Monthly Archives: March 2010

LEGOLAND fails to build a new following

Bad weather and school holidays. That old chestnut.

No wonder, then, that the much-plugged new LEGOLAND Discovery Centre in Manchester’s Trafford Centre was heaving at the weekend. I was there with my four-year-old toddler to test it out.

Great Danes

Now I love a big of LEGO. I’ve been to the original LEGOLAND in Billund, western Denmark, and interviewed the LEGO boffins behind closed doors in the secretive LEGO development labs.

The company was founded in 1932 when local carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen started making wooden toys. He named them LEGO, a contraction of the Danish ‘leg godt’, meaning ‘play well’.

Play Well

But does Manchester’s new LEGOLAND Discovery Centre play well?

The visit starts fine with The Factory, a hands-on introduction to making LEGO bricks. The next stage, Kingdom Quest, is a ghost train-style ride better suited to older children.

But after that it’s a major letdown. MINILAND, a model village recreation of key landmarks across England’s Northwest, including the Blackpool Tower and a walk-through street scene under Chester’s famous Eastgate Clock, is deceptively small.

And the themed play areas are just small spaces around the cafe. The idea is clearly to force tired parents to fork out for mediocre food and luke-warm coffee while the kids make for the LEGO play stations.

High Price

That’s it. The walk-in price for adults is £13.95 and £10.95 for children, although special offers are available through the website.

Okay, so it’s indoors on a rain-sodden afternoon in the school holidays. But so is my local library – and that’s free to visit.

My advice? Save up for a trip to Denmark.

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Filed under Manchester, Tourism

Where next for the guidebook writer?

I spent the day in a rainy, off-season seaside town in North Wales. It was bliss.

No, really. It is the third time I’ve covered this destination for a certain publisher and being the returning writer means I can draw on prior experience to really get under the skin of the place.

Llandudno Pier

Prodigal return

I’m enjoying the benefit of bypassing the mediocre attractions and so-so places to eat I tested last time, and cutting to the quick of the real quality.

I can see how some local businesses in tourism have grown and how others I was unsure about last time have floundered. I am revisiting favourite coffee shops and sneaking in a cheeky half at favourite local bars along the way.

I’ve even recognised some familiar faces I met on previous bouts of research. One B&B owner almost embraced today on his doorstep like a long-lost prodigal son.

Pounding the streets

But don’t get me wrong. I’m still earning my money by getting out there, walking the pavements and personally checking everything first hand.

Just today I walked about one mile out of Conway to have a look at a new B&B someone had recommended to me. There was a dearth of quality places to stay and I needed some decent new places to increase my coverage.

It was worth the walk. Friendly, homely and perfect for the new edition. The owner even prepares her own hand-drawn walking maps to highlight hidden-gem local attractions to her guests.

You can have a sneak preview by following this link.

A traditional seaside guesthouse

Reliable information

Walking back into town for lunch, I was pondering some recent posts by fellow freelancers, notably a post on WorldofJames about how holidaymakers don’t trust guidebooks, and a post from Travelblather about how PRs don’t take guidebook writers seriously.

I know I’m going out of my way to research the most reliable and up-to-date information for my next edition. And I’m sure many of my colleagues from the British Guild of Travel Writers do the same.

So why are guidebooks increasingly under attack? To me, a well-researched guide – whether print or online – is far better than some propaganda-fuelled bitching session on one of the customer reviews websites.

And it makes for far better editorial coverage, especially if you can spin-off story ideas from your research.

No easy ride

Public service information in Conwy

I spent today trying to find beauty in North Wales despite low-season early closing and a light-to-medium drizzle.

I think I succeeded. But will my guidebook shift units?

Maybe I should be using my destination knowledge to develop an iPhone app, or marketing a SEA-friendly website about hidden gems of North Wales on a wet Wednesday in March?

Over to you.

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Filed under Travel writing, Wales

Fired up on Roman heritage in Carlisle

Did you see the light? I did, albeit a dress rehearsal a few weeks back for the big event along Hadrian’s Wall at the weekend.

Illuminating the Wall set ablaze the entire 84-mile length of the wall for the first time in its century-spanning history. Carlisle hosted Welcoming the Light, a free event to welcome the flaming torches to northern Cumbria.

Wordle: Illuminating Hadrian's Wall

You can see my story, published in Saturday’s Daily Express, above as a Wordle.

Linda Tuttiett of Hadrian’s Wall Heritage

Roman heritage

The Emperor Hadrian first ordered the construction of the wall in AD122 and it symbolised the dominance of the Empire for some 300 years.

Unesco listed it as a World Heritage Site in 1987.

Tim Padley, the Keeper of Archaeology at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery explains its history thus: “The wall was partly a frontier to control people, much like the Berlin Wall or the US-Mexico border today.”

Border control

The illumination was designed as a one-off public art event.

But, more importantly, it makes us think about how borders – whether ancient frontiers, or modern-day divisions – still effect lives across the world today.

Linda Tuttiett, Chief Executive of Hadrian’s Wall Heritage, says: “We hope this event will bring the Wall back into focus and encourage people to think about the effect of frontiers on communities.”

Your impressions

But were you there? And was the event the spectacle it promised to be? Please post your thoughts below.

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Filed under Lake District, Northwest, Tourism

Lunch with Marco – but he’s not cooking

An invitation arrives. Lunch tomorrow (March 11) with Marco Pierre White at the Steakhouse Bar & Grill, the newly opened restaurant at the Doubletree by Hilton, Chester.

The new venture forms part of plans by the curmudgeonly chef’s company, MPW Restaurants, to open three new eateries around the Northwest.

Problem is, as this piece from the Guardian’s Word of Mouth blog highlights, Marco is lending his name but not his culinary flair.

Some lackey will be slaving over a hot stove while Marco talks branding. So would you pay £19.50 for three courses graced by Marco only in name?

Yep, me too. Think I’ll pass.

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Filed under Chester, Northwest

The Chester playground with its very own Roman goddess

There’s a goddess down the end of my road. She’s called Minerva and a bit of a stunner by all accounts.

I never knew she lived close by and my four-year-old toddler has been playing on the swings on her doorstep for ages, oblivious to the secret siren who dwells within.

I only found out myself after a story in the local newspaper, the Chester Chronicle, reported that a £210,000 revamp of Edgar’s Field Park, a park and kids’ playground with views of the River Dee in Handbridge, Chester, gets under way today, March 8.

Roman soldierHidden heritage

But, aside from the prospect of new swings, what really caught my eye is the field at the end of my road, given to Chester by the Duke of Westminster in 1892, is home to a hidden gem of Roman history.

The park is built on the site of a Roman quarry and is designated as a Regionally Important Geodiversity Site.

The Roman shrine to the goddess Minerva, images of which here, is believed to be the only example of an in-situ rock carving of the goddess in Western Europe.

Local support

Hit the North is all for promoting tourism in our own backyard but this site of major historical interest, completely unknown to me until this week, is literally five minutes from my front door.

Why does it take a new roundabout for the local kids to bring this story to light?

Local tourism body, Visit Chester & Cheshire, recently announced Chestival 2010, a summer arts festival of town criers, mystery plays and, err, giant sculpted rhinos. But it’s a group of local volunteers that fought for Edgar’s Fields.

Chester trades a lot on some pretty hackneyed images of its Roman history but here’s a genuine opportunity to showcase a real find. The project needs support to both protect and celebrate Minerva’s Handbridge residency.

Besides, it’s not every day you find a bone-fide goddess down the end of your street.

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Filed under Chester

Why doesn’t everyone simply love Wales?

Did you wear your daffodil with pride this week? I did. In fact, in preparation for St David’s Day, I’d actually been there, done that and written the feature, exploring links to the patron saint of Wales in St Davids, Pembrokeshire.

Read my story here in Metro.

St David's Cathedral

Coming up

Visit Wales gathered a group of journalists in London this week to talk up some of the projects for the year ahead: the linking of the Welsh Highland and Ffestiniog Railways, the Angela Gray cooking schools and, most importantly, the 2010 Ryder Cup to be staged at the Celtic Manor Resort, Newport, from October 1-3.

There was plenty to crow about. Four Michelin stars, five Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and 500 miles of National Trails among them.

Yet visitor numbers are down – just under 0.9m trips by overseas tourists in 2007. Why?

Image problem

Wales has reinvented itself in the last ten years, so why do people still have an outdated image of the county – the kind exemplified by a headline from the Sunday Telegraph last winter:

Q. Why don’t tourists flock to lovely Wales? A. Because the Welsh can be rude and unfriendly (say the English).

A contact of mine in Cardiff keeps a list of well-known people who are classed as UTBW – Used to be Welsh. Having grabbed their moment in the spotlight, they are keen to shun their ancestral links to the country.

The BBC website this week also reports on the new Welsh stars, the celebrities who play down their ancestral links to the green, green grass of a Welsh home.

St Non's Chapel, St Davids

Changing perceptions

I don’t get it. After the huge changes in the tourism industry in Wales, why do people still turn their nose up at the thought of a weekend in Snowdonia, or a short break in Pembrokeshire?

Personally, I’d much rather be in Wales than snowed in around Scotland or feigning interest in the faux ‘craic’ in Ireland.

But what do other people think? I’m about to start work on another Wales project and will be focusing this spring on North Wales in particular.

Please post your perceptions below and help to shape my research.

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Filed under Wales