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.