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).

Sunday 14 September 2014

An Insider's Guide to Manchester: Manchester Museum

I've been to lots of northern towns, cities, suburbs and villages over the years for this blog, but at no point have I written about Manchester, my home city.  The reason being I couldn't condense 40 plus years of knowledge into one pithy post.  So to get over this hurdle I've developed a new feature - An Insider's Guide to Manchester.  Each post will focus on one aspect that Manchester has to offer - good, bad or indifferent.  My first post in this series is Manchester Museum.

The first time I went to Manchester Museum I was on a school trip with my primary school. The trip has always stuck in my mind as I'd never been to a museum before and never to this part of Manchester which is on the edge of the city centre near the suburbs of Victoria Park, Hulme and Rusholme.  

Manchester Museum is part of the University of Manchester and is housed in a wonderful Victorian building that stretches down Oxford Road.  I always remember I was meant to complete a worksheet on the trip, but typical me, I got distracted by the building and all the shiny stuff so didn't finish it.  Since then, once in a while, I take a trip to the museum for a shot of history and culture.
I'd been meaning to go to the Museum's cafe called Cafe Muse for a long time.  Finally I got round to it during this summer whilst I was at a loose end. The food was nice (I had a hot roast turkey ciabatta with cranberry sauce), although the cafe was jam-packed with families as it was the summer holidays.  Thankfully I found a quiet little spot in an alcove with a couple of foreign students.  It's a complete must for museums to have a good cafe these days and this seemed pretty good.  The foreign students were having pasta and a salad, which looked really nice too.  I made a note to self to try the salad the next time I visit.

The museum is housed in a beautiful Victorian building and it is a pleasure to wander through the exhibits.  As it was the summer holidays, the museum was geared towards a younger audience with rooms set aside for children's activities. 

One of the major draws to the museum is the Egyptology section, which is well presented in low light to protect the exhibits.  A while ago it was in the news as one of the exhibits kept mysteriously moving in circles.  It turns out it had a convex base which made it susceptible to vibrations from the busy road outside.  My main reservation is the exhibition of mummified remains.  Whilst they are thousands of years old, it's still human remains and I'm really not keen about viewing them.  It's just a personal opinion, although the museum does show them with dignity.

I really like the main gallery area of the museum as it reminds me of when I first visited as a child with school, when I was too distracted with looking at everything to fill in the worksheet. It has a Victorian feel to this section with the display cabinets and the wrought iron staircase connecting the levels.  The only drawback for me with this section are the stuffed animals.  Unfortunately I have a longstanding phobia of taxidermy, which stems back to childhood when one of my Mum's cousins used to have a stuffed fox in her hallway which looked really spooky.  That said I love the use of neon in this section, which gives the space a contemporary feel and some much needed light.  On the top level they have multicoloured light boxes which cast coloured light to the ceiling.  I'm a sucker for inventive lighting within buildings.  Also in the top level of the gallery there is a picnic areas for families to eat their packed lunches.  Whilst I think this is just for the summer, it's a nice touch as the cafe is too expensive for families on a budget.  I believe the picnic space will be moving to the basement from September, which will be next to the new lab opening for schools.

My favourite exhibition was about the history of Whitworth Park.  It was tucked away in a quiet corner of the museum which seemed to be a kid free zone.  I was surprised to see this exhibit as it was all about local social history, but I really love this sort of thing as it captures moments in time and you can see how places have evolved. There was a young couple sat down watching one of the films about the park.  This echoed how young couples back in the day used to stroll through Whitworth Park as a date location.

Manchester Museum is a good cultural day out for families and the museum certainly caters well for them.  It's great how museums have a multitude of purposes from educating young people, to a family day out, a daytime date for young couples, a meeting place for friends to have a chat over a coffee and cake, a shot of culture for others and a photo opportunity for photographers.  There is no doubt I will go back to the museum and the cafe, although next time I go I'll try to go midweek when the kids are at school, as they kept running into shot when I was taking photos.

Other Information

Transport details:

Bus - It's on one of the busiest bus routes in Europe so getting from the Bus Station at Piccadilly Gardens is so easy.  Buses include 42,43,142,143 - plus a whole host of other ones too numerous to mention (see website for details).

Parking - Travelling by car is relatively straightforward and the Museum is a short drive from the Mancunian Way/M602 and Princess Park Way (A5103), both of which will eventually connect you to the M60. 

There are two car parks about 5 minutes walk away - the University's own one on Booth Street West (£3 for 3 hours) or the NCP on Booth Street East (£2.40 for 2 hours).  

2 hours free parking can be found slightly further away on the side streets near the Royal Northern College of Music and Manchester Metropolitan University (Rosamond Street West, Higher Chatham Street, Lower Ormond Street, Cavendish Street).  If you go on the weekdays when the Universities are open these parking spaces are generally busy, but on the weekend you can take advantage of the single yellow line parking, although check parking signage for restrictions to avoid any parking tickets.

Museum information:
Details of opening times and exhibitions can be found on their website - follow link.

Sunday 7 September 2014

Withington, Greater Manchester

We'd originally intended to go to Cheadle, though after getting stuck on Upper Brook Street for 45 minutes, time was ticking on and we decided to sack that one off and go to Withington instead.

Many moons ago in the late 1990s, I lived in Withington in a smelly shared house with a group of current and ex-students.  Funnily enough that's how I got to meet Neil, but that's a story for another time.  On the whole it was fun, although the bathroom was a nightmare on many levels - six people, one bathroom; the ceramic snake at the end of the bath did not help with my snake phobia; and there was the time when the it was invaded by mushrooms which popped the tiles off the wall.  Eventually I left, in part due to Withington as I witnessed a scary incident in the local shop and the local kids were becoming a nightmare.  Once I had to step over a group of them as they were lying across the pavement.  So it was interesting to see how much it had changed.

Getting to Withington from the centre of Manchester is easy - just head down Oxford Road onto Wilmslow Road and keep on going.  Withington is on possibly the busiest bus route in Europe so you hardly have to wait more than a couple of minutes for a bus.

I couldn't seem to find a car park in Withington, but with so many residential streets close by it’s not hard to find a parking space.  In and around Copson Street there are also one hour free parking bays, so we did that.

I think there are two distinct parts to Withington – Wilmslow Road and Copson Street. 

Copson Street is a scruffy little street which is home to the nearest mini supermarket - the Cooperative (formerly Somerfield when I lived there).  I popped into the local fruit and veg shop and bought a mini rose bush for £1.99 which was a bargain.  The florist doubled as a general store type of shop.  The local bakery looked really nice and I loved how they were selling individual portions of their cakes.  It can be too much buying a whole cake when there are only two of you to eat it, so individual versions are a brill solution as you can buy what flavour you want without stuffing your face.  I honestly think you should support these local shops as often they can be cheaper than the supermarket and you buy the amounts you need as things are sold loose.

Wilmslow Road in Withington is rather narrow and as I recollect you would often get stuck on the bus trying to pass through.  The shops along here are marginally classier than on Copson Street.  There is a little boutique called Mockingbirds which stands out with its vintage inspired designer clothes.  Fuel vegetarian café bar was busy with customers.  It’s also known as a small music venue with events on most nights.  Typical of a student suburb, there was still a launderette going.  These are now a dying breed.  It’s hard to find places where you can wash and dry a large duvet, other than pay extortionate prices at a dry cleaners.  You might as well go out and buy a new one instead.

One thing is for sure, we were spoilt by the number of charity shops in Withington as there are loads and some we'd never heard of.  Neil didn't have much success, although he did spot a Kingbee customer looking for cheap records.  I'm a fan of travel books and I found a book about the Pennine Way by the poet Simon Armitage.  I think he’s great and has the most fabulous Yorkshire accent when he reads his poems on the radio.  Other than that there wasn't much to catch our eyes.  Although I did notice an Asian lady buying a rather nice vintage dressing table in one of the charity shops.  There wasn't much in the way of overheard conversations either, but clearly there were regulars who came in to chat to staff about holidays and general stuff.

Withington is an interesting place in terms of residents, as for two thirds of the year it’s vibrant with the transient students who live in the large Victorian terraces and flats that surround the centre.  I used to live on Lausanne Road and when we walked down the road there were loads of 'To Let' signs.  Outside one house there was a skip full of old mattresses and broken furniture.  It seemed the landlord was preparing for their new intake of students in September.  For the other third of the year Withington is very quiet and at this time you notice who the real local residents are, many of whom live on the council estates near Yew Tree Road. 

As we were visiting in August, it was the locals we noticed and to be honest they are far more interesting than the fresh-faced students.  There was an older gentleman dressed head to toe in beige - overcoat, trousers and even waistcoat, although he was wearing a white shirt too.  We’d spotted him wandering through the charity shops chatting to staff.  Surprisingly he had a taxi waiting for him.  The taxi had a Lancashire taxi licence plate, so I think he, like us, was visiting old haunts.  

So had anything changed in about 16 years?  Yes and no.  The old cinema, where we once accidentally walked into a showing of "Saving Private Ryan", had been demolished and was just a boarded up wasteland.  However odds on there will be flats built there shortly.  The White Lion pub has become a mini Sainsburys.  Pop Art record shop has closed.  The second hand book shop has gone too.  Many bars have come and gone, but the Victoria and Albert Pubs remain along with the estate agents and array of fast food outlets.   

Some places become gentrified over the years, but not Withington.  I think with the transient student community, businesses fly in and out of the place trying to make a fast buck.  However there is a constant with the working class community who live here and keep the place ticking over and stop the place from becoming too pretentious (a good thing in my book). 

Withington is a mish-mash of cheap shops, fast food outlets and bars, not like its classier neighbours Didsbury Village and West Didsbury just up the road.  Just walking along Wilmslow Road you're visually assaulted by all the shop signs vying for your attention.  There is nothing subtle about Withington. It's a functional place that serves a purpose and the sort of place you pass through unless you are born there.  I really can't get wistful about the place with my having previously lived there; that's reserved for Sheffield anyway.  It served a purpose, which I'm grateful for and thank for being a part of my life, but life moves on and so has Withington.