Mar 9 2010


Preston. It comes with a built in anonymity, a shrug of the shoulders, an attempt at a sneer, it’s a nothing place, a train change-probably rubbish but not so rubbish it’s exciting like Milton Keynes or Wigan although you’ve never been there either.

It’s all rain and the occasional mini-riot, concrete and McDonalds wrappers think people who have not seen it. It’s grim oop North, cultureless and something to mock. Because clearly Reading is sooo much better.

Preston’s logo ‘Britain’s newest city’ is to be fair, awful. They try and make it sound all chirpy with an exclamation mark but the thought of a rosy cheeked family piling into a hatchback and saying ‘hey-lets go to Preston-it’s Britain’s newest city’ seems somewhat optimistic. Preston is not a gleaming Oz like city miraculously sprung up from red brick. Preston is old, has a rich heritage and history which seems to have been ignored, swept aside thinking that people will go to anything as long as it’s shiny and new, plastic, branded, corporate and given a logo. History? Pah. You don’t want history in a city. Knock it down, sanitise it, rebrand it and get a Debenhams.

Or maybe I’m reading too much into it.

Preston is a place where the history surrounds you but is not quaint and upper class, all darling and thatched with tumbling roses, window boxes and lodge houses but real history, normal peoples history- blackened mill chimneys with grass tufting out, huge decrepit boarded up hospitals and asylums, faded ghost signs for long gone businesses whose time has past and whose customers are now dust.

A jeweller is straight out of Dickens, all black beams and slants surrounded by rigid concrete. History is even more enchanting when taken in the context of the now, jostling side by side trying to keep up, not sat suspended in time in a historical theme park like some BBC costume drama.  Grand Victorian houses line the main road, a parade of elegant Georgian houses graciously recline by the park and I feel like I am Islington when I walk down the wide streets looked over by smart townhouses with huge windows and lofty interiors.  Some are converted offices, nearly all of which seem to be for sale, there are many empty buildings here, there is an essence of abandonment streaking through Preston and a three bedroom house can be had in a less prestigious area for fifty five grand.

It is a joy to walk around, not knowing what is to appear next-it could be a derelict kiln or a sleekly converted church, glassy modernism or graffitied shuttered windows on a once grandiose building. Walking up a street towards the university, there is a shrine in a car park. The Virgin’s face peers down the short alley that leads to it and there are still flowers laid for her in this windswept bit of concrete, which covers the foundations of the old church, which once stood here.

Preston high street is brash, noisy and lined with chain shops, aggressively pushed prams and shouty sweary teenagers brandishing mobiles with intent, much like pretty any high street on a cold sunny Saturday afternoon. I do not like it. There is an ornate ice-cream parlour, which is pleasing, but the little streets, which lead off, are infinitely more interesting. Cobbled Winckley Street is a cluster of gentle middle class bohemia and I coo at dresses and lovely rather dear things. Deli Med is worth a visit-a café cum deli which sells lovely tapassy stuff to eat in or takeaway-a meat or veggie platter is five or six quid and filled with lovely… err… tapassy things – cous cous, aubergine stew, hunks of rich cheese, olives. It is quiet, genteel and pleasant.  Down the same road a three course Italian meal can be had for 7.99. It is nice if unmemorable.

Winckley Square is an utterly lovely piece of park dotted by huge trees at the bottom overlooked by more elegant townhouses. Again, it would not feel out of place in an exclusive area of London. A Goth sits reading a book on a bench. There are pleasing amounts of weird looking people in Preston. It seems to consist of overexcited orange teenagers or punks, Goths and freaks.  Not sure how the Laura Ashley stays open.

There is a ghost mall in Preston, an utterly magical enchanting Victorian mall through which tumbleweed blows past the empty storefronts. It feels like something in a post nuclear Paris-and indeed speaking of that there is a festival called Preston is my Paris, a blog, events and all sorts of lovely things happening under that moniker

Preston market is wonderful, a huge covered Victorian market selling wonderful amounts of faded George at Asda baby clothes, accordions, tarnished brassy bling, leapordskin trousers and yellowing Cook Canadian! books from trestle tables-I adore a good boot sale and it is good to find one suddenly in the centre of town and not have to blearily drive 10 miles on a rainy Sunday morning at 6am. To be fair, there is nothing very good there but the principle of it is pleasing.

Some brilliant WAG style shops are to be found in Preston-I consider heavily discounted sequinned things then realise they would be uncomfortable to wear when sitting in looking at the internet all Friday night. And I am nearly 32. And Jordan might like it as well.

I have been to Preston quite a few times before and never stumbled upon this place before-on Market street, it is a shop and gallery with the emphasis on shop (this pleases me as I prefer to fill the empty space in my life with stuff rather than thought) and is possibly pretentious, utterly thrilling and just brilliant. I want to buy a house so I can fill it with stuff from here-it is all utterly fashionable, modern, kitsch, retro cool but even though the prices are enough to stop me being able to afford anything, they are at the price that gives me hope for the distant future.

A big coffee table filled with rocks and made from old industrial equipment is £125-a fair amount but it is a big table, one of a kind in an art shop and gallery-I am in love with a light shaped like a ghost for £69-I love ghosts and novelty lights and feel it is made for me. I might stop eating for a couple of weeks. There is now a gaping empty hole in my life where a ghost shaped light should be. Strangely enough, I googled ghost shaped light just so I could sit and stare at the ghost shaped light and found another ghost shaped light which I also can’t afford. I spent the entire Saturday of our Preston visit demanding with threats, promises and prayers, the ghost shaped light in the shop with my partner reasonably saying we have no money and are meant to be saving and you already have a very expensive pigeon shaped lamp which you said the purchase of would stop all demands for novelty shaped lights but anyway when obsessively googling I found a crying ghost light-it is over a hundred dollars  and I now feel like I am cheating on the original ghost light by being obsessed with this one-a moral conundrum I can’t see many people empathising with. If you do, if every reader sends a pound I can have nearly quarter of a ghost shaped light.

And as we are onto ghosts (I do love ghosts) if you are interested in ghosts then I recommend a visit to Salmesbury hall

It is a short bus ride out of Preston and is all the things I sneered about in the about the fourth paragraph of this review, about mummified history being the preserve of the rich for the proles to point at whilst their history is bulldozed with no fuss. I went to Salmesbury Hall after renting a badly made DVD of ghosts of Lancashire.

From the DVD’s serious monotoned voice over I was expecting spectral figures to glide over the lawn the second I paid my entry fee and implore me to find their head/treasure/beloved but the sound of the industrial vacuum cleaner pushed by jolly loud ladies scared away all spectral visions even when I closed my eyes in the most haunted room and pleaded for at least one little ghost to appear. Still a great place to go to see fire places as big as your house and furniture worth more than it though.

And on a similar note, Preston is the only place I have found a gothic Oxfam. A warning to the Goths-the site is lime green, a colour not traditionally associated with the dark side but there is a stuffed raven called Gabriel or something endearing like that, the White Stripes will be playing and there is oh so wonderful funereal wear mixed up with Per Una and clothes that cool young things wear. I bought a tiny denim mini skirt with a pony badly appliquéd on with its little legs fraying.  The staff will be oh so cool and bitching about someone and there are clothes that should you wish to go on a Columbine high school massacre or become a Sisters of Mercy tribute act. There are chaise lounges! In a charity shop! You would not get this even in Crouch End.

Another shop up the road sells thing I only imagine in dreams. Mexican Day of the dead dresses, handbags that swear, things that belong in dreams and sadly have to remain due to the price tags. But it’s Preston!  Rockabilly, punk and retro thrives in Preston more than it does in Camden. It is not just a weekend thing. So much stuff goes on here. Google it and take part.

The Mad Ferret is an excellent live music pub- they put on a festival there last year and turfed the entire pub and put hay bales inside. Misty’s Big Adventure played whom I have paid thrice the entry fee to watch in other venues  It is cheap, unpretentious and friendly and a very good place indeed.

The park in Preston is enormous and wonderful. There is a Japanese garden; there are bridges, cafes, huge trees, a river tumbles past and fields. It is probably the best park I have ever see seen-and it in the middle of a city and reaches out in to the countryside, proper countryside, not miles of suburbia.

We go to a pub recommended by Internet friends and thank god for the Internet.

I ate a meal there that I bore friends about. I have become a low rent Michael Winner. But it was utterly amazing.

We shared a starter of sweet potato brulee with carrot muffins and then my boyfriend had pumpkin risotto and I had a Mozzarella, leek and mushroom tart. My boyfriend’s only complaint was there was  too much risotto. Even the side salad came with roasted pumpkin seeds and was delicious instead of a few pieces of lacklustre tomato and lettuce.  I felt like I could be I be in some high-falutin’ London restaurant and paying 100 pounds a head instead of a tenner.

The pudding was a paen to PMT-chocolate, chocolate and chocolate-in so many different forms-there was chocolate piping, chocolate sorbet, chocolate terrine,  chocolate everything like Willy Wonka gone upmarket. It was the best pudding ever, the king of puddings and I reminisce mistily over it like a war widow would over a bundle of letters tied with a ribbon. There was also good cider, loads of real ales and excellent wine, newspapers and a lovely view over the park. I could quite happily stay here, indeed move in and gorge myself into an obese and early death but I suspect that would rather try the patience of the staff and not be the best publicity.  I’m up for it though if they are and I can bring my cat. Say hello to me when you drop in during your trip to Preston, Britain’s newest city!