Sunday 13 December 2015

Hay-on-Wye, Powys

The base we chose for our South Wales excursion was Hay-on-Wye.  Obviously I’d heard about it due to the annual book festival, but also because my friend is a book fanatic and has visited this place to stock up his library.

Getting to Hay-on-Wye from anywhere is a chore as it’s in the middle of nowhere, well, on the edge of the Brecon Beacons close to the English border.  As we were coming from Manchester we had the choice of three routes – the A5 through the west of Shropshire, the A49 through the east of Shropshire or the longer route via the M6/M5.  Unfortunately the first two routes were ruled out for us due to the Creamfields festival in Cheshire, so we had to take the M6/M5 route.  All I’m saying is: don’t be fooled into thinking that driving on a Sunday down the M6 will be a breeze – roadworks plus Birmingham equals traffic hell.  That’s before the random cross country journey that involved finding an alternative route because of a car accident.   It was one of the few times I wished for a sat nav, as the iPhone was useless as the signal cross country was either non-existent or GPRS.  It felt like we were guided by divine intervention rather than anything else.  So what should have been a three hour journey took four hours instead. 
Hay-on-Wye itself is a lovely stone built town, full of character and rather well-to-do.  At the centre of the town, on a hill, is Hay-on-Wye Castle – its remains overshadow the little town.  These types of country towns have evolved over centuries and as a result the architecture is a real historical mixed bag.  There’s the distinctive Clock Tower that overlooks the town.  The small stone built Butter Market plays host to the various markets that pop up.  I lost Neil to the Butter Market for a couple of hours as there was a record fair going on. There are lots of places to explore and if you are an architecture photographer get there early as the streets get very busy late morning into late afternoon.

We stayed in the Old Black Lion on the edge of Hay.  It’s a pub, restaurant and B&B which dates back from the 17th century, although parts of it date from the 13th century.  It’s one of those characterful places with low beams and wibbly-wobbly floors, and it probably plays host to a local ghost or two.  You feel like you are drunk climbing the stairs to the bedrooms as the stairs are at an odd angle.  If you are tall like us, then be really careful as you could quite easily knock yourself out on the beams. 
Our bedroom overlooked the car park and the fields beyond so you really felt connected to the countryside.  The room was decorated in red and gold and had an en-suite bathroom.  As with these old buildings, en-suites can be a bit bizarre and our en-suite was split level with the shower on one level and the toilet and sink on another.  It was also dicey for both Neil and myself as you had to mind your head going down the steps otherwise you could give yourself concussion.  The breakfasts were really nice too with ingredients sourced locally and I would wholeheartedly recommend the restaurant for lunch and evening meals as they were the best we had on our stay.  The Beef and Butty Bach was ace and the Choc and Port Cake is divine.  If you are staying Sunday in Hay it’s best to book a table here as not all the restaurants are open on a Sunday evening.  I’d definitely come here again.

Obviously Hay-on-Wye is known for books and we explored most of the book shops.  I was surprised how pricy some of the second hand bookshops were, but my book fanatic friend did say later that he doesn’t get as many books as he used to in Hay because of the prices.  That said, my favourite bookshop was the Hay Cinema Bookshop on the edge of town.  It’s massive and I don’t think I’ve been into a larger bookshop – you could lose yourself for days in here.  The cheapest place to find books is at Hay Castle which has an assortment of cheap books and you pay for them by leaving money in the honesty box.

There is more to Hay than books and if you like your craft, vintage and locally-made stuff, this place will have something for you.  It made me laugh to look in one vintage shop where they had a sign in the window with the words “best quality old tat”– so true.  Another vintage shop was called “Nantique” – top name.  The Old Electric Shop had the classic combo of café, art gallery, upcycled furniture and vintage clothes - definitely a place to go to get inspiration for craft projects.  A special mention goes to the Fudge Shop who make their own delicious fudge and were very helpful too.  They recommended the Thursday markets as you can get really good sourdough bread from there.
We did visit the local charity shops too.  Plenty of books obviously, and Neil found some vinyl to rummage through.  The St David’s Charity Shop was particularly overpriced, but the rest were fine, even Oxfam to Neil’s astonishment!

There are quite a few pubs in Hay-on-Wye and as we were staying three nights we managed to visit most of them.  The Blue Boar seemed pretty busy doing mainly food.  It was nice to see generations of a family happy to be having a meal together.  There was also an American couple giving a running commentary of their trip to everyone in earshot.  The ThreeTuns, again another pub that specialises in food and in particularly pizza.  They seem to attract a younger clientele and it made me laugh to see the most sedate middle class hen-do known to man in the pub.  Honestly they were so tame – the bride wore a classy sash and crown, her friends were dressed in sensible walking gear and they probably drank a maximum one bottle of wine between them.  The Rose and Crown was a very different affair – it seemed to be the only bar showing sport in Hay and was only ever busy when there was a match on.  It had a funny smell and the barman looked as if he’d been a roadie in the 1970s.  We only had one drink in here, but the music was the best we had heard in Hay.  The Kilvert was particularly quiet too as we were the only ones in there, but I think that was because it was a Tuesday evening rather than anything else.  We did drink in the Old Black Lion too and they have a nice back room which is lovely to relax in with a glass of wine or a pint.  The locals seemed to hang out at the local social clubs - the Conservative Club and the Royal British Legion.  However we didn’t go in there as we were so occupied with the other places.

The other place we ate in was Tomatitos, which is a cracking little tapas bar.  It was very busy and it’s good to get there early.  The tapas was the best I’ve had for a long time – the chorizo was lovely and tender, the meatballs were tasty and everything was absolutely spot on.  My book fanatic friend really rates this place too and it comes up as one of the best places to eat in Hay according to Trip Advisor.

Hay-on-Wye is a nice place to visit and clearly knows how to rock its book angle for the tourists like ourselves.  What impressed me most about Hay was not the books, but the place itself.  It’s such a lovely part of the world and whilst the weather was not particularly great during our visit, we had a good time exploring the place, taking photos and having really good food.  I’d be back like a shot and if you are ever in this part of the world, you must visit.

Sunday 29 November 2015

Chepstow, Monmouthshire

All I knew about Chepstow was that it had a racecourse and that’s it.  I didn’t know it was in Wales as its name sounds English, but apparently Chepstow is the English name for the place.

We took the scenic route along the River Wye from Monmouth to Chepstow along the A466.  It’s only 16 miles, though as it’s a winding road it took much longer than anticipated and not good for passengers who get travel sick.  The plus points of choosing this route is that it’s pretty and you pass Tintern Abbey.  Sadly we didn’t have time to stop, but it did look good.

Parking in Chepstow is straightforward as there’s a big car park behind the main shopping area which costs £1 for 2 hours.
Chepstow is quite a compact town and certainly not as busy as Monmouth, but that could be just the time of day.  The architecture is rather mixed with new developments amongst the medieval and historic buildings.  At the top of the hill there is the Town Gate which dates from the medieval times and in the car park you can still see the remains of the Port Wall which used to protect the town.  There is also some random street art too with a surprising statue of a naked man complete with genitals.

Obviously we were here for the charity shops and they didn’t disappoint.  I found the shops were particularly good for books, especially newly published ones.  I picked up the Amy Poehler book “Yes Please” for a song at £1.50.  I’d have bought more books if I hadn’t already purchased them at full price.  I also picked up a practically new clutch bag for £2.99.
There were some good overheard conversations to be had in the charity shops and I spent far too much time eavesdropping on them.  One was a lady who was discussing her career change – she’s so much happier now.  The other was the concerned grandparents who were hoping their grandson will finally pass his driving test to improve his job prospects.  I forget, living in a city, how important it is to drive when you live in the countryside.  It’s practically a rite of passage to pass a driving test where there’s very little public transport available.

There are a few antique / vintage places in Chepstow and Neil spent almost an hour trawling through them.  He did pick up a good haul of vinyl records and CDs. I know he’d happily come back here again just for these shops.  As a result of this I spent quite a bit of time looking through the craft shops, exploring the tiny shopping arcades and taking photos.  Damn the traffic in this town though, as it makes it hard to take photographs of buildings without a blurred car in shot.
Neil noticed the WiFi was particularly good in Chepstow too and you could get a half decent O2 signal (3G).  He’s rather obsessed with these things and mobile phone coverage – it’s possible he may have a social media addiction.

Chepstow is definitely a good place to visit in South Wales; a bit quieter than Monmonth and easier to navigate without getting killed in the process.  We had already eaten but there are lots of cafes and restaurants to get something nice to eat.  If we are ever in the area again, we’d definitely stop off and have a wander.

Sunday 8 November 2015

Monmouth, Monmouthshire

Monmouth had been recommended to us as a place to go in South Wales by a friend who knew about our weakness for visiting towns and charity shops.

Traveling across South Wales is not like traveling across a city or between urban conurbations where the roads are straightforward and speedy.  The 33 mile drive took over an hour from Hay-on-Wye to Monmouth which I couldn’t believe.  This was not helped by Neil as he’s not a fan of winding roads, so I had to take them at sane speeds to avoid that inevitable phrase “Are we there yet?  I feel sick”.  All the same it was a pretty drive and we took a route along the B4348, A465 and A466. 

We parked up in a car park behind the main shops in the town centre.  It was a very busy car park and people were hovering like vultures trying to nab a spot.  We were very lucky to get a parking spot quickly and paid £1.50 for 3 hours.
Monmouth is a busy town and I’ve never seen so much traffic pass through one place.  How people cross the main street without getting hit by a car on a daily basis is a miracle.   This posed problems for me as I wanted to take photos of the buildings and kept getting random trucks and cars in shot.  The street was busy too, with old people, families and tourists.  I was genuinely surprised how popular this place seemed to be.  Given the amount of pubs and places to eat it seems to be a popular destination for tourists.  Behind the main shops I did spot a gardening shop-cum-café called the Potting Shed.  It was a nice little quiet spot where you could enjoy a cup of tea and a slice of cake away from the hubbub of the town.
Architecturally, Monmouth is a rather pretty mix of rendered buildings which have evolved over the centuries.  The baroque 18th century ShireHall is certainly the star of the town, with its perfectly symmetrical frontage looking grand and refined overlooking Agincourt Square – it’s clearly well maintained by the local council.  On the edge of town is the Monnow Bridge which is the oldest surviving medieval bridge with a gate house in the UK.  It’s certainly worth a look and makes a good photo opportunity as well as a chance to feed the local ducks who live underneath it.

We were here for charity shops, and Monmouth did not disappoint.  Neil found a couple of CDs but managed to get stuck in Mind behind a mum and her screaming child.  The child wasn’t impressed with the shop as she thought it was “smelly”.  It wasn’t by the way, she was just tired and grumpy.  I did have a charity shop regret here as I found a pottery goblet but didn’t buy it.  As we walked around, I was bugged that I didn’t pick it up, so I went back only to find it had been sold already.  Damn – I never learn!

I was impressed that Monmouth had a few craft shops and I spent some time browsing the fabrics.  In one shop the assistant was upcycling a chair with vivid red chalk paint as it was a bit of a slow day.  Needless to say I ended up buying more fabric for my stash.

Neil grabbed a bite to eat and had an uninspiring pasty, whereas I went to Caffe Nero and got a nice latte.  It amused me to hear the staff discussing how well other chains had done over the weekend.  It’s funny to see the competitiveness in the coffee trade. 

All in all, Monmouth was definitely a successful trip for us – pretty, pleasant and some decent charity shops. The only downside was the traffic and I was certainly happy not to get run over – something from past experience I wouldn’t recommend.  This is the kind of place you could easily spend a night or two in if you fancied a short break in this part of the world.  

Sunday 1 November 2015

Brecon, Powys

We took a few days off work and decided to take a road trip to South Wales as we’d never been together before.  We were staying in Hay-on-Wye for three nights and that provided a great base to explore the surrounding area.

It was Bank Holiday Monday and we weren’t too sure whether any of the surrounding towns would be open.  So we had a look on the map and found Brecon was about 16 miles away.  The plan was if it was closed then we’d have a drive around the Brecon Beacons.  It took us about half an hour to drive there and we took a route along the B4350, A479 and A470.  We parked up at Lidl where you get 1.5 hours of parking for free.

On first impression, Brecon seemed like a tidy Welsh town built on a hill.  Whilst the majority of buildings are modest, often colourfully rendered, there are some fine architectural buildings.  The Greek revival Brecknock Museum, whilst undergoing renovations, looks really grand with its imposing columns and sturdy symmetrical design.  St Mary’s Church in the centre of town is suitably old and weathered and has evolved into its current form from the Norman times.  We didn’t see the cathedral as we explored the town, but if we’d known we’d have visited it too.

The first thing we did was get some food.  I wasn’t too fussed about getting fish and chips so Neil decided to get his own from a nearby chippy.  It took an age for Neil to get served, but it was worth the wait.  I sampled one of his chips and they were the best chippy chips I have ever had.  My intentions to eat something healthier went straight out the window and I bought myself a portion of chips - they were heaven.  Often chippy chips smell nicer than they taste and are soggy.  However these were proper crispy and so fluffy inside - chippy must double fry them.  The chippy’s name is Coracle Fish Bar and, although it does get very mixed reviews on Trip Advisor, the chips are fantastic.

Fortified with chips, we explored Brecon.  Even though it was a Bank Holiday most of the shops were open.  The charity shops weren’t that exciting to be honest and that’s possibly because there is an overpriced antique shop in town picking up the best stuff.  To be truthful it’s a bit of a stretch to call it an antique shop as to me it seemed like a vintage shop.  I do think in recent times there has been a blurring of lines between what is considered antique (rare old stuff that people want) and what is classed as vintage (old stuff).

There was a Fairy Fair going on off one of the side streets.  We didn’t know what to expect so we peaked in.  It was all a bit odd and hippyish.  There was some bloke giving a talk and we couldn’t get through to the stalls as the place was very crowded with people watching him speak.  So we made a swift exit.

Surprisingly the indoor market was open and we popped in.  It’s one of those traditional indoor markets with some permanent stalls as you walk in and a big space full of trestle tables for the temporary stalls.  If you wanted carpets this was the place to go as it was full of them.  Otherwise we found people selling cheap stuff you normally find at traditional markets.  Although if you are visiting it’s worth checking out what’s on at the markets as they do have a monthly farmers market as well as host craft and antiques fairs. 

Before we left we nipped into a sweet shop to buy some ice cream.  However we were stuck in a queue for ages as there were two indecisive Irish ladies trying every type of fudge as they were buying holiday gifts for their families.  Thankfully the shop assistant managed to serve us between a bout of indecisiveness.  It was worth the wait though as it was nice Welsh made ice cream. 

Whilst Brecon didn’t strike me as a touristy place, more of a down-to-earth town serving its local community - it was a nice place to stop off and spend a couple of hours exploring.  Bank holiday probably wasn’t the best time to go, but we did get to see most things and I got dog envy seeing all the cute pooches in town.  If I was ever in that neck of the woods again I would definitely stop off to try the chips as they were brill.

Sunday 18 October 2015

Morley, West Yorkshire

Following a recommendation, we went to Morley in West Yorkshire.  It is a suburb of Leeds, on the south side of the city, so very easy to get to from the M62 - just exit junction 27 and follow the signs.

Driving into Morley, I noticed there was a new leisure centre, a concrete skate park and a newish play area with space nets.  To be honest the space nets impressed me most.  Ever since my days working on council play areas, I’ve always had a soft spot for space nets as they look great and have a hint of danger.  Perfect for a play area in my books as lots of playgrounds nowadays are really safety conscious and have become really dull places.  I was brought up in the 1970s where every playground had at least one piece of equipment with health and safety disaster written all over it that was so much fun to play on.  How I managed not to break a bone on one of these things was a miracle – OK, I did chip a tooth and split my knees open on countless occasions.
Morrisons car park is the most convenient place to park, as it’s behind the main shopping area and you can park for free for three hours.

Morley can be classed as a suburban northern town, a feeder town to the nearby city close by, but distinctive enough to retain its identity.  It’s a down to earth, working class town – pensioners with hard worn faces, cash strapped teenagers hanging out with mates and frazzled parents tussling with errant children.  Having explored some other West Yorkshire towns recently, Morley isn’t as down at heel as Dewsbury and Batley.

Morley Town Hall is the most impressive building in town. Built in the 19th century, it was inspired by Roman architecture complete with Corinthian columns built from Yorkshire stone.  The majority of the buildings in town tend to be boxy Yorkshire stone buildings built in the Victorian and Edwardian periods.  Surprisingly we found a statue of Ernie Wise in town – we had no idea he had a connection to Morley!
The main shopping area in Morley is pedestrianised and there is a tiny concrete precinct that leads to Morrisons supermarket.  The precinct is not very exciting and the most popular feature was the gorgeous bear type dog sitting with its owner.  The dog was practically a deity with locals paying homage by stroking its sumptuous fur.  It took a significant amount of self-control not to do it myself.

On the main pedestrianised street there was a choir busking to 90s dance tracks.  I know I should appreciate the hard work they put in to learning these songs, but I wasn’t keen.  The arrangements were a bit odd and the pianist sounded a bit inexperienced.  Maybe if it had been 80s songs I would have appreciated them more.  Still I wanted to punch the air when they finished.  In my defence I was traumatised by my experience singing in the school choir as a teenager - I find it difficult to listen to choirs without experiencing some sweat inducing flashback. 
There’s also an indoor market in Morley.  It’s a bit of a maze with no natural light, but it is well maintained with a good selection of stock and popular with locals.  I liked the fact it had a good stationery stall as I have a weakness for paper based products and pens. 

Further up the road, there was a table top sale going on in the back of a furniture shop.  Even though the sale was due to close there were still lots of people browsing.  It was more like a community event and people were catching up with each other whilst grabbing a brew at the café.  I think it was a cunning ploy by the furniture shop to get people in to see the furniture.  It was one of those furniture shops that is aimed at older people, stocking sensible biscuit coloured furniture, which are not too low down so OAPs are still able to get up without help.
One thing is for certain, there are lots of charity shops in Morley, although one thing missing was a decent second hand book section.  Normally Oxfam covers that particular base, but due to a staff shortage they weren’t open.  Neil had a very good day picking up vinyl records and also found a “Question of Pop” board game too.  In one shop a young volunteer was discussing his ‘A’ Level results – he got a D in Chemistry.  My eyes used to glaze over in chemistry with the periodic table - I took physics instead.  Not the best choice as it turned out because I was taught by a psychotic teacher who hated teaching.  The lad in the shop was considering studying at Huddersfield University.  I just wanted to say to the lad, “Spread your wings – go further afield.”  I was lucky when I was a student as I received a full grant, rather than now where you have to pay £9k per year for the privilege.

I had no expectations of Morley and as a result I was pleasantly surprised.  There are lots of towns in West Yorkshire struggling these days, but Morley seems to be coping.  Morley is by no means a tourist destination, but it’s alright and does its job.  Obviously nearby Leeds is the main attraction in this part of the world, but as a random trip to check out the charity shops, Morley is a good option.

Sunday 11 October 2015

Bradford, West Yorkshire

The first time I went to Bradford was on a Saturday in the 1970s, driven by my Dad in a mustard yellow van.  Bizarrely he wanted to show Bradford to me and my brother as it had a large Asian community and looked so different to other places – apparently the advertising hoardings were even in Arabic.  As we lived in Cheetham Hill at the time, my brother and I were well versed in multiculturalism so it wasn’t a big deal.  However I think my Dad was having a culture shock moment and was fascinated by it all.

We’d already visited some of Bradford’s suburbs for the blog including Shipley, Saltaire and Keighley, but never quite got around to the city.  Having had a drunken conversation at a “do” recently with someone who works in Bradford, I knew I had to go and see it for myself.

Getting to Bradford from Manchester is straightforward – M60, M62, exit junction 26 onto the M606, exit junction 3 onto the A6177 and headed down the hill towards the city centre.  I had no idea where to park, so when we got to the city centre we parked at the NCP on Hall Ings Road and paid £6 for 3 hours parking.  The place was less than a quarter full so you’d think they would do a weekend rate.
Two things hit you when you walk into Bradford: the architecture and the people. 

Firstly there is the City Hall, which is one of those wonderfully impressive gothic Victorian civic buildings, built at the height of its economic success in the 19th century.  As it was a Saturday I wasn’t sure if I could go in to check out the inside, but given there were lots of people outside in fancy outfits, no doubt this place is busy at the weekends with weddings.
Outside the City Hall there was a big family event happening and the place was packed full of people.  The kids were trying out all the activities like trampolining and climbing on a mobile climbing wall, although one of the most popular was kids playing with large cardboard boxes.  Kids are like cats in many ways as you can buy them something nice, but they will have more fun playing with the packaging it came in.

Wandering through Bradford, it’s always good to look up and see the fine architecture.  If you look at the shop fronts you will find many of them are rough and ready, but looking up you will see what fine buildings they are.  It would have been interesting to see these buildings in their heyday, although you can tell many of these buildings have been cleaned up over the years - there are vast swathes of pigeon-proof netting protecting the buildings from bird poop.

The Alhambra Theatre is another building of note in Bradford.  You can’t miss it with its domes and columns – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a theatre like this.  The white and blue colour scheme just makes the place pop out against the surrounding Yorkshire stone buildings.  I wonder if the inside of the theatre is as distinctive as the outside?
Another thing you will notice walking around Bradford is that it is built on a hill.  You almost have to invest in sturdy walking boots to hike up the steep hills.  I’d been told there is a new development happening in Bradford where they were renovating the tunnels into shops and bars.  I tried to find them, but I believe at the time it hadn’t opened.  I think they are supposed to be focusing on getting new and young businesses into the area.

The shops in Bradford are not that exciting – your usual high street names.  We did manage to find a side street with some independent bars and shops, which seemed to be looking at the Northern Quarter in Manchester for inspiration.  There was one place that did beer and vinyl records, which sounds like the perfect combination.

As with most northern towns, there is a market hall.  Sadly it wasn’t the most exciting of places as many of the stalls had closed down and the others that remained open were selling the usual market stall fodder.  I do think if the market hall had more light and was redecorated it might attract more people.
We obviously checked out all the charity shops and they were probably some of the busiest places in the city centre.  Whilst most were not that exciting Neil managed to find some vinyl records.  My favourite shop was the Oxfam which had a great bookshop on the first floor.  The good thing about Bradford being a university town is that you do get a better quality charity bookshop.  I ended up buying a Mitford Sisters book as I started reading it when Neil decided to go through their large music section.

We grabbed some fish and chips at “The In Plaice” (terrible pun I know) opposite the City Hall.  The food was fine and it seemed to be really popular with the locals.  We also grabbed a 99 cone at an ice cream van that was doing brisk trade at the family fun day.  We had tried getting an ice cream at an ice cream and milk shake place, but they were giving us the hard sell (it’s ice cream for goodness sake!) and we left.  Sometimes a nice Mr Whippy is all you need, rather than a vast selection of ice cream that often looks better than it taste.

If you visit Bradford, a visit to the National Media Museum is a must, especially if you have kids.  Neil has an interest in old TV programmes and so when he saw all the BBC stuff, he took lots of pictures.  It’s quite a dark museum with all the audio-visual exhibits which could be a bit claustrophobic at times.  Obviously, as with all museums these days, they had a good café and gift shop.  However, my favourite exhibit was the computer section.  In the floor they had a glass display of the timeline of personal computers.  My only disappointment with the display was that they didn’t include a Commodore 64, which was my brother’s first computer.  Honestly it was THE personal computer of the 1980s – the gaming industry was started through that machine. It really is amazing how computers have transformed our lives over the past 30 years, and I don’t think we really appreciate how radical their impact has been.
At the beginning, I mentioned the two things you notice about Bradford are the architecture and the people.  Bradford is a deprived city and much of this deprivation is written across the faces of the people who live here.  At the family fun day there was a massive turn out and when I started looking at the people I realised there was a big turn out as the event was free.  There were families who were clearly on benefits and this was all they could afford to do with their kids.  There were many people who were of indeterminate ages as they looked old, but dressed younger than they looked - some hard lives have been lived here.  I was genuinely surprised not to find as many Asian people in the city centre as I’d expected.  It had been Eid, so possibly people were with their families at home.  However it’s possible that many keep to the suburbs, as I’ve been told there are many thriving shopping areas that cater for the community outside of the city centre.

Bradford was an experience and certainly one of the most deprived city centres I’d been to in a long time, despite the regeneration that has gone on.  There is so much to do and I can understand why people I know who work in the city are keen to see it flourish.  I do hope the new development with the tunnels gets off the ground and triggers some much needed economic growth. Having been to Leeds I do understand how people and money tends to gravitate there rather Bradford, which is a real shame as there is potential.  Fingers crossed that the good people of Bradford have the energy and motivation to make great things happen here in these trying times. 

Sunday 4 October 2015

Shrewsbury, Shropshire

I’d been to Shrewsbury numerous times in the 1990s to visit a friend, but this was the first time I’d ever been there sober and without a hangover. This time our trip to Shrewsbury was a pit stop on our way back to Manchester to grab a bite to eat and stretch our legs.

We parked in St Julian’s Friars car park on the edge of town.  It was £2.70 for 3 hours – as you would expect for a busy town.  I believe in the winter time these car parks are allowed to flood as the River Severn flows through the town.

As I learnt with Ludlow, Castle equals hill, and so it was with Shrewsbury.  Needless to say, if you struggle with walking, Shrewsbury can be problematic on that score.
If you like historical cities like York or Chester, then you will love Shrewsbury.  Although technically Shrewsbury isn’t a city, but a town, which is surprising given its long history.  Shrewsbury is packed full of gorgeous architecture and you just can’t help yourself from taking photo after photo.  You can practically tick off the history of British architecture in this town – medieval sandstone castle, Tudor black and white buildings are littered across the town like confetti, Georgian buildings to 20th centre shopping precincts.   Even the railway station looks grand like a Victorian castle.  Getting planning permission in this town must be a nightmare, but it does look really good for tight planning controls. 
We grabbed a bite to eat at a little sandwich shop in the town centre.  I opted for the spinach and mushroom roll as I was getting fed up of eating meat at every meal whilst we were on this trip.  We had to eat in a nearby alley way as it was a miserable wet Monday afternoon.  It was nice despite the surroundings.  In the end, to get warm we ended up sheltering in Patisserie Valerie for a cake and a coffee.

Shopping in Shrewsbury is quite a middle class affair with lots Cath Kitson inspired designs, Farrow and Ball paint palette adorning the shops and Annie Soan chalk paint finishes everywhere.  It has a good mix of specialist independent and classy high street shops like L’Octane, which you’d normally find in the posh parts of cities.  Lifestyle shops are everywhere in Shrewsbury, so if you are looking for something bespoke or handmade this is the place for you.  If you are a big fan of stationery shops like myself, then definitely pop into Write Here.  What did make me jealous were all the classy looking spa places.  In Manchester you normally find spa places in overpriced hotels, dodgy looking places above shops or beauty salons doing groupon offers.
Shrewsbury is a must for charity shop addicts and there were plenty in the town to rifle through.  Many of them sell decent stuff and if you are looking for furniture to upcycle this is a good place to go. My favourite shop was Oxfam Books, because when  Neil had left me for dust as he’d found a pile of records to rummage through, I found a copy of the book I was currently reading and started reading it from the place I was up to.  I know it was very cheeky, but what can you do when you’re a vinyl record widow?

It was weird wandering the streets sober as there are lots of lovely old pubs here which make for a good night out.  As I was walking through the town I was having flashbacks to drunken times in the 1990s.  I recollected the time when me and my friends spent hours in a narrow pub fleecing the general knowledge quiz machine with our collective knowledge.  When I went to Shrewsbury Castle for a Folk Festival and discovered Folk music wasn’t for me – I still haven’t forgiven my friend for making me go.  Then there was the Buttermarket night club which did club nights for over 25s – meat market is one phrase to describe it.  I even remembered the taxi rank shop where I got hiccups and couldn’t stop until I fell asleep.
I’d forgotten what a fab place Shrewsbury is to visit for a day out or better still for a weekend break.  It’s interesting how differently you perceive a place to be in your 40s compared to your 20s.  I found I was spotting things I didn’t realise were there the first time I’d visited.  Shame the weather wasn’t so great and we didn’t have much time, but Shrewsbury is an absolute gem of a place and worth a visit.

Sunday 20 September 2015

Worcester, Worcestershire

We were meant to go to Leominster (pronounced Lemster by the locals), just a 25 minute drive from Ludlow, but when we got there it was closed as it was a Sunday.  Therefore we just popped into to a Wetherspoons and had a very functional Sunday lunch.  Our plans were pretty much scuppered, so after a quick look on Google maps, I found Worcester was a 45 minute drive away (A44).

The drive to Worcester was quite eventful for all the wrong reasons.  Firstly we were running low on petrol and the petrol station in Leominster had run out of unleaded petrol.  We had no idea where we could get petrol and hoped that we had enough to take us to Worcester.  So I decided to drive at a sensible speed and turn off the air-con to Worcester to conserve petrol, which is a complete anathema to me.  Thankfully there was a petrol station Bromyard, so crisis was averted and I could drive at my usual just-legal speed.  The other event was the terrible thunderstorm we had to drive through.  The rain was so heavy the road was a grey blur and the windscreen wipers were at warp speed.  When the rain had cleared up, it was so warm you still couldn’t see the road as it was steaming.  By the time we got to Worcester I was soaked through with sweat and could have drunk a pint of gin and tonic.
We parked at the multi-storey at Crowngate shopping centre and as it was a Sunday it was just £1 for the day.  The centre of Worcester is pedestrianised so that helps to make shopping a little more pleasant.  The shops in Worcester are typically mainstream and just what you would expect in a city centre.  However when you get off the beaten track it gets more interesting with independent shops and intriguing places to eat and drink.

On a Sunday, charity shop opening hours can become a bit hit and miss as they rely on volunteers.  Thankfully in Worcester many of the charity shops were open.  St Richard’s Hospice shop on St Swithins Street was a particular gem, as not only did it have a community café but also had an excellent book section with two older ladies busily processing stock.  I love a good second hand book shop and I could have spent a good hour browsing its shelves.  I’m sure having a university nearby helps boost the diversity of the books in this place.  They also stock vinyl which was a great distraction for Neil.
If you like architecture then Worcester is a great place to visit as there is a lot to see: Tudor – check; Georgian – check; Medieval – check; and even 60s brutalist – it’s got it all. Visually it’s an interesting place and, maybe it’s just me, but I did find some of the architecture reminiscent of parts of central London.  This place would definitely make a fine film location.
We really didn’t know what to expect when we came to Worcester.  Sometimes the Midlands conjures up image of 60’s concrete shopping precincts and whilst Worcester does have a tiny bit of that, it’s packed full of centuries of architecture which is a delight.  All in all, I definitely want to come back here again, as not only is it a pleasant place to visit but also I reckon you could have a good night out here with the amount of bars and restaurants we found.  

Sunday 6 September 2015

Ludlow, Shropshire

We were meant to go to Hay-on-Wye for a couple of days but couldn’t get booked in anywhere, so I looked at the map and spotted Ludlow. There were two things I knew about Ludlow – one, it has a castle and two, it has a reputation for good food. I thought we might as well give it a go just for the food. 

Getting to Ludlow requires a bit of a trek on the A roads as there is no direct motorway route to the area.  So after having a pit stop in Whitchurch, we continued on the A49, zooming past Shrewsbury and onto Ludlow.  It seemed to take forever, but our patience was rewarded with a nice cottage in a lovely country town.

We’d booked a cottage called Bromley Court for a couple of nights.  It was a mini cottage as the building had been split into two apartments of sorts.  Our apartment had a kitchenette and lounge, with stairs to a roomy bedroom and bathroom.  It had low beams and as we’re both tall we had to be careful not to knock ourselves out.  The kitchenette didn’t have a cooker, but had everything else so you could make sandwiches and drinks, and the owner of the apartment supplied a continental breakfast which was very handy.  It had on-street parking outside and made a great base to explore Ludlow and Shropshire.  It was really good that we could have cottage style accommodation without having to book it for a full week.  Our favourite things about the place were the owner’s two cats.  Ceefer, a big black cat, was very friendly towards us and allowed us to stroke him.  Ellie, the female cat, was shyer but very cute and didn’t get on well with Ceefer. 
Ludlow is rather hilly, but I should have guessed this beforehand as it has a castle and they are normally built on hills.  We had to practically hike up the hill to get to the town centre as it was that steep.  The town itself is a rather lovely country town with lots of “oldie worldie” buildings you would expect to find in that chocolate box version of England.  Lots of black and white buildings and a hodgepodge of architectural styles which shows the evolution of the town.  Every nook and cranny of this town is packed full of places to explore.  You do have to be careful not to get hit by a car though as the pavements are narrow and often it’s easier to walk on the roads.

There are plenty of little independent shops in Ludlow and I was particularly pleased to find Abode, an interior design retailer.  It sells lots of lovely items for the home and most importantly is an Annie Sloan’s paint stockist, so I was able to stock up on paint for a DIY project.  Just off the main street Neil managed to find a record shop called Mod Lang in a side alley.  They stocked lots of second hand vinyl records and to say Neil was in his element was an understatement.  I lost him for about an hour as he worked his way through the 7” singles.

There are plenty of pubs to try out in Ludlow.  Some of them are fancy, with equally fancy prices.  Others cater for the passing tourist trade.  The Rose and Crown is a lovely little place tucked away in a little courtyard. Bizarrely one pub called Ye Olde Bull Ring Tavern holds a bingo night on Sunday nights for the locals.  I’ve never seen a pub so full and yet so quiet that you could hear a pin drop.  We had to practically whisper our order to the bar person.  Thankfully there was a beer garden out the back, so we could at least talk to each other. 
The weekend we were in Ludlow was the final weekend of the Ludlow Fringe Festival.  Part of the festival was a folk event at Ludlow Castle and there were rumours that Robert Plant, yes the same one who sang with the rock behemoth Led Zeppelin, was guesting at the festival.  However after listening to some of the music you could hear outside the castle walls, we knew this wasn’t the kind of festival for us.  Folk music certainly isn’t for me – having been forced to go to a folk gig in the 1990s by friends – I could not be persuaded to go.  It did turn out that he made a guest appearance at the festival, about 10.50pm when quite a few of the festival goers had left to relieve their babysitters.  At this point we had gone to the Church Inn for last orders.  Still there was no amount of drink you could have given me to sit through the 5 hours of folk music preceding his appearance.

Ludlow on a Saturday night is a genteel affair, with older people frequenting the pubs, and teenagers drinking and chatting with friends outside the castle walls.  A group of teenage girls joined up with a group of lads and they shamelessly told them “we weren’t going to talk to you if you didn’t have wine”.  At one point there was a bit of drama when a middle aged lady in floods of tears was escorted from the folk festival by her friends.  Apparently she was upset over her divorce.  Another older gentlemen was complaining to his companion that he felt “obsolete”.  This was better than an episode of Eastenders - well most things are these days.
We went to two food places in Ludlow – The Church Inn and Chang Thai.  The Church Inn specialises in pies, so Neil was rather excited about this prospect.  They did a wide selection of pies, but by the time we ordered, many of the pies had sold out.  In the end what we had was fine, but we were disappointed their pies were of the puff pastry lid variety.  We’ve been spoilt in the past with full pastry pies from the likes of Pieminister, so puff pastry lid pies no longer cut it for us.  On the other hand the Chang Thai was a delightful experience and we enjoyed their food thoroughly.  I find Thai food a safe option these days as you can’t go too badly wrong with it.

Obviously we checked out all the charity shops and I was pleased to find out this middle class town wasn’t ashamed of them.  The town had developed a charity shop trail complete with map.  Neil didn’t find any vinyl records to his tastes in the charity shops, but that was fine as he’d found lots in the record shop.  The good thing to note about Ludlow is that most of the charity shops are open on Sunday too.  Visiting towns on a Sunday can be a hit and miss affair with shop openings, but on the whole Ludlow is open.

We were genuinely surprised to find out how lovely Ludlow was and were pleased with our accommodation too.  There is plenty on offer in this town and the surrounding areas.  It’s worth checking out what’s on at the art centre or when the next festival is on, as they have lots of different events throughout the year.  It’s great to see the locals are really passionate about this town and work hard to keep the place interesting and vibrant. We’ll definitely come back again.

Sunday 23 August 2015

Whitchurch, Shropshire

We’re taking a detour for a few weeks and resurrecting Life in Midlands Towns – our first stop is Whitchurch in Shropshire.

I’d been meaning to go to Whitchurch over the years as many of our road trips have taken us through Cheshire, just over the border, but none of the roads ever led through Whitchurch.  As we were going to Ludlow for a couple of days, I made sure our route took us through Whitchurch so we could stop off and have lunch.

Getting to Whitchurch means getting on the M62, M6, M56, exit junction 10 onto the A49 and keep on going until the B5476 which takes you into Whitchurch.  There is another route that takes you by Chester which is 5 minutes quicker but 10 miles longer.  As I spend far too much time on the motorways these days, I opted for the pretty route instead.
We took advantage of 2 hours free parking in Iceland’s car park on the edge of town.  It’s only a short walk into Whitchurch town centre so it was fine.

My first impression was that it’s a bit like Nantwich, but with less people.  It’s a pretty little place with nice architecture including some black and white buildings (the Natwest looks really good) and lots of Farrow and Ball neutral paints going on with a touch of Cath Kidson in the décor.  It is one of those places that looks typically English, and tourists like to visit, although I don’t really think that many tourists have found Whitchurch, sadly.  Interestingly, Whitchurch has a new Civic Centre built from wood and brick, and whilst it doesn’t blend in with the rest of the town, I like it a lot as it is both refreshingly modern and sympathetic to the existing architecture.  Gold stars for town planning there!
There are quite a few independent shops and pubs in Whitchurch, but it was sad to see quite a few had closed down too.  I guess that’s partly due to the location, which is miles from the nearest motorway and large populations that you’d find in big towns and cities.  On the upside there is still an independent book shop in town, which is always a positive sign although the name “Bookshrop” is a bad pun in my world.  It was great to see in the centre of town there was a farmer’s market.  If we had been going home from our trip, rather than heading off on one, I would have bought a car boot full load of food as it looked so tasty.

We did a tour of the charity shops, naturally.  One shop we noticed was going all-out vintage, which I like to see as it makes a change from the standard charity shops.  However Neil didn’t find much, but Whitchurch didn’t strike me as a music town.  On the other hand I picked up a copy of Tony Parsons’ “The Murder Bag”.  Normally I’m don’t read Tony Parsons as I tend to read crime fiction, though I hadn’t realised he’d started to write crime fiction now too.  I have to say it was a good effort although the ending tailed off a bit.  It was a gripping read though and it only took me three days to finish.  For a first crime novel it was a great start and I look forward to reading more of his crime books. 
We did find a slightly rambling antique centre in Whitchurch and I always love browsing these places.  It was definitely more vintage than antique – honestly who will buy a cross stitch picture for £25 when you can find them for £3 in charity shops?  That said, it was nice enough and you can also pick up some chalk paint there (not the Annie Sloan’s stuff though).  I was a bit more interested in eavesdropping on a conversation where a young lad was talking about what he’ll do when he finishes his apprenticeship.  He plans to go to America, so I guess he must be doing some sort of engineering apprenticeship, as I can’t imagine an admin one will take you that far outside the borders of Shropshire.

We did find something to eat at the local chip shop called Chester’s on Green End.  It was busy and the food was nice.   I had fish and chips and Neil had a battered burger.  In all honesty, battered burger doesn’t float my boat, but Neil always has to order them when he sees them on the menu –  I’m sure this is a Cheshire / Shropshire thing.
We couldn’t stay too long as we had to get to Ludlow, but I was really pleased we’d finally made it to Whitchurch.  It’s one of those places that gets overlooked as it’s in the middle of nowhere and a chore to get to.  We’ve been to other northern Shropshire towns like Market Drayton and Oswestry over the years and it seems Whitchurch has suffered like them from the recession.  This is a nice little place to visit and the locals are really making an effort to make this place somewhere pleasant to come.  So if you are planning a trip to Shropshire, try to stop in Whitchurch for a bite to eat, but don’t blame me if you get stuck behind tractors on the way!