East of the M60 takes a 400 bus towards the mid-1980s

Seven Sisters flats, Rochdale [c64]
Seven Sisters flats in Commodore 64 mode. Had to be done.
Once upon a time, the future seemed to be in shades of orange and brown. Our electrical appliances, local buses, furniture, and our public buildings. By the late 1970s, this was applicable to Rochdale.

1978 was a seminal year for Rochdale. Firstly, the town had been boosted by the A627(M) and M62 motorways. The crowning glory was the opening of three developments. First up was the previous version of Rochdale Bus Station, which opened on the 16 May that year.

By the 15 September, Rochdale’s first air-conditioned shopping centre opened. On the outskirts of town was the Gracie Fields Theatre, in the same building as Oulder Hill Comprehensive School. Both the shopping centre and theatre were opened by the singer, Gracie Fields herself, whose first home was on Molesworth Street.

Today, Rochdale town centre has struggled of late, though new developments could see a change of direction. New retail developments have been planned, complementing a new bus and tram interchange, council offices, and leisure centre. In the 1980s, at least from my formative years, it was a bustling centre, and the abundance of brown seemed futuristic.

Today, we take a trip towards the Rochdale of 1986 instead of 2016. So, take your position at Stand C of Ashton-under-Lyne bus station for the 400 Trans-Lancs Express for Bolton. Then, place your ClipperCard in the machine, bag the seat upstairs and enjoy the ride.

Getting There

During the 1980s, the best way of getting to Rochdale by bus involved the 400 Trans-Lancs Express from Bolton to Stockport. One clunk on the ClipperCard machine could cover the journey from Moor Lane to Mersey Square (or Manchester Airport on Fridays and weekends). Now the 400 service has gone, the best way usually entails the 17, 409, 464, 471, or 590 routes.

For the first half of the 1980s, the orange and white (or orange, white and brown) of GMT was interrupted by the poppy red of Ribble Motor Services. Or the cream and maroon of Rossendale Borough Transport, and occasional sightings of West Yorkshire PTE Verona Green and Cream. Come the second half of the decade, Rochdale Bus Station would see a greater variety of colours – those of Sports Tours, Bu Val, and the yellow of The Bee Line Buzz Company.

Opposite Essex Goodman and Suggitt’s facility was Rochdale’s most famous contribution to public transport. Hubert Allen’s company, otherwise known as the legendary Yelloway Motor Services. During the first half of the 1980s, it had expanded its role on North West/South West services, via the M5/M4 motorways. The second half of the decade would be disastrous, as after Hubert Allen’s retirement, the company was sold to Carlton PSV. On commencement of bus deregulation, they began stage carriage operations for the first time since 1945.

In 1989, with the company a shadow of its former self, it was sold to Crosville. They would later become part of British Bus and (long after ceasing operations in Rochdale) Arriva.

A train trip to Rochdale meant Class 110 DMUs from Leeds and Bradford Interchange, or Class 104s on stopping services via the Oldham-Rochdale Loop Line. For the last mile to the town centre, a quick 471 bus or a short walk.

On arrival

I always associate 1980s Rochdale with the space age bus station of 1978. Also the Thunderbirds style footbridges to the centre and its escalators. If your bus stopped at one of the stands underneath its car park, there was a nice theatrical glow inside the bus itself. Its indicators were illuminated, consistent with evening services. Access to the centre meant pedestrian crossings at its easterly point, or subways at its western point.

The latter entailed taking an escalator to ground level, then another one to the footbridge for the car park and the town centre. Or negotiating the subway under Constantine Street, on the side of the ABC cinema (today’s J.D. Wetherspoon pub, The Regal Moon). Taking the high level route felt futuristic, and offered excellent views of the town centre. Marks and Spencer added a rear entrance to the food hall from the footbridge. Within minutes, Yorkshire Street was in full view.

Yorkshire Street and Rochdale Shopping Centre

The gradual slope of Yorkshire Street was, and remains, Rochdale’s main shopping street. Back in the 1980s, this was the preserve of many small shops, locally owned and chain stores. One example was Decor 8, halfway between the Rochdale Shopping Centre and John Street.

By the 1980s, Rochdale Shopping Centre dominated Yorkshire Street. With its turd brown cladded tiles (they must have ordered the same job lot as GMPTE did in 1975!), it consumed part of Toad Lane, the Market Arcade, its previous market hall and open market, and Lord Street. The development was sponsored by the Co-op and included their Pioneer House store. Back in 1986, the tower was marked with a yellow and red ‘R’.

On entry from Yorkshire Street, there was more shades of brown and terracotta. The theatrical glow that one could get from stepping onto a 409 at the bus station was perpetuated. Any colour besides ochre, terracotta or dark brown was broken by the shop façades. Its three anchor stores were Littlewoods, the Pioneer House department store of the Co-op’s, and on Yorkshire Street (today’s B&M Bargains), Woolworths.

Littlewoods was at the back of the precinct, next to its two-storey market hall. Between Boots and the market hall, its open market. Though still with us today – albeit minus the footfall it once enjoyed, the open market tends to do better than the hall nowadays. Back in the 1980s, it had small, cream, hard plastic stalls. Needless to say, the surrounding walls of the open market were decked in… brown tiles. Likewise with the public toilets (now painted white though with a coin-operated turnstile at the Ladies and Gents toilet entrances).

Surrounding the open market was (and still is in 2016) a number of shop units and the indoor market. Today’s indoor market is a sorry edifice with few stalls. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, it thrived, with food and fish stalls at the back (at its most westerly point). Food stalls and cafés marked the perimeter with stallholders including Burneys Bakery (later Hampsons), and Save Records (whose sole surviving branch of four is in Bury market). On the first floor was The Balcony Café which had an Olde Worlde ambience inside a late-1970s market hall.

Till the end of the decade and into the late 1990s, the town’s branch of W.H. Smith and Son was decked in its orange, beige and brown finery. It had the cube logo emblazoned on its door handles. That was a short walk from Pioneer House and Sarah’s cafeteria. Sarah’s Cafeteria was a fairly plush self-service restaurant in the Country Larder mould.

Before the late 1980s, the Rochdale Shopping Centre was the town’s only air-conditioned shopping centre. This changed in 1990 when the adjacent Wheatsheaf Centre opened. A footbridge connection with the bus station was added and, in 1994, the library and art gallery moved to the centre. Today, the art gallery has returned to the old library building nearest to the town hall. Its public library is on the ground floor of the council offices, opposite Rochdale Interchange.

As of now, Stationers’ Corner and The Butts had the quirky shops. Today, its uniqueness remains.

Drake Street and beyond

For several years, Drake Street was Rochdale’s finest street, leading to the town hall and The Esplanade. By the 1980s, some of its glamour was there, though fading. The most famous shop on Drake Street was the long-established Ivesons. Till 2006, the department shop had a prominent position on the corner of Nelson Street. It was established 1810 and used numerous gimmicks to go one better than its main competitors. Which in Rochdale was the Co-op, whose history is indelibly linked with the Lancashire town.

Further up Drake Street was the Rochdale Observer‘s offices. Before the Guardian Media Group (later part of Trinity Mirror) took over, the Rochdale Observer’s presses would be rolling. If you caught a 400 or 409 bus, you knew you were in Rochdale once you saw the presses roll and its clock.

By the 1980s, the very modern phenomena of out-of-town retailing reared its ugly head. At the top end of Drake Street, nearest to the railway station, Maclure Street and Milkstone Road was MFI and Queensway. The original B&Q Supercentre unit was in the north-eastern fringes of the town off North Lane. As with Hyde’s former B&Q, this has become the town’s second branch of B&M Bargains.

Accessible from the top end of Drake Street is Broadfield Park which, from its northerly point affords a stunning view of the town hall, The Esplanade, and the Seven Sisters tower blocks. From Vicars Drive, one great delight was the Sparrow Hill Museum. This was Rochdale’s local history museum, situated in the vicarage of St. Chad’s Church, a palatial house listed on the 25 October 1951. When I went in May 1986 with my late Nana, it was a joyous escape from the bustle of the town centre with its static exhibits. The walk up the steps from Nelson Street added to its tranquil nature.

Today, the Sparrow Hill Museum’s collection moved to the Touchstones Centre on the westerly end of The Esplanade. This, as mentioned earlier, was the original public library, with the Local Studies Library, Museum and the Art Gallery in beautiful surroundings beside the River Roch. Sparrow Hill vicarage is now home to the Rochdale Business Bureau.

The iconic Town Hall

Thirty years on from our trip through time, one building that has stood the test of time is its Town Hall. It is a Grade I Listed Building which offers guided tours on the first Monday of each month (or shorter tours every Wednesday). At one time, the bottom of the clock tower was the town’s Tourist Information Centre.

The Cooperative Movement

Whether in 1986 or 2016, no mention of Rochdale is complete without the Cooperative Movement. Back in ’86, the Rochdale Pioneers’ Museum was just as much a ‘must visit’ attraction as of now. Back then, the main focus of the museum was its shop, restored to its 1843 style in the 1970s. The museum has been open since 1931 and for devotees of labour history, its an absolute must. Even more so with its recent refurbishment and extension in 2012.

Unlike present times, there was no handy watering hole next door. During the 1980s, the premises which became The Baum public house in the early 1990s was a hardware shop.

As well as its Pioneer House department store and the pioneering Toad Lane store, a more modern expression of the Cooperative Movement was the town’s branch of Shopping Giant. This was adjacent to the bus station and had all the usual creature comforts like its Handybank facilities and non-food items. This later became Discount Giant, before becoming a Mecca Bingo Hall (a similar fate as the one on King Street, Oldham).

Back on the bus

There goes our trip through 1980s Rochdale, as we try to use the right subway for our 400 bus to Ashton. Our journey back see us passing the railway bridge, which was painted in blue to advertise a Peugeot dealer in ’86. The section from Lower Place didn’t involve a northbound deviation at Queensway.

Towards Oldham, Park and Sandy Mills were seen on our left hand side. To the right in Royton past Our Ladys, Coin Controls’ base was in full view, with the rotating clamp logo atop its roof. The present Royal Oldham Hospital wing was years away from completion. Within Oldham, our 400 service would continue south via George Street (outside St. Peter’s Precinct), passing Butterflies discotheque.

Most marked on the 400 route between Oldham and Ashton is the loss of pubs in the last thirty years. As we approach Ashton, our journey through time passes Ashton’s first ASDA store off Langham Street, beside Atlas Mill. After passing The Hop Pole and NORWEB depot, our bus turns left onto Wellington Road, then Warrington Street. Then Stand C, to pick up a few Stockport or Airport bound passengers.

Before we go…

Feel free to add to this post. Did you have any favourite shops in Rochdale? Do you have any fond memories of the town in the 1980s? Comment freely, articulately and share this post far and wide. Mine’s a strong tea from the Fed Up café in the bus station.

S.V., 11 April 2016.

8 thoughts on “A Trip to Rochdale Town Centre in the 1980s

  1. Great article. I feel the need to read again at my leisure. Growing up in Shaw I would visit Oldham or Rochdale. Travel on the 435 bus I still remember 30 odd years later it departed the terminus at ‘quarter to & quarter past’. My mate worked in WH Smith and I would call in for a natter on a Saturday morning before trawling round the record and computer game shops. Happy days. Don’t visit Rochdale much nowadays, that area around the Town Hall & old Post Office still looks impressive. Sadly the rest of the town centre now manages to make Oldham look good.


  2. Hi Paul,

    The last time I went to Rochdale, I changed over from a 409 bus to a 464 for Rawtenstall. That was the Saturday when the Flying Scotsman was seen on the East Lancashire Railway.

    Both Rochdale and Oldham have been hit by Bury and Manchester. I have heard a few Oldhamers stating their preference for Ashton-under-Lyne. Oldham also seems to have been hit by a buoyant Shaw and the pull of Uppermill. Royton could be a place to watch, following the town’s arrival of Boyes’ department store (their first branch in Lancashire).

    With the way Rochdale indoor market is (in comparison to Ashton-under-Lyne’s, let alone Bury), it makes me sad having remembered it in livelier times. Yet Rochdale has so much going for it, being close to the M62 motorway, the Pennine foothills, and how it’s framed by the hills (this sounds like Stalybridge, albeit on a bigger scale).

    If you ever go to Rochdale, you cannot fault the Rochdale Pioneers’ Museum, and The Baum public house next door (not called in there for a while).

    Bye for now,



  3. Hi Stuart, even having lived in Greater Manchester for my first 19 years there are still many towns I have never visited – Wigan, Bolton, Oldham, Tameside and Rochdale. I therefore found your article on Rochdale in the 80s most interesting. Memories of a future past… Jim


    1. Hi Jim,

      Glad you enjoyed this history of Rochdale in the 1980s. Most of which had been from sporadic visits in the mid to late 1980s (from the age of six) as well as some additional research from external sources.

      Elsewhere on the blog, you will also appreciate similar features I have covered on Stalybridge, Ashton-under-Lyne, Hyde and Oldham.

      It is hard to imagine that 1980 is 36 years ago from now. 36 years ago from 1980 was 1944. If I spoke to a person born after 2000 about the Rochdale bus station of 1986, it would seem like ancient history – like being on another planet to him or her.

      Bye for now,



  4. Hi,

    Im not from Rochdale and have never been there but when I was growing up I remember there was a programme or film about a girl trying to get back to Rochdale. This must of been about 30 – 33 years ago.
    Can anyone help, it’s been bugging me for ages now.



  5. Hi Stuart,
    Thanks so much for this nostalgic article.
    In the 1960s I first encountered Rochdale as a bus-change point between Bacup (16 bus) and Manchester (17 bus) when going to work, or Bradford (28 bus) when going home to W Yorkshire.
    Later I lived in Middleton (halfway point on 17) and often did shopping in Rochdale–I remember well the building of the ‘new’ shopping centre. Also, Castleton, next door to Rochdale, had the first Asda in the area, in the old Queens Mill.
    I got married to Diane from Ewing (you won’t know her but would have heard of her) and we lived in Whitworth just north of Rochdale until 3 years ago. It was through Jeni (who of course you knew) that we met.
    After both our retirements, we now live by the sea, in the North East, in Whitley Bay, just north of the River Tyne.
    We still look back on our Manchester and Rochdale days with considerable affection.


  6. Hi David,

    Many thanks for your comments, much appreciated. The Bradford bus is partly survived by today’s 587 route to Halifax, operated by Yorkshire Tiger and First West Yorkshire. If I remember, Hebble ran it as the 28 before Halifax JOC (and Metro West Yorkshire) took it on as the 528. The easiest way of getting to Bradford from Rochdale is a tram to the railway station and a train to Bradford Interchange. By bus, the 587 or 590 to Halifax then the 576 (via Shelf and Odsal) to Bradford.

    Castleton did have two footnotes in retail history. Firstly, as you said, Rochdale’s first Asda which was situated on Nixon Street. The bus adverts proudly boasted about it being ‘the biggest in Lancs’ – that title now held by the one near Etihad Campus. The other was F.W. Woolworth’s distribution depot and offices which continued till Woolworths’ demise in January 2009. Once the pubs reopen after we’ve beaten COVID-19, I fully recommend The Old Post Office micro bar.

    I have only ever passed Whitworth on the 464 to Accrington. The next nearest for me was a walk around Healey Dell with the Ewing School’s Middle Group. The late Jeni Mobbs was my favourite of the three teachers in the Middle Group. By a long way, the most creative (she introduced me to Edward Lear’s Nonsense Verse and other great poetic works) and outgoing.

    You have made a good choice with Whitley Bay. I stayed over in Tynemouth with my father back in 2015, as part of a coach holiday that included excursions to Holy Island and Beamish. We also flitted between Tynemouth and Whitley Bay on Go North East’s 1 bus at night times, as well as some of the pubs in Tynemouth proper.

    The coastline from Tynemouth Priory to Cullercoats and Whitley Bay is superb. I have been to Blyth about three times to see The Mighty Stalybridge Celtic play Blyth Spartans. I also love Holy Island and have a lot of love for Seahouses. Lovely harbour and village with a great pub that has sailing memorabilia. Another friend of mine has recommended one of the chippies – his favourite part of Northumberland is the Coquetdale valley.

    All the best to yourself and Diane and have a good Christmas.




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