Sunday 10 April 2016

Uttoxeter, Staffordshire

Despite the miserable weather we ploughed on, over the county border from Derbyshire to Staffordshire.  Uttoxeter is 14 miles from Ashbourne and it takes about 25 minutes, driving via the A515, A50 and A518.

Before this visit I had very little knowledge of Uttoxeter apart from the many signs I’ve passed over the year on the A50, the film director Shane Meadows is from here and the Starbucks drive through at the Uttoxeter service station. 

We parked up behind the little precinct and wondered why there was a queue at the ticket machine.  Apparently people were waiting until 3pm to get a free ticket for parking, which is always good to know as these things aren’t always widely signposted.

As we walked through the little precinct, the song “Ghost Town” by The Specials went through my head.  It was a rather bleak concrete place from the 60s with lots of empty units. There was a handful of shops still open but mainly charity shops. 

When we made it out onto the main shopping street, things improved.  Firstly the street is pedestrianised which always helps.  Also the architecture is definitely market town, with many buildings dating back at least a couple of centuries. The butcher’s shop on Market Street had a little brown plaque stating it was from Elizabethan times – you could tell with its Tudor wooden beamed structure.  At least the town planners have kept the newer developments behind the main shopping streets to retain the character of the place.  

Luckily for us, there were a quite a few charity shops to explore in Uttoxeter.  I’m always a fan of good second hand charity book shops and the Katherine House Hospice had a particularly good one – plenty of books, well organised and reasonably priced.  I bought Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” here, which is a gripping read by the way.  In the other charity shops, Neil was also having some luck with vinyl records and CDs and picked up some stuff – even some sheet music which happened to be in good condition.

On the mobile phone front, Neil was getting tetchy as the signal for O2 was pretty patchy, whilst on Vodafone there was a better reception.  Thank goodness for tethering is all I can say.

There were a few independent shops in the town too, but it must have been a slow day for them as the place was virtually empty as the wet weather kept most people indoors.  The only place which was experiencing shopping action that day was the local ASDA.

The main thing I really took from this place was the Staffordshire version of the Midlands accent.  It’s not as strong as you’d find in Birmingham or Wolverhampton, but it still has that burr which is captured beautifully by Shane Meadows in his films and TV programmes.  It’s fascinating how accents change with geography and the first time I’d spotted this accent was on a previous trip to Leek about 20 miles north west.  I do think it’s one of the most interesting things about the UK how accents can be so radically different over relatively short distances, for example there are only 30 miles between Liverpool and Manchester but the accents are poles apart.

I’m sure Uttoxeter on a race day feels like a different place, but on the day we went we found it to be a dull but functional place.  I’m sure it’s a nice place to live – the countryside on the door step, but within easy reach of Stoke, Derby and Stafford.  I wouldn’t be that excited to visit here again, but as ever with certain places the weather can really temper your experience of a place.

Sunday 3 April 2016

Ashbourne, Derbyshire

I discovered Ashbourne in Derbyshire through taking detours back to Manchester when the A40 or M6 had been jammed with traffic.  As I passed through, I noticed the town seemed rather nice and I made a mental note to return here to visit.

Getting to Ashbourne from Manchester takes about an hour and a half to drive.  There are several ways to get there and the route I took was the M60, M62, M6, A50, B5030, B5032 and A52.  I think there are better ways to get there, that’s for sure, and Neil was getting queasy on the B road part of the journey.  We parked up in Sainbury’s car park and you have to pay to park for a maximum of 2 hours, but you can get the parking fee refunded in the supermarket.

It was a grey and drizzly kind of day - not the best to go visiting towns, to be honest with you.  After parking up, the first order of our day was to get food.  As we didn’t want a pub lunch, we found Billy’s fish and chip shop in the centre of town and thankfully they had some indoor tables so we didn’t have to eat them out in the rain.  The fish and chips were nice which is always a bonus.

Ashbourne is a classy kind of town. Not only does it have a Sainbury’s and an M&S supermarket in a nearby retail park, but it rocks the holy grail of middle class supermarkets – a Waitrose.  It also has an Edinburgh Woollen Mill, which to me is always an indicator of a tourist destination.  It’s definitely upmarket with lots of lovely little independent shops too.  Ashbourne also prides itself on being a fair trade town which is always good thing.  If you like antiques and art you will find plenty of shops to your taste.  In one antique shop window there was a pair of glorious, white life sized greyhounds – they were so lifelike and no doubt cost a small fortune. 

There is both an indoor and outdoor market in Ashbourne.  The outdoor market wasn’t that big or exciting, but I did like the upholstery stall where they were selling footstools, which could be customised to your own taste.  The small indoor market was hosting a craft day and it was very busy as the rain was driving people inside.

Architecturally, there is a country market town vibe going on and the sort of place you could spend a weekend soaking in the relaxing calm.  The gallows sign “Green Man and Black’s Head Royal Hotel” spanning St John’s Street is a distinctive landmark in the town and I couldn’t help but think that some lorries wouldn’t be able to pass down this street because of it.

In the cities and suburbs, pubs are closing at a rapid rate, but here I was surprised to see so many -   apparently 1 in 4 of the buildings in this town had been a pub.  Many looked like they had been here hundreds of years and it’s a shame I was driving as it would have been nice to sample a pint or two here. 

We were here obviously for the charity shops.  One was particularly overpriced, but the others were fine.  In Oxfam I overheard a conversation where the volunteer was telling customers that the rain was keeping people away from Ashbourne, but come on a sunny day and the place would be teeming with folk.  Neil managed to pick up some CDs and vinyl and that always bodes well for a repeat visit.

Bizarrely there were two religious speakers near the market proclaiming their stories of redemption to all who would listen.  This was really rather strange and unexpected.  You sort of expect this on a busy city centre street in Manchester, but not in a sleepy market town in Derbyshire.

I can’t quite understand why I’d never really heard about this place before my detours as I know Derbyshire fairly well.  Maybe it doesn’t have obvious lures like Bakewell (the Tart) and Buxton and Matlock (the Spas), but I’m so glad to finally stop off in here and explore the place with Neil.  It’s an unassuming, but charming place to visit and it definitely makes its way on the ‘revisit and stay overnight’ list.