Trip to Town (a comparison)

I was driving into Lanciano, our nearest large town the other day and it occurred to me that when I lived in England it took me the same amount of time; 20 minutes to get to Hanley the main shopping centre for Stoke on Trent. The main difference between driving from Lightwood to Hanley and driving from G.V. to Lanciano is the smaller amount of other vehicles on the road, occasionally I’ll see three or four other cars whereas in England you could guarantee I’d have some sort of delay due to the sheer volume of traffic on the roads. Here’s what a part of my journey would have looked like:

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Photo: Google Map (screenshot)

Now, not only is my journey less congested but it’s infinitely more pleasing on the eye, I calculated the exact distance from my house to where the Google screenshot is from my previous address and took the same image over here in Italy:

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I then went to Google again to take another screenshot of what my journey looked liked previously:

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And once again I calculated the distance of the previous journey and took a photograph of the equivalent journey here in Italy:

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Now I’m not saying the journey is better than before in the UK, yes it’s moderately quicker, but not faster, as there are more bends and the scenery does tend to make me drive at a more sedate pace, much to the annoyance of the young Italians who with a mobile phone clamped to the side of their head find themselves behind me. It is much more pleasing on the eye as I’ve said before, but in wet weather the Italian roads with their snake like bends can be treacherous, and it’s at this point the UK ones with better traction win out.

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Hell of a Distraction

Today I’m trying to organise myself. I have several ideas for future articles to pitch, research and upon acceptance write, I also need to crack on with my novel, ‘52’. But I’m being distracted. The source of this distraction is a five track EP from Stoke on Trent band, Moscow. I should be sorting files into folders and other interesting tasks, but listening to the EP titled Hell Fire is robbing me of my concentration.

One thing I do miss from England is the wealth of music I came into contact with. I’m not a fan of the radio, I can’t stand DJ chatter, so discovered new bands mostly by word of mouth. I miss having my office chats about new music with Becky, who has similar tastes to me. (I don’t miss the stress of having an office though). Here in Italy the music I get to hear is mostly pop from the UK charts, but it’s always about two or three years out of date. At a recent barbecue there was an Italian DJ, playing vinyl and every song played was English. We had a little bit of disco, some T. Rex and Bowie, a smidgen of northern soul and a blast of James Brown. Don’t get me wrong, I have quite an eclectic taste in music so can enjoy most offerings, I’m not partial to classical or instrumental music but do like a bit of opera. I’m not keen on musical theatre, for me it’s a bit twee, I much prefer music that has meat on its bones. I guess I’m essentially an indie kind of guy. My youth witnessed the emergence of punk, the new romantic scene with its androgynous images and the dark brooding gothic movement. Yes I was a safety pinned, lip-stick wearing, pink haired pop junkie. Honestly some days I’d emerge from my bedroom looking like the love child of Toyah Willcox and Steve Strange. (Sadly I never did grow out of the sticky-up hair stage.)

I have no one here in Italy to talk to about music, none of my friends have the same passion for new music that I do and the occasional message to Becky on Facebook doesn’t really quench my addiction to music related jibber-jabber, so I’m resorting to previewing music on iTunes and scouring the web for anything new and interesting.

Today I came across this EP by Moscow on Facebook, I’d heard a taster previously of one of the tracks Lizard Lords and it sounded promising. The four piece, made up of Matt – guitar, Nic – vocals, Tom – bass and Mark – drums have an edgy yet urgent sound; It’d be lazy to call them simply indie, rock or even post-punk, their music is a fusion of all these genres with touches of frenetic thrashing: epileptic music.

Hell Fire EP

I don’t really like comparisons, but can see how people could compare Nic’s vocals to those of Editor’s frontman, Tom Smith, but it’s not that simple, there’s something darker in Nic’s timbre, its almost menacing, daring you to listen. On the track Cold Hands, there’s touches of Echo and the Bunnymen singer, Ian McCulloch hidden between the lines, but Nic defies all comparisons on the track The Night, two minutes and forty-one seconds into the song and the music fades leaving Nic alone, his vocals become trapped: an inmate inside a musical asylum he calls out, giving the listener twenty-one seconds of uncomfortable joy.

But what makes one band better than another? That’s the rub. In my opinion it’s that mix of people that just works. It’s something evident in the music. It’s not image, stage presence or pretty boy looks that makes a great band, (apologies to One Direction), it’s something that you cannot define but you can hear it when you listen to the music they produce.

Being someone who makes a living out of words, I believe an essential ingredient any band needs is a clever wordsmith. Someone who can weave lyrics into something more than a formulaic format of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, etc. Bands like Scouting for Girls and dare I say it, Kaiser Chiefs all know the importance of getting the lyrics right. Back in the 1980’s Haircut 100 singer Nick Heyward was applauded in the music press for his clever phrases and wordplay, so much so he once said he was looking for a way to fit the word, Toblerone, into one of his songs. This is all rather excessive and a tad pretentious, you don’t need to use clever words and phrases like, Drifting apart like a plate tectonic, (Kaiser Chiefs), you just need the right turn of phrase. On Don’t Look Back, the track starts with a repetitive guitar riff and a bass line akin to a heart patient with arrhythmia: A simple introduction to the song, add to this the opening lyric of, ‘Don’t look back, you’ll see’  and you’re hooked, but simple is not the case here, words like, transmission and rearranged are tossed into the mix with phrases like ‘robot eyes never blink’ and ‘the most effective kind of cage, is the kind you can’t see’  and you can see why as writer I’m distracted by this band. In my opinion, I don’t believe this is four guys who just set up and jam in a mates garage, before sloping off to the local for a few pints, this is a band that think carefully about the important craft of song writing.

But don’t just take my word for it, check out Moscow at their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/lizardlords?fref=ts and their Bandcamp page: http://moscowmusic.bandcamp.com/

Download Hell Fire, I dare you. But if you do I take no responsibility for your inevitable distraction.

Photo used with permission

Eight Things (a continuation)

I follow a blog written by another Brit who has made Italy his home. The Brit in question is Richard Noble and the part of Italy he’s chosen is Piemonte, a good six and half hours north west of here by car. It’s nice to see that another person is writing about their experiences of relocating, Richard’s posts are entertaining and it is nice to see someone else coming up against the eccentricities of la bella Italia. Recently Richard posted a really positive piece about the eight things he loved about Piemonte. Here’s the link, so you can take a look for yourselves: http://livinginthelanghe.wordpress.com/2013/07/15/eight-things-to-love-about-piemonte/ As it’s always tempting to write about negative things; a sort of cathartic writing exercise to exorcise those niggles, (Did you like the play on words there?) I decided to do the same and write about the eight things I love about Abruzzo.

Diversity – Tuscany looks pretty much the same no matter where you go, Calabria is mostly dusty and sandy and Le Marche is green. Abruzzo is so diverse, it has so many different landscapes that you’d be forgiven for thinking they can’t belong to one region. The beauty of this is that they are all within easy reach of each other. I love the fact that I’m a mere 18 minutes from the coast, in particular the trabocchi coast, where rickety fishing platforms lean out over the sea. I particularly love the sandy beaches a little further down towards the town of Vasto. Forty minutes away are the mountains, where Apennine wolves have been reintroduced and the marsican bear shyly keeps himself to himself. Skiing is there for those that ski, and the mountains have some wonderful shepherd trails and walking routes that lead you onto breath taking vistas. We have national parks; lush environments where waterfalls invite you to cool off, flowers perfume the breeze and the clean air has an intoxicating effect. Whatever terrain you favour, you’ll find it here.

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Eating Out – Everyone has their favourite restaurant or bar and I’m no exception, however here it’s hard to narrow it down to just one. When I was living in the UK I had only one favourite, an Italian (no surprise there) pizza house in town called Roberto’s.  http://www.robertopizzeria.com/ if you’re passing through Stoke on Trent, pop in and sample the pizza Pina, and tell them I sent you. If I want pizza I can pop to our local pizzeria and grab a freshly prepared one for very few Euro, but if I want a good dinner then it has to be Il Buchanieri, where superb service and food is always on the menu. We have so many excellent restaurants here that eating out is always high on the ‘to do list’.

Work – I’m lucky, I can work anywhere in the world, all I need is a laptop and internet connection. But I love working in Abruzzo for two reasons, the first is inspiration. As a staff writer for Italy Magazine, when my inspiration levels drop al I need is a walk around and I can find a multitude of things to write about. A trip to the local bar for a coffee gave me the idea for a forthcoming feature on Italian coffee culture. The second reason is the fact that we have an airport in Pescara, 40 minutes away, that flies daily to London Stansted. So if I have to be in the UK for a meeting or presentation I can get there in under three hours. Also, when all is said and done, it’s much nicer to be sat at my desk looking down over an Italian valley than my previous office that looked out over a litter strewn alleyway.

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Piano Piano – It hasn’t taken me long to slot in with the pace of life here. No more rushing around, no more stress levels rising as I sit in a traffic jam, no more ‘I need this, like yesterday’. Driving to the shop is now a relaxing affair, I pootle along, taking in the scenery. I sound my horn and wave to friends. The low levels of traffic on our rural roads makes driving a joy, so what if I’m behind an octogenarian in an Ape doing just 15 kmph, I’m in no hurry. If I need some tomatoes for dinner, I have all day in which to wander over to the plants and pick them, no need to dodge shopping trolleys in Tesco. This said I like the fact that I can browse in my local fruit shop, handle the produce and take my time over buying. The pretty girl in the bread shop; actually she’s beautiful, always chats, asks how the house is coming along and waves to Olive the dog, who’s always in the car looking through the window. Okay buying a loaf takes several more minutes than it needs to, but I have time.

Community – During my final year in the UK, we rented a house in the north of the city and apart from my friend Tim a few streets away, I didn’t know any of the other people that lived close by. In fact i can’t recall having any conversations with my neighbours. Granted most of the houses were tenanted and this in itself leads to a fractured community. Here, I know my neighbours by name, we stop and pass the time of day. Acceptance within the community has been quick, cars pass and slow to see the work on the house progressing, the occupants wave and now ask how things are, we’re no longer the crazy foreigners, we’re now the English on the hill. If we go to our favourite bar in Casoli, the owner asks how we are, we get served tasty titbits with our beers, and many of the locals that pass by say hello. It may not work for some people this bonhomie, many think the Italians take too much interest in the lives of others, but I like it, I like that I know about my neighbours forthcoming prostate check-up and another neighbours problems with her daughter’s husband, it makes me feel part of the community.

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View from my office window

Taxes – Here’s an odd one, as no one enjoys paying taxes, but here in Italy and particularly the comune we are in, the comparison to what we paid in the UK makes me very happy. Back in Stoke on Trent, my town of birth, I was paying at one point £2,168 in council tax per annum. Understandably at the time I did reside in a large detached house. Profits from the sale of this house went to buy our current casa italiana. In my final year in the UK my council tax, which covered refuse removal, once weekly and street lighting etc. was £978. Here in Italy my council tax is €115 and my rubbish removal tax is €118 with recycling/rubbish collections taking place daily, except Sunday. The total taxes are €233, add to this the sixty cents it’ll cost to pay at the post office and the conversion to GBP is £201.67, saving me a total of £776.33 each year.

Dog Friendly – For a country that has an appalling record regarding dog welfare; approximately 650 dogs are abandoned during the summer months of June to September, that’s a rate of one dog every two minutes. http://ow.ly/nm07N These statistics are shocking, but on the other side of the coin, living here is great for people with dogs. We have lots of open space for them to enjoy, the roads here in the countryside are quiet so it’s possible to wander along them with your pooch on its lead without having to dodge traffic. The bars are dog friendly, I can take my dogs to the two bars I frequent, and they are welcomed as we sit outside enjoying our beers. There are even shops, large international ones that are okay with small dogs coming in with their owners. So if we take a trip into Ikea, Olive our terrier can come along with us and enjoy a sneaky hot-dog at the end of the trip, but our big hound, Alfie has to stay behind in the car. (In the underground car-park of course where it’s cool).

Wine – Hands up who thought I’d not give the red stuff a mention: As if… I like the fact that I can buy a good bottle of prosecco for as little as €3 compared to £11 back in England. There’s a plethora of good wines on offer here for very little money, yes the supermarkets have undrinkable red plonk for as little as 99 cents, but a good montepulciano d’abruzzo can be purchased for around €1,49. But a big change I have discovered is there are a few whites that I can drink and enjoy. I’ve never really taken to white wine, having found it mostly acidic and unpalatable. Now when we eat at our favourite restaurant, I can be seen sipping a chilled, dry white with my seafood pasta.

Italy isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, there’s elements of living here that infuriate, there are things I miss about the UK, silly things like walking down the road and instantly understanding every written sign around me. I miss being able to go to my writers’ group on a Wednesday evening and enjoying the company of like-minded people. Mostly I miss hearing the potteries dialect, the flat vowels and nasal sounds I grew up with. But there’s much more that I don’t miss, and as this is a post about being positive I’ll resist the urge to go into detail.

I hope this idea of positive things about where we live is taken up by another blogger and directed back to me, and this in turn will filter back to Richard and of course his edition will  kick back to the Brit in Bavaria who unknowingly started this chain. http://boahbayern.wordpress.com/2013/07/11/top-twelve-reasons-i-love-living-in-germany/ So come on, one of you bloggers out there tell us all, why you love where you live.

Prodotto in Italia

When I grew up in the 70’s, ‘Made in England’ was the watchword for anything you needed, it was seen as a mark of quality. However, the UK the marketplace is now flooded with cheap imports and very little of what people buy is manufactured in their own country. I grew up in the heart of the pottery industry and am proud of my heritage. Knowing that the mere mention of the town of Stoke on Trent, anywhere in the world, meant people instinctively thought of top quality china and earthenware, was something to be proud of. Sadly this is no longer the case, the idiots that ran the major china manufacturers became greedy and farmed out the production abroad, weakening the brand, creating unemployment and all for nothing. The increased profit they craved never materialised, and the doors opened for cheap china products from Poland, Russia and the East to flood the market. If only in those greed laden 80’s someone had, had the sense to say, no, maybe the town would still be synonymous with pottery rather than unemployment.

100_6465The Italians are very proud of what they produce, here, you very rarely see anything manufactured outside of Italy. Clothes from China are few and far between, kitchen showrooms boast, loudly that everything they sell is made in Italy. Even saucepans, washing-up bowls and toilet rolls have, prodotto in Italia stamped on the packaging somewhere. And surely this makes sound economic sense as well as keeping people in employment.

Here, prodotto in Italia carries the same gravitas for the Italian people, that made in England once did for the English.

The Italians are fiercely defensive of the heritage of their products, nowhere can a hard cheese made outside Emilia-Romagna be called, Parmesan, if your vinegar doesn’t come from Modena don’t even think of calling it balsamic, and if your curing ham outside of Parma, just call it prosciutto on the packaging.

Italy has more protected foods and wine than any other country in the European Union, and to keep them safe they all have the DOC, denominazione di origine controllata certification. So important is this heritage, that anyone manufacturing and falsely labelling a protected product faces huge fines and even imprisonment.

Sadly, there’s always someone who’ll deceive you and many products outside Italy that claim to be authentic may not be. The most common fakes on the market being olive oil, gorgonzola, parmesan and parma ham, with the greatest number of fakes being sold in China, Australia and New Zealand, Back in the UK, I’ve actually seen olive oil on the shelves of a well-known supermarket that is marketed as Italian. It has a typical Tuscan scene and the Italian flag on the label and the following wording on the reverse; ‘ may contain oil from various sources in the EU’.

Back in the 80’s two well-known pottery manufacturers in Stoke on Trent, had their china produced in Malaysia, it was shipped back to Stoke and there the final decoration was added, be it gilding or lithographing. The back stamp was then added, which led people to believe the product was a genuine piece of Stoke on Trent china. No wonder the industry died, if only we’d fought as hard as the Italians do.

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Tunstall

As I prepare to move the last of my belongings over to Italy I took a few moments to think about how life has been for me this past year in Tunstall. As a retired professional actor I’ve been used to living in all manner of places due to touring. Some good, some bad and one dreadful hovel above a café in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire. But for the past four years my life has been on hold, I’ll not go into details here, but suffice to say I had to return back to England in the autumn of 2010 to see an end to the problem that plagued me. Another year later it’s finally over and I can get back to la nostra casa in abruzzo (our house in Abruzzo). I grew up south of Stoke on Trent and have spent this past year north of the city in Tunstall.

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Now I don’t want to be too unkind about the area, but it really isn’t a nice place to live and had I had more time to look for somewhere to rent I’m sure I’d have chosen to live somewhere nicer. It’s a litter strewn, dog-mess of a town. People seem to have no pride in their area and without sounding pretentious, there’s quite a few people that I’d struggle to find something in common with. Despite these misgivings I can’t help but believe the town hasn’t always been like this. There must have been a thriving and vibrant community when the pottery factories were open and filled with workers. Is the dereliction of Tunstall symptomatic of the current climate or is the population inherently neglectful? I’d like to think the former, if the people have nothing, see local councils closing amenities and disrepair all around them, how can we expect them to have pride and care for their town.

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Last week for the half-term, Funderpark, a travelling fairground had pitched up and as I walked past one afternoon was less than enjoyable the sounds of children enjoying themselves filled the arctic cold air, walking back conveyed an opposite emotion. I walked along the town’s high street, it’s a relatively short street and as I walked I counted 26 empty properties, small shops no longer trading with piles of unopened envelopes sitting beneath their letter-boxes. I realise as I walk past, that I’ve never been into the church grounds, so take a detour. The old building looks imposing against the harsh daylight and despite the graffiti scratched walls where yobs have carved their initials etc. it’s weathered brickwork looks good against the colourless sky. There’s two cars parked behind the church and in the car-park two previous residents, their gravestones still standing.

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So with my life back inside boxes and with sixteen days before it is loaded onto the courier’s van, will I miss this part of town?

Sadly the answer is no.

Bevans and the Full English

We had two burly men turn up yesterday to paint the window frames so instead of cooking breakfast with them peering through the windows I popped into town for something to eat. It was as I was tucking into my bacon and eggs that it occurred to me that what was once a traditional Sunday morning breakfast had now become an everyday breakfast. Parisian cafés are famous for their coffee and patisserie and the Italian bars for their slices of pizza, this led me to ponder, what if in years to come when foreigners are asked what a traditional English meal is, rather than replying ‘roast beef and Yorkshire pudding’, will they say the ‘all day breakfast’.

I left the café and looked into the window of Bevans, a local independent music shop that has proudly stood its ground for fifty-two years. Originally opened by Mr Ellis Bevan, who traded from a small shop in Uttoxeter road in 1960, before moving to the newly constructed Bennett Precinct in Longton in 1965, it’s a store that hold many memories for Longtonians. The city had several independent music shops and as a teenager I frequented most of them to purchase the latest singles on vinyl.

Oh the days of 45’s seems so long ago now, I remember buying singles and travelling home on a bus with eager anticipation. It’s hard to convey the joy of hearing the crackle as the stylus finds the first groove before the opening bars play. With ‘Disco’ at its heyday, I remember going into Longton as a teenager to buy a 12” extended version of, You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real), by the late and legendary Sylvester (James). I recall bursting through the front door and rushing into the living-room like a dervish, placing the black disc onto the turntable, altering the speed from forty-five rpm to thirty-three and a third and gingerly applying the stylus to the first groove. The crackle came and then the explosive beat filled the room and I was in heaven for nine-minutes and thirty-seven seconds. It’s a song that is still among the most selected on my iPod, on the days I choose not to shuffle, and it still evokes a memory of buying it from Bevans many years later.

In 2012 at the age of eighty-six Ellis Bevan decided it was time to put his feet up and the store was sold to an old customer, Tom Mitchell, who has kept the independent heart of the store alive. In these times of downloads, CD’s and MP3’s Tom has brought back some nostalgia and stocks a large selection of those black vinyl discs of joy that we used to call, records.

With HMV in trouble and a quirky, topical message in his window that reads,  All our records are guaranteed horse meat-free, here’s hoping Bevans remains on the high street for another fifty-one years.

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I then switched on my iPod and selected the aforementioned disco classic and strode away with more heel-toe crossovers than usual.

For more information about the store go to Bevans Website

Tunstall

As I prepare to move the last of my belongings over to Italy I took a few moments to think about how life has been for me this past year in Tunstall. As a retired professional actor I’ve been used to living in all manner of places due to touring. Some good, some bad and one dreadful hovel above a café in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire. But for the past four years my life has been on hold, I’ll not go into details here, but suffice to say I had to return back to England in the autumn of 2010 to see an end to the problem that plagued me. Another year later it’s finally over and I can get back to la nostra casa in abruzzo (our house in Abruzzo). I grew up south of Stoke on Trent and have spent this past year north of the city in Tunstall.100_5465

Now I don’t want to be too unkind about the area, but it really isn’t a nice place to live and had I had more time to look for somewhere to rent I’m sure I’d have chosen to live somewhere nicer. It’s a litter strewn, dog-mess of a town. People seem to have no pride in their area and without sounding pretentious, there’s quite a few people that I’d struggle to find something in common with. Despite these misgivings I can’t help but believe the town hasn’t always been like this. There must have been a thriving and vibrant community when the pottery factories were open and filled with workers. Is the dereliction of Tunstall symptomatic of the current climate or is the population inherently neglectful? I’d like to think the former, if the people have nothing, see local councils closing amenities and disrepair all around them, how can we expect them to have pride and care for their town.

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Last week for the half-term, Funderpark, a travelling fairground had pitched up and as I walked past one afternoon was less than enjoyable the sounds of children enjoying themselves filled the arctic cold air, walking back conveyed an opposite emotion. I  walked along the town’s high street, it’s a relatively short street and as I walked I counted 26 empty properties, small shops no longer trading with piles of unopened envelopes sitting beneath their letter-boxes. I realise as I walk past, that I’ve never been into the church grounds, so take a detour. The old building looks imposing against the harsh daylight and despite the graffiti scratched walls where yobs have carved their initials etc. it’s weathered brickwork looks good against the colourless sky. There’s two cars parked behind the church and in the car-park two previous residents, their gravestones still standing.

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So with my life back inside boxes and with eighteen days before it is loaded onto the couriers van, will I miss this part of town?

Sadly the answer is no.

Eyes Open

I was on my way to the main library to do some research on an article. As usual I had my iPod with me and Julie London was singing Take Back Your Mink as I passed through a small grassed area with benches. I stopped and loitered for a while as the brass section played the middle eight. Suddenly from behind a cloud the sun appeared lighting up the building opposite. It made me think about how we disregard the architecture around us. The buildings are so familiar they lose its splendour, yet when we go on holiday and/or travel abroad we’re there with our camera’s snapping away. We take  photographs of churches, fountains, castles and I suspect even council buildings if we like the look of them. Maybe it’s the sunshine that makes them more appealing, or it could just be because we’re so relaxed we take more notice of our surroundings.

So, with this thought in my head I took a look around me, and noticed some magnificent buildings that previously I walked past without giving them a second glance. I was looking at a round building and it reminded me of a photograph of the Baptistery at Pisa that I had taken back in 2005, so I whipped out my camera and fired off a shot. Obviously the weather wasn’t as nice as it was when I took the picture in Pisa whilst visiting its famous leaning tower, but you get the idea.

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Another gem is the Bethesda chapel, and it’s looking so much nicer now it’s being restored, thanks to lottery grants after being left in a state of disrepair for decades.

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Sadly there are some buildings that no matter how nice the weather, will always be ugly, regardless of what angle you view them from.

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Next time you are out and about, take time to look at the familiar places around and hopefully you’ll see them in a new light.