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.