City Slickin’ – The Wandering Weasel
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Category: City Slickin’

Manchester: Conservatories and Corporate Events

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There’s nothing quite like a business trip to break up the mundanity of the working week.

I know some people dread corporate trips.

Forced conversation, icebreakers, networking. These are words synonymous with the frightening concept of ‘organised fun’, throwing ordinary working Joes outside of their comfort zone and into a novelty situation where the social rules of how to act are thrown up in the air. Peeling name badges with bleeding permanent marker and tiny cups of sterile tasting water, fresh from the cooler. An appalling buffet lunch and that one guy who’s intent on giving his business card out to every single person. As a side note, if you’re still using business cards in the 21st century you need to have a long hard look at a calendar and then at yourself. Seriously.

Conference weirdos aside, I’ve always taken a rather optimistic approach to these corporate days out. After all, this is an opportunity to visit another part of the country, eat for free, stay in a hotel and maybe even make some new friends – and best of all, you still get paid for the privilege.

With that in mind, I was pleasantly surprised to see a Health & Safety seminar on my schedule and I was even happier to discover that I’d have to take a mid-week trip out to Manchester for it.

If you’ve read my blog then you’ll know that I have a soft spot for the North of England. It’s an affordable, friendly and down to earth part of country that I always enjoy spending time in, so I was more than happy to hop on a train this week to spend an action packed day and night in this iconic city.

After indulging in an early afternoon beer on the train from London, I felt in a congenial mood. The first 3 hours of the day were scheduled for the aforementioned Health & Safety, after that I’d thought about walking around a few galleries or even taking in a museum, but things didn’t go quite as I’d planned.

Corporate training seminars are usually painfully boring. The instructors are usually falling asleep as they talk through their spiel for the thousandth time in their lives and the recipients of the thrilling oration are never that far behind them. This, however, was an altogether different experience than the one I was expecting. Not only did I leave the seminar having actually learned something (step ladders are dangerous, always seek assistance) but I also ended up making some friends to spend the rest of my time in Manchester with.

Like many of the other Northern cities, Manchester has seen an explosion in new bars and restaurants opening, leaving visitors with a huge choice to suit all tastes.

With my new friends in tow we started out at the bar of The Pendulum Hotel. Just below where we’d all met, we sipped on cool pints and discussed the pros and cons of living in the South. The bar in this otherwise unspectacular hotel, is something of an oddity. Full-length windows line the walls looking out onto a courtyard, a strange architectural choice that made me feel like I was staring down into some kind of military parade ground. All I’ll say is conservatories and windows in Manchester have never looked so stylish.

Although I’d like to say that those drinks led to a raucous night out on the town, this didn’t quite happen. Instead we all slowly slipped into a state of jovial drunkenness which naturally led to an early night.

Numbers were swapped and emails exchanged, I’d have to say that this was one of the best business trips that I’ve been on.

Bristol: Bikes, Candy Crush and Bohos

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Bristol used to be epitomised by a few things: strong cider, farmers’ markets and questionable views on immigration – but things have changed.

There was a time when Bristol was dubiously touted as ‘the next London.’

For better or for worse, a number of writers had decided that it’s decidedly multicultural population, combined with its austere Victorian charm, made it directly comparable to the capital. The idea took hold and started to filter through to young people, graduates and trainees, looking for somewhere exciting to live that wouldn’t render them as penniless as the countless homeless people lining the streets of Westminster.

Word began to spread that Bristol was the place for young professionals to go. A diverse town that accepted people of all races and religions, a place with it’s own currency and thriving arts scene. Most importantly this was a town where you could afford to pay your rent, go out to dinner and have a decent Saturday night without bankrupting yourself for the foreseeable future. Slowly but surely, a migration started to take place and, imperceptibly at first, rental prices started to rise.

10 years later and the cider is still as strong as ever but the passage of time has changed a few things. The internet age has broadened the horizons of the belligerent minds that were trapped in the past and the farmers’ stalls are slowly being replaced by hipster food trucks. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether this progression is a good thing or not…

I took the train West to see how gentrified the town had become and if it could still prove to be a viable alternative for a Londoner seeking a change of scenery.

For any London dweller who’s looking to up sticks but not fly too far from the coop, Bristol is a good option. It takes roughly an hour and 40 minutes to get to, which is probably on par with some unfortunate office dweller’s commutes. One of the joys of this train ride are the ambient noises of the carriage. If you listen carefully, along with the familiar chimes of Candy Crush, you’ll be able to hear the accents of the Bristol-bound folk grow more and more pronounced, as their destination comes ever closer.

Besides an utterly charming accent, the town itself is crammed full of diversions. Trendy restaurants, street food markets, venues regularly playing host to live music and a thriving art scene are just a few of the reasons to take a trip here. I know what you’re thinking though. What makes this any better than London?

One word: accessibility.

One of the first things you’ll notice about Bristol is that this is a cyclist’s city. Students, doctors and lawyers alike all travel by bike and for good reason, Bristol has been voted one of the most cycle friendly cities in the country. If Bristolians aren’t cycling then they’re walking through the picturesque alleys and side streets that make up a great deal of Bristol’s walkways. The main centre of the city is small, so you’ll find that you’ll be able to walk to most of the destinations that you have in mind. For trips that will take you a little further afield to the suburbs, you can use the simple train system that runs around the circumference of the city.

Rental properties may well be creeping up in line with London, but this is still a town well worth staying in and at the very least visiting for a day or two.

Leeds: Rock’n’Roll, Rice and Pints

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I’m quite proud of being an atypical Londoner.

Yes – I’m super into the hottest new bars (Dalston Roof Park is my new favourite, along with about ten thousand other journos in the city) and I can’t imagine a day without finding fault with something on the Underground, but I’m not completely trapped in the ‘bubble’ as it’s known.

Whereas the vast majority of my colleagues and friends seem to be psychically tethered to the city, I find myself constantly seeking out other British towns to escape to. ‘The price you must spend on train tickets’, they always tell me, after dropping £30 at the door just to get let into ‘that new Japanese Blade Runner kind of place’.

They’ve forgotten that life can be wonderful and vibrantly different outside of the ‘bubble’. Not only do you not have to queue, wait and pay for the privilege of heading into a new bar, most of the time, you can walk in and buy 3 pints for the same that one would cost you in London.

Such was the case on a rather drizzly weekend spent in the heart of Yorkshire’s capital, Leeds.

When you hear Londoners talk about ‘the North’, you can practically hear them place sarcastic emphasis on those quotation marks. I probably acted in a similar way a few years ago. The sheer notion that there was an alternative to London for (relatively) young people looking for a place to live and work seemed ridiculous. Sure, maybe the rent’s cheaper, but have you heard how backward people are up there? Do you really think there are any decent places to drink, other than gross old man pubs?

If I had the ability to travel back in time, before making the obligatory trip to 20th April 1889 to kill a certain Austrian would-be dictator, I’d make a brief sojourn back to 2013 to slap myself in the face – time paradox be damned.

Leeds is one of those cities that you really need to be shown around.

The best places to drink are off the beaten track and the hippest restaurants need to be stalked like rare game. You can, of course, elect to enjoy the city with a Lonely Planet in hand, but you’ll find even the most recent edition will fall some way behind what a real Loiner (Leeds inhabitant) can offer you.

My guide was an old school mate who had fallen in love with the city over a decade ago, whilst racking up a mountain of unbeatable debt as a student. Despite the rising student fees, Leeds is still an incredibly popular student town – there are three Universities within the city limits and it has the fourth largest student population in the UK. It’s not hard to see why, when we walk into the Brudenell Social Club, where you can get a decent pint of Theakston’s Ale for well under £2.

There’s music playing in both rooms to the side of this odd, box-shaped boozer. Half the drinkers here are drifting in and out of each room, head’s nodding and slightly swaying. The other half are happily eating pies and swilling pints, there’s an effortlessly casual feeling to the atmosphere that you simply wouldn’t find in London and I am instantly beguiled. After a couple of pints, my eyes were beginning to be drawn to the food on other’s plates.

Thankfully, we had a plan for this.

Anand Sweets is a family run shop and catering business, specialising in vegetarian and vegan Indian dishes and methai (Indian sweets). We sit inside the newly refurbished shop and enjoy ordering off a menu of dishes which is pretty much alien to me. In my mind, I consider how popular a simple place like this might be and decide that the perfect storm of delicious food, entirely vegan options and incomprehensible menu would probably bowl over thousands of Londoners if they ever got the chance.

Getting the train back to London, I felt the change in my pocket from the £40 that I’d taken out at the start of my journey and thought about how far it would have taken me if I’d stayed in the big city.

Probably, about as far as the queue for the first bar…

Durham: Cathedrals, Gardens and Tea for One

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The North East of England doesn’t get the respect it deserves when it comes to tourism.

When it comes to foreign tourism, visitors to the UK are more likely to hit the iconic cities of London, Edinburgh and Liverpool. Simply put, most foreigners have never heard of Durham.

They don’t have an internationally recognised Football team and the closest thing they have to a globally known landmark is the Angel of the North (which is more in Newcastle’s jurisdiction really). To a visitor, with a very small grasp on the history of Great Britain, the attractions that Durham has to offer might seem a little confounding. Cathedrals, gardens and tearooms are really what this not-so-modern city has to offer – three things that an utterly British gent like myself is more than happy to make the journey for.

London to Durham by train can take anywhere from just under 3 hours to around 3 hours 40 minutes. Although the price and standards of the trains in Britain have started to become very distantly related variables, I’d take a seat on a carriage over a tiring drive any day. When I arrive into Durham it’s around half 11 and a perfectly acceptable time to stop into the first tearoom of the day.

Walking through Durham’s charming shopping district, meandering my way towards the Cathedral, I find myself forgetting that I’m as North as I really am.

The cobbled streets, narrow Tudor-style walkways and copious pubs that crowd the streets here are reminiscent of Dickens’ London, or perhaps the live-action adaptations that were filmed here. It’s a shame that this quaint city doesn’t get the international attention that it deserves, foreign tourists would no doubt be wooed by the utterly English sensibility that rules large swathes of the town. Nowhere in Durham does this Englishness feel more pronounced than in one of it’s many tearooms.

I stop by at the questionably named Cafedral Durham for a refreshing cup of tea and a scone. For all of it’s Southern pretensions, I’m instantly reminded that I’m far up North thanks to the dark builder’s tea I’m served. The cafe is only a small space, but there’s a real bustling feel to it.

If this had been a place in London, the designers would have no doubt decided to cram the place with overtly quirky bric-a-brac – but the owners of Cafedral Durham have clearly shown some restraint and left the decor clean and unfussy. Think less Grandma’s front room and more modern country kitchen.

Feeling utterly refreshed, I wander the short distance over to the Cathedral to admire a building that has overlooked the city for nearly a thousand years.

Religious buildings often split the room. You have some people who are insistent that you have to be religious to enjoy a trip to a Cathedral, whilst others frankly say that ‘they all look the same’. For me, the sheer spectacle of a cathedral is enough to put a smile on my face. That’s exactly what happened when I ambled my way into Durham Cathedral’s cavernous surroundings. On a Wednesday afternoon it’s blissfully quiet, the few tourists visiting make very little noise as they slowly circle the building. Whether you’re religious or not, the scale and detail of Durham cathedral is more than enough to inspire. The mind boggles all the more when you consider how this gargantuan build was undertaken without the use of computers, cranes or any kind of electric tool.

Just a 15 minute walk from the Cathedral lies Crook Hall and Gardens. Walking along the River Wear, with Cathedral in the distance you can imagine the city as a bustling Medieval metropolis, with the water crowded with canal boats and barges. Within 10 minutes any noise from the city has been eaten up by trees and space leaving only the sound of birds and wind through the trees. Crook Hall is nowhere near as ancient as the Cathedral, it exudes a country charm that makes one forget about the Dickensian city just a few minutes walk away. A carefully manicured garden is the icing on the cake.

I can understand the trepidation that foreign tourists treat Durham with. It has none of the flashing lights and distractions of Britain’s other cities, yet it’s hard to imagine finding a more ‘English’ experience anywhere in the country.

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