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.