Sunday 25 January 2015

Widnes, Cheshire

I had enticed Neil into Ikea in Warrington with the promise of meatballs and cake. However, the novelty wore off quickly, especially when there was almost a punch up between three Scouse kids in the canteen.  Obviously we had to go to a nearby northern town to regain the semblance of sanity we had lost in Ikea.  So where do you go?

The list of northern towns we have not been to has over the years become well and truly limited.  One place we hadn’t been to was Widnes, which is a short drive from Warrington.  I’d been under the misapprehension that Widnes was in Merseyside, however it is not so.  It’s in fact part of Halton in Cheshire.  Anyway I had no expectations of Widnes apart from the fact it had lots of charity shops.  In many respects that’s the best attitude to take when visiting Widnes as it couldn’t disappoint me.

The best way to get to Widnes is to take the M62 and get off at Junction 7 and take the A577 into town.  Word of warning when you are leaving Widnes: do not go back to the M62 via Warrington, otherwise you will get stuck in traffic with all the lights, past the endless retail parks that encircle Warrington.

When we got to Widnes I had to double check we were in the right location as it looked like we were driving into a retail park.  Apparently we were at the town centre and parked in Morrison’s car park – it was free so all was good.

Next to Morrison’s is both the indoor and outdoor market.  We ventured into the indoor market first as it was one of those cold and blustery days that chill you to the bone.  It wasn’t a very exciting place and the outdoor market stalls were half empty with hardly anyone browsing.  Part of me thought the cold weather had a lot to do with this.  These markets are very traditional, focusing on food, clothes and cheap tat.  I was disturbed to see one stall that had lots of dolls’ heads on the counter; then again I find dolls rather disturbing in general.

The town centre itself is pedestrianised and links up all the small shopping precincts in the area.  I did notice there were hardly any major high street chains in the town centre apart from cheap pound stores and grocery shops.  It reminded me of Leigh where major high street chains are a rarity. 

All the coffee shops and cafes are independent.  The Albert Grill was doing a Viking breakfast and I’m curious to find out what is different in a Viking breakfast to a full English breakfast.  We were pleased to see it had a Les’s Fish Bar – it’s a small fish and chip chain across Cheshire.  If we had known about this we would have skipped lunch at Ikea and had it here.  Neil is very fond of their battered burger (yuk!). I have to say these cafes seemed to be popular with the locals and it’s good to see this as I do get bored of seeing Costa Coffee in every town.

There were plenty of charity shops in Widnes and obviously we toured the lot.  Unfortunately they were very disappointing on the vinyl records and books front.  It did seem to me that most stuff was deceased old ladies’ belongings and not a huge amount of stock either.  It was heart breaking to hear a woman dragging her child out of one charity shop, as the child was screaming at her to buy a toy.  The woman was trying to convince her child that all the toys were broken.  In reality she couldn’t afford to buy her child one.  It’s a sad state of affairs when someone can’t afford to buy their child a toy from a charity shop.

Widnes does have more than a whiff of desperation in the air and many of the old people looked wizened from hard lives.  We spotted Fiddler’s Ferry Power station on the edge of the town and I guess Widnes must have had an industrial past.

On a more positive note, we did see a community art shop in the precinct and there were signs promoting local artists in the local shopping arcade.  It was unfortunate that the community art shop was closed, though it did have some interesting pictures in there.  I remember they had an amazing framed picture of the Liver building and some pretty pieces of abstract art.

It made us laugh to see Neil’s full name emblazoned above a jewellery shop in the town.  Obviously we made tits of ourselves taking random photos of the shop sign to the bemusement of the locals.  In fact we did take lots of pictures of shop signs as some were silly – Mushy Ste’s was the name of a fish and chip shop.  Also why call a Chinese buffet restaurant “Panda Panda”? Surely one panda in the title is enough?

We had intended to go to the waterfront (Widnes is on the banks of the River Mersey) as I fancied taking pictures of the Silver Jubilee Bridge which spans the river.  However, the weather was very windy, so much so we nearly tripped up over a child whilst trying to avoid packing paper that was being blown down the street.  We simply had to pass on that as it was too cold.

Widnes really isn’t an exciting place to visit.  It’s just an everyday northern town thrown up in the Victorian era to service people working in industry.  Architecturally it’s dull apart from the Silver Jubilee Bridge and Fiddler’s Ferry Power station.  I did notice the Council were trying to entice people to the town with the sign “Try Widnes” – I tried it and you can have it back.  Like anywhere in the world you can find interesting places and you can find dull places.  Widnes falls into the dull category. Then again, on the upside, going to places like this makes you appreciate where you live.  Widnes, I can’t say it has been a pleasure, but you have been ticked off the list so let’s leave it at that. 

Sunday 11 January 2015

Cheadle and Gatley, Greater Manchester

It was that hiatus between Christmas and New Year when things are not quite back to normal.  Boredom had kicked in and the only option, other than eating oneself into a diabetic coma, was to get out of the house.

We didn’t want to go far, so we decided to go to Cheadle in south Manchester.  Cheadle is easy to get to as you can hop on the M60 and exit at Junction 2 onto the A560.

We’d been to Cheadle before and it’s a nice well-to-do neighbourhood in Stockport.  It’s quite an old suburb with buildings dating back to the 1800s.  There has been a church in Cheadle since the 1200s and the current church is a Grade I listed, stout and sturdy stone building, rebuilt in the Victorian era. 

You know a neighbourhood is good when there is a John Lewis department store at the nearby retail park (it’s larger and classier than the Trafford Centre store).  Parking is easy here and there is a pay and display car park behind the main shops.  I would like to tell you how much it cost, but a nice lady gave me her parking ticket which still had a couple of hours on it.

It was a Monday and Cheadle was quiet apart for the traffic streaming through the High Street.  As we passed through a tiny shopping arcade (more a cut through to the main road) we spotted a classic sandwich shop pun name, “Baguette-Me-Not”.  Sadly it had closed down, but top marks for the name. 

The shops in Cheadle seemed to be traditional, well established independent shops.  There are plenty of places to eat, get your hair done and pick up those bits and bobs between the weekly supermarket shop.  The pubs looked rather cosy and traditional – no doubt you could have a gastro-pub style lunch here.

The biggest draw for us were the charity shops – there are plenty in Cheadle.  I managed to pick up a nice rug for my little home study for £14.99.  Much nicer than you could find new for that price in IKEA.  Neil was struggling to find vinyl records though.  We noticed that some of the charity shops were closed.  Initially we thought it was because they couldn’t find enough volunteers to keep them open at this time of year.  However it turned out it was because there was a power cut in Cheadle that affected half the shops.  It was such a shame as there were still a few more to browse through. 

We’d been here before and behind the George and Dragon pub there used to be a shed selling antiques and collectables.  Sadly everything appeared to be locked up and it has probably closed down.

As the power cut had curtailed our visit to Cheadle we moved on to nearby Gatley.
We’d only ever passed through Gatley before to get to the M56, so it was a novelty to stop here.  Thankfully there is free on street parking and we parked up near the Sue Ryder shop. 

We didn’t spot anything exciting in the Sue Ryder shop, but we noticed across the road there was a house clearance shop called “Remember When”.  It was one of those stacked to the rafters’ shops and Neil found some records to browse through.  I went down into the cellar to look at the furniture and had a paranoid moment.  I was worried that I could get trapped down there.  As I’m not good with confined spaces I made a swift exit upstairs.  It was rather cold in the shop with a musty old- stuff smell, so I didn’t spend much time in there. 

Afterwards we had a wander through the village and it’s one of those nice leafy places that people escape to from the madness of the city.  Mather’s Bakery showed most signs of life as it had a little café inside.  The Prince of Wales pub looked rather traditional and had a nice view of the green.  I had to do a double take at the Tesco Express as it was cunningly disguised in a 19th century building, painted in heritage colours.  No doubt that was part of the planning permission, but I wish they would take more care when they infiltrate the other high streets.  I always remember Royal Leamington Spa had a heritage style policy on shop frontages and the town looked so much better for it.

We also noticed the dog walkers were checking in with each other, which shows a nice sense of community here.  Although sometimes it makes me laugh when I see dog owners take on characteristics of their pets - the poodle owner shared the same upright posture and gait of his dog.

Gatley is a world away from nearby Wythenshawe, which is a massive council estate in South Manchester.  When I used to work in Wythenshawe, the aspiration of people living there was to move to Gatley as it was seen as moving up in the world.  Whilst in reality Gatley is a rather sleepy village compared to nearby Cheadle, I can quite understand the appeal of the place, although being on the flight path to nearby Manchester Airport means triple glazing is a must to live here.

Whilst it wasn’t the most exciting trip out, especially with the power cut, it was good to see somewhere different.  Both Cheadle and Gatley are nice little suburbs, handy for the airport and the motorway.  Not exactly day trip material, but if you want have a pub lunch or check out some charity shops, Cheadle and Gatley are both worth a visit.

Sunday 4 January 2015

Ashton-in-Makerfield, Greater Manchester

To be honest, Ashton-in-Makerfield isn’t top of my list for a day out in the North West.  However, it’s good sometimes to go somewhere you’ve never been before.  Ashton-in Makerfield is one of those places located between Wigan and St Helen’s just off the East Lancs Road (A580) near the M6 junction 23.

Getting there is supposed to be easy, but I managed to miss the turn off as it was badly signed and had to turn around at Haydock industrial estate to get back to the junction.  I never knew the road to Ashton-in-Makerfield (A49) went past HaydockRacecourse.
Parking in Ashton-in-Makerfield is fairly straightforward as there is the Gerard Centre at the back of the main shops.  You have to practically drive out of the town centre to get to it, but the bonus is that it’s free.

I hadn’t any idea what Ashton-in-Makerfield would be like and on first impression it appears to be a solid working class town.  Midway between Manchester and Liverpool, it is no doubt a commuter town with affordable housing.  Not exactly exciting, but I’m sure it benefits from the nearby proximity to Haydock Racecourse.

At the rear of the main road shops is an open air market.  The stalls aren’t the most aesthetically pleasing as they are old shipping containers which have been adapted for market life.  I guess they are good for the market stall holders as they are secure and provide shelter, but they do look grim.  Maybe if they had some graffiti art on them it would make them look more appealing.  However, I did like the fact there was also a mini car boot sale going on as you never know what you will find. 

Nearby there appeared to be an indoor market called the Greensway Centre, but it wasn’t like your traditional indoor market as it’s more like a shopping arcade.  It’s comprised of a warren of little shops with French style windows, selling all kinds of stuff – sweets to mobile phone repairs.  Eventually you find your way to the unassuming entrance on the main street.  You really would not expect to find this unless you knew about it, or like us, accidentally stumble upon it.

Gerard Street appears to be the main shopping street in Ashton-in-Makerfield and was teaming with traffic passing through.  The street has lots of traditional style shops and cheap discount stores.  It’s one of those functional towns where you can do you day-to-day business and pick up bits and bobs between the weekly trips to the supermarket.  In these towns I always look out for the tattoo parlour to see what terrible pun they use as a name and thankfully Ashton’s didn’t disappoint – “Inkjections”. 

One of the most interesting looking places was “Blend ‘n’Shake”, an American style milkshake bar and café.  If we hadn’t eaten at the nearby KFC (btw very efficient service), we would have ended up in here as it looked interesting. 

I was amused to find there was a dog parlour called “Shampoodles”, which was next to “Fairy Tails Doggy Daycare”.  I wouldn’t have expected much demand for this kind of service in Ashton, but they must love their dogs here.

It wasn’t a particularly busy Saturday, but I did notice a lot of drunk men wobbling down the street.  It turned out these drunk men were waiting for their coach to pick them up and return them back to Birmingham.  Some had gone to the local off-licence to buy more beer for the journey back.  There are lots of traditional looking Victorian pubs in the town, so they must benefit from visitors to Haydock who decide to make a night of it.  After looking at this group of blokes, I reckon it could be a hairy night out here.

There are quite a few charity shops in Ashton-in-Makerfield and it would have been rude not to explore them.  Neil picked up a couple of albums in the shops and I liked the YMCA shop that did a good line in furniture.  It’s in places like these off the beaten track you can find interesting stuff – I was tempted by a cross stitch cat, but managed to resist.  Neil caused a stir in one shop as he was taking a picture of the front of the shop.  They didn’t realise it was because Neil is a grammar pedant and found some dodgy punctuation usage on one of their posters.

Admittedly it wasn’t an exciting trip and we weren’t here long, but Ashton-in-Makerfield was livelier than Newton-Le-Willows, a nearby well-to-do area but extremely quiet, and Golborne which had shut up shop for the afternoon. It’s the sort of place, if I was passing through again, I would stop to check out the charity shops.  However it’s not a place I would go to as a destination unless I was going to nearby Haydock for the races.