Sunday 27 July 2014

Westhoughton, Greater Manchester

I’ve been going to Westhoughton for the past few years for work, specifically to the leisure centre.  However in all that time I’d never been to the town centre.  So one sunny Saturday afternoon Neil and I took the journey up to Westhoughton.

Getting to Westhoughton is straightforward.  Take the M61, exit at junction 5 and head along the A58 towards the town centre.  You can either park near the tiny retail park opposite Sainsbury’s on Cricketers Way, or as we did in the free car park on Bolton Road, around the corner from Market Street.

It was a nice sunny day and the streets were deserted.  Quite a few of the shops were closed too, though the Pottery Studio appeared to be busy doing a pottery party.  Thankfully the two charity shops, Bolton Hospice and The Children’s Society, were open.  So we had a browse, but sadly there was nothing to be found, although I was impressed by the Children’s Society’s Bond-themed window display.

The architecture of the town is predominantly of the Victorian and Edwardian period and entirely in keeping with its mining heritage.  The Town Hall is the grandest building in town. Built in 1903, it’s red brick with a clock tower overlooking the street.  There are weird carved red faces over the windows and doors.  Around the corner is the local library, which started life as a Carnegie Library.  I always like to see Carnegie libraries as they did so much to educate the working classes in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Interestingly they only received funding from Carnegie if there was match funding from public support and not institutional support.  The idea was to ensure the libraries were for all and not a clique.  Sometimes I wonder in these straightened times whether libraries should seek philanthropic funding from businesses to remain open, as that’s how many libraries started out.
At the bottom of Market Street is the Pretoria Pit Disaster Memorial in Ditchfield Gardens.  It was good to see how well maintained the memorial was kept.

Westhoughton seemed to be full of pubs, many of them traditional looking Victorian pubs.  Most of which were well maintained. The busiest place was more modern looking:  The Robert Shaw Wetherspoon’s pub.  This was probably due to the intoxicating combination of cheap beer and World Cup football.  The Robert Shaw was named after the local actor who starred in films including The Sting, From Russia with Love and Jaws.

There were a few random shop names that caught my eye: “Boys T’ Men” and “Blooming Flowers” which showed the local humour.  I did find it odd there was a shop called Horwich Carpets, when Horwich is a few miles up the road, but it’s actually a branch of the main shop based there.
I’m always a sucker for vintage shops and we found Vibrant Vintage.  The staff were very friendly in there and explained how they displayed their clothes in period order – 40s, 50s, 60s etc.  They also stocked new rockabilly outfits and lots of vintage paraphernalia.  Sadly they didn’t stock vinyl records as they didn’t really know much about them.  Once they made a table out of a stock of old records only to be told one of the records they used was worth more than the table itself.

Finally we visited Westhougton’s covered market and this place is definitely the heart of the community.  Locals were catching up on the gossip and some stallholders were indulging in a spot of knitting as it was a slow day.  There were quite a few craft stalls to catch my eye.  As it was a hot day, Neil and I were hoping to find some ice cream.  So when we saw a Nestle ice cream freezer in the corner of the market we wandered over to have a look.  However what they were stocking were more for snakes than humans - ten day old chicks for £1.50, five mice fuzzies for £2.30 and one small rabbit for £7.00.  Quite frankly the freezer made me feel quite queasy.
Westhoughton is a rather unassuming place tucked away between Bolton and Wigan.  I do think the Sainsbury’s and retail park on Cricketers Way draws people away from the town centre on Market Street.  However from what I found, the people are friendly and there is a sense of community especially in the market.  In part I already knew that from doing some work at Westhoughton Leisure Centre, but it was nice to see that in action in the town.  Whilst Westhoughton is not exactly a tourist destination, it’s a solid working class community that’s proud of its heritage.

Sunday 20 July 2014

West Didsbury, Greater Manchester

I found myself with an hour to kill on a particularly hot day so, instead of baking myself in my car reading, I decided to take a nearby detour to Burton Road – the heart of West Didsbury.

Many moons ago in the 1990s I lived in nearby Withington and occasionally ventured up Burton Road to the swimming pool (not the best), Withington Hospital (never good) or the Nepalese restaurants (pretty good).  Back then it was just another road on the edge of Didsbury which was on the way to The Woodstock and The Yewtree (now sadly closed) pubs on Barlow Moor Road.  In recent times I’d heard things were happening along Burton Road and I’d been meaning to check it out.

Getting to Burton Road is quite simple from Manchester city centre – head down Princess Parkway, take a left down Nell Lane, go to the end of the road and turn left.  It’s slightly trickier from the motorway – you take the M60, take junction 4 which leads to the A5103/M56, then you take the first slip road you see to Northenden, take a right and a right again and you get back on the A5103 towards Manchester and take a right onto Nell Lane.  Alternatively, you can now get a tram here from the city centre – just jump off at the Burton Road stop.
There is on-road parking in dedicated parking bays for up to 1 hour, although there are plenty of side streets to park in for longer.  However parking is a premium here as it’s very built up with flats and shared accommodation.

Burton Road itself is primarily a residential area full of large red brick Victorian houses, although modern flats have popped up all over the place.  Between Burton Road and Princess Parkway there is a large private housing development called Didsbury Point built on the Withington Hospital site.  There is also former council housing now run by Southway Housing off Burton Road, so you do really get a diverse demographic mix in West Didsbury.

It was a Thursday afternoon and all was quiet along Burton Road.  There were a few people hobbling along to the outpatients at Withington Community Hospital and some people were having drinks outside the various cafes and bars.
Burton Road is definitely a home to independent shops.  If you wanted to a find a gift and a card for someone, you would not struggle to find something along here.  There is a nice little vintage shop with a friendly assistant.  As much as I like looking at vintage stuff I can only really buy accessories.  The truth is I’m too big for all the nice vintage clothes.  Recently I’ve been watching the Channel 4 programme “This Old Thing” and have been quite frustrated they haven’t mentioned at all that vintage sizes tend to be on the small side.  So if you are above a size 14 you are essentially buggered unless you want to look like your Nan.  Anyway, the shop had lots of pretty things to be bought.

I enjoyed pinballing from shop to shop.  You want kitchen stuff? You want some furniture?  You want some artwork?  You could find it all along here and Lapwing Lane.  The place caters for all budgets and tastes, although it was laughable that some bloke was trying to pay for a £2 birthday card with a credit card. Who’s too posh to carry cash these days?  The assistant told him there was a £5 minimum for card payments and there was a cash point across the road.

It was good to see, despite all the gentrification, there were still some regular shops like discount stores, standard takeaways, newsagents and hairdressers.  However there are no charity shops, but they are located in Didsbury Village and Withington.  If you cross over the Metrolink bridge towards Withington it’s like how Burton Road used to be in the 1990s.  I like places which are a mix of the new and the traditional.  I hate it when places get to the point where you can’t get a pint of milk and a loaf of sliced bread, but can get some hand thrown pottery and some funky artwork.  Thankfully West Didsbury hasn’t hit that point yet.
You don’t have to cook in West Didsbury and could easy eat out for at least a couple of weeks in cafes and restaurants without repeating yourself.  Years ago I remember we had a fine meal at the Metropolitan restaurant pub on the corner of Burton Road and Lapwing Lane, so it was great to see it was still going strong.  I also remember Neil going all experimental at the local Nepalese restaurants by ordering banana and lychee curry.  Actually there are three Nepalese restaurants along here which is really unusual, although if memory serves me correctly the Gurkha Grill was the original one.  You are truly spoilt for choice here from budget to high end dining – Thai, tapas, vegetarian, Japanese and even English high tea.  What I did notice and maybe this was due to the fine weather, but there was a French café culture vibe going on.  From the little cafes to posh restaurants you could eat and drink outside whilst watching the world go by.  Often in Manchester alfresco dining is more an endurance activity, but in fine weather I almost feel transported back to Paris.

Along with the restaurants there are plenty of bars and pubs, many of which also serve food.  You could see by the customers there is a youthful vibe in this part of Manchester.  The pub which intrigued me most was The Railway on Lapwing Lane.  It’s part of the Holt’s pub chain, which is known for cheap beer and often attracts the older, overly committed drinkers.  However this place didn’t look like your standard Holt’s pub, as it had stealthily blended itself into surroundings by being faithful to its Victorian origins and going a bit neutral with its decor.  I could see myself having a drink here with friends having a nice chat.  Weirdly, while googling the pub, I found out Johnny Depp has been known to frequent this place.

Burton Road does scrub up well.  I can imagine this is a lively neighbourhood in the evenings and now with the Metrolink on the doorstep I’m sure we’ll be taking a trip one evening to sample its delights.  Honestly I could not have imagined it would change so much in 16 years.  It’s understandable this place is popular with students and young professionals.  Whilst I’m certain the rents are high and the house prices are silly, it’s a vibrant neighbourhood with good transport links and I can understand the appeal. 

Sunday 13 July 2014

Stockport, Greater Manchester

It had been years since we had been to Stockport and was a glaring omission from Life in Northern Towns.

I’d heard things weren’t going too well in Stockport during the recession with a significant number of shopping units empty.  In the end Stockport became part of the Mary Portas Pilot to revitalise the high street.  I’m not entirely sure whether this has been successful from the articles I found online about the project and also from my visit I’d say the debate is still out on this one.

Anyway, back to the trip.  Getting to Stockport from North Manchester is relatively straightforward as you hop on the M60 and get off at Junction 1.  However getting past the queues at the Trafford Centre are becoming a real pain at the weekends and I would suggest going clockwise (past Oldham / Ashton) instead.  It can be slightly longer, but definitely quicker.  If you are coming from central Manchester then there is always the A6 to contend with.  Personally the A6 to Stockport can suck the life from your soul as you have to negotiate lots of traffic through Longsight and Levenshulme.  I think Princess Parkway is quite a good alternative as you can pick up the M60 and head for Stockport that way.
Parking in Stockport is fine as there seems to be plenty of it.  We parked near the Merseyway shopping centre in a pay and display car park - £1.60 for 2 hours or £2.40 for 3 hours.

Stockport is dominated by the massive, red brick railway viaduct that spans the town centre.  Built in 1840 apparently it’s one of the world’s largest brick built structures.  This may go some way to explain why Stockport is a split level town – in the valley the Merseyway shopping centre and bus station, on the hill the rest of the town. 

The Merseyway shopping centre is a fairly standard, uninspiring shopping precinct.  Partly covered and home to the usual high street suspects.  Apparently there were plans to redevelop the place, but that went wrong with the recession in 2008.  Shoppers tend to fall into two brackets – family and teenagers.  In the main shopping area it seemed reasonably busy for a fine summer’s day.  However when we ventured further afield we seemed to head into ghost town territory. 

Underbank seemed to be the more interesting area both shopping-wise and architecturally.  Whilst Merseyway shopping centre is just a bland mass of 60s concrete, Underbank has many old buildings and has a bridge dating from 1868 crossing over it.  In some respects it reminded me of the bridge in Chester that spans the shopping area, but a more simplistic version.  Winter’s Holt’s Pub was very old school in its design.  We did find some vintage shops along here and had a quick browse.  A couple of young women were deep in conversation discussing why the parents of one of them had split up.  Sadly there wasn’t too much to browse so I couldn’t eavesdrop on the rest of the conversation.
We found ourselves lost in Stockport and at one point had to avoid a passing drunk who was wobbling down one of Stockport’s many steep streets.  We eventually found the indoor markets along with more vintage shops.  The main indoor market was a Victorian covered market made of wrought iron and glass painted black and white.  The stalls were a mix of the traditional and interesting, plus they had a café that was full of people.  There was one stall that caught my eye where a lady was making some fab celebration cakes.

Across the outdoor market was the indoor produce market, again with its own café.  It was beginning to close up for the day, but it’s great to see local produce being sold here.  I also liked the fact one stall was a dedicated pop-up stall, which is great for people starting out new food business ventures.  However it wasn’t the food that impressed me most about this market, but the vintage shop you can find at the top floor of the market appropriately called “Room at the Top”. 
It wasn’t just a vintage clothing shop, but it sold all sorts of vintage paraphernalia.  I’ve been looking for wall art for our house, but I was struggling for inspiration.  Little did I realise until coming to this place that vintage art exhibition posters would be perfect for what I needed.  Whilst I didn’t buy any posters from there, it has led me on an interesting journey trying to find some.  I did spot a dad trying to help his teenage daughter to find a 60s vintage dress for her school project, which was rather sweet to see.  Neil was very pleased to find copies of old Record Collector magazines and bought a batch of 31 for £10.  There were so many things here I could have bought if my budget allowed.  So I wasn’t surprised find out the place had won awards and definitely one to visit.  If you are really keen on vintage, every 2nd Sunday of the month the Vintage Village pops up at the main market hall and Room at the Top also opens that day.

As ever we headed for the Charity shops, however they weren’t that exciting for Neil.  I think with the proliferation of vintage shops in Stockport, the charity shops are regularly trawled by people who know their stuff and pick up the interesting finds.
Weirdly in Stockport we found you could do a tour of the World War Two air raid shelters in the town.  I did think from the amount of post war buildings in the town, there must have been lots of buildings destroyed in this town during the war.  I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable doing the tour as I’m not one for confined spaces, however I’m amazed at the foresight of the Council to open up these shelters as they are a unique aspect of social history.  Also another oddity in the town was the Hat Works Museum, however time pressures meant we couldn’t visit but I’ve heard good things about this place through friends.

Stockport is a surprisingly interesting place when you get out of the main shopping precinct.  Not only because of the shops, but also because of the architecture which transports you back in time.  It’s also interesting how the vintage thing has exploded here; whether that is down to the Portas project or cheap rents is another matter.  However I don’t think the Portas Pilot has really addressed the whole empty unit problem in Stockport.  It has probably mixed up the type of shops available in the town, but I do think the layout of the town doesn’t help matters.  Recently I’ve recovered from a broken foot and I now realise people with mobility issues would struggle to access parts of this town.  To be frank you’d be limited to the main shopping precinct as it’s on the flat and close to the bus station. The biggest problem for towns in Greater Manchester is the Trafford Centre.  It just draws away punters from the local towns as it offers a total shopping experience with the added bonus of free parking and it’s sheltered from the frequent Manchester rain. This is a knotty problem Stockport has to address and I don’t think it’s an easy one to solve despite the Portas Pilot offering some hope.