In the last couple of years my home town of Portsmouth has undergone something of a curious transformation. This normally risk-averse island has been putting two fingers up at the cainophobic by opening up a number of jaunts that would not look out of place in my former residence, London.
This has turned a once jaded seaside resort into a destination town that the Southamptons and Bournemouths of this coast can only dream of. We are fortunately spared the relentless onslaught of premarital festivity that has afflicted Brighton, making Portsmouth the perfect place for a weekend of shopping, culture and good old-fashioned seaside japes. As a recently returning daughter with a need for entertainment and a nosy disposition, I've made it my mission to find out what's going on. Here are a few of my favourite places, some that are making waves nationally and a couple of hidden gems for good measure. Just remember to bring ID as our pub bouncers are a little suspicious of outsiders. And please, don't mention the 90s.
This newly opened sustainable fish and chip shop located on South Parade Pier has added a much need injection of life into this somewhat moribund yet cherished landmark. Picnic blankets are provided for alfresco dinning on the beach or you can eat in, Brooklyn canteen style. However, the food is not your run-of-the-mill chippy. Scampi were huge whole tail prawns with the added bonus of a salsa verde style sauce to cut through the frying. Halloumi goujons were knee melting sticks of unctuous sin. Their chips, honest chunks of potato, cooked just to the correct hue. If this wasn't enough, booze is BYO. I can't think of a better place for a cheap date with plenty of wow factor. A recent addition is the ethical coffee brand Mozzo. Chuck in the free wifi and my winter office is sorted. Grazia have already sniffed them out.
For Portmuthians old enough to remember, owner Tracey used to run 90s clothing emporium Loco. After a stint as a journalist she returned to Portsmouth and expanded her vintage empire (she has a shop in Portobello). Her stock is out of this world. To give you an idea, I bought 36 dresses from there this year alone. The prices are unbeatable, between £30 and £60 for 30s to 50s and £20 to £40 for later. Her secret? A European supplier who stashes away pretty much every tea dress he can get his hands on for her. No internet presence whatsoever so you will have to go and check it out for yourself.
Room 237 is a pretty neat comic shop with The Goldroom boutique gallery located downstairs. Owner Angelo Tirotto is about to publish issue 5 of his sell out comic, the aptly entitled 'No Place Like Home'. It's a shining example of people in Portsmouth pulling their fingers out and just going for it with their dreams and passions. It's regular art openings and exhibitions have, frankly, kept me sane since arriving back in the homeland. The gallery is set for big things. Indie funded, and devoid of the normal constraints, it offers shows by underground and up-and-coming artists. Manager Louise Bush had queues at the In Rust We Trust show.
The Garage Lounge rose, like a phoenix, from the ashes of a defunct tire shop. It's arrival and popularity (especially considering it doesn't sell booze) has taken Pompey somewhat by surprise. "Yummy mummy and hipster Earl Grey drinking cyclist central" is what my brother calls it but don't let that put you off. The decor is an opulent mix of victorian bordello chic and mid-century design. For a coffee/tea/cake/lunch venue it is refreshingly devoid of twee. Owned by a Soho architect (and it shows) this tearoom is easily one of the most elegant on the south coast, if not the whole country, and I hear rumours of a second one in the pipeline.
As a young girl Wendy Budd's aim was to set up shop at 78 Albert Road. 'Its just always looked like how an old fashioned apothecary should be'. Fast-forward 15 years and the girl got her dream. I went visited in there for a bespoke herbal facial. The deep cleansing treatment was rigorous but relaxing. I was given a flacon of night oil (with a pipette!) and a jar of specially made-up face cream as a take out. The whole experience was rounded off nicely with a cup of lime flower, liquorish and ginger tea, which you can buy freshly mixed for £3 for 100g. This treatment is currently £30 instead of £60 for new customers until the end of the year. Also a handy place to pick up flyers for local yoga, fitness and life coaching.
This is the slightly more masculine offspring of the now ubiquitous vintage shop-cum-tearoom. It does what it says on the tin: hearty pies from local suppliers served on mid-century china and a record shop at the back. Owners, Rob Litchfield and Steve Courtnell, both have a real understanding and appreciation of music and this warmth is completely conveyed in their shop. Phil Jupitus made it his mission to visit on National Record Day and Field Music casually dropped in whilst on their way to Bestival. I'm going to hang around for Tim Burgess' imminent arrival. Tea comes served in some very desirable midwinter tea pots .Top tip: they sell premium refurbed systems (amp, turntable, speakers) for under £200.
Ian Parmiter is a bit of a local institution and his shop is no new addition if I'm to be honest. Organiser of the Christmas day sea swim, the Albert Road Ashes and some chaps club thingy that involves tweed and shoots clay, he has impeccable taste in quirky antiques for the home and garden. This led him to become one of ITVs Secret Dealers. If you ask him nicely he might let you see the tree boat house at the end of his frankly spectacular garden.
Lucinda Hollingsworth is all about the chic. If it ain't chic it ain't in her shop. She recently had a whole ton of original Boy/McLaren/Westwood for sale. She is a big fan of vintage printed trousers and wiggle dresses and stocks my favourite denim brand of all time, Freddies of Pinewood. Less froufrou, more fierce is the vibe. Limited opening times right now but the boss lives right opposite and can arrange an appointment. Her peroxide Marylyn mop is normally found surveying her empire from the comfort of Porters across the road.
The Hair Tree Salon
This fragrant hair haven is down an end of Portsmouth that doesn't really contain much other than, well, this hair salon. As far as I know this is the only place you can get a proper 50s style V fringe in Portsmouth. The rest of my cut, a bob, was also pretty sharp. There was a copy of 'Style Me Vintage, Hair' on a table right in the middle of the salon, though owner Sarah Richards (former Young Hairdresser of the Year) subscribes to the school of thought that a good hairdresser should be able to do everything. Enough said.
Josh Carroll-Smith's one man venture, The Barbers Club of Southsea, offers traditional gentleman's grooming, something a few of the men-folk of this isle could learn more about. Josh, a Pompey native, decided to return home to set up a traditional grooming business with a difference. His experience ranges from high fashion styling in London to managing a men's salon in Chichester. It's up market yet inviting and friendly. There is fridge stocked with beer and the aim is to provide a relaxing experience. A hot towel shave is £25. A favourite with the Southsea crowd and the older gentleman alike.
On an educational level, the Aspex art gallery likes to encourage people of all ages to engage with contemporary visual art. On my level, it's all about their café and gift shop. High ceilings, exposed brick work and a whiff of sea air. A giant banner reminds you to 'never be afraid'. The shop is known for contemporary craft, indie mags and the best birthday cards in the South.
Not just another home wear and gift shop. When I dropped by I couldn't quite put my finger on the vibe. It's certainly not cheap tat masquerading as kitsch, that's for sure. It's difficult to see where the decor stops and the shopping starts. Ancient anatomical charts mix with modern European design, carefully selected antiques and local makers such as Broken Arrow jewellery and Oo La Lapin. It's eclectic, yet balanced. At Christmas they offer a wish list service which has proved extremely popular.
Portsmouth is under two hours by train or coach from London.