Inside Stalybridge’s cultural revolution
Stalybridge, 2001: the opening of continental style bars, prompted by the restoration of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, and liberalised opening hours of licensed premises, saw a change in image for the Cheshire town. Its convivial atmosphere led to the town being dubbed ‘StalyVegas’, though some thought its nickname came from its forest of traffic lights.
Though the night time economy was on the up, its daytime economy was still in slumber. Many cited parking issues and its Kafkaesque one way system as culprits. Other thought the loss of its Market was responsible. By 2003, its night time economy grew to a point where partygoers and clubbers shunned Ashton-under-Lyne in favour of Stalybridge. For its locals, ‘StalyVegas’ meant tackiness. Its Nevadan inspired nickname claimed to have put residents off going into the town centre for a quiet pint.
The night time economy didn’t trickle down to the daytime economy of Stalybridge. Shops still left the town centre at a rapid rate, with replacements lacking the staying power of previous occupants. The lure of its nearby TESCO store and free parking meant people saw little need to wander into the centre, despite it being less than five minutes walk from the store’s entrance.
By 2009, the party was over for Stalybridge’s night time economy. Some of the negative aspects associated with Ashton’s nightlife almost a decade ago reached Stalybridge. Chaplains were called, mobile police stations were set up, and bars were closed. Today, Bar Liquid and The Pavilion on the Market Street strip had been closed for several months. Rififi is at this moment in the midst of a four week temporary closure. H2O, The Sportsman and the Stamford Arms too have closed, though more to do with the government’s hated Beer Tax Escalator and the mercenary nature of Pubcos. The much loved Hare and Hounds on Mottram Road, for similar reasons, has now been de-pubbed, becoming a new home for The Hawthorn Gallery.
Paints Not Pints: The People’s Gallery
To counteract the notion of Stalybridge becoming a model of Hogarthian excess, a pioneering group of artists and residents thought of a creative way to make use of one of the town’s empty shop units. As well as exhibiting work by local artists, it would also host art classes. Pictures – original or printed forms – would be priced affordably. It would complement instead of compete directly with privately owned and publicly funded galleries.
Late January 2003 saw the foundation of The People’s Gallery. One of its founding fathers was John Kimpton, famed for his local scenes and cats. Steve Ollerenshaw was another founder. Its original premises was next to Bottom Dollar, on three floors including a cellar. Previously, it was solely used by Stalybridge Credit Union and – during the town’s regeneration work – Tameside MBC as ‘Stalybridge Project Office’. Its last commercial use was as a wallpaper shop.
Within weeks of being seen in the Tameside Advertiser and the Tameside Reporter, it gained a wonderful reception with locals. Art classes were well attended, walls were full, but another way of raising the gallery’s awareness was required. Being pre-Facebook/Twitter/MySpace/broadband internet eras, this meant word of mouth, local press and dropping a few posters off in local shops and libraries.
The next step was the formation of live poetry readings. These would take place on early evening Saturdays during summer months on a monthly basis. There was a ready made space, in the form of The Remains of Stalybridge Town Hall. Luckily for this initiative, it coincided with 2003 being the hottest year since records began, leading to steady attendances.
The group would later be known as ‘People’s Performance’, headed by Jan Malpas. By September 2003, they spun off from The People’s Gallery and continued their performances indoors, at The Q-Bar and Stalybridge Library. Evening performances ceased in 2005 with greater emphasis on late morning readers’ groups. This continued till 2007. During then, a printed anthology and a CD anthology was published, featuring the work of all its members.
In 2007, The People’s Gallery moved premises, further down Melbourne Street taking a three floor unit, which was formerly a health foods shop. Its ethos remains the same as it was in 2003, though the closure of three art shops in the town centre saw the gallery sell artists’ materials. After being a regular exhibitor since the start, Gordon Clegg has held the fort since last year.
The Newcomer: Gallery 23
Once more, on Melbourne Street, is Stalybridge’s newest art gallery. Gallery 23 is so called owing to being on 23 Melbourne Street. Its former use was a branch office for West Pennine Insurance. The gallery opened on the 15 November 2012 with emphasis on fine art, ceramics and photography. It is owned by Debra and Peter Aitchison and aimed at wealthier clientele. As with The People’s Gallery, classes are available, with Peter conducting photography workshops.
Its interior is plush, beautifully finished and upmarket. On visiting Gallery 23, its air of exclusivity is an escape from the contemporary ambience of Melbourne Street, punctuated by discount stores and betting shops. One could be forgiven for thinking a part of Wilmslow or Uppermill had been transported to Stalybridge. As well as the local press, it has also gained coverage in Cheshire Life magazine. Like its older brother, there too is emphasis on local artists.
Prints Not Pints: The Hawthorn Gallery
The Hawthorn Gallery have been based in Stalybridge for the best part of a decade like The People’s Gallery. Unlike them, they are a privately owned gallery with great emphasis on limited edition prints by local and national and international artists. Instead of John Kimpton or Owen Traynor’s works, you are likely to find a print by Bob Dylan, as well as nationally known artists.
Prior to August last year, they were based on Stamford Street opposite Portland Place. By September, they moved to new premises – controversially – choosing the Hare and Hounds pub near Stalybridge Celtic AFC’s Bower Fold ground. The pub had been a victim of Pubco profiteering and saw occasional closures between changes of management. Though the less denser semi-rural and affluent part of Mottram Road made for poor midweek footfall, it was always full when Stalybridge Celtic had a home match.
The Artists’ Way at Work in Stalybridge
Early concerns over the StalyVegas Effect had Stalybridge residents thinking that their quiet pint at The Old Fleece, St. Peter’s Social Club or The Old Hunters’ Tavern would have been jeopardised by numptiness. It was thought that Stalybridge would have become a Bacchanalian Hell Hole with no way out besides a twice hourly rail service. However, The People’s Gallery was Stalybridge’s first serious move towards turning that tide. After its foundation, it has inspired Gallery 23, seen The Hawthorn Gallery move to bigger premises, and the opening of Witzend Gallery opposite the Civic Hall.
It has inspired recent non-artistic developments in the town centre. Benjamin Disraeli’s Mr Go-Ahead of Stalybridge, immortalised in Coningsby could be seen in last year’s Portas Pilot bid organised by the Stalybridge Town Team. It is also seen in the town’s farmers’ markets and Christmas market. At Bower Fold, it is also seen among Stalybridge Celtic supporters’ ‘Hail Ale Fund’, raising money for a new social club.
However, Stalybridge’s transition to becoming Cheshire’s answer to Totnes or Hebden Bridge will take several years till the full benefits are seen. A start is already being made with the above initiatives, and the forthcoming demolition and revitalisation of most of the former Co-op store damaged by fire. With Stalybridge railway station almost fully refurbished (lifts have yet to be installed at this time of writing), it is high time that the rest of town should have the same tender loving care as its station.
The future lies with the builders and the dreamers, artists among its number – today’s Mr and Ms Go-Aheads of Stalybridge. Paints? Yes, and any other media possible. Pints? Keep them real: mine’s at the Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar or The White House.
S.V., 11 January 2013.