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The Best of Times the Worst of Times

6th March 2006 • Dave

Having been fortunate enough to spend some of last summer briefly sampling: Las Vegas, Auckland, Brisbane, Sydney, Singapore, London, Cardiff and Edinburgh, and in many cases enjoying the generosity of near-strangers, it occurred to me that were a visitor coming to my damp little corner of the UK, where would they wish to go?  What would they wish to do?  Moreover, where would I want to take them?  What would I want to show them?  And given just a week what could I hold up as being shining examples of this great nation, of which many of its citizens are almost ashamed to be proud?

Lately I was faced with the problem of answering these questions for real when I was persuaded to entertain Rachel Keyte who intended visiting the UK from Australia.  I have minimal experience at hosting anyone, and even less desire to become a bed and breakfast proprietor never mind self-appointed tourist information bureaux etc, let alone ambassador for my country?  However, through various prolonged sessions of burying one’s head in the sand, I suddenly found myself confronted with such an unenviable predicament with just days to spare!

Owing to my recent acute apathy about my own life brought on by a combination of factors, not least of which include: a close relative being involved in a serious road traffic accident, a seriously sick elderly family member, the death of a good friend, and various other tales of personal financial and emotional woe which I will try to avoid inflicting on you dear reader.  Suffice to say these things and others had seemingly brought my life to a pathetic standstill, the consequences of which I was even scarcely beginning to grasp, much less deal.  I had reached a near impasse in sorting out my immediate priorities.  I was in no physical emotional or financial condition to take on this project.  The mere idea was frankly ludicrous.

But there it was, looming large as yet another bolder across my path, another brick in the wall, call it what you will.  Deep down, I knew that deal with it I must.  The day came closer, and plans went unmade, and my since of foreboding deepened.  How would I go about amusing a tourist in my corner of England?  The prospect of failure, thus ruining somebody else’s trip of a lifetime filled me with apprehension.  Last year, regardless of their own issues and circumstances, people who hardly knew me had been blatantly gracious and hospitable toward me, thus allowing me to travel around the world.  What gave me the right to deny another the same hospitality?  Had I not learnt anything from my travels?  Who was I to crawl back under my bed and say no?

When or even if some kind of epiphany came I cannot say.  However, thanks to some considerable moral and practical support from a few very dear friends, and the discovery of some previously untapped resolve, I vowed to myself to meet the challenge head on and if at all possible to attempt to exceed any limited expectations I had in my ability to pull this off.

The North of England has plenty to offer, even during the depths of a British winter.  Just an hour by train from Manchester International Airport, Preston (where I have lived for the last eight years) is home to a wide selection of eateries and pubs offering foods and drinks from a plethora of nations.  Chinese, Indian, Italian, French, Mexican, Thai and Mediterranean foods are all here.  One can eat in or eat out, or drink dozens of varieties of real ales from across the UK in scores of Preston pubs, the choice is yours.  Oh and the usual soulless fast-food suspects are here, Dominoes, Pizza Hut, McDonald’s and I believe the first ever KFC in the UK.  Oh and did I forget the obligatory kebab houses, the traditional English chippy, as well as a couple of more upmarket English restaurants, etc.  Add in a bumper over-spend at the supermarket on groceries, there would be no shortage of things for Rachel to eat.

Entertainment in Preston itself in February is a little thin on the ground.  This gives a visitor an excellent excuse to venture to some of Northern England’s finest cities including: Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and York.

Liverpool, known around the world as being the place where the fab four grew up, is a must on anyone’s Northern England itinerary.  The recently enhanced Beatles Story is a museum which does exactly what it says on the tin. Using the excellent audio guide, exhibits and printed information as well as reconstructions of key locations from the Beatles era, Visitors can learn about the individual backgrounds of: John, Paul, George and Ringo, as well as the band’s journey from humble beginnings in Liverpool, through the heady days of Beatle mania, to the group’s eventual disintegration and subsequent solo careers.

If the Beatles are not your thing, Liverpool is home to my beloved Liverpool Football Club, the most successful English soccer team and 5-times winner of the European cup.  Match tickets tend to be a tad costly and thin on the ground, but the club has a visitor’s centre and offers a behind the scenes stadium tour.  Sport was not high on Rachel’s list of priorities so LFC did not make it on to our Liverpool itinerary, however, an impromptu tour of the city did.

Following an enjoyable couple of hours at the Beatles Story and lunch at a friendly little café at the Albert Dock, Donna Rachel and I were scheduled to take the Magical Mystery bus tour of Liverpool.  In the event the bus left early and we must have missed it by only a couple of minutes!  We were left feeling frustrated but all was not lost.  On recounting this tale to a taxi driver as we headed back into the city centre, he genuinely and without a moments hesitation offered us the use of his services for two hours in order that Rachel might visit the likes of Strawberry fields and Penny Lane and stopping off at each location to have her photograph taken.  For an instant I confess to having treated this offer with a healthy amount of scepticism.  I was wrong, and Phil from Mersey Cabs was as good as his word.  Not only did Rachel get her photographs plus a personalised tour of Liverpool encompassing the more  notable landmarks in Beatles history, but we were regaled with the sort of entertaining anecdotes and humorous banter only to be found in this awesome city.  Phrases like “salt of the earth” do not come close to describing sound fellas like Phil.  If you are out there Phil, cheers mate!

Manchester is not somewhere with which I am overly familiar, and not a place with which I have had much of an affinity.  Consulting the various guides and web sites it would appear the options are numerous.  Eventually I elected to take Rachel for a day at the Lowry at the recently regenerated Salford Quays.  Manchester has undergone a massive renaissance over the last decade following the IRA bombing in the city in the mid90s.  The 2002 Common Wealth Games held in Manchester attracted further investment and helped to sustain the rejuvenation process.

The Lowry was made possible using National Lottery Funding to the tune of £120 million!  So I figured it was at least worth a look.  The building is certainly unusual being triangular in shape with a metallic and glass exterior and a carefully composed interior incorporating various geometric themes.  The Lowry houses two theatres, an art gallery, a conference centre and a restaurant.  We were treated to an informative guided tour before lunch, followed by a matinee performance of Gas Light in the larger of the two theatres.

York is one of England’s most historic cities and has plenty to offer the casual visitor.  Rachel visited the Viking museum with a couple of friends and I am told she had a fabulous time sampling the smells and sounds of the Viking period courtesy of the Viking museum’s virtual time machine.

Leeds lies in west Yorkshire and for an account of our visit see my esteemed friend Martin Roberts blog at

Additionally we visited the excellent Octagon Theatre in Bolton for a performance of Arthur Miller’s view from the Bridge, had afternoon tea at Booths, visited a salon for a range of treatments, and the list goes on.

I think it’s true to say that despite my reservations, maybe because of them, Rachel’s time in the North of England was varied and stimulating.  And regardless of whatever is being written about yours truly over on Live Journal, I have no regrets.  This project was just what I needed to drag myself out of the whole into which I had been descending and renew my enthusiasm for life.

Once again thanks to my friends for their resources and support in making Rachel’s visit to this part of the world something which she will hopefully eventually remember fondly for many years to come.

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