Northern Soul’s Top Places to Visit in the North
At Northern Soul, we make no bones about it: we love the North. I mean, we REALLY love it. With that in mind (and mindful about the Christmas spirit), we thought we’d share some of our favourite Northern places with you. If you have a magical Northern spot, please let us know using the comment thread below.
Northern Soul‘s Top Places to Visit in the North
Owd Betts, Rochdale
Some years ago, before I moved back to the North, I sat in my cramped London flat and dreamt of pubs on windy moors, pubs offering thirsty customers shelter from the elements with log fires, flagstone floors, low ceilings and cheese and onion plate pies. Owd Betts provides all of these things in abundance. Located on Ashworth Moor with beautiful views across Rochdale, Manchester and Oldham, Owd Betts dates back to 1796. The story goes that, in the mid 19th century, a widow called Betty ran the pub while bringing up nine children – and lived to the grand old ago of 93 – and so it became known as Owd Betts. Popular with walkers, locals and anyone who wants a proper pint in a proper pub, I’ve yet to find a hostelry I like as much as this one. Oh, and there’s a photo of ‘Owd Bett’ above the fireplace. When you visit (and you must), make sure to raise your glass to her.
The Whitaker, Rossendale
When Rossendale Borough Council declared that the local museum did not represent “value for money”, three local residents stepped in to save it. Nearly three years later and The Whitaker is a successful gallery, museum and café, loved by locals and by one little person in particular: my three-year-old niece.
I’d always had a soft spot for the museum which, like so many beautiful buildings in this part of the world, was originally the family home of a Victorian mill-owner; George Hardman built on the hillside so he could look down over his mill. Later bought by entrepreneur Richard Whitaker, the blood, sweat and tears poured into the 21st century reincarnation of this venue is staggering. It’s my first choice when I take my niece out for lunch thanks to its reasonably priced (and delicious) home-made food, historical setting and, for this toddler at least, the Victorian natural history collection (the most famous exhibit is a tiger and python locked in a terrifying embrace).
My Gran loved Tynemouth. This North East village, situated at the mouth of the River Tyne and just six miles from Newcastle, is home to glorious beaches, an 11th century castle, boutique shops, an eclectic mix of restaurants and the best chippy in the world, Marshall’s, otherwise known as The Fryery by the Priory (Jimi Hendrix ate there once, fact). But Longsands is the highlight of my visit. Frequently voted as one of the best beaches in the country, this mile-long sweep of golden sand, hewn out of the cliffs and stretching on for as long as the eye can see, is not only my favourite place in the North, it’s my favourite place in the world. At my Gran’s funeral, my uncle told the congregation that he’d always know where to find her: at Longsands. He was right.
Asa Nicholson’s Tearoom, Bradford
Think of Yorkshire tearooms and you probably picture Betty’s – crisp white aprons, teetering cake-stands, queues stretching as far as Wetherby. Forget all that. Asa Nicholson’s is a tearoom as robust as the name ‘Asa Nicholson’ would lead you to expect: breakfasts, spuds, pork pies and peas, and a moorland wind that threatens to whip off your trousers the second you step out of the door. It’s not pretty, it’s far from dainty, but with its nylon-smocked locals dishing out some irresistible Yorkshire love, it’s bursting with everything I love about Bradford.
Kelham Island, Sheffield
One hundred years ago, the main reason to visit the Kelham Island district of Sheffield would have been to do dangerous things with metal. When I was a student, the main reason to go there was to photograph the industrial dereliction and enjoy some ghostly silence in the heart of the city. Now though, it houses probably the most celebrated ale trail in the country with award-winning microbreweries, unspoilt pubs, and punters who don’t half know their beer. Plus it could easily be argued that the Fat Cat boozer at Kelham Island is where Britain’s current beer boom began.
Londis, Penny Lane, Liverpool
Living near Penny Lane can be weird. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve stumbled out of Home Bargains with a sack of discount toilet roll only to see the Magical Mystery Tour bus go past crammed with tourists. “How magical for them,” I think. Penny Lane itself is just a suburban street of course, which is entirely the point of the song but also a potential anti-climax for those same day-trippers. Well lucky for them that the world’s most brilliant Londis is also there – the only one I know that tucks the Stella out of sight but reserves acres of shelf space for obscure craft beers from around the world. So at least disappointed Beatles’ fans can buy something special to drink as they head back down the long and winding road towards home.
Belsay Hall, Northumberland
Never mind the North, this is one of my favourite places in the world. Set in the Northumberland countryside, this stately home often hosts quirky art exhibitions that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere. There’s also the extensive, Grade I listed quarry gardens which have long served as my physical manifestation of The Secret Garden. Parasol-sized leaves shelter ponds and hidden nooks, and heavy wooden doors open to more surprises beyond. Ancient vast trees and ferns clinging to the mossy rock face are all here to discover. And the best part? There’s a hidden medieval castle.
No matter what time of year you visit, there’s bound to be an event on at Belsay Hall, whether it’s a county show, a classic car festival, outdoor theatre or even medieval knights in battle – and it’s a great place for a picnic too. I’d love to prattle on about some of the amazing sights I’ve seen there, such as the 3D, life-size, Stella McCartney horse made of hundreds of suspended Swarovski crystals, or the outdoor performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I think it best that you go there and create some happy memories for yourself.
This one is a bit unusual: it’s a massive man-made forest and reservoir. Now I know what you’re thinking, a man-made forest sounds a bit rubbish. All the trees are probably a bit spindly and the whole thing looks out of place, right? Wrong! With the first trees planted in the 1920s, the woodland has had plenty of time to mature and nature has well and truly moved in. Deer, birds and squirrels roam free and are a treat to spot on a wild walk through the woods. It’s a great place to explore by mountain bike or foot, and the reservoir hosts water sports in the summer. You could also stay in a log cabin, visit the bird of prey centre or see the Northern lights from the observatory which houses some impressively large telescopes.
Forbidden Corner, North Yorkshire
This is the closest you will ever get to going down the rabbit hole. Originally built as a private folly but subsequently opened to the public, this is like no garden you’ve ever seen. Cheeky statues, stunning vistas, hidden water squirters, doors that lead to nowhere, glass pyramids, stepping stones and even the devil down in hell himself (literally underground), there’s no shortage of queer and funny sights. Even to enter the garden you have to be eaten – by walking through the mouth and down the throat of a blinking-eyed face in the wall. A nice touch is the visitor guide which provides a poem about each sight, adding extra fun to searching for everything. A great day out.
A museum doesn’t always need to be a place of learning. Sometimes a trip to a heritage site can be a chance to escape, recharge the batteries or retreat from the world. These three have been chosen as special places to visit when you need a moment away from it all.
Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester
The Modern and Contemporary Galleries showcase some of the finest objects from the craft and design collection. If you’re suffering from life in the busy city, go and look at the simplicity of the 1930s dinner services and Conran bookcases. It’s a refuge of modernist calm and tranquillity. You’ll never look at your teapot in the same way again.
Brontë Parsonage Museum, West Yorkshire
For a real step-back-in-time moment, this is one of the best. The studies and bedrooms of the Brontë sisters and their family are presented as they would have been when they lived here in the 1800s. It’s a unique place with a special atmosphere, especially if you’re a fan of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre or Emily’s Wuthering Heights. And if you go as part of a group tour, they let you look behind the scenes (closed for January though).
Lady Lever Art Gallery, Wirral
It’s a short train ride from central Liverpool, but that quick trip and the walk from the station take you back to an era of Edwardian charm. Set in the model village of Port Sunlight, this is one of the most peculiar settings for a museum. The purpose built art gallery, set among domestic life, is sublime and packed with curiosities from Greek vases and Chinese pots to Wedgwood ceramics and room after room of paintings. Leave enough time to visit the café.
New Brighton, Merseyside
My (still forthcoming) graphic novel The Amazing Maisie began life when I dreamt that my home town of Nantwich in Cheshire was actually by the sea, a fact I had failed to notice before. This excited me greatly as I fecking love the sea. Sadly it was all in my head – or so I thought until I realised that the Wirral’s finest seaside resort and purveyor of candy floss is only 35 miles away. It’s also 35 miles away from my current house, perched out there on the very edge of the peninsula – all funfairs, chippies, waves and a view of the cranes in Bootle. It’s my Nantwich-by-the-Sea.
Secret Nuclear Bunker, Hack Green, Cheshire
Almost 20 years ago in my home town, mysterious and somewhat ironic signs began to pop up pointing the way to a ‘secret nuclear bunker’. Oh the intrigue! Particularly for someone who grew up in the 80s in the frosty atmosphere created by the US and Russia. Bugger stately homes, this has to be one of my favourite days out. As kitsch as it is frankly terrifying, you get to look at how the bunker would have housed government types (while the rest of us fried) so they could prep to start society over again in the event of the human race’s nuclear decimation. Plus there are soft toy mice dotted about the place for the kids to spot (I’ll give you a clue, there was once one sat atop a nuclear missile) and a resident cat in the café.
Ginger’s Comfort Emporium, Afflecks Palace, Manchester
Every now and again I have a moment where it strikes me quite how beautiful my adopted city is. Sitting in this café in Afflecks Palace in the city centre is one of them. The café itself makes the most amazing ice cream, and the coffee and hot chocolate are fab too. But what makes this place perfect is the view through the big corner windows of the intersection of Oldham Street and Dale St, particularly in the winter as the sun goes down and the shadows lengthen. Because the café is on the first floor it gives the sense of being surrounded – up, down and to the sides – by beautiful Victorian buildings. Gloriously, smotheringly so.
The facelift has really given it a good vibe, really opened it up. I didn’t expect to like it but I do, even if the ceiling looks like your mobile phone when you forget to take the plastic off the screen.
Squire Knott pub, Oldham
If you’ve got the balls, it’s cheap – so cheap that it can’t be right. Loud and boisterous, you won’t walk out sober. If you’re intending on spending the evening sober best not to go there. But if you want a night of abandon with a load of yonners on one, go.
Manchester Art Gallery
I have been visiting since I was a little girl and still see something new each time I go. It’s free, it belongs to me, it’s beautiful.
Bluebird Café, Coniston
The original Bluebird café was a boarding house for people working on the Steam Yacht Gondola in the Lake District It was lost in floods a few years back but the owners took the opportunity to create a really special venue. It is right on the shores of Coniston Water and offers unparalleled views of the lake and up to Grizedale Forest. It’s a perfect place for lunch and people-watching.
Love it or loathe it, Blackpool is a shining light in the North West. I love walking down the promenade, you never know quite what is going to happen. This year a friend and I were walking down there and saw Tim Burton making a movie with Samuel L. Jackson.
Royal Exchange, Manchester
The best theatre in the world. A space pod inside such a glamorous traditional room sets it apart immediately. Over the years I have been lucky enough to see performance after performance, all of which reminds you just how special theatre can be. It’s also a perfect oasis from the streets of Manchester where you can sit and have a coffee and take a breath.
Rain Bar and Rochdale Canal
Modestly sitting below much taller, older buildings, Rain Bar is a modern pub which captures the industrialised feel of historic Manchester. It feels especially cosy during the winter months as they keep a roaring fire going inside. Out the back, you can sip your pint as redbrick buildings tower over you. Nearby, the sparsely-populated Rochdale Canal tow-path runs right under both Oxford Road and Canal Street. Walking along it allows you to assume the unique position of being right in the middle of the city, and yet somehow nowhere near it at the same time. It’s a noisy bit of peace-and-quiet.
Manchester Central Library
Manchester has lots of little nooks and crannies off the beaten path, but I keep finding myself drawn back to Manchester city library; during a recent freelance job in Manchester city centre, I had lunch there every day. It hits that perfect pitch of quiet bustle, making it not only a good place to get some work done but also a great place to relax with a book or chill out in general. It’s riddled with social spaces, all emanating a fantastic friendly atmosphere, and of course it’s packed to the rafters with lovely, lovely books.
Main image: Royal Exchange © Matthew J Graham
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