Is the way into Stalybridge’s heart through our stomachs?
The 23rd and 24th July 2021 has been a spectacular two days for Stalybridge town centre. From 6pm to 9pm, shoppers descended on Armentieres Square for Foodie Friday – the first of six monthly pop-up markets for gastrophiles. Within minutes of opening, the town centre was packed with shoppers on Melbourne Street, Grosvenor Street and Trinity Street.
On the follow Saturday, there was a fantastic turnout for the Artisan Market organised by Little Owl Events. Over the same weekend, there was a pop-up stall beside Holy Trinity Church by Future Everything with their This Place [Of Mine]. This display, using multimedia technology, gaged reaction on how they would like to see their town centre in the future. Artist in residence Izzy Bolt also chaired some digital art sessions with local creatives for anyone interested in digital art.
The arty side focused on how the public would like to transform Stalybridge, with reference to its existing treasures. Many visitors realised the importance of the town’s Victoria Market, Astley Cheetham Library and Art Gallery and the Holy Trinity Church. For me? The hills, Stalybridge Celtic Football Club and the legendary 343 bus route (“No surprise there.” – Ed).
The town’s setting on the edge of the Pennines as well as its Victorian architecture are real scene stealers. If this was Great Malvern, Harrogate, or Buxton, we would be praising Stalybridge to high heaven (but Stalybridge isn’t known for its spa waters and springs). If this was Leamington Spa, Ludlow or Warwick, more of its buildings may have been saved (Stalybridge may have a castle – Buckton Castle – but less of that remains compared with the Town Hall Remains).
Two things have been hailed as a catalyst in the revitalisation of Stalybridge. One is the town’s Heritage Action Zone, which covers the whole of Market Street and Trinity Street, including Armentieres Square. The other one way is through our stomachs.
Starters: Surveying The Scene
Cast your mind back to 1990, and try to think of what the food offer was like in Stalybridge. The first thing you would think of is the black peas at Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar (under Ken Redfern at the time). Maybe The Tripe Shop on Melbourne Street next to The Chicken Barbecue. Or the cafés in Stalybridge Market Hall. Maybe Pat’s Plaice on Grosvenor Street in the long demolished flats, or The Owl’s Hoot Café as seen in Jossy’s Giants. That’s before we look at Indian and Chinese restaurants and various other takeaways.
What about Food Food? You know… the type of food you would enjoy in your best clothes over three courses on a Sunday. The type of food you wouldn’t mind waiting some time for, because it is freshly cooked. Back in 1990, you would be looking at The Roe Cross Inn for a Toby Carvery or The Waggon and Horses. Also The Stamford Arms in Heyheads and The Hare and Hounds on Mottram Road. In Ashton-under-Lyne, a little way past the Stalybridge boundary, The Coach House and The Sycamore was the best you could get.
Over thirty years on, both The Roe Cross Inn and The Hare and Hounds have faced depubification. At an affordable price point, The Society Rooms has become the go-to place for most people wanting unpretentious fare (with real ale to boot). In the town centre, we have seen chippies come and go and the loss of a full time retail market.
What hasn’t escaped the attention of ‘Bridgeites is how the town’s dining choices have become more diverse. You can get a good Indian meal at Uneeds; also Chinese at Phoenix City; Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar offers more than black peas, with an increasingly diverse food offer among its cask conditioned ales.
If you want traditional takeaway fish and chips, there’s room for that at The Battered Friar on Caroline Street and The Oxford Street Chippy (about fifteen minutes walk from the town centre or a quick hop on the 348 bus). The food offer at Florence and Amelia’s and Deli Felice has won friends with locals and more far flung visitors to the town. How can we forget Carr’s The Bakers, who have been based in Stalybridge for nearly one hundred years?
Over the last two decades from my observations, non-food businesses have come and gone is Stalybridge, whereas eateries and specialist food shops have held their own. Even in the shadows of ALDI and TESCO. It is clear that people are prepared to go to Stalybridge for something that is different to what the other eight towns in Tameside are offering. This explains why much political capital has been made over Artisan Markets or Altrincham style food markets.
What should be recognised is the average ‘Bridgeite earns less than its peers in Hale, Bowden and Altrincham. Affordability needs to be taken into account, in addition to wooing potential shoppers into Stalybridge.
The Main Course: Feeding a Foodie Based Recovery
Altrincham, the place which has inspired some ‘Bridgeites to consider a foodie-led future, has excellent tram services to Manchester, co-existing with an hourly train service to Stockport, Manchester Piccadilly, Northwich and Chester. It also has a swish bus/rail/tram interchange, yet its most frequent route (the 263) is only every 15 minutes to Piccadilly Gardens. As for car parking space, there is plenty of it by Altrincham Interchange as well as within its shopping areas.
Between Ashton and Stalybridge, there are five to seven direct buses per hour in the daytime (or eight to ten when you count the less direct 387 and 389 routes). On Sundays and Bank Holidays, 3.5 per hour (the 356 is every two hours). Recent service changes to the town’s rail service has seen the loss of direct trains to Liverpool Lime Street, York and Scarborough. On Sundays, there is just one train an hour to Manchester Piccadilly with the other train per hour being a bus replacement service. Metrolink would greatly enhance Stalybridge’s links with Manchester – more than making up for gaps left by bus service cuts. (Historically, Stalybridge used to have frequent journeys on the 216 and 219 routes).
With parking space at a premium, there is a good case for serious enhancements to Stalybridge’s public transport system. Not only in terms of its coverage and operating times, but also in terms of more affordable fares (which could well be addressed by a London-style franchised network).
What Altrincham has more of compared with Stalybridge is retail banks, and the cash machines to go with them. Stalybridge only has one bank, with most of its bricks and mortar branches having closed since the global financial downturn in 2008. It is assumed that many ‘Bridgeites would have to go to Ashton to get their banking done in person. As for going to a cash machine (there are only four free ATMs in the town centre – and a non-free one on Market Street), the last thing they would like to do is have to go to the next town! The lack of cash machines could be a deciding factor on future trips to Stalybridge, though COVID has sped up the switch towards cashless payments.
Improved transport infrastructure and access to cash machines (as well as electronic methods of payment) benefits everyone. Once we have got that right, talking up the town’s food offer should be next on the agenda. The question is, how should this be done?
1. Affordability matters
For some people, a £6.00 pork pie is nearly an hour’s wage (and that price, it better be good!). With apprentices and sixteen-year-olds, more than an hour’s wage. On Universal Credit (excluding the temporary uplift and at basic rate), almost a day’s worth of UC allowance.
The food we get from an Artisan Market would be seen as a special treat, in addition to our usual big shop. It is aspirational. It encourages us to think ‘hey, we can do that in our kitchen’. Outside of artisan markets, our local retail markets offer more affordable yet locally sourced food. Take for example, the stalls that Stalybridge Market used to have – or any of the stalls you see on Ashton and Hyde markets. Also Boult’s Butchers and Say Cheese on Melbourne Street. These places need to be recognised, as well as traders at monthly Artisan Markets.
Perhaps the Heritage Trail could spawn a sister Food Trail, stretching from the Oxford Street Chippy to Mellor’s Bakery, Tokies, Deli Felice and The Golden Castle. On Foodie Friday nights, reference to traffic diversions should be printed on the map. Furthermore, the listings for each business should have a price guide with a single ‘£’ sign for the cheapest outlets up to ‘£££££’ for the most expensive places.
2. Variety is everything
Foodie Friday offers a real change from the usual fare you get in the supermarket. On a warm summer’s day (as with the 23rd July), some street food with a nice pint of lager/glass of Prosecco/mug of coffee makes for the continental atmosphere we yearned for in the late 1990s.
To gain continued interest, Foodie Friday should be part of a package of measures to turn Stalybridge into Tameside’s Good Food Capital. This could include cookery demonstrations, cake-making and icing courses, even beginners’ cooking courses for young people and persons with learning disabilities. The smaller function rooms in Stalybridge Civic Hall, or some classrooms at Copley Academy and West Hill School could be suitable venues for cookery courses.
Further to the existing food offer, travelling kitchens (or kitchen takeovers) should be encouraged in licensed premises to create a buzz. Possibly at times that would otherwise be quiet and not interrupt regular business activities.
3. Keep it clean and quiet
“The Staly Vegas days are long gone many years ago, we don’t want a repetition of that”
– Ray Harrison, Stalybridge Town Team.
In the last month, we learned how plans to open a restaurant at Summers Quay got the go-ahead, albeit with stricter licensing conditions. Firstly, the applicant can only open from 8am to 11.30pm; secondly, that only recorded music could be played on the premises.
Going back to the first ever Foodie Friday, there was a broad range of visitors. Elderly people, family members and a few young people. Some of which may have bought into the StalyVegas scene in the early noughties. The kind of people whom in 2004 were downing Blue WKDs that think nothing of watching Grand Designs, Come Dine With Me, or showing off their cupcakes on Pinterest in 2021.
Therefore, the logical progression towards the get sloshed/standing in taxi queues/getting a kebab economy is good food and drink. It is also good beer and microbars, as seen with Cracking Pint, Bridge Beers and Ol’s Bottle Shop on Market Street. The people have grown up; the economy is growing up but, being Stalybridge, it mustn’t forget its roots. Also its musical tradition which began on Corporation Street in 1809.
Desserts: a side serving of history and a crème brûlée
Behind any place noted for its food is a back story, a side-serving of history or another feature that sets it apart from Any Other Town. Ludlow, as well as its Les Routiers restaurants is noted for its castle, unspoilt streets, and (for people of a certain age including this fellow) its place in computer gaming history. Hebden Bridge is noted for its Bohemian atmosphere and proximity to Bronté Country, and popular with lovers of the great outdoors.
Stalybridge’s proximity to the Pennine foothills makes it a great starting point for walks into Saddleworth and the Longdendale valley. Manchester city centre, by train, is less than 20 minutes away – less than the journey time from Hebden Bridge to Leeds.
On the other hand, the rise in popularity of working from home should favour small towns. It should favour the decentralisation of office facilities away from city centres or business parks, by means of hackspaces in small towns or homes. Restaurants could eschew bigger towns or cities in favour of smaller towns with lower rents. This could take the pressure off city centre traffic, though be a cause for concern in smaller centres without a truly integrated transport policy.
Stalybridge is well-placed for reaching most parts of Tameside, either on foot, by bicycle, taxi or bus as well as private transport. There is room for improvement that goes well beyond the scope of this article. In a nutshell, its aim should be linking the town with Manchester, Oldham, Glossop, Tameside Hospital, and the other eight Tameside towns from 5am to 12 midnight. Seven days a week, with each bus route having an hourly frequency or better.
As well as somewhere to eat, the town’s future epicurean reputation should be intertwined with its history. Extensive investment in the town’s facilities – particularly Cheetham’s Park where the stables block is lying derelict – should be one area to consider. The town’s bus routes could be integrated with its Historical Trail inside the Heritage Action Trail and beyond. Old Street, where the former clinic stood, has scope for any development besides apartments – whether creative or epicurean.
In the long term, we wonder how long our love affair with fine dining will last. Would cookery programmes or YouTube clips continue to fascinate us ten years from now?
We mustn’t forget that The StalyVegas Years accounted for twelve years in the life of the town’s history and we thought the party would go on. Instead, the partygoers got stiffness in their legs, preferred quieter pursuits and turned to the craft beers and micro bars. They preferred to spend their wages on their kitchen space and canine friends instead of taxis and takeaways. If they went to the pub, they preferred live music over recorded cacophony. On the other hand, they couldn’t afford to party, because of precarious employment or the possibilities of being embarrassed on social media accounts.
Therefore, a food-led future needs a sound resilient base to allow for any changes in fads. Would we still want to see real people in 2031? (I certainly hope so). Could the food-led future allow for diversification into more esoteric retail businesses, selling the kind of things that you cannot get online as a fringe benefit?
Coffee and mints: what kind of eateries could we see in Stalybridge, ten years from now?
In 2021, Stalybridge has a good mix of traditional English, continental, Indian and Chinese eateries, whether takeaways or restaurants. Due to the town’s present-day footfall, there is little chance of the likes of Costa, KFC or McDonalds setting up shop on Melbourne Street or Grosvenor Street in the near future. Especially given how close it is to existing outlets in Ashton-under-Lyne, Hyde and Hattersley. Some may argue this is a good thing, with the town offering something different to the ‘clone town’ tropes of pre-COVID pandemic era shopping centres.
What kind of eateries could we see in Stalybridge by 2031? Here’s our musings:
- Vegan Staly Vegas: a vegan restaurant on Melbourne Street, possibly in the former Friendship public house. Could be Greater Manchester’s first concept restaurant based on Elvis Presley or The Dead Kennedys with a jukebox.
- Yo!Stali: the town’s first sushi bar with the spelling of ‘Staly’ changed to ‘Stali’ (because ‘Sushi’ isn’t spelt as ‘Sushy’). Former Lloyd’s Bank building next to Quality Save could be a good unit.
- Mademoiselle Armentieres: a French restaurant that embraces Stalybridge’s twinning with the French town of Armentieres. Could be near to Armentieres Square, or a short stride away on Grosvenor Street. Could pair up with a future French restaurant in Dukinfield called La Champagnole Socialiste.
- Mephistopheles’ Diner: could be Stalybridge’s answer to Nando’s, offering spicier dishes and gourmet burgers. Corporation Street or Market Street could be a good place for this diner, which also pays homage to Stalybridge Old Band and Shipley Douglas’ contest march.
- Burgon’s: what Stalybridge also needs is a high quality specialist coffee shop that does a mean Latte at a great price. To move forward, we could look to the past by resurrecting an old name with a variety of teas and ground coffees. If the original Melbourne Street is still available, that would be a bonus!
“Could you pass me the bill, please…” (And Finally)
Did you go to the Artisan Market or Foodie Friday and what are your opinions on both events? Does Stalybridge’s future, in full or in part, lie in epicurean delights as well as its history? What kind of eateries would you like to see in Stalybridge over the next decade? As always, feel free to comment.
S.V., 26 July 2021.