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Get to know A Bit About Britain - an idiosyncratic view of places to visit in Britain, British history - and stuff. Warts and all. Where shall we go today?

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Ho! Ho! Hum!

Trafford Centre, Christmas, Selfridges, Santa Claus
Spotted lurking outside Selfridge’s store in Manchester’s Trafford Centre, this pathetic looking Santa might struggle to make it through his Big Night.  Has he been recently exhumed?  Or perhaps there was an indelicate little accident involving Rudolf’s antlers.  What WAS the store thinking? - Poor old Harry S will be spinning in his grave*.  Makes me feel decidedly spry, particularly having successfully tackled all those little ‘jobs’ it is decided must be done before 25th December.  Why do we do this to ourselves?  Every year?  Anyway, we’ve redecorated, rebuilt etc; I hardly recognise the place.

Which means that at last I have the opportunity to wish my reader, and anyone else that chances upon this little project and dips back every now and again, a very Happy Christmas and everything that is good for the New Year.  Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear.

*Awful after-thought: I assumed this Santa Claus was a model… 

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Christmas shopping in Glasgow

Glasgow city, shopping, style mile, Buchanan Street
I enjoy Christmas shopping, I honestly do – and I’m referring to the real, rather than the virtual, variety here.  There – I’ve said it; out of the closet at last and it feels great.  Clearly, this sets me apart from the stereotypical male; thank God.  Sometime, we’ll share a few beers, a hot curry and talk about internal combustion engines, the back pages and Which Girls We Really Liked In College; but not now – and I might skip the curry, to be frank.  Christmas shopping, then …Yes, the crowds are frustrating; no, I don’t know why everyone gets in the way.  And, because I never have a clear idea of what to get the missus, the kids, Aunt Maude etc - or enough money to buy them what I’d really like to - I end up tramping a ridiculously long way, visiting and revisiting the same shops, crossing things off lists, adding them back again, doing sums in my head and ending up with the thing I first thought of two hours earlier.  But I enjoy the sparkle, the sounds, the smells - and am not so old or curmudgeonly to deny a sense of child-like anticipation and warmth about the whole festive season thing.

Princes Square, Glasgow, shopping, Style Mile
Glasgow makes it a bit easier.  Unlike a lot of places, where you’re torn between the exhilarating thrill of trying to elbow yourself or your car into the city centre, or trek to the mind-numbingly boring uniformity of an Out of Town Shopping Mall, in Glasgow you can experience both.  Please take that anyway you want.  And, whilst you may visit particular places for particular shops – there’s only one Harrods in London, after all – Glasgow boasts all of the high street chains you can think of and more besides, all within walking distance. It’s known as ‘the style mile’.

So, here’s how it works.  Take a blank piece of paper and put an ‘X’ at the top; that’s a large shopping mall at the top of Buchanan Street called, appropriately enough, Buchannan Galleries.  In there, you’ll find a John Lewis and loads of other things – including a rather tempting place that sells lots of tasty malt whisky.  Draw a line to the left of your ‘X’ – no one can spell it, but that’s Sauchiehall Street running west-east into the Buchannan Galleries.  Sauchiehall Street is pretty much a pedestrianised shopping lane, with an M&S, BHS etc.  Draw another line down the paper from your ‘X’ – that’s Buchannan Street running roughly north-south.  More pedestrianised shopping, which includes a House of Fraser at the bottom, south end.  On the way, there are specialist shops and two smaller malls, Princes Square and Argyll Arcade on the right of your paper (east).  You probably won’t buy anything in either of them – they’re far too expensive for people like you; but they look great.  At the end of your line, write ‘Y’.  Now draw a further line to the right of that – this is Argyll Street, running east-west – more shops (including another Marks & Spencer – you feel spoiled, now, don’t you?).  The ‘Y’ is another shopping mall, the St Enoch Centre.  In the square outside that they often hold one of those Christmas markets, with stalls made to look like cut-away Nordic pine log cabins.  This is much more interesting than a department store, but a little too intimate for my liking.  It is, however, the ideal place to acquire any number of ethnic-looking curios, often made of feathers, wool, wood or leather, that you do not know the purpose of and didn’t know anyone wanted.  It is suggested you avoid buying the wife’s present here.  You can also sample delectable consumables such as Gluhwein, hog roast, crepes and all manner of salamis and cheeses.  Most stalls are staffed with people from exotic far away lands, like Germany, France, Mexico and Preston.  In Glasgow, everyone speaks English with a funny accent anyway; but do remember that is relative.

Glasgow Christmas, lights, retail
And all of this is just a haggis throw from Central Station – which is a splendid place, immortalised by Billy Connolly in the song “Last Train to Glasgow Central” (the tune being borrowed from the vastly inferior “Last Train to San Fernando” - listen to Billy Connolly singing "Last Train to Glasgow Central").

It goes without saying that you’ll experience much the same piped Christmas music in Glasgow’s shops as you will anywhere else in the UK from October onward.  But, instead of a Salvation Army brass band performing outside, you might just get some exciting pipes and drums. 

This is all very well, I hear you say, but what if you live in Skegness or Chicago?  Well, it should be absolutely clear that you can have a perfectly excellent retail experience elsewhere, and it would obviously be foolish to travel hundreds of miles just to do some Christmas shopping (incidentally, I am reliably informed that Glasgow’s shops are also open at other times of the year).  Our excuse was that we were visiting family and decided to make a weekend of it.  Which also allowed me to indulge in a full Scottish Breakfast.  I didn’t finish my Christmas shopping though; so next week I visited Manchester.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013


Feathers Ledbury, Battle of Ledbury, visit Ledbury, Herefordshire
We stumbled upon Ledbury because Hereford, the original destination, appeared to be closed. After travelling most of the day, we needed somewhere decent to stay, a good meal – and, between you and me, I was gasping for a decent pint. 

Ledbury suggests a certain promise as soon as you pull into it.  All those timber-framed buildings, quaint-looking little shops and beckoning pubs… There are an astonishing 173 listed buildings in Ledbury.  It’s not a huge town – population is around 10,000.  The name means something like ‘fortified place on the River Leadon’.  It was Liedeberge in the Domesday Book of 1086, though the place is more ancient than that – the ‘bury’ is old English/Saxon (Ledbury would have been in the old Kingdom of Mercia) and ‘leadon’ is from a Celtic word meaning ‘broad river’.  It’s a market town, which received its first charter from King Stephen in 1138.  Markets are still held on Tuesdays and Saturdays and you can buy all manner of yummy food and local produce in the town – fresh baked bread, cheeses, fruits, cider and hops.  The Market House on the High Street was built in 1617.

It’s hard to imagine anything much happening in Ledbury, unless you live there.  Yet in 1320, the army of Roger Mortimer, the 1st Earl of March, attacked and pillaged it.  Undoubtedly, they were after some of that scrumptious grub.  On 22nd April 1645, the Battle of Ledbury took place in the town, when Royalist troops under Prince Rupert surprised and bested the Parliamentarians commanded by Colonel Massey.  Fighting was fierce – bullet holes can apparently still be seen in the panelling of the Talbot Hotel – but reasonably brief, and it was certainly not the decisive engagement of the English Civil War; that came in June, at Naseby, where the King’s military capabilities were pretty much destroyed.

Ledbury Church, Ledbury museum, timber-framed houses, Herefordshire
In Ledbury, in 1735, riots against the turnpike road left several dead.  One Thomas Reynolds, aged 28, was arrested - many say unfairly - and taken to London to be executed.

Behind the old Market House is Church Lane, which leads to the relatively vast church of St Michael and All Souls’.  This dates from the 12th century, though it is believed that Christians were worshipping on the site 400 years’ before that.  Also on Church Lane is the local museum, Butcher Row House, which I found an awful lot more engaging than some of these places can be.  There’s a fascinating strip collage of the High Street, showing what various premises have been used for over the centuries; neat idea.

The town has literary connections and holds an annual poetry festival in July.  Some say that William Langland, who wrote Piers Plowman in the 14th century, was born in Ledbury.  John Masefield, Poet Laureate from 1930 until his death in 1967, certainly was - a local school has been named after him.  “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely seas and the sky…”  I rather like the lines he left behind, addressed to his heirs:

Let no religious rite be done or read
In any place for me when I am dead,
But burn my body into ash, and scatter
The ash in secret into running water,
Or on the windy down, and let none see;
And then thank God that there’s an end of me.

Ledbury was also home to the Victorian romantic poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning who, apart from other things, wrote “Sonnet 43”, much loved of greeting card manufacturers (skip the next bit if you like):

How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, - I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! – and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

John Masefield, Elizabeth Browning, Ledbury poets, Market House
Seems a bit over the top to me.  But there is a rather splendid clock tower on the High Street, part of the library, built in 1895 as the Barrett-Browning Institute.

Now, it’s not the intention to complicate matters by featuring accommodation here, but when you visit Ledbury you might want to drop into the Feathers Hotel, which dates from the 16th century.  We thought the place looked amazing and popped in on the off-chance that they had a room.  They did, and offered us a good rate (which was just as well, because we couldn’t afford the full price).  The room was amazing – luxury with exposed timbers, sloping floor etc.  I got my much-desired pint (or two) of good English ale, the meal was excellent and the service at dinner was superb. So, if you want to take a peek, here is TheFeathers’ Hotel website.

Ledbury lies at the foot of the Malvern Hills in the middle of some wonderful countryside.  It’s a short distance from other notable towns, like Great Malvern, Ross-on-Wye and Tewkesbury, and there are heaps of places to visit in the area.  Up until 2011, the Big Chill Festival had been held for several years in the grounds of nearby Eastnor Castle.  Here is the visit Ledbury website.