sang here when I was in the school choir.  The ideal scenario would be for the new development to have a function room space, but I think the redevelopment is a long way off with all the cuts by the Council.

Close to the Longfield Centre is a large block of private flats overlooking Fairfax Road.  You really can't miss them as they are the largest structure in Prestwich.  Again it’s another planning controversy, which I won't bore you with the details.  However on the upside on the ground floor level there are a couple of restaurants, a Costa and a pub.  I have to say whenever I go past there, the restaurants are always full of people.  Panama Hatty's is part of a tiny restaurant chain and having been to the branch in Manchester, I would definitely try this one as I've always enjoyed the food. 
On the main road is where you will find the independent shops.  I wish some money could be spent on doing up the shop fronts along here as first impressions along this stretch of road aren't that great.  However there are some little gems along here.  One of my favourites is Ellie Magpie which does handmade gifts, craft courses and has a haberdashery.  Array of Blossom is a tiny florists, which does lovely flowers and they are very helpful. My Dad was pleased to find a traditional hardware shop for all those bits and bobs you need for DIY, without having to make a special trip to B&Q and hike around the store for it.  These places are fab and becoming quite rare on the high street.  If you are looking for a bling-fantastic furniture shop then go no further than Nuvo Interiors.  It's quite an experience to walk around and most things are either black, white or silver.  Whilst it's not to my taste you can't fault the vision of the owners.  There is even a secondhand record shop called Endless Music, although I've not managed to drag Neil in as it's like a bus man's holiday for him.  It's so rare to find record shops in the suburbs these days.

Prestwich, whilst it has a Tesco and an Aldi for your general food needs, also has a Marks and Spencer's Simply Food mini supermarket.  I always think having one of these is a sign of a middle class neighbourhood.  Not quite as good as a Waitrose or a Booths, but still pretty good going.

One thing that brings me back to Prestwich on a regular basis, apart from the Dentist (The Bank Practice if you’re asking, they are very good and I've been with them over 20 years), is the charity shops.  There are lots and you can find some half interesting stuff here.  I have to mention Bury Hospice have opened up a new branch here and it does furniture.  When I've been here I can't help but notice they do get some good donations and is definitely one to check out.  Charity shops are not only a good source of books for me, but also great to eavesdrop on conversations.  Not naming names, I heard a fabulously gossipy conversation in one where they were talking about a couple who had split up.  Apparently the woman had been “acting like a prostitute” since the split by seeing different men.  However the man was really down in the dumps about the split.  I spent way too much time listening to them, but I'm a sucker for local gossip.

If you are a major fan of Coronation Street it's worth popping down to St Mary's Church on Church Lane.  This place has baptised, married and buried most of Weatherfield over the years.  It's a lovely church and worth a little wander.  
 You will also find along Church Lane, the Aumbry restaurant.  There has been a food war in Manchester with high end restaurants vying to get the first Michelin star for the city.  Believe it or not there has been a whole TV series about it.  The Aumbry is one of the contenders for the Michelin star and I've heard good things about the place from friends.  I really hope it gets the star rather than the bigger and flashier restaurants in Manchester.

There have been touches of gentrification going on in Prestwich, which have been inspired by Chorlton in south Manchester.  There is a cafe bar called Cuckoo which would not look out of place in the trendier parts of Manchester.  Also in the offing is Village Greens, a grocery cooperative, in the heart of Prestwich Village in what used to be Blockbuster Video shop.  Last time I was in Prestwich, the shop hadn't opened yet. I'm sure they were inspired by the Unicorn in Chorlton.  I think it's great that there are places like this coming to the suburbs as it adds diversity to the village.  As long as Prestwich maintains a nice mix of traditional, independent and interesting, I think the place has a rosy future to look forward to.

There has been a depopulation of north Manchester to south Manchester over the decades, however I have always been a strong advocate for Prestwich where families are concerned.  If you are looking for a nice suburb with good Catholic schools to bring up children, not far from the Manchester city centre and Media City, with good transport links and fairly reasonable house prices, you really can't go far wrong with Prestwich. Maybe I'm biased, but just looking at the education league tables alone says it all.  

Prestwich, it has been a long time since I've spent my teenage years miserably wandering your streets with my Walkman on, listening to The Smiths and delivering the Manchester Evening News.  Having lived across Manchester over the years, enough water has passed under the bridge for me to appreciate your leafy roads, nice houses and handy transport links.  You have so much potential to become a nicer, classier and less pretentious cousin of Chorlton.  Good luck, Prestwich - I think I may like you now!

Sunday 22 June 2014

Knutsford, Cheshire

Looking back at my blog I noticed there was a glaring omission from the Cheshire section, namely Knutsford.  However persuading Neil to go back there was another matter.  A bribe of battered burger at the Pepper Street Fryer in Nantwich worked, so he was then held captive in the car for a detour to Knutsford.

We’ve been having rather beautiful weather in the north lately, which is a complete novelty to us sun deprived northerners.  So it was good to take a trip into leafy Cheshire, although my car proved to be an effective sauna until I remembered how to work the aircon.

Getting to Knutsford from north Manchester is simple as you take the M60, M62, M6, junction 19 and follow the signs to Knutsford.  When we lived in south Manchester we used to go M60, M56 and then either the A556 or A538, but I prefer the M6 as it’s both quicker and a shorter drive once you exit the motorway, although you can get a train from Manchester which drops you in the heart of the town.
Parking in Knutsford is straightforward - either you can park on the road for 30 minutes or in the car park on Tatton Street where you can park for 2 hours for £1.

Knutsford is a very well-to-do market town with what I call two indicators of posh – a Waitrose mini supermarket and a Barbour shop.  The town itself is built on the side of a hill and this splits the town centre in two.  Top of the hill is Princess Street and bottom is King Street.  As the streets are so narrow, there is a one way system for the owners of high performance cars and midlife crisis motor bikers to negotiate. 
Knutsford has evolved over the centuries and was recorded in the Domesday Book.  In the 19th century the place was immortalised by Elizabeth Gaskell in the novel Cranford.  With the BBC TV series this place has become a draw for tourists and sure enough we found Japanese tourists taking photos on Princess Street.

Tucked away on Church Street is a tiny indoor market selling pet stuff, cheap odds and ends, plants and locally sourced meat and veg.  Once a month there is an artisan market that pops up too.
King Street seems to be the most popular street and there seems to be an on-going battle between pedestrians and cars to navigate this street as both the pavements and street is so tiny.  It’s not helped by the fact there is parking on the street too. The best eavesdropped conversation was whilst being stuck behind a mother and daughter.  They were discussing career options.  The mother suggested fashion; however, the daughter said ‘I don’t want to spend my days with bitchy girls’.  Looking at the mother, who was clad head to foot in designer gear, I do think she was trying to live her dreams vicariously through her daughter.  An evil thought passed through my head and I thought the daughter could piss her mother off by training to become a doctor or nurse and do something meaningful with her life. 

Walking along through Knutsford was pretty much an encapsulation of the worst excesses of moneyed Cheshire life – a case of style over substance.  Designer boutiques, exclusive bars and restaurants, extravagant florists, bling fantastic jewellers and extravagant cars.  The thing that struck me most was the fact that one restaurant was closed for a private party and had a sign that said ‘guest list only’.  A private party is just that, private.  A guest list is just a conceit. I didn’t half feel like I was lowering the tone in this place with my ten year old car and battered handbag.
The one thing I really noticed about the place was the women.  They were different beings – manicured, honed, tanned (spray), bouffanted, pristine and immaculately dressed.  It must be a full time job for them to look this polished and it must cost a FORTUNE.  The dress sense veered from body con, to maxi dress, to middle aged relaxed matchy matchy casual.  Here is one example of an outfit – a lady was dressed in a leopard print maxi dress, with a matching leopard print oversized bag, gold coloured gladiator sandals and topped off with designer sunglasses used as a posh headband.  I couldn’t help but notice the hair of the middle aged ladies, which was immaculate and must cost a complete fortune to maintain.  The hair colours were quality with no roots showing.  GHD straighteners are a must for the ladies here as there was not so much as a hair out of place or a kink in their dos. 

This place makes you feel seriously self-conscious about the way you look.  I’d hate to be teenage in this town as there must be a huge pressure here to look good.  No wonder the teenager I overheard wasn’t keen on fashion as a career.  I really felt for her as she had some puppy fat and whilst that is a natural part of growing up I bet she felt very self-conscious about the way she looked. She looked great in her rebellious Goth-lite outfit of shorts, velour top and lacy shirt top. You are fine the way you are love, ignore your mother’s advice and do not listen to those bitchy girls. 

Anyway we had come here to check out the charity shops and there are a fair few to go through.  If memory serves me correctly I think the Cancer Research one was very busy.  I know the one in nearby Wilmslow often gets some seriously good donations from the rich ladies who can’t be bothered to trade them in at the dress agency shops.  If you are between a size 8 and size 10 you are seriously well catered for and will get a really nice outfit here.  However when it comes to other things like ornaments and pictures you will struggle.  People here know the price of stuff and are more likely to sell stuff like that to the local antique dealers, which there are many throughout the town.
Neil was extremely frustrated with Oxfam again.  Not only were the vinyl records overpriced, but they were priced beyond what you could pick them up in a record shop or online.  This was compounded by the fact there were some decent singles he would have bought if they were sanely priced.  I remember on previous visits they had a David Bowie record priced at £50, which was in fact a reissue and only worth £5.  People really get the wrong idea about the value of vinyl records.

So what else can I tell you about Knutsford?  It’s very close to Tatton Park and the entrance is by Tatton Street where we are parked.  There are plenty of pubs as well as restaurants and bars, so there is no chance of starving here.  Also I noticed some tiny cottages on Church Hill were in fact holiday lets as they had key code keyholders by the door.  In the past we’ve seen paparazzi photographers lurking outside restaurants on King Street.  At that time I think they were waiting for Kerry Katona when she lived nearby.
As much as Knutsford is physically a pretty town with lots of interesting little shops, I’m not fond of the place.  Maybe it’s the meaningless conspicuous consumption that pervades the place.  Maybe it’s the people as they aren’t that friendly and live in their own manicured bubbles.   Maybe it’s my inner feminist that was railing against the objectification of the local women.  In all honesty I would suggest to the local women to ditch the GHDs and do something that makes your soul sing – focusing on appearances is not a fulfilling activity.  Believe me it was a joy to see a make-up free mum with wild hair taking a silly photo of her son’s bright green tongue.  It was such a pleasant antidote to the artificiality of the place.

Will I go back there?  Probably, if I’m passing through, although it won’t be anytime soon.  

Sunday 8 June 2014

St Helens, Merseyside

I have begun to bribe Neil with meatballs and cake so he will actually step foot inside IKEA these days.  After one trip we decided to go to St Helens, just because we've never been and I’d also been asked many moons ago to do a Life in Northern Towns review of this town.

Getting to St Helens is simple - we headed down the M62, past the Dream statue, exited at junction 7, negotiated the many roundabouts of the A570 and passed the out of town retail parks into St Helens.

The Dream statue on the edge of St Helens was built to commemorate the mining history of the place.  Whilst I don’t have a problem with public art, as I think landmarks are important as it gives a sense of place, the Dream is too subtle as a gateway piece of art.  On a dull day with grey skies you will miss it as it’s white and blends in.  Obviously on a clear blue sky day you can’t miss it, but how many blue sky days do you get in the north of England?  Nice idea, but I don’t think it has the same impact as the Angel of the North.  Possibly it’s a bit too literal and lacks ambition for my tastes.

Back to the town centre - we parked in an old style multi-storey car park with very tight turns.  However on the upside it was cheap at £1.20 for two hours parking.
St Helens is a mix of big name high street stores interspersed with lots of random independently owned stores.  The town is dominated by a large precinct with the major high street chains, whilst most of the independent shops occupy the side streets around the edge of it.  Credit needs to be given to St Helens Council as the streets were clean and the buildings seemed well maintained.  On a scale I would say it was better than Leigh, but not as good as Wigan in terms of shopping experiences go.

There were lots of little cafes dotted about the streets and seemed quite popular.  However they tended to be your liver and onion specials type of cafes you’d have found in the 60s and 70s, rather than your posh panini type.  If you wanted to film a Ken Loach type film set in the 70s or 80s these type of cafes would be perfect period locations.

The pubs seemed rather old school, although I did notice Havana seemed to be more up-to-date had embraced the food aspect of modern pub culture in a northern style.  You could see people through the windows having their English breakfast with a pint or a pot of tea.
We obviously hit the charity shops and there were lots of them.  Most, if not all, were very well maintained shops and therefore easy to navigate.  Although if memory serves me correctly we couldn’t find an Oxfam.  I found the books were cheap to pick up and Neil picked up a couple of collectable vinyl records.  The lady in the charity shop struck up a conversation with Neil about how vinyl was becoming collectable, although Neil hadn’t the heart to explain to her this depends on the artist and condition of the record and not the fact it was on vinyl. 

If you are looking to kit out a new home with furniture on a budget I always recommend visiting your local hospice charity shop.  If you don’t mind doing some sanding and painting you can get some fab pieces of cheap furniture.  In St Helens I found Willowbrook Hospice Charity Shop and if you are looking for a fire surround type mantelpiece this a place for you and they had a good selection.  I absolutely regret not picking up one for £35 as I hadn’t the dimensions of my fireplace.  You can save yourself lots of money for sure looking in the Hospice shops.

Thankfully in St Helens there still remained some cultural independent shops including Kaleidoscope Records where you could find new and used records.  Neil did actually browse in here as the prices they charged were Kingbee reasonable, which is cheap by most record shop standards. Opposite Kaleidoscope was Wardleworths bookshop, which was nice and friendly.  RenniesArts and Crafts shop manages to serve the local art community too.  It maybe helps there is a local college in the heart of the town that helps keeps these shops ticking over, but it’s great to see them survive in this day and age. 
Architecturally St Helens is quite interesting when you get away from the precinct.  There are quite a few buildings from its Victorian heyday.  The Clocktower building, which is part of the college, stands proud with a carving of a scary looking man with a moustache staring down at passers-by.  Havana seems to have taken over a former department store and interestingly it has a zodiac clock on the side of the building.  The Yorkshire Bank now occupies the grand white building that used to house The Manchester and County Bank Ltd building opposite the precinct.  It’s so important to look up in northern towns and see the history contained within these buildings.  Familiarity of a town often blinkers you to the pockets of beauty that are contained within the place.
St Helens was very quiet the day we went.  Maybe it was the bad weather putting people off or maybe people had scooted off to nearby Liverpool to do their shopping.  However I did notice it was one of the least ethnically diverse places I’ve been to for some time.  St Helens is an ex-mining town between Manchester and Liverpool and obviously with the decline in the industry it has experienced some economic issues.  Maybe that is a reason why people from different ethnic backgrounds haven’t moved into St Helens as there aren’t that many economic opportunities in the town.  I know efforts have been made to address the local economy, but when you visit nearby Liverpool and Manchester, they are worlds apart in terms of regeneration. 

What else struck me was how ‘old’ the older people looked.  When I worked in Wythenshawe I noticed the older people had their hard lives etched in their faces and St Helens is no different.  Obviously working down mines and in industry takes it out of people physically in the long term with poorer health and shorter lives.  However the physical gap between young and old is immense in this town. Whilst the young are sporting scouse brows and fake tan with no cares in the world, the older people are hunched over with arthritis and grey with heart and lung disease.  My Dad looks positively spritely compared to some of the people we saw here.  Whilst he worked hard throughout his working life and he has had health issues, at least he worked outside and wasn't exposed to the harsh underground conditions miners had to face.
It was interesting to visit St Helens, although the weather seriously didn't help matters.  You could not help but see the issues that affect the people here in terms of health and economy.  I do wonder what the future has to offer St Helens as it is caught between the cities of Manchester and Liverpool.  Maybe its future is that of a commuter town or maybe it will get caught in the regeneration effect that flows out of Liverpool and Manchester.  However I don’t have a crystal ball and can’t predict the future.  What I did see was a northern town struggling with the impacts of its industrial past, but dealing with it as positively as it can with regeneration projects and a large college educating its young people.

Sunday 1 June 2014

Rawtenstall, Lancashire

We’d just visited Ramsbottom and had an hour or so to kill, so we decided to pop 4 miles down the road to Rawtenstall.

I am reasonably familiar with Rawtenstall.  When I was a teenager my Dad used to bring me and my brother up to the dry ski slope just outside here.  Like with most sports I have tried, I was completely rubbish at it.  On my first trip, I ended up getting a black eye as I went face first into the wooden barrier on the nursery slope.  Last time I skied (this time in Sheffield) I ended up in casualty with concussion and a suspected broken thumb.  Ski Rossendale is still going after all these years as a social enterprise, which is a good thing for the local community.  Although with my dodgy foot and ankle, I think it’s wise I don’t go anywhere near those slopes as I’ve had more than enough trips to casualty in my lifetime.

The last time we went to Rawtenstall town centre was several years ago and I have to admit I wasn’t very excited about the whole experience.  It was dull, there were hardly any people about and the shops were not very exciting.  In many respects I’d been putting off a return trip here for the blog for quite a long time. 
Getting to Rawtenstall from Manchester is easy – M60, M66, A56 and A682.  Parking is simple too and we found a space in the James Street car park, which is free for 3 hours –“result” as they say. 

As we walked into the town centre we spotted some bored teenagers skateboarding in the town square.  It seemed such an odd space, like there was something missing.  It was only when I was doing a bit of research for this blog post that I found out the town square used to be a boarded up shopping centre.  The Council decided to demolish it in 2011 and turn it into a town square.  Actually I’d rather that than see a derelict shopping centre, although I can’t help think some additional work is needed to make it feel more a part of the town. 

We walked along Bank Street where most of the shops appear to be located.  The majority of the shops appear to be independent, although there is a large ASDA on Saint Mary’s Way just across the road from Bank Street. 

Most of the shops we found along Bank Street are traditionally built from rough-hewn, sandy coloured stone, which gives the place character.  Added to this was the fact the road was cobbled – quite a northern touch.  Maybe a nightmare to drive down, but very pretty to see. 

We obviously checked out the charity shops and I’m sure more have sprung up since we last visited as we found six of them.  They appeared very popular with the locals as they were packed with people.  I can quite understand why some shops were advertising for stock.  Neil didn’t find any vinyl records to buy and I didn’t find any books.  However it was good to see they were busy and providing a community service.

What caught my eye was the amount of independent gift shops that had sprung up.  It was nice to have a potter through them, looking at the nice, sparkly stuff.  In one shop I spent more time than I meant to as I ended up eavesdropping on a conversation the staff were having with a young lady.  She was telling them about how she split up with her long term boyfriend two weeks before her final law exams.  Obviously she was hacked off about this and how he acted like a complete tosser by taking most of their joint belongings.  However most importantly she passed her exams, she’s over him and now in a happy place.  As they say in certain urban neighbourhoods – “Go girl!”  I’m sure she’ll have a great life with that kind of attitude. 
Something about the names of some of the shops we passed had that direct northern charm – Tufties the hairdressers, Do Dah’s cafĂ© wine bar, Sunday Best clothes shop and Luvinit gift shop.  Actually Sunday Best had won a Daily Telegraph award in 2011 for best independent retailer for women’s fashion in Britain, which is pretty darn amazing if you ask me.

We found Rawtenstall still had a permanent market on Newchurch Road.  This gave me flashbacks to some of the markets I used to visit in the 1970s as the open air market had traditional, purpose built, wooden market stalls which were painted green.  At the back of the open air market is an indoor market and it’s quite small compared to other northern indoor markets we have been to.  It was a bit of a squeeze to negotiate the stalls.  Both markets are a mix of the traditional and the modern.  This was perfectly encapsulated with the broken biscuit stall, as one man told his wife that the stall sold gluten free broken biscuits – how brill is that?  Also how often do you find a Thai Street Food stall in a northern market?  Interestingly there is a stall that sold reasonably priced reclaimed and updated furniture in modern neutral colours.  What impressed me most were the people.  There was a nice buzz about this market with the friendly banter between the locals and stallholders.  Clearly the stallholders make the effort to bring in the local shoppers.
There is something happening in the foothills of the Pennines and it’s good.  I’d put off revisiting Rawtenstall for several years and I was genuinely surprised to see the changes.  I know visiting on a sunny day always helps, but there has been a real change going on here.  Some real thought and imagination has gone on here to craft a town that is nice to visit and live in.  I’m sure the teenagers will still hanker after the bright lights of Manchester.  However once the novelty has worn off there is nothing better than living in a nice place, surrounded by lovely countryside and having all the modern conveniences of 21th century life.  Rawtenstall is definitely trying to carve itself out as an up-and-coming commuter town at the end of the M66 with affordable house prices.  I’d be really interested to see how this place develops in years to come as there is still more to do, but so far it’s looking pretty darn good.