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.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

And the winner is ...

Bleary eyed this morning on the early train home from Blackpool. Last night was the England's Northwest Tourism Awards with the best of the region gathered together in regeneration-central Blackpool for a night of red wine, back slapping and tourism gongs.
I didn't even have to sneak myself in the back door of the Tower Ballroom (located in the Tower, above) as I was nominated in the travel writer category for a piece in The Observer about Chester's food trail.
And I was staying at Number One St. Lukes, one of the new breed of guesthouse trying to drag Blackpool into an new era. The owner poured coffee into me at 6.45am this morning and made me a bacon sandwich for the train. He may just have saved my life.
So, anyway, scores on the doors: Cumbria four awards; Lancashire four; Chester two; Manchester three and Merseyside four. That's a pretty even distribution across the region on the night. Cue cries of political machinations and Eurovision-style block voting.
Seriously, though, a good night for the Arena and Convention Centre (ACC) Liverpool, picking up the Sustainable Tourism and Excellence in Business Tourism awards in recognition of its role in boosting Liverpool as a business tourism destination.
Good news too for Farmaggedon near Ormskirk, which came from nowhere to pick up the Tourism Experience of the Year. Many farmers re-invent themselves with farm shops and animal petting. This lot took a different angle: zombies.
And me? Well, looks like I'm to be always the bridesmaid. But at least I turned up.
The awards are staged by the Northwest Regional Development Agency (NWDA) and you can read the full list of winners is here.
Meanwhile, I need some sleep.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Cruising for a bruising

I've never been taken by the idea of cruising. All those rich Americans, confined spaces and forced-bonhomie deck games before dinner with the crashing bores at the captain's table. Ugh.
But National Cruise Week kicks off this weekend to attempt to convince us that cruising is the one sector of the travel industry to have put on numbers during the recession. It's a week of events and promotion by umbrella organisation, the Passenger Shipping Association (PSA) to raise awareness and highlight new cruise options away from the traditional grab-a-granny image.
Good timing then by the Independent newspaper, which reported this weekend on an escalating scrap between erstwhile shipping hub Liverpool and latter-day cruisers' fave Southampton.
The Hampshire port is reported to be trying to block Liverpool's plans to upgrade the historic Pier Head, designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2004, into a port of embarkation and arrivals.
The owner of Southampton docks, Associated British Ports, has asked the Department for Transport to throw out Liverpool's plans for a turnaround terminal.
It is said to be furious that Liverpool received £20m in public money to redevelop the City of Liverpool Cruise Terminal at Princes Dock.
But cruising is booming and surely Liverpool, with its rich maritime heritage and Capital-of-Culture regeneration boost, is an ideal location to develop a new cruise hub?
Besides, the terminal will welcome the Queen Mary 2, Cunard's flagship cruise liner with 3000+ passengers in October. In March this year the £22m Liverpool Canal Link opened up access to the historic waterfront, generating an expected 200,000 extra visitors and additional tourism spend of £1.9m.
Has Liverpool played dirty? And does the city even want cruise lines chugging up the Mersey? I'll be discussing this topic with Duncan Barkes on City Talk Breakfast this Tuesday at 7.45am.
Post your comments below and I'll put them on the air.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Above us only sky - or a cynical, money-grabbing owner?

A bad press this week for Liverpool John Lennon Airport (LJLA) thanks to this post by fellow travel blogger, Grumpy Traveller.
The main thrust is a bad experience recently, involving the way passengers are encouraged to pay extra to join the Fast Lane queue and speed up their progress through security to the departure gate.
Making for particularly uncomfortable reading for LJLA is the line: "Surely Liverpool Airport’s management knows that they’ve got a massive understaffing and queuing problem. Therefore, the only possible conclusion is that this is an act of greedy bastardry on an epic scale."
The post was just gathering readers across the travel blogs when local newspaper the Daily Post reported that LJLA was planning an ambitious £12m expansion to improve security facilities and almost double retail space.
Peel Holdings, which owns LJLA, plus Robin Hood Airport in Doncaster and Durham Tees Valley Airport in Darlington, said the scheme reflected plans by budget carrier easyJet to move extra flight capacity to Liverpool from Luton and East Midlands airports.
The airport outlines the Fast Lane scheme, which carries a charge of £3 per person (including children), with a FAQ on its website, citing the following:
"Buying a Fast Lane ticket does not guarantee that you won't have to wait in a queue, however, your queuing time will still be shorter when compared to the standard passenger queue and Liverpool John Lennon Airport will always attempt to ensure that your wait time is kept as short as possible."
Grumpy isn't happy and nor are some of the readers who posted their comments on his blog and below the Daily Post story. But what do you think? Is this a total rip off? Or a logical way to jump the queues - assuming, of course, it even works.
I'll be discussing this with Duncan Bakes on City Talk Breakfast this Tuesday from 7.45am and we're hoping to get some response from LJLA about the concerns raised.
Meanwhile, post your comments below and I'll put them on air.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Claiming back our coastline

Fancy a stroll around the coastline of Britain this autumn? That's a mere 2,784 miles if you do. But, if you set out from the Northwest, then you might not get very far.

In a report published by Natural England, an advisory body to the government on the natural environment over the summer, the Northwest faired particularly badly.

Only 44% of the Northwest coastline is accessible - that's 184 miles. But 237 miles of British coastline is not accessible. This reflects industrial use on Merseyside and along the west coast of Cumbria.

No one in England lives more than 70 miles from the sea but, in the Northwest, you're unlikely to walk for more than a few miles before finding the path blocked off.

The coastal access map was drawn up for the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, which is expected to become law when it passes through Parliament in November.

The Natural England audit forms part of an effort to make England's coastline accessible to walkers. Separate projects operate in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The idea of forming a complete ring around the coast dates back to the 18th century but has been revived in recent years by the ramblers seeking the right to roam.

The 53 councils involved in the mapping project have backed the idea of increased access, doubtless tempted by extra tourism revenues.

But landowners in some parts of the country have criticised the bill, while military installations and industry oppose the right to roam.

Even The Queen is involved. The Times reports that HRH is likely to be one the first landowners to open up private land on her North Norfolk Sandringham estate for ramblers.

Dr Helen Phillips, Chief Executive of Natural England, said: “The news that the public lack full access to nearly 1000 miles of coastline is a sobering reminder of how much is at stake in the Marine & Coastal Access Bill."

Do we want to reclaim our coastline in the Northwest? I'll be discussing this topic with Duncan Barkes on City Talk Breakfast this Tuesday from 7.45am. Post your comments below and I'll put them on air.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Blackpool, Mon Amour

Michael Notarianni almost whispers it at first. It's nine o'clock in the morning and we're sipping espresso in his seaside cafe. Another fortifying sip and he's ready to say it with pride. "I'm starting to fall in love with Blackpool all over again," he smiles.

Michael is not alone. The archetypal Great British seaside resort has spent years in the wilderness. But a wind of change may finally be blowing in off the Central Promenade these days.

The talk today around Blackpool is of regeneration with a £45m injection of hard currency over the next three years. Redeveloping the seafront is a key element to transform the resort’s tourism industry with improvements to the sea wall, remodeling the seafront and the opening of the Tower Festival Headland, including a 'comedy carpet' with quotes from comedians etched in granite, due for completion in 2010.

Old-school family businesses like Notarianni's, the only original, ice-cream parlour left in town, are keeping fingers crossed that the resort has finally turned the corner.

Michael's grandfather Luigi, opened the original shop on the seafront in 1928. Today the cafe retains the Art Deco counter and still serves the Notarianni Sundae (£3.60) in the colours of the Italian flag.

Next door at Brooks Collectables, manager Mark Yates has opened Brooks Museum of Memorabilia upstairs from the shop with vast collections of toys, Blackpool souvenirs and rare pictures of yesteryear Blackpool.

"Most people don't know about the Art Deco heritage of Blackpool away from all the, err, glitz. The secret, " he adds," is to look up at the tops of the buildings."

But can Blackpool really reinvent itself? A handful of local hoteliers have invested heavily in upscale properties, notably The Beach House and Langtrys. Plus there are a few smarter places to eat and drink around town away from the traditional cheap beer, soggy chips and alcopops-fuelled hen parties.

But for every boutique B&B, there's Freddie Starr at the Central Prom and for every example of Sir Peter Blake's public artwork on the New South Prom art trail, there's a boozed-up stag party downing shots in Yates's Wine Lodge.

BBC Radio 2 will be here next weekend to live broadcast the switch on of the illuminations and the Royal Variety Performance will coax the Royals north of Watford for a second time after their foray to Liverpool.

But will British holidaymakers start to fall in love with Blackpool all over again like Michael? Can Blackpool find a new market away from cheap booze and chips?

I'll discussing this with Duncan Barkes on City Talk Breakfast this Tuesday from 7.45am. Post your comments below and I'll put them on air.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Way Out West

Back on the road and away from the computer to research the latest leg of Cumbria With Kids.
Here's the video blog from the latest journey. If it's slow to download, you can see it here on YouTube too.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

If the Face Fits

Who is the face of North West tourism? And who would make the best brand ambassador to encourage tourism to the region?

I ask the question because the North West Regional Development Agency is seeking to recruit two "high profile faces" as part of a new PR push to raise awareness of the region as a short-break destination this autumn.

Currently, Radio 2 presenter, author and professional Wiganite, Stuart Maconie is handling the task of fronting the campaign.

Maconie lives in Birmingham, although he spends much of his free time in Cumbria.

The micro site, Stuart's Stories has presented travel diary-style pieces that also ran as press advertorials, and a series of podcasts narrated by Maconie to download to your iPod.

It is reported that the campaign has to date produced up to £7.5m worth of coverage, reaching an estimated audience of 15m people.

And, to be fair, he does make an engaging case. I've downloaded a couple of the podcasts myself and have at home a copy of Short Stories for Short Breaks, the accompanying booklet.

But the quest is now on for "high profile brand advocates to create interest and credibility."

The new campaign is set to run from September to the end of the year, with an option to extend it through into 2010.

Writing for How Do, the Northwest media website, Russell Craig, Group Head of External Communications, Manchester Airports Group, suggests:

"... some more renowned North West luminaries such as Albert Finney, Ted Robbins, Victoria Wood or my personal vote - Glossop's favourite son and national porn baron, Paul Raymond."

Who do you think? Ken Barlow from Corrie? The drummer from ill-fated Chester indie band Mansun? Post-Big Brother Terry Christian.

Or should we just give Mark E Smith from The Fall the gig and stand by for an autumn of shambolic ramblings, fisticuffs with journalists and a bust up resulting in Smith sacking the whole band.

I'm making light of light, but there is a serious point here. Cynical as I am about any personality-driven pieces in the newspaper travel sections (not Chris Tarrant goes wild salmon fishing in Canada again, please!), I can see the value of a 'face' in this instance.

By giving the editorial a personal, first-person slant from somebody who commands respect due to profile, expertise, or the ability to express themselves in an informative and entertaining, or ideally all three, it does lend gravitas to the campaign.

After all, readers always relate better to editorial that feels like a mate telling them a story down the pub, rather than a big-money corporate behemoth ramming the message down their throat. At least I do.

So, suggestions then.

Post them below and I'll put them on air on City Talk Breakfast with Duncan Barkes this Tuesday at 7.45am.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

At your service

I'm a service station sceptic. In fact, apart from a brief encounter with a lady interviewee of a certain age in a Little Chef just outside of St Clears (she went on to ply me with homemade marmalade), my experience of motorway services has been limited to soggy sarnies and overpriced coffee. And that isn't my idea of a great start to the trip.
But a trip to Cumbria this week changed my view of the humble motorway service station. Tebay Servcies, located at junction 38 of the M6 near Penrith, is no bog-standard motorway services. Hell, no.
Family-owned Tebay is one of only two independent service stations in the UK (the other is in Scotland, since you ask) and a far cry from your communal-garden Welcome Break. Hence it's hugely popular and a must-stop staging point for many people venturing into the wide-open spaces of northern Cumbria.
Egon Ronay declared Tebay the best services in England in 2000 and, today, approximately 1.6m visitors flock to each of the north and south sites each year. Southbound has been recently refurbished with northbound to follow.
The sprawling site comprises a mid-range hotel (northbound), the decidedly upmarket and local-produce-championing Westmorland Farm Shops (both sides) and dual service stations.
Price wise, it's on a par with typical motorway services (budget £8.50 for the roast of the day, £3.50 for a kids' set meal), but the quality is far superior. The beef and lamb served up at lunch comes from Dunning's Farm, located next to the services.
On a sunny August day, I grabbed a Cumberland sausage sandwich from the outdoors kiosk (above, left), perched on a stone seat in the grounds and took in the views across the Cumbrian Fells.
Tebay can get hugely busy on a summer's day but, reassuringly, many of the people stopping by are actually locals stocking up on fresh produce. Take your iPhone - there's free wifi too.
So make way Moto, give it up Welcome Break. I've seen the future of motorway services and Little Chef it ain't.
Don't believe me? Then take Stuart Maconie's word for it:
"Tebay Services off the M6 is talked of in hushed tones by middle-class drivers from Middle England making the trip north. Not only is the scenery stunning ... but this is the Tuscany, the Waitrose, the Keira Knightley of service stations." (Adventures on the High Teas, Ebury Press, 2009).

Saturday, 1 August 2009

One for the dairy

To Nantwich to explore an age-old institution and consume more than my own body weight in dairy produce. Yes, the Nantwich International Cheese Awards this week offered rich pickings for cheese fans.
The Cheese Marquee is the highlight of the Nantwich & South Cheshire Show (right), attracting some 2,655 entries for judging from 24 countries.
On the day an army of judges in white coats stalk the long tables, groaning under the weight of cheese, while trade stands fringe the perimeter with everything from packaging to a new range of Cornish goats' cheese.
My favourite gizmo of the day was a kind of cheese-slicing sonic screwdriver from Newtech, the, ahem, robotic solutions experts.
There was also a frisson of celebrity glamour. A boozy, late-morning reception hosted by Fayrefield Foods included a cooking demonstration by Matt Tebbutt of the Foxhunter in Monmouthshire fame and Sean Wilson, better known as Martin Platt from Coronation Street, who has swapped Weatherfield for life as an artisan cheesemaker in Saddleworth.
The champagne flowed, Sean's Blackpudding Crostini was judge a hit and Matt got busy with a slab of Collier's Powerful Welsh Cheddar.
But one thing really struck me from the day. Aside, that is, from just how much cheese one man can consume when let loose in a big tent stuffed with everything from Edam to Roquefort.
The event was really corporate. I had an image of rustic, ruddy-faced cheesemakers turning up to proudly show off their artisan wares to a chorus of appreciative cries from the cheese-chomping cognoscenti of Cheshire.
But no. Hefty branding for Tesco and Asda, plus a huge stand for supermarket stalwart Cathedral City, lent the country show the feel of an accountancy conference in Swindon.
Thanks heavens, then, for Appleby's, a family business of farmers and cheesemakers from the Cheshire/Shropshire borders, who are now onto the third generation of cheesemakers, use traditional artisan methods and defiantly unpasteurised milk. They were one of the few artisan, local producers in evidence on the day.
At the end of the afternoon, the big winner was the Cropwell Bishop Creamery from Nottingham, taking the title of Supreme Champion for its Blue Stilton.
But, unless next year's event does more to showcase the hard work and expertise of smaller, local produces, the future winners will be those with the biggest corporate spending power.
And that, as a cheese lover, would really leave me feeling really - wait for it - cheesed off.