Sunday, 10 January 2010

Hit the North has moved

From January 2010, Hit the North resides at this link.

Please update your address book and thanks for reading.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Back soon

Hit the North is taking a break in November.
Partly because I'll be away with assignments, partly because I'll be away at WTM and partly because I've got a massive deadline to complete my project based around the Lake District.
Normal service will resume shortly.

Friday, 23 October 2009

The witching hour

The lady behind the counter of the Lancaster City Museum lingers over the words. "We persecuted people, we locked them up, we killed them," she smiles with a macabre frisson of delight. "The aura of doom and gloom still hangs over the city".

I never had Lancaster down as a hotbed of ghoulish goings-on. But, as thoughts turn to things that go bump in the night this week, I find the spectre of Lancaster's grisly past looms ever large over the medieval Market Square.

Lancaster Castle, the ancestral seat of the Dutchy of Lancaster, is forever associated with the Pendle Witch Trails, one of the largest executions for witchcraft ever staged in Britain.

Seven women and two men from the nearby villages of Pendle Hill lost their lives to the noose in Lancaster on August 20, 1612. Today the castle remains a courthouse and a prison - as it has been since the Middle Ages.

Exploring the grounds on a chilly winter afternoon, I find the tower (pictured above) where they spent their final hours still stands with its raven-black weather vane, and the place of the public execution is now a weather-stained stone wall behind stout, forbidding railings.

The group of alleged witches was blamed for the death of 17 of their neighbours with the main evidence against them collected from their own confessions. Their preferred method of evil-doing was, apparently, to make a clay model of their victim.

Overall, an estimated half million men women and children were burnt at the steak across Western Europe at the 17th-century height of the witch trails.

King James I of England was obsessed with witchcraft and suspicious of the Catholic faith. Matthew Hopkins, the king's appointed Witchfinder General, had arrested over 120 people in the south of England for witchcraft by his death in 1646.

The 400th anniversary of the Trails in 2012 will ignite interest in the folklore of the Pendle Witches. Meanwhile, you can follow a brown-sign trail from Lancaster to Clitheroe and onto Barrowford, taking the old gallows road from Lancaster, moving through the Trough of Bowland and culminating with the climb up Pendle Hill, where wolves and wild boar once roamed free.

Early next year The Lancashire and Blackpool Tourist Board is to launch a series of heritage trails, which will highlight some of the region's lesser-known and macabre attractions.

But were the Pendle Witches possessed by supernatural powers, or the innocent victims of an age obsessed with the ways of the Wicca?

Only by exploring the ancient landscape of Lancashire can we try to uncover the grisly truth.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Anyone round here want to hire a travel writer?

Going a bit off radar this week. I've been down south - no, not Stoke - but that there London for a discussion about the future of travel writing organised by the British Guild of Travel Writers (BGTW).
I realise this isn't a Northwest issue per se, but the event highlighted the way we gather our inspiration and information about tourism in our region, and every other region, is changing.
Put simply, the future of travel writing in under threat. I'm in this game because I love the craft of writing. And the best travel writing is about people and not places anyway.
But, as a professional writer (captured on assignment in Belfast, above), the way I work and the way people consume travel writing is moving into uncharted territory. I'm a writer not a salesman, but I'm going to have to adapt to a changing world - as is everyone working in travel.
Food for thought, so please do post your comments below. Normal service resumes next week ...
Question for you: what is the future of travel writing? More D-list gimps on an all-exes week in the sun? Yet another creeping-brain-death round up? Or a tag-laden top ten list peppered with SEO (that's Search Engine Optimisation, folks) keywords that makes my shopping list for Tesco look like the latest William Dalrymple?
As PRs and members of the BGTW gathered for the October meeting, the real question seemed to be thus: does the future of travel involve any actual, well, writing?
The BGTW, with its 260-strong, freelance heavy membership, takes pride in the breadth of knowledge amongst its ranks. But this year has been torrid for members. Fewer commissions, reduced rates, let alone the insulting ntion we would actually offer our expertise for no renumeration. Even Sir Cliff Richard is muscling in our patch - as if Mistletoe and Wine wasn't heinous enough.
Guild PR Co-ordinator Sarah Monaghan captured the spirit of the times in her opening address. "Print is dying, so to keep travelling and writing we have to adapt," she says. "Writers need to set up a niche website or blog."
Fair enough, and some PR companies are now experimenting with bloggers on press trips, but, according to David Ezra, Director of Saltmarsh and Surf PR, the industry still wants to support meaty commissions and well-informed comment. "The job of the travel writers isn't dead," he says. "There's still a thirst for expert travel knowledge."
Saltmarsh have launched spin-off agency, Surf, to handle online travel content. "Clients want to steer traffic back to their websites. They are asking us to watch the blogs - they're like word of mouth on a global scale," he adds.
One of the major concerns aired on the night was the way that some titles are increasingly sending inexperienced staffers on press to reduce freelance budgets. Having read the weekend papers recently, the effect on quality is already all too manifest.
From the world of glossy magazines, Guild member Amanda Statham (travel editor of Nat Mags' Cosmopolitan and You & Your Wedding) confirmed this. "The editor Cosmo told me she is 'unlikely to pay freelancers for travel copy as staff are still taking trips', while the editor You & Your Wedding has 'no money for travel copy unless very unique'," she says.
If there's salvation out there, she argues, again it's online. "A good website is driving magazine sales. I can see a time, maybe two years from now, when I will need a budget to keep content up to date, so get involved in the web," she advises.
Jacqueline Mirtelli, Director of PR for the French Government Tourist Office, concluded the discussion with a few statistics. Their busy press office generates 400 travel cuttings per month of which 25% are from national papers, 50% from regional papers, 20% consumer magazines and 15% online. "I'm convinced that, in ten years time, the majority will be online," she says.
So, conclusions then. Guild Membership Secretary Ron Toft advises members to re-invent ourselves. "Adapt or die," he says, citing the four key calls to action as adapt, specialise, market yourself aggressively and sell words-and photos packages.
BGTW elder statesman John Carter adds: Think about travel content. It's a moving medium so think in terms of pictures and sound."
For my own part, I'd add another message for the PRs in the room: be more proactive and less reactive with your approaches. I barely get past the headline of mass-mailing press release before hitting delete. A targeted email saying, "I saw you wrote about this. Did you ever consider following up this angle? Or did you know that this is happening in three months time" will get my full attention and an enthusiastic personal response.
Yes, I know we're all busy. But direct message me on Twitter and it'll only cost you the effort to generate 140 characters. And it could lead to those increasingly rare 1,000 words of in-depth, informed copy that helps to feed my family and keep you in your clients' good books.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Airport lounging

Eight minutes. That's the average time it now takes - apparently - to pass through security at Manchester Airport's Terminal One following its £50m refit.
I was there on a rainy Manchester afternoon last Friday for a tour of the new airside facilities and set my watch accordingly.
I hate security queues. Liverpool John Lennon Airport has taken a slating recently for its handling of security and I long since gave up on London Stansted as a no-go zone.
So, from the moment we swiped through the tube station-style ticket barrier to the 14-lane security area, the seconds were ticking.
Jacket off, belt off, phone and keys in the plastic box, shoes off (but swiped separately through a machine after the main security gate to avoid doubling back). Once through, I was called over by the attendant to have my phone and laptop checked and scanned again. No reason given why. Then belt and jacket back on, and laptop back in bag.
Total time? Seven minutes. The success rate of hitting the target is currently running around 99% beam airport management with some pride.
The £14m spent on updating the security area is just one aspect of the refurbishment alongside an increased retail offer, a new walk-through series of zones with names like 'Desire' and a brand new Emirates lounge, currently on a soft opening, with hot meals, airside views and remote control toilets. No, really. Just wash n' go.
But it's queue beating that will warm the autumnal hearts of most passengers. From business travellers cutting it fine for an early-morning flight to families hauling baby and buggy through check in, the delay at security is one of the key factors driving people away from airports and back onto trains.
Manchester Terminal One first opened in 1962 with a capacity for 2.5m passengers. Today it handles 9m people per year, flying Emirates, Swiss and amongst others. According to Managing Director Andrew Cornish, new long-haul routes over the next 18 months are likely to include the American west coast, India and China.
So, will the facelift, two years in preparation and re-tweaked several times after the 2006 liquid ban and the 2007 Glasgow Airport attack, bring about, as the press release promises, "a return to when the holiday began at the airport"?
Well, maybe it will help to restore faith in air travel to some extent.
The writer Alain de Botton recently spent a Heathrow's Terminal Five and listed some of things he learnt from the experience in a blog post for the Guardian.
From my afternoon at Terminal One I learnt that 17,000 passengers typically pass through Manchester Airport on a Christmas Day, the lemon drizzle cake in the food hall is particularly good, some writers spend their press trip buying leather boots they'll never actually wear (unless staring in their local Pantomime this Christmas) and, best of all, free wifi is coming to Manchester's "international, regional" airport.
The holiday begins here. But ditch the boots, love.