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 d├ęcor.  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!

Sunday 16 August 2015

Batley, West Yorkshire

Batley is just a short drive from Dewsbury.  To be honest, the drive into Batley is rather industrial and down at heel, so my hopes about the place had slid down several notches.  It has a Blackpool feel with large, almost industrial sized night clubs on the edge of town, but without the sea, the illuminations and the crowds.

We parked up behind the main town centre in a small free car park.  You can also get parked in the Tesco car park which is just behind the main street, running through Batley town centre.

Compared to Dewsbury, Batley was pretty much devoid of people and there might as well have been tumbleweed rolling through the town, it was that quiet.  It is clear that some regeneration money has been spent on the main thoroughfare through Batley as it looks neat and tidy, although there are still some empty shops along here.  There is a tiny little precinct near Tesco, but there were no shops open there and it had a funny smell as it has lain dormant for some time.  We did spot a couple of places that had taken some inspiration from thriving towns like Holmfirth and Saltaire. They were making the effort to look classy with Farrow and Ball style neutral paint schemes and vintage decor.
There were a few charity shops and we bobbed in and out of them to pass the time.  However there wasn’t much to find for either myself (books) or Neil (records), though I quite liked the charity shop which specialised in furniture – definitely a place to find stuff to re-upholster.  I did get the impression they were waiting for us to leave so they could close for the day – you can’t blame them as it must have been a really slow day for them.

In all fairness, Batley town centre has some nice architecture going on with several impressive buildings made from sturdy Yorkshire stone buildings.  The Town Hall and the nearby Methodist Chapel look pretty fine, and up the hill there is a well-manicured municipal garden.  However, the place I did really take a shine to was Batley Library, which was originally funded by the philanthropist Carnegie.  As we had nothing better to do, we took a stroll through the library and art gallery.  This was where all the people in Batley were hanging out.  I think the lure of free Internet access on a gloomy Saturday afternoon was the main explanation.  We had a potter through the upstairs art gallery – it was hosting an exhibition by local artists.  We did think we might find a picture of the singer/musician Robert Palmer, as he was originally from Batley, but there was nothing to be found.
One thing is for sure, you will be never short of a drink in Batley.  The place is full of pubs and night clubs – many of them scary-looking.  In the weird and wonderful world of 1960s and 1970s UK variety, Batley holds a bizarre place as being one of the top places for world famous acts to perform.  You can hardly believe that Batley Variety Club saw the likes of Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones and Tina Turner perform on stage.  Nowadays the club is called The Frontier, but it still looks like a throwback to the 1970s.  In all honesty I’d be half interested to go in and see what it looks like now as I hear it hasn’t changed much over the years.
To cheer ourselves up, as it was getting a little depressing, we thought we’d get some ice cream.  However we couldn’t find anything in the local shops and in the end we bought some from the local garage at the edge of town.

We thought our trip to Batley was over, but on the drive out of town we spotted a mill called Redbrick and thought we might as well pop in.  It was such a pleasant surprise.  It’s a discount outlet for a number of classy shops like Heal’s, BoConcept and Kelly Hoppen to name but a few.  My brother would love this place as he’s fond of interior design.  Even though it is a discount outlet it’s still pricey, but a great place to get some interior design inspiration.  The little cafes looked good too with homemade cakes and I bet they do the best business in the place.  Apparently there is another discount outlet up the road called The Mill Outlet, which is a bigger draw for Batley.  We somehow managed to miss it completely, but I think it was due to the road system.  Looking online the Mill Outlet does appear to be more like Boundary Mill in Colne, which is more aimed at older people.  Whereas Redbrick Mill seems to be aiming more at the Saltaire Salt Mill market.

Batley, well what can I say?  You’re now ticked off my Yorkshire list for starters. There is some good architecture going on, but maybe we should have gone there earlier as we may have seen more people about.  This place isn’t really day trip material, unless it’s for a retail trip to the local mill outlets or going on a retro style stag do.  I really can’t say I’ll be back in a hurry, but sometimes you’ve just got to go to places and find out what they are about as you never know what you will find.

Sunday 2 August 2015

Dewsbury, West Yorkshire

After Wakefield, I got a taste for going back to Yorkshire. The only problem was that we’ve been to lots of places in Yorkshire over the years and have visited most of the classy places.  It was time to bite the bullet and visit some of the more down-to-earth places.

Dewsbury has been hitting the headlines over the years for all the wrong reasons.  Part of me was curious to see what kind of place it was and part of me chose it as it’s less than an hour’s drive from Manchester.

Getting to Dewsbury is straightforward – M60 (be patient with the 50 mph speed limit at the moment), M62, exit Junction 25, take a right onto the A644 and try to take the correct turns at the three roundabouts you have to do to get to Dewsbury.  We managed to get parked in a tiny car park opposite the bus station – it cost £1 for 3 hours.
My first impression was that it’s quite hilly and there are a lot of taxis in Dewsbury.  As we headed towards the shops it became evident that Dewsbury had seen better days.  There were lots of empty shops and the ones which were open were cheap shops.

We checked out the charity shops and there were plenty of them.  They seemed to be some of the busiest places in town.  Neil found plenty of vinyl records, but they were of such poor condition there was nothing worth picking up.  On the other hand I did manage to buy a book.  On the whole, the charity shops weren’t that exciting, but over the years I’ve found that charity shops in poor places don’t have quality stuff.

We headed to Dewsbury Market, which has been a big draw for the town over the years.  It’s not that exciting and sells mainly standard market stuff, but it does looks nice with its wrought iron arches and lamps which give the place a bit of character.
We went on the hunt for a bite to eat and eventually found the Sea Urchin chippy.  We had fish and chips – they were fine and it seemed like a popular place with the locals.  There weren’t that many food choices available during the day in Dewsbury, although in the evening it’s probably a different story.

The main thing I noticed in Dewsbury was the architecture – you really need to look up above the cheap shop signs to see how classy this place used to be.  The place is built with solid Yorkshire stone, which gives the place a sense of permanence and character.  There were little arcades near the market which had seen better days, but thankfully there was some scaffolding up and regeneration work was going on, part-funded by the National Lottery.  The Town Hall is a particularly lovely looking civic building, built in the Victorian era, again from Yorkshire stone. 
As we wandered around the side streets we passed the tattoo parlours and random shops like “Guns & Roses” – yes it sells flowers and shooting supplies.  There were some pubs too, which seemed to be traditional styled pubs – all very down-to-earth. 

If Dewsbury was a more affluent area this place would be buzzing – the buildings wouldn’t be going to rack and ruin, they would be turned into cafes, bars and restaurants.  Little independent shops would be cropping up all over the place.  Dewsbury has so much potential to be more than what it is.  This place is certainly crying out for investment, not just in its buildings but also its local economy and its people.

Maybe it didn’t help that it was one of those grey miserable days, but Dewsbury did strike me as quite a depressing place.  You can see how people can get ground down by places where they live when they are unloved and deprived.  I know the media hasn’t painted Dewsbury in the best light, but when you see how few opportunities are available in the town you can understand why people can become disengaged and marginalised.  With all the Council cutbacks you do worry how Dewsbury will fare over the next few years.  I’m not sure I’ll be back in a hurry, but it’s always good to see a place for yourself and not rely on media opinion.