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      31.03.2010 18:17
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      I can't think of a region I would rather live in

      Blimey, this is a bit of a strange category. It's as though Dooyoo don't quite know what to do with we awkward types who refuse to be lumped in either with the "North" or with the "South" of England when lazy journalists insist on dividing the country that way. To be honest, you can't really blame Dooyoo if that is indeed so, since one of the most interesting things about the region in which I have lived all my life is its sheer variety. It's simply not possible to say, "The Midlands is like *this*" and sum it up in a sentence. (I suppose that's a good job really, since not that many sentences are over 150 words!)

      Even defining the Midlands' extent is rather tricky. The core of the region around Birmingham is clear enough, but when you get out to the fringes the boundaries are rather blurred. For example, many people would consider Tewkesbury to be more of a Midland town than Barton-on-Humber, yet because the former is in Gloucestershire it is excluded but because the latter is in Lincolnshire it is included! We try to be a reasonably easy-going region, though - we don't fret quite as much as those from Cornwall or Yorkshire about our status - and so generally just rub along with whoever wants to join the club!

      Clearly, Birmingham is the capital of the Midlands. The city really has undergone a remarkable transformation in the last decade or so, and it is now a far more attractive destination for a visit than it used to be not so very long ago. Of course its shopping is a major attraction, with the Bullring (yes, they insist on spelling the new one as one word. Odd, isn't it?) being one of the most successful of the often formulaic and dull retail palaces that are springing up across the country. It is a shame that New Street station is still such a dump - and none of the proposed redevelopments will do anything about the congestion at track level - but at least that place is now less representative of the city as a whole!

      I could easily write a long review just about Birmingham, but as that would not fit with this category I shall move on. There are of course plenty of other substantial cities in the Midlands, but to be honest there seems little reason to visit the likes of Derby or Wolverhampton simply for a day trip. (Ooh, I suspect that I'm making some enemies here!) The two cities in the region which I really *do* enjoy visiting are Worcester and Lincoln, both of which have a wonderfully rich heritage and both of which are large enough to supply all your needs yet small enough to be manageable on foot. Worcester especially may have a claim to being my favourite city in Britain.

      History is a major draw for visitors to many parts of this region. Stratford-upon-Avon needs no introduction, though in truth it's not a place I particularly like as it really is too small to cope with the immense influx of Shakespeare-related visitors. Nearby Leamington Spa may be a better bet, with elegant architecture and attractive parkland very reminiscent in many ways of Cheltenham but without quite such inflated prices. Fans of grittier industrial memories are well catered for too, by the likes of the Black Country Museum near Dudley and all manner of mining heritage centres in the north and east Midlands. And we have medieval manor houses coming out of our ears - not literally of course! Stokesay Castle in Shropshire is one of the finest examples in the country.

      Food and drink - ah, now there's a subject dear to my heart (and stomach!) and the Midlands has heaps to offer here; again, I could easily write a whole review just on this subject. Admittedly it's a bit short on the fresh seafood front unless you're in Lincolnshire, but wherever you go you'll find something of interest. A particular foodie's delight is Ludlow in Shropshire, which is a nice town to visit at any time of the year but really comes into its own in September with a tremendously popular food festival. It's fair to say that omnivores will have the most fun: sausages are a major draw, as are game birds, cheese and pies. However, there's plenty of succulent fruit and veg to be had too!

      If you're in the East Midlands and Ludlow is a bit far to travel, then Melton Mowbray will prove a very acceptable alternative; its pork pies are world-famous, but Red Leicester cheese is superb as well. On a more urban note, there's the famous "Balti Triangle" centred on Smethwick, where this most English of Indian dishes can be experienced at often surprisingly low prices. And towards the south-west of the region, in Worcestershire and Herefordshire, you can pick up not only very fine fruit but some super ciders and perries, a world away from the bland fizz churned out by the big national concerns. Those who are driving should probably stick to Malvern water!

      Transport, as you would expect, is heavily slanted towards the heavily-populated region around Birmingham. This has an excellent local rail network (if you're from a poorly-served city such as Bristol, it will be a revelation) and I would certainly recommend using it if possible, as the roads tend to get very congested. Further out, you may have to rely either on your own transport or onfood sometimes awkward bus connections: in rural areas they are often timed to allow locals to get to the nearest market town, rather than for the benefit of tourists. Still as with most places, if you want to see how local people actually live then there's no better way to travel than by bus.

      It's a good idea to allow longer than you expect for your journeys around this part of the world. That's not so much because the main roads are poor - with the odd exception, there are few really remote spots in this region - but more because the scenery is so stunning. I'm from Worcestershire so a bit biased, but consider that this sometimes overlooked county contains some views which are about as "English" as it's possible to get. The Malvern Hills were the haunt of both Edward Elgar and CS Lewis. The flatter East Midlands hides its rural charms a little better, but there are still some fine pockets of serenity such as Rutland Water.

      Unless you're after truly imposing mountains or offshore islands, then the Midlands has everything you could possibly want. Family seaside resort? That'll be Cleethorpes. Impossibly pretty black-and-white villages? Herefordshire will satisfy you. Rugged, lonely hills for walkers? The Derbyshire Peak District and the Long Mynd in Shropshire fit the bill there. Castles? Ludlow and Warwick are two of the best. Gorgeous gardens? Shugborough in Staffordshire has those. Sport? Leicester manages to maintain substantial football, rugby and cricket clubs. Theme parks? Alton Towers, of course.

      And so it goes on. Yes, I'm loyal to the region that shaped me, but I see no reason why I shouldn't be. It's probably the most varied part of the country, and that in itself is recommendation enough. If you've tended to pass us by on the way to some more glamorous destinations, whether elsewhere in the UK or abroad, then I urge you to give the Midlands a proper chance. Our nickname isn't the Heart of England for nothing.

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        07.09.2004 15:47
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        Do you like garden centres? Yeh, me neither. I'm usually in and out as quickly as I can. Where we are we have no end of choices; Notcutts, Longacres, Wyevale, a few independents... They're all the same though. Row upon row of plants, pots, potting compost... They are a necessity no doubt and they do seem to do extraordinary business. All of them here are packed out every weekend. Why? You can only fill your garden with just so many plants. Surely they're not all dying all the time that the need to be continually replaced? Mind you, I shouldn't talk; the number of plants and trees we've lost is a clear indication that green fingers I don't have. Any idea why our rosemary is dying off? It just seems to be fading away despite adequate watering and feeding. Still, we do try and sometimes we have some real successes. So, a visit Oop North to visit the In-Laws (Father-in-Law's birthday) for the weekend presented a challenge of "things to do". We had decided to stay in Manchester as that's where my son lives and it's not far for Mum and Dad-in-Law to reach from their home in Southport. The Saturday was no problem. The Trafford Centre is shoppers paradise for my wife and her Mum and us three men can always find a bar where we can while the time away. There's also a multi-screen UCI there so if the worst come to the worst there's bound to be a film of some sort that will suit us all. No, it's Sunday that's the challenge. Not back to The Trafford Centre that's for sure as it doesn't open until midday. Mum-in-Law suggests a garden centre! Groan!!!!!!!!!!! Well, I was stunned. This is a garden centre like no other you have ever seen. &
        #73;t's an entertainment that's unique in my experience. If only they were all like this! Where am I talking about? It's called the Willow Pool Garden Centre and Nursery. You will probably never have heard of it. Don't bother going and looking for a website because they don't have one. The only way you are going to find out about it is by going there. It's in Lymm, in Cheshire. It's a couple of miles from either J19 or J20 off the M6, just South of the Thelwell Viaduct or J7 off the M56. There are signpost you can follow but keep a keen eye because they are easy to miss. Immediately you turn into the gravel drive you know this isn't your average garden centre. It's as much antique centre as garden centre. They have just the most extra-ordinary collection of objects you can imagine. On your right as you approach the car park there are some of those huge insulators that are used to suspend electric cables from pylons. Now, why on earth would anyone want those? But, they're for sale if you want them. So is a old car, circa the 20s. A snip at £3,000! On the left there is a topiary carriage drawn by horses and nearby a topiary grand piano complete with pianist. Everyone has come prepared with cameras, including me (I take mine everywhere anyway). If they were to charge for photo rights they'd make a fortune. All of these intermingled with old furniture, mostly metal and rusting, to indicate they've been there a while but all, nevertheless, for sale, if you want it. But, apart from the pergolas and benches, the most astonishing of what's on display are the monumental statues and fountains. Some of these are vast. You would need a crane simply to move them! You would need some garden for them not to look
        out of place. And this is just in the car park. We haven't even entered the garden centre itself yet! The centre itself is entered by a narrow path beside the grand piano and everywhere you look there are plants, bushes, antiques, garden furniture to fascinate. There is none of the wide-open spaces here. Everything is crammed in around you. At the end of the entrance path it opens up to reveal a wonderland of delights and on your left, another attraction, the "Tea Rooms". Yes, you could equally come here just for the food. And why wouldn't you when the food is as good as it is here. But, more about this later. The whole of this front area is ringed by glasshouses with selections of plant for sale and by other buildings containing largely antiques and not so antique furniture which has undoubtedly been recovered from demolition sites. The most extra-ordinary mix, side by side, of treasures and trash. Beyond this the centre opens out to reveal further delights. First to hit the eye is a huge fountain ringed by pairs of dolphins jetting water from their mouths. Almost next to this is the Ice Cream Parlour! On a hot day you can wander around with your ice cream cone to cool you down. Next to this area there is a duck pond, although at the moment more correctly it should be called a goose pond after its current inhabitants. A viewing platform is built out over the pond for youngsters to "get closer to nature". Look out for another amusement alongside; is that really someone asleep in the boat drawn up on the bank? More buildings surround the area with more antiques including loads of marble fireplaces that have clearly been rescued from old houses under demolition or renovation. These are also all for sale. By now you may be feeling a call of nature. There are toil
        ets on the premises but note, you have to ask at the checkout for the key! So, having wandered and decided now for some refreshments, it's back to the Tea Rooms. The rooms in question are, however, outside not in although there are some tables available in the main building if you so wish. However, most of the seating is outside in a number of those same metal pergolas I mentioned before. These have thatched roofs and wattle panelled sides for privacy and protection from the elements. Each can seat up to six and there are probably about a dozen of them. There are a couple of larger erections with several tables inside as well. In each there is also, in the middle of the table a small version of one of those gas patio heaters so even if the weather isn't exactly warm you can remain snug. Knowing how much heat those things through out though, you would probably end up lightly done! The food is amazing. The quality is exceptional. The quantity unbelievable. If you've ever eaten in a "Hungry Horse", that's the sort of quantity I mean. Five of us were lunching. I had Dutch Sausages with mash and veg. I nearly finished it but had to leave a couple of boiled potatoes in order to leave room for dessert. My wife had Hawaiian Pancakes (pineapple and ham) with salad. One pancake would have been a meal. The plate contained two. My son had the Sunday Roast. Even he struggled but eventually finished it although to the cost of the dessert! And what was for dessert? For me a Banoffi Glory. Now, imagine a goldfish bowl. Now fill it with sliced banana, ice cream, whipped cream and butterscotch sauce and that's a Banoffi Glory. Now you know why I left the potatoes. My son had the hot Chocolate Fudge Cake but couldn't
        finish it! Not just one slice of cake but two! With drinks for the five of is (not alcoholic, they have no drinks licence) the whole meal came to just over £50. Absolutely extra-ordinary. I never thought it possible to enjoy a "garden centre" but in this case I make an exception. I'm sure we will be back. Now, how are we going to fit that fountain in the back of the car? Willow Pool Garden Centre and Nursery (and Antiques Centre... and Tea Rooms) Burford Lane Lymm Cheshire WA13 0SH Tel: 01925 757827 Fax: 01925 758101 Monday-Saturday - 9.00am - 6.00pm Sunday - 10.00am - 6.00pm Tea Rooms - 10.00am - 5.00pm Capital letters courtesy of: http://www.chuckleweb.co.uk/fixit.php

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