Jonathan Schofield takes a trip to his home town and is impressed by the changes

Say ‘Rochdale’ and people will respond in many ways but rarely the way I do. I like to see jaws drop as I say of the town in which I was born and grew up, “Do you mean the town with the grandest and greenest central space of any town in the country?”

“Has it?” people will say.

“Yes. Have you been?” I will ask.

“No,” they'll usually answer.

If I really want to push the point home, I might quote the great guru of British architecture of the second half of the twentieth century, Nikolaus Pevsner, who wrote:

‘Here all is completely different from Lancashire towns, and indeed all English towns. The town hall lies surrounded by public gardens on three sides and the church lies up a steep bank, and the bank is also a public garden. So the centre is green and pleasant.’

If these towns are to have any future then having independent businesses is the way forward

That was written in the late sixties and remains the case now. He might also have mentioned the grand former post office from the 1920s by Wilkinson, now occupied on the ground floor by a cracking indie bar Medicine Tap, and, across the way, a very strong range of buildings including the lively Flying Horse pub. Pevsner might also have mentioned the view to the west is closed by the handsome art gallery and former library buildings where I spent many an hour trying to find books I wasn’t supposed to read.

The latter buildings are now the award-winning Touchstones, which combines the museum, the art gallery and the local studies library. This will re-open in August.

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Fun and games in summer sunshine on the Esplanade

Some things have changed: the River Roch, hidden in the early twentieth century as it had become rank with pollution, was revealed in 2015, and immediately became Rochdale’s little Liffey flowing right through the centre of the town. I’m hard-pressed to think of another UK town where this happens. I’m also hard-pressed to think of another town in the country which has a main public square called an Esplanade.

The river is an incredible asset. “It gives us a beachfront,” says Councillor John Blundell of Rochdale, an occasional Confidential contributor, who leads on regeneration in the town. 

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The river rolls through: the exposed River Roch, Rochdale's little River Liffey

Rochdale entered the rough economic times decades ago and seemed like a person in the hospice clock-watching the inevitable. The town centre, already in decline, was punched in the face by the opening of the Trafford Centre two decades ago and has been put on the ropes by the rise and rise of Manchester city centre ever since. The result was a flight of the town’s own residents from the wealthy suburbs to the latter places for both shopping and a night out. Who could blame them? 

The almost-knockout blow was delivered by a town council which appeared to have the ambition of a gnat crossed with a dust mite. Despite the splendid nature of the Esplanade it was so tatty, on return visits I had to avert my eyes. Now the last knackered part on the south side, opposite the old cinema which is inevitably a Wetherspoons (called Regal Moon), is getting almost a million pounds to sort itself out.

Indeed more than £250m has been invested in town centre improvements with another £150m on the way. The money has come through the judicious application of grant funding and working with commercial partners. The Rochdale Development Agency appear to be doing good work.

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Cotton bolls near Rochdale Interchange and Number One Riverside during last year's Uprising Festival celebrating street art
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Dippy packed them in during an exhibition at Number One Riverside before the lockdown and should do again

What’s notable is the increase in independent businesses around the Esplanade. Buckley Menswear is a case in point, a flamboyant menswear shop run by the ebullient Phil Buckley who says: “If these towns are to have any future then having independent businesses is the way forward. Service is often more personalised in independents and the stock will usually be more distinctive.”

Food and drink is seen as a way forward. Ben Boothman is a pioneer here with the excellent Bombay Brew (read our January review) and the aforementioned Flying Horse. Medicine Hat’s beer is Rochdalian as well and beyond quaffable. All this improvement needs yet more enhancement, but the seeds have been sown.

With immaculate timing, the £80m Riverside shopping centre and cinema opened just before lockdown. It’s a decent looking contribution to the eastern end of the Esplanade and sits next to the Metrolink Station. The retail anchor tenant is Marks & Spencer. It’s a shopping centre open to the sky in the Liverpool One model.

Next door are the council offices, adjacent to the river, in a quite splendid 2013 building by FaulknerBrowns Architects. This incorporates the lending and reference library too and thus there’s a pleasant mix of reader and bureaucrat. Again before lockdown the visit of Dippy the Dinosaur, on tour from the Natural History Museum, to the building brought in 115,000 visitors in five weeks. That visit has now been extended into winter and will open to visitors in August.

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The new Riverside shopping area

It’ll be 2023 before the biggest potential tourist attraction re-opens after refurbishment, Rochdale Town Hall. When I was a lad I thought every town had a town hall like Rochdale’s. Now I know they don’t, most are mean and slovenly in comparison. The 1871 building would grace any large city. It is in the Victorian Gothic style like Manchester Town Hall but while the latter has more gravitas, Rochdale’s has more charm and fun. The town hall is an example of what verve and ambition can achieve. It speaks of a sense of identity that many in the town want people to rediscover.

“Rochdale runs itself down, too many people talk too bleakly, about us, even the residents, although they can also be very proud,” says Blundell. “We are showing how change can happen, how through physical improvements, pursuit of independent businesses to animate the town, and through festivals, perceptions might be changed. Other boroughs have chosen to just chase money being given them, we are often commended for putting our money where our mouth is.

“Now we really need to show we have attention to detail with smaller stuff, the flowerbeds, signage, create a sense of excitement around small streets with potential such as The Walk and the Butts. The smaller scale projects can have a big impact.”

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John Blundell surveys the town from the porte cochere of the Town Hall

The challenge will ultimately be with the parts behind the beachfront. The former Poet Laureate, John Betjeman, once wrote that Cornwall is like a beautiful woman with no brains. In other words, it has a stunning coastline and less good interior.

There’s something in that quote about Rochdale. If I were to give the whole quote from Nikolaus Pevsner, which I mentioned earlier, he said after the ‘green and pleasant’ bit ‘a few steps away ‘all is mean shopping streets’. Yorkshire Street and Drake Street will need some real love and the town now has one shopping centre too many. Somebody needs to put The Wheatsheaf Shopping Centre out of its misery, maybe turn it into The National Museum of Failed Shopping Centres. There’s a lot to work on with that theme.

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The lively interior of Bombay Brew, a tasty way to enjoy Rochdale

Yet Rochdale has grave problems, with terrible indices of health and poverty. A recent government report said that 30% of Rochdale kids live in poverty, very near the top end of the stats for UK towns. This has to be addressed in Rochdale and in so many Northern towns.

Yet, the morale-boosting enhancement of one of the grandest urban public areas in the country with a river running through and one of the finest European town halls is the right direction to take. Beauty and aesthetics are too often ignored in the petty-fogging penny-pinching mindset of a still grotesquely class-ridden society - even though, ironically, that is now more of a class society based on money rather than actual class. 

If the Esplanade can shine (and Rochdale could teach Manchester a thing or two about litter collection) attract more businesses - particularly good-calibre food and drink establishments - attract back a cross-section of well-off and not so well-off, then this place should become a stunning ‘beachfront.’

“This has to be the right direction,” says Phil Buckley, “you have to go forward, create something with character. All the ingredients are here, we just need more people to join in.”

I'd say join in, go and have a look, maybe when Dippy opens, and have a drink in one of the indie bars, maybe have a meal, have a stroll. 

Yes, yawn, yes, coronavirus, we all know about it, but we have to live with it not in terror of it. Get the face mask on, get the train to Rochdale station and then the tram down into the town centre, or better still walk from the station to the Esplanade via the lovely medieval parish church (please open that more regularly Rochdale) and then down the long flight of steps in the gardens next to the Town Hall. Count them as you go, there’s a legend you’ll never get the same figure twice. 

A ten-minute walk away is the Rochdale Pioneers Museum, Toad Lane, where the Co-op started, run by the informative and witty Liz McIvor. This is next to the excellent Baum pub and over the road from the superb St Mary’s Church. All we need now is a tank to blast through another design disaster of a shopping centre to connect Toad Lane with Yorkshire Street and the Esplanade. By the way if you look east from the latter you will see Blackstone Edge, a 1500ft Pennine peak and the most impressive eminence in Greater Manchester. Blackstone Edge is also part of the Metropolitan Borough of Rochdale. 

To finish as we started: if you go and if you still don't like the place you can at least say you've been. Lazy condemnation of towns and locations in the UK to which one has never been is the spineless generalisation of the narrow-minded fool. These are usually good places with lots to offer. Try them out. 

Read again: Dippy on Tour: World-famous dinosaur arrives in Rochdale (now extended)

Also: Retail is dead - but art is alive