Two Christmas Countdowns Compared: Ashton-under-Lyne and Trafford Centre

East of the M60 compares two Christmas lights switch ons over the space of a month 

Ashton Christmas Market, opening day crowds
Crowded scenes from the opening day of Ashton-under-Lyne’s Christmas market.

07 November 2013: Trafford Centre’s Christmas lights switch-on.

08 December 2013: Ashton-under-Lyne’s Christmas market and lights switch-on.

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Thursday 07 November 2013, The Intu Trafford Centre, Dumplington

1700: Christmas started early at The Trafford Centre. From Thursday onward, the out-of-town mall was bedecked with Christmas decorations. You could be forgiven for thinking this was a typical Thursday late afternoon/early evening judging off the footfall along Peel Avenue and its shops.

1730: The Orient became a hive of activity. By then, a lot of families who collected their children from school would begin to occupy the front seats nearest the big screen and the stage. On the first floor nearest The Mardi Gras J.D. Wetherspoon house, shoppers, geeks in their early thirties and children could have their photos taken with Star Wars characters.

1800: Entertainment begins at The Orient. After having my picture taken with R2D2, myself and two other friends who remember me from the Ewing School made our way downstairs. Coronation Street‘s Natalie Gumede and Westlife’s Bryan McFadden would switch the lights on in an hour’s time.

1850: By this point, it was announced that Bryan McFadden was held up in traffic and unable to make it to The Trafford Centre. Thousands of fast food addled observers (myself and two friends also in the crowd having enjoyed a meal at Pizza Hut) were entertained by local band The Hoosiers, covers band The Overtones, a cast member from Wicked, and the Moshi Monsters.

1905: Slight delay to the switch-on, but the whole of the Orient food court was bedazzled by white lights. Gold cellophane ticker tape erupted from the bridge of the Orient food court above Ms Gumede, Overtones et al. The rest of the Trafford Centre was resplendent in tinsel, baubles and tree bedecked coloured lights. We came, we saw, a great many went to the cinema afterwards or continued shopping. Myself, and two fellow Ewing School alumnae headed towards the car park and returned home and all in all, it was a fantastic day.

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Sunday 08 December 2013, Ashton-under-Lyne

1500: From the start, my father and I wanted to see Ashton’s Christmas lights switch-on for one thing: the massed bands. Realising that I have missed this year’s Christmas Cracker event at the Greater Manchester Museum of Transport, I had hoped it was good enough to warrant an absence from this year’s event in Cheetham.

1604: First sighting of lantern parade and massed bands. After standing in front of the main stage, we walk towards Wellington Road and follow the massed bands up to Penny Meadow, returning towards Ashton Town Hall. Our original premise entailed returning to the main stage to see them back in action. Instead, we went towards the Christmas Market. Bad move.

1625: Now for what became – at least for us – the bad move. Ladies and gentlemen, I refer to the stroke of genius which is the Bavarian style pub. We were surprised as to how cheap it was compared with our experiences at Manchester’s epic Christmas Markets. Plus two real ales from the Greenfield Brewery (Manchester 0, Tameside 2) as well as German lagers. All drinks affordably priced – obviously given competition from The Bowling Green, The Engine Room and The Ash Tree nearby.

1645: crowds thronged the lesser stage on the corner of Fletcher Street and Market Street, who saw Gary T. Davies impersonate numerous popular vocalists (complete with costume changes). The Bavarian style pub was heaving – and all the more so as the heavens opened later on. Popular was the mulled wine along with the pints of Ale and Hearty and Silver Owl which we consumed (at a very good £2.50 per pint).

1730: By that time, numerous spectators braved the wet weather to stand behind the main stage. After being entertained by the massed bands (which we missed!) and other acts, Ashton’s lights were switched on. Merry Christmas indeed!

1745: There was still thousands or so of hardy observers around the main stage outside the town hall steps, with a few live acts singing shortly after the switch. Long after the switch on, the Christmas Market stalls would remain open till 9pm. Ashton’s pubs were probably the busiest they have been for a good twenty years. Yours truly and his old man would struggle to find a seat at The Ash Tree shortly after, before catching the 346 bus.

1800: Fireworks from the roof of the market hall. Part of us thought ‘no, not a rerun of May 2004 – please!’ Unfortunately for us, our view of the fireworks came courtesy of a front window of one of Tim Martin’s hostelries. With a Christmas ale by Elgood’s brewery. The end? No, just the beginning as the market and live acts would continue till the 22 December.

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East of the M60 verdict: ‘It Was Ashton What Won It’.

Prior to yesterday, I had wondered if every other town centre’s Christmas light displays would have lacked the pizazz of The Trafford Centre. Given the amount of spending cuts affecting local government in the last three years, I had thought a decent set of lights – let alone stars of stage and screen making an appearance – would have been beyond the question.

Yesterday, Ashton-under-Lyne broke the mould. At 1630 hours, I had to think to myself, ‘is this really Ashton not Manchester?’ Though Ashton’s lights came a month after The Trafford Centre’s and a few local switch-ons a week or two before, the whole package was nothing short of amazing. The Christmas Market may be smaller than Manchester’s offering though we mustn’t forget how Manchester’s Christmas Market was a similar size to Ashton’s in 2001.

Besides the market itself, the real success is the amount of local involvement between Tameside MBC and its partners. The stage, yesterday and leading up to the 22 December will be a showcase for local acts. Not only brass bands but also artistes, some of whom you may be familiar with in the local pubs and clubs. Also schools, including Samuel Laycock School’s cheerleading troupe as well as Mossley Hollins’ brass band. As for the stalls, built by Tameside College students.

Stewarding for the Christmas lights and live events: ditto the above. Event management: New Image, a short distance away in Greenacres (whom Stalybridge Celtic fans may be familiar with since 1981 when they started printing the Bower Bulletin). Real ale: from Greenfield. Also a short distance beyond the Tameside boundary, but the brewery itself is held in high regard among local real ale drinkers. Their Silver Owl also won Best Ale at this year’s Oldham Beer Festival at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

The Trafford Centre may have had the glitz, the extra monetary resources and celebrity guests. The lights in the Orient may have been dazzling but it was all false, like the fake blue sky above the food court. Ashton was real. They are ours, from the odd light bulb to the wooden stall, plus the fellows who would grace the stage on the corner of Fletcher Street.

7,000 came to see the lanterns, massed bands and the switch-on itself on Sunday and hopefully, several more will enjoy the Christmas market till the 22 December. Spread the word around, tell your friends, share this article. Make it all the more worthwhile for them to consider a Christmas market next year!

S.V., 09 December 2013.

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