Our Latest Not So Perfect Ten looks at a fistful of focal piazzas outside London

In the last fifteen months, many of us have become more aware of their surroundings thanks to lockdown conditions. Exercising and trips out for essential items have been a local affair. Working from home has meant more people knowing their way around the local Co-op (other convenience store chains are available) instead of city centres or business parks.

With working from home being less of an exceptional case than before, there is a sound case for improving our smaller town centres. A chance in a lifetime to reverse land-use policies that have favoured agglomeration in our city centres. The possibility of some of central Manchester’s office space moving to Ashton-under-Lyne, Altrincham, Bolton, Stalybridge and Rochdale for example.

Part and parcel of any town centre are well-kept open spaces that provide a break from the brick, concrete or glass. Like gardens, public parks and focal piazzas. Or as we used to call them, squares.

Our latest Not So Perfect Ten looks at ten great focal piazzas across the UK, outside London. As my knowledge of Central London is limited to Trafalgar Square, St. James’ Park, certain parts of the London Underground, and its mainline stations, I have focused on the squares outside our capital city. Here’s our ten:

  1. Birkenhead: Hamilton Square;
  2. Ashton-under-Lyne: St. Michael’s Square;
  3. Stalybridge: Armentieres Square;
  4. Hebden Bridge: St. George’s Square;
  5. Brighouse: Thornton Square;
  6. Bradford: Centenary Square;
  7. Kingston-upon-Hull: Queen Victoria Square;
  8. Whitby: Market Place;
  9. Edinburgh: West Parliament Square;
  10. Strathpeffer: The Square.

1. Birkenhead, Hamilton Square

There is more to Hamilton Square than its railway station. Just outside the main shopping centre of Birkenhead, Hamilton Square is in reality the town’s civic centre. It is where the Registrar Office is based, in what used to be its Town Hall. The square’s gardens are dominated by the Queen Victoria Statue, the Cenotaph, and the John Laird statue. Its opulence reflects the town’s ambition it had at the turn of the 19th century.

What makes it good?

Apart from having its own railway station (on the Merseyrail Wirral Line to Chester, West Kirby and New Brighton), it looks like something from New York City. Well, New York City meets Bath. You could half imagine it being part of Gotham City in a future Batman movie.

2. Ashton-under-Lyne, St. Michael’s Square

If you are over 60 years old, you might remember the days when your 11 bus used to set off from there to Newton or Copley. Prior to the late 1960s, it was a popular bus terminus, coexisting with the first version of Ashton bus station for at least six years. Till the late 1970s, it used to have underground toilets.

The square’s history goes beyond its transport leanings. It is so called because it is near St. Michael’s Church – Ashton’s Anglican Parish Church. Before it became St. Michael’s Square, this was the town’s original market square, from 1413 to the late 19th century. The town’s court house was also there.

What makes it good?

Since the rejigging of Stamford Street in the early 1970s, and its more recent changes in 2014, St. Michael’s Square has a nice continental air. It has potential to do more, and its surrounding ambience could be improved upon.

3. Stalybridge, Armentieres Square

Few civic squares – in England at least – can claim to be bisected by a canal. Armentieres Square in its present form opened in May 2001 – by which point the Huddersfield Narrow Canal was fully restored from Ashton-under-Lyne to (you’ve guessed it) Huddersfield.

Whereas part of St. Michael’s Square is a short-stay car park, Armentieres Square used to be a car park. Shortly after the canal was culverted between Bayley Street and Stamford Street (beside The Guide Post Inn), some spare land off Trinity Street became a car park. Armentieres Square at one point was a path from the car park up to Leech Street (over the culverted canal).

What makes it good?

It is a fantastic place for watching passing narrowboats, public events and occasional markets, and for catching buses. What really sets it apart from many urban squares is the view of its hills – towards Wild Bank and Harridge Pike.

4. Hebden Bridge, St. George’s Square

Hebden Bridge is one of West Yorkshire’s best loved small towns, noted for its bohemian air. It has a winning combination of hills, independent shops, history and public houses. It is less than an hour away from Manchester and Bradford by rail. A trip to Bronté Country is a mere bus ride away on the 500 from Hebden Bridge to Keighley, which takes in the Worth Valley and follows the preserved railway line.

St. George’s Square is right at the heart of the town’s shopping centre. It is circled by a neat selection of delis, a bakery and The Shoulder of Mutton public house.

What makes it good?

For foodies, it is a fantastic place for continental style dining and a good meeting place. It is at its best (in pre-COVID times) on the third Sunday in June when the Hebden Bridge Hymn and March Brass Band Contest takes place.

5. Brighouse, Thornton Square

In a slightly more demure sense than Hamilton Square, Brighouse’s Thornton Square is the town’s civic square. Like Birkenhead, it is dominated by its former Town Hall. Part of it was the town’s branch of Barclays Bank with the other part being a dental surgery. Its clock was presented to the town by Alderman Robert Thornton in 1914. It is affectionately known as Owd Bob.

What makes it good?

The square was named Thornton Square in honour of Brighouse’s one time mayor. It comes into its own on the first Sunday in July (again in pre-pandemic times) during the Brighouse Hymn and March Brass Band contest. Also in the first weekend in June (again, pre-COVID times of course) during the town’s 1940s Weekend.

6. Bradford, Centenary Square

Bradford Centenary Square is the city’s newest focal piazza. Opening in 2012, it is part of Bradford City Park and provides a welcome open space between the city’s bus and rail interchange, shopping centre and museums. It is in a stunning setting framed by the best of modern-day and Victorian architecture.

The square’s most dominant feature is the Mirror Pool – which is everything that the fountain in Piccadilly Gardens could and should be! At one time, it was proposed that the site of the Mirror Pool would be a new artificial lake, as noted in Will Alsop’s The Northern Way (also the subject of an exhibition in URBIS, Manchester).

What makes it good?

Connectivity and a sense of place. It is easy to find your way to the Alhambra and the Science and Media Museum.

7. Kingston-upon-Hull, Queen Victoria Square

Hull is one of my favourite cities due to its down-to-earth nature as well as architecture. It has some spectacular buildings, many of which dating from the city’s wealth as a fishing port. The city’s most iconic square is Queen Victoria square, which is close to the Maritime Museum, the Ferens Art Gallery, and the City Hall and New Theatre.

Whereas St. Michael’s Square lost its underground toilets, Queen Victoria Square still has them. They surround Queen Victoria’s statue.

What makes it good?

Apart from its central position in the city centre (and its proximity to its tourist attractions), it is neatly placed between two disused docks that have found alternative uses. On the site of Queen’s Dock is Queen’s Gardens, a truly stunning green lung that takes you up to the Cenotaph and Hull College. The dock was filled in, in the early 1930s.

The other former dock is Prince’s Dock. In its place is a shopping centre with a multiplex cinema which opened in 1991. The centre is built on stilts over the dock itself.

8. Whitby, Market Place

Since Heartbeat and Goth culture gave the Yorkshire Coast a real boost to its tourism industry, Whitby’s popularity has never waned. For many people, its appeal lies in its fish and chips, the ruined abbey, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and in its narrow streets. Which is why it is always so busy in the summer months.

The Market Place at Whitby is no exception. it is a lively part of the town that you see en route to the ruined abbey via its 199 steps.

What makes it good?

Atmosphere. Atmosphere by the bucketload due to its popularity with buskers and surrounding acoustics off Church Street. Try to imagine what this square was like on a market day.

9. Edinburgh, West Parliament Square

For walking around and soaking up the atmosphere, Edinburgh is a superb city. Whether you like the stately charms of the New Town north of Princes Street or the bucolic atmosphere of the Royal Mile, it never fails to impress.

The best way to reach the Royal Mile is among its many Closes. Unlike a Close in the cul-de-sac sense, they are more akin to the narrow passages and snickets you see in Whitby. The crowning glory of the Royal Mile – as well as the castle gates – is West Parliament Square. It is dominated by St. Giles Cathedral, its Supreme Courts, the Mercat Cross, and a mix of souvenir shops at the opposite end.

What makes it good?

As with the Market Place in Whitby, atmosphere. It has a special, almost spiritual atmosphere which is why its a popular part of the city for photographers as well as tourists.

10. Strathpeffer, The Square

Back in the Victorian times, Strathpeffer was a popular spa resort for well-to-do folk. It had its own railway station with a short branch off The Kyle Line. It has a pavilion which has held local events and live performances, giving the village its nickname as The Highland Village of Music.

Adding to the picturesque scene is its square, which is known as The Square. Quite imaginative as names go, but the square itself is a real focal point in the village. It is small but perfectly formed. Its retail offer is good for residents as well as visitors.

What makes it good?

The compact nature of the square and its retail offerings aren’t the only merits of The Square. It really comes into its own when the Strathpeffer and District Pipe Band are playing their tunes. A fantastic sight, as I found from my visit in 2011. With Scottish dancing and bagpipe music, a real treat. (Would the residents at Summers Quay object if Stalybridge Old Band used Armentieres Square for open air rehearsals?)

And finally…

What do you think of our selection of squares (or fistful of focal piazzas)? Do you have any more to add to our list? Do you wish to elaborate on our Not So Perfect Ten? Feel free to comment.

S.V., 19 June 2021.

2 thoughts on “Hip to See Squares: Ten Great Focal Piazzas

    1. Hi Tina,

      Some of our focal piazzas – whether urban squares or village greens – are taken for granted. We either become too blasé about them or forget how good they are, in comparison with similar spaces across the UK. I could probably think of a few more Hip To See Squares for a follow-up article. Even a spin-off article on Market Places, past and present ones too.

      Stalybridge has a few principal squares worthy of a future spin-off article. For instance: Stanley Square, Albert Square (by The Wharf Tavern) and the square on Grey Street. Maybe a more ambitious one with the town’s Yards – which if they were all retained – could have been an attraction in their own right like Whitby’s passageways. Or the narrow thoroughfares where troll carts were wheeled down to the docks in Great Yarmouth.

      Warmly,

      Stuart.

      Like

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