Peterborough weekends, '88-'91
Between the ages of thirteen and sixteen there was a predictable pattern to my weekends. I had a paper round, and every Saturday was payday; after an early start and a late finish (since Saturdays also meant the latest copy of 2000AD was out, which I read religiously before delivering), by mid-morning I was ready to head into town to spend my hard-earned.
I cycled, usually, locking my narrow-wheeled, drop-handle racing bike to the lone lamppost at the corner of the Great Northern Railway Hotel car-park (a place I would later work, shivering in the dark winter mornings as I collected money from equally miserable London-bound commuters) before walking over the footbridge and into the Queensgate shopping centre. Queensgate had been in Peterborough for as long as I had -- it opened in 1982, around the time we moved to the city -- and so, for as long as I can remember, it was the retail Mecca toward which I headed every weekend.
First stop was always the now defunct record store, Our Price, where I browsed the cassettes and, later, CDs. It was there where I bought my first ever CD, Metallica's Ride The Lightning, spending my first paycheque from a Christmas job stacking shelves in BHS. Our Price was also where I took my first tentative steps out of the 80s heavy metal universe, buying Led Zeppelin's double-cassette album Remasters (I think much to my parents' surprise); I also remember agonising over which of Guns N' Roses' Use Your Illusion albums to buy first (my limited purchasing power only permitting me one CD every few weeks). I was a little in awe of one of the people working behind the desk, because I knew he played in a local band.
Further into the mirrored eighties interior of the shopping centre was Beatties, another long-gone relic. I don't remember what was downstairs at this toy store, but upstairs was where the Airfix models were kept; shelves stacked with airplanes and other vehicles on plastic sprues just waiting to be snapped apart and superglued to my fingers. At one time they also had lifesize plastic model guns; my younger self fantasised about fighting crime armed with a realistic plastic pistol.
Just around the corner from Beatties was the book shop Waterstones, offering a luxurious three floors of books. As I graduated from the teens section and moved upstairs to the adult section, I discovered travel writers like Ffyona Campbell and Christina Dodwell, two of the last of the explorer-writer hyphenates, braving the wilds of Africa or south-east Asia, writing about how to cook porcupines and the best place to pitch a tent in a monsoon. For several months I was convinced that I was going to be an explorer when I grew up, and filled the pages of notebooks with sketches of overland routes to India via the Black Sea and the Khyber Pass. Back then, Afghanistan was just another exotic name on a map.
Peterborough's last independent music retailer was Andys Records on Bridge Street. The regional shop chain -- it expanded from its humble beginnings as a Cambridge market stall into a national chain in the late 80s, before falling victim to the supermarkets' aggressive expansion into entertainment -- offered a little more variety than the larger chains; it was here I bought Tori Amos's debut album (a bold choice for a fifteen-year-old heavy metal fan) and many other lesser-known artists were also discovered in their racks of cassette boxes.
At the other end of town was the covered market, a semi-permanent grid of stalls that, as a child, would sometime seem an impenetrable labyrinth. To get there, though, I had to pass the only computer game shop in town, on Midgate opposite the scary and rundown Hereward Arcade. Logic Sales was the only place in town you could find a decent selection of software for Commodore or Spectrum home computers in the days before Amazon, and I spent hundreds of hours combing through their racks of budget and full-price games. I remember on one visit only being able to muster up £2.97 of the £2.99 asking price for Codemasters' latest, and wandering the streets with eyes locked on the ground until I found a discarded two-pence piece and could return for my prize.
Within the market, there was only one stall I was really interested in. Sure, the sweet stall was worth a visit when I had a few spare pennies, but hidden at the far end of the market, beyond the secondhand book stall, was my goal: the rock and metal collectibles seller. Sew-on badges emblazoned with Metallica, Slayer, AC/DC logos; rings, belt buckles, and wallet chains; and the occasional denim or leather jacket. I was too unsure of myself at fourteen to dare wear a skull ring or Harley Davidson buckle, but I did cover the back of my denim jacket in patches advertising my exquisite taste in music made by men with ridiculous hairstyles.
Just beyond the market, in a neat row of shops below the car park, lay my final regular destination. Stamford Music Shop was primarily a place for parents to find graded music books for their gifted offspring, but in a concession to popular music there was a small section of sheet music by popular bands. It was here where I bought my first acoustic guitar, and where I subsequently found guitar tablature books for albums by Guns N' Roses, Pantera, and many others. A few years later, it would also be where I placed an advert for band members, and the venue for my first meeting with my future bandmates ... but that's another story.
Some Saturdays a trip to town would also include a walk up past the bus station to visit The House On The Borderland. Hidden down a rubbish-strewn alleyway and below a tattoo parlour, HotB was a treasure trove of comic books, incense and second-hand vinyl, with an owner who looked like he had escaped from the Grateful Dead. Aside from the occasional comic or graphic novel, it was here that I found many "promo-only" CDs discarded by radio stations, including Machine Head's debut, and the ultra-rare Jefferson Airplane/Crosby, Stills & Nash/Grateful Dead collaboration, the concept album Blows Against The Empire. Borderland closed down in 2011, and the owner sadly lost much of his collection of rare records in a house fire in 2006, but he's since popped up on eBay selling much the same sort of great selection.
Finally, plastic bags either swinging from my handlebars or stuffed awkwardly inside the pockets of my denim jacket, I would ride home. An afternoon of new music awaited. I couldn't have asked to grow up in a better time.
(Photo credit: Alex Underwood)