Provincial Town of the Year 2011

In Awards, Museums on December 26, 2011 at 12:54 pm

This year has seen me galloping around the UK rather a lot for work. It’s been great fun to see so many places and to meet people working in museums up and down the country.

That said I’ve stood on many cold platforms, endured lonely nights in strange hotels and eaten quite a few sorry meals on my own. Spending time in a British provincial town solo is a good way to try and understand a place – to figure out what makes it tick and to see if it’s the kind of place I’d want to live ever. I have to say, there are very few that are looking to beat London, even if there are a lot of museums around the place.

So I thought that as part of my annual awards I ought to create a new category for Provincial Town of the Year.
Here’s the short list of where I went (and what I was doing there):

Margate – to see the new Turner Contemporary
Hmmm, people say there’s a renaissance happening in Margate. They’ve got a great new art gallery and some lovely tea rooms, but I think I’ll wait and see on this one. (They are planning a rollercoaster museum, however, so let’s watch this one with interest!)

Oxford – to work on a multimedia guide for The Ashmolean
I always enjoy a trip to Oxford and feel I now know if well enough to hang out there at night as well as during the day. But not sure I could live there full time.

Petworth – to work on a multimedia guide of Petworth House
This is charming little village in West Sussex, dominated by the massive National Trust property and overrun with antique shops. It’s cute, but it’s far too small for me. (And I suspect property prices aren’t far off London!)

Glasgow – to see the new Riverside Museum
The museum itself (designed by Zaha Hadid) on the banks of the river is an architectural triumph and a great visitor attraction to the area. It’s rather out of town, so it won’t add that much to the regeneration of the city, but we had time to jet into the centre to see the much-heralded Kelvingrove Museum. And to sample some fab Scottish food!

Cambridge – to chair focus groups for a piece of research
If I were an American I’d say Cambridge felt cuter and OLD-er than Oxford, and certainly has more charm. But it’s perhaps lacking the pace and city attitude that Oxford has. The Fitzwilliam Museum is a pretty fab museum though – like a mini-British Museum.

Manchester – to interview the public about the First World War
This is where I grew up, so am likely to always hold a soft spot for Manchester. This is perhaps the only place on the list where I’d move tomorrow. I visited this year in the sunny September heat wave so was thoroughly entertained by the Mancunians, who weren’t entirely sure what the large yellow thing in the sky was!

Bristol – to see the new MShed
I’ve been to Bristol a few times over the last five years or so and find I like it more and more. There’s certainly a very vibrant cultural life there. But is it just too far away from London, perhaps?

Bath – to see museums and eat lovely food
I can’t believe I’d not been to Bath before. If you’ve not been, it’s a cute as you think it is. And then some. Great museums and great food. My top tip would be to take the tour of the freemasons’ hall – it’s a great space and well worth spending a few hours having a nosy around. And the Holbourne Museum is definitely worth the trip.

Edinburgh – to work on a multimedia guide for National Mining Museum Scotland
I went a few times to Edinburgh for work this year. Alas, I was on the outskirts of town which, charming as they are, aren’t quite comparable to the centre of town. I think I’m due a trip back there for the festival in 2012, Olympics permitting.

Belfast – to see the great museums there and visit the site of the new Titanic Museum
It was great to get back to Northern Ireland this year and to get under the skin of Belfast. It’s a city which has had its (un)fair share of troubles over the last 40 years, but it’s still a hugely welcoming place. Some people forget that NI is part of the same landmass as the rest of Ireland and that it’s simply beautiful. The developments on the docks are set to revitalise the city even further and I can see some more trips back there coming soon.

And the winner is …

I visited a few times to work with the team building The Novium, a new museum due to open in Chichester in 2012.
It’s just such a cute town. There isn’t a whole load of things to do, but as a town (sorry, city) it all seems to work rather well, sitting together in a very happy medium.

Working on the museum content I got to learn plenty about the history of the place. And I also sat in on choral evensong in Chichester Cathedral, which is well worth it if you’re in town.

Where have you been to in the provinces in 2011? Any good tips?


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