Could the town’s rich history be a panacea for economic growth?
Stalybridge has a proud history. In spite of losing its town hall and the conversion of its market hall to a civic hall, there is still a lot to like about the Cheshire town. Especially Cheetham’s Park and the town centre’s equivalent of The Three Graces (Holy Trinity Church, Stalybridge Civic Hall, and the Astley Cheetham Art Gallery and Library).
Depending on your viewpoint, the state of the town’s shopping centre has polarised residents and visitors. Some are happy with its variety of independent businesses. Others decry the lack of cash machines and retail banks and building societies (down to one from five in 2015). Some would like a few more chain stores.
For many people, getting to Stalybridge itself is a chore. Especially if your quibble concerns the lack of parking spaces or cuts to local bus routes. Even its trains have gone down the proverbial, with rail passengers being driven to drink in the iconic Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar. As for the one-way system, that defies logic.
In the last week, we have learned that Tameside MBC has won a share of funding from HM Government’s £95 million fund. £52 million of it comes from the Future High Streets Fund, with £40 million from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The remaining £3m comes from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Stalybridge is one of 69 towns that have made a successful application. With the Government’s £95m fund split between 69 towns, it is barely chicken feed per town. The North West of England has been allocated an £18.7 million share. Supposing 20 towns were successful, this equates to £935,000 per town. Some amounts may vary. One town might only be granted enough to pay for a Peppa Pig costume, whereas others might have enough to pedestrianise a shopping street or two.
Over on the social media sites, there has been a lukewarm response. Some have decried the borough’s lack of ambition and – quelle surprise – blamed the council demolishing some of Stalybridge’s crown jewels. The centrepiece of the plan is a clearly signposted walking route from the railway station to Armentieres Square via Market Street.
Another part of their application is a programme of public art, events, and live performances. These will build on this year’s successful Bicycle Festival, Tameside Pride, and the Royal Exchange Theatre’s residency at Stalybridge Civic Hall.
The celebration of Stalybridge’s heritage, and the creation of a Historical Quarter is a good move. It is one that should have been taken seriously several years ago. Realistically, a million pounds towards new signage, public art and associated events wouldn’t be enough to breathe new life into the town centre like a shot. Nevertheless, they could be complementary to a package of other works that should be considered.
The Stalybridge Historical Quarter
Where would, or should, Stalybridge’s Historical Quarter begin? Some might say the John Nield Conservatory in Stamford Park may be part of the Historical Quarter. Stalybridge railway station could form part of the Historical Quarter, taking in the whole of Market Street before leading to Trinity Street.
The Stalybridge Heritage Walk and potential branches
The proposed Heritage Walk would cover the full length of Market Street. Its likely route into the town centre may be along Trinity Street and Armentieres Square with some deviation towards Melbourne Street and Grosvenor Street.
Instead of only being a way into the town centre, the Heritage Walk should be a spinal route with connections to other parts of the town centre. From Market Street/Trinity Street, there is a clear case for reinstating the footpath that leads to Old Street (and the bridge that gave Stalybridge its name). The Armentieres Square section of the Heritage Walk could be ‘plugged in’ to the Huddersfield Narrow Canal towpath route and form part of a newly designated route to Cheetham’s Park.
To add value to the Heritage Walk, there should be a new Riverside Walk route from Melbourne Street to Market Street via Castle Street, and Hully Street. A new bridge across the River Tame could be built, leading to a newly landscaped parcel of land. Formerly used by IMI Range, this plot between Water Street and Hully Street was a possible new site for Stalybridge Celtic Football Club. Perhaps the same plot could be a new open space or a new exhibition centre with an open terraced café bar. A Son of SIDS, perhaps?
Off Caroline Street, there is potential for a second Armentieres Square style piazza leading to the Son of SIDS. Perhaps as Wharton Square, as in the former Stalybridge Rovers footballer Arthur Wharton.
Stalybridge’s Three Graces
Make no mistake, Stalybridge’s equivalent to the Three Graces feature the Astley Cheetham Art Gallery and Library, the Stalybridge Civic Hall, and the Holy Trinity Church. For many ‘Bridgeites, this is the centre of Stalybridge, a centre that extends to the Summers’ Quay housing development. Others might say the real centre is Grosvenor Square.
As part of Stalybridge’s Historical Quarter, the proper maintenance of the town’s Three Graces is key to the attractiveness of the centre. Indoor and open air events, as we have known, are a good shop window for the town’s profile outside the borough.
Servicing Stalybridge’s Historical Quarter
There is every chance that the Stalybridge Heritage Walk may be complemented with several outdoor signs that depict the town’s history. A few signposts and information boards alone wouldn’t be enough to attract potential visitors.
There needs to be other spin-offs further to the town’s existing attractions. All of the above may require more than a million pounds worth of work to be undertaken, as well as a series of compulsory purchase orders. Nevertheless, we think:
- Stalybridge needs a Visitor Centre or a Museum: ideally in the town centre, this could be housed in one of the town’s empty shop units. The George Dean and Co. unit on Market Street could be ideal for this purpose.
- Stalybridge Civic Hall is a good place for collectors’ fairs: the exhibition space, which has been used for beer festivals and the Royal Exchange Theatre’s residency, has previously hosted antiques fairs and collectors’ fairs.
- The former Fish Market units could be good for secondhand bookshops, vintage clothing outfitters, independently owned coffee shops and collectable items.
- That a new exhibition centre should be built behind The Q Bar on land once designated for Stalybridge Celtic Football Club’s possible new home – if the present facilities at Stalybridge Civic Hall are converted into an Altrincham/Mackie Mayor style food market.
- The former Police Station behind Stalybridge Civic Hall should revert to its previous use as an open market ground.
- That the toilets at Cheetham’s Park should be reopened: whether ran by a public sector concern or a Friends of… group, the restoration of public toilets should be strongly considered. Apart from enhancing the visitor experience, they would come into their own during outdoor events.
Going backwards to move forwards?
Some might say preserving Stalybridge in aspic means they have ran out of ideas to improve the town’s retail offering. Firstly, the proposed Heritage Walk route could be a case of, “Yeah, let’s put a few signs to say ‘This used to be The Commercial where The Sex Pistols could have played… Instead they chose the Lesser Free Trade Hall’.” Its proposed route is a walk that many Bridgeites have done since they were in nappies. As said earlier, the core walking route needs to have branches leading off to other parts of Stalybridge. Either to The Society Rooms or Buckton Castle.
Furthermore, the success of a Historical Quarter needs to address a few 21st century issues – many of which beyond the premise of breathing new life to the centre. Particularly public transport, where the re-regulation of Stalybridge’s buses cannot come soon enough. Business rates should be set to more realistic levels for new tenants, who wish to start a business in Stalybridge over Tameside’s eight other constituents.
There may be a need for more parking spaces, but why on earth has nobody thought of park and ride schemes? What if we drastically upgraded the 389 bus route with a Park and Ride Scheme from Stamford Park car park and reinstated its Yew Tree to Hyde link? How about inclusive fares covering your parking ticket and a return bus trip to Stalybridge (valid up to Armentieres Square).
If you wish to know more about Stalybridge, there’s every chance you might want a bite to eat along the way. Or need to draw some money out. Potential visitors need to know where the cash machines are, or fancy a good breakfast in Deli Felice. For 1960s – 1990s nostalgia lovers, perhaps we need one of these push button maps, like the one that used to back on to the Armentieres Square toilets. That as well as greater use of present-day mobile technology to publicise local businesses.
“…and if you know your history…”
Whether you can’t get enough of your local history or labour history, the development of Stalybridge should be of great interest to you. Should there be a designated heritage walking route or a series of spin-off routes and publications, a Beginners’ Guide to Stalybridge should include the following references.
- Beatrix Potter, in relation to the time she spent at Gorse Hall.
- Robert Reschid Stanley: Mayor of Stalybridge from 1874 to 1876 and Britain’s first ever Muslim Mayor (there’s an exciting new book due out this week!).
- Arthur Wharton: widely considered to be Britain’s first professional black footballer, who has also played for Stalybridge Rovers.
- George Harry Storrs: victim of the still unsolved Gorse Hall murder.
- The Peterloo Massacre.
- The Chartist Movement.
- Stalybridge Old Band.
- Jack Judge’s most famous contribution to popular music, It’s A Long Way to Tipperary.
- Stalybridge, Hyde, Mossley, and Dukinfield Joint Board (SHMD): a leading light in publicly owned electricity and public transport provision till 1969.
- The long and short of Stalybridge’s record-breaking pubs (you know which ones; they are now next to each other on Market Street these days).
- The town’s yards: not only Bowton’s Yard, the subject of a Samuel Laycock poem. Also its other yards that have been swallowed up by post-1945 redevelopment.
- Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar.
- Stalybridge Celtic Football Club: the only team to have voluntarily resigned from the Football League due to a lack of support – despite having in 1923 higher average attendances than some of its rival clubs in Third Division North.
Meanwhile, back in 2019…
What are your opinions on the plans? Should the Heritage Walk form part of a bigger grand design? Is a modest grant for a few signposts money well spent? Feel free to comment.
S.V., 17 September 2019.