High hopes as town welcomes Greater Manchester cultural spotlight
“There is so much potential. It’s been like the land that time forgot but it feels like there’s a shift now.”
Tiff McGlashan from Stalybridge salon and workspace, Industry, is not alone in her summation of the Greater Manchester market town. Born and bred in Stalybridge, she is one of the many locals excited about the future of her hometown at a time when things feel like they’re on the up.
Every time you visit, you feel like you belong here even more. It’s like a magnet, it draws you in.
“I started this business with clientele from Manchester who had never set foot in Stalybridge before and they’d get off the train and be like ‘wow, this is so nice. This is where you live?’ The whole town is attracting different types of people and every week it feels like something new is happening.”
This year, Stalybridge has been crowned Greater Manchester Town of Culture. The town takes over from 2021 awardees Bury and whether you speak to people picking up butties in Say Cheese Deli or sit for a pint of mild in Bridge Beers, people are excited to see their town come under the spotlight.
What does it mean to be awarded 'Town of Culture'?
Now in its fourth year, Greater Manchester Town of Culture is an accolade awarded by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) Culture Fund. The award includes a £50,000 grant to help develop a programme of cultural events and activities throughout the year.
The aim of the funding is to celebrate the respective town’s heritage and culture whilst providing new opportunities for local people. Last year’s funding for Bury was more than tripled thanks to additional funds from Bury Council, Arts Council England and the Victoria Wood Foundation.
Stalybridge Labour Councillor and Executive member for culture, Leanne Feeley confirms that the town’s bid hopes to receive matched funding this year too, with further financial support lined up from Heritage England and Tameside Council. It was the Stalybridge bid’s combination of “distinct cultural heritage and ambitious plans for community-focused activities” that caught the eye of the independent judging panel, according to Cllr Martyn Cox, GMCA Lead for Culture.
The accolade also corresponds with other improvement schemes in the town. Stalybridge Heritage Action Zone - which aims to improve parts of the town centre - was awarded £1.27m in 2020 by Historic England’s High Street Heritage Action Zone initiative. Tameside council has agreed to match the funding to a combined total of up to £2.54m.
The funding also corresponds with the Town Centre Challenge. Another Greater Manchester initiative, albeit without funding, that aims to raise the profile of regional towns and attract investment, whilst consulting with locals on what they want their respective towns to look like in the future.
A celebration of culture and heritage
There’s a lot of culture to be celebrated in Stalybridge. A rich history is easy to uncover over a pint in most of the town’s pubs where locals are proud to reel off accolades. Theirs is believed to be the first civilian brass band in the world. The iconic song It’s a long way to Tipperary was written in the town by Jack Judge in the space of a day as part of a bet.
Beatrix Potter was a regular visitor to the town, staying at nearby Gorse Hall which was built by her grandparents.
Culture is a broad term. As Councillor Leanne Feeley points out, “Culture is not just the arts. Culture is how you live.” Pubs are a part of the town’s cultural fabric. As is its positioning on the canal network. A high street full of small independent shops and other assets like sports teams and the town’s countryside location will also play a part in this year’s programme, Leanne tells me.
“We pulled together a bid which was informed by The Bridge Cultural Consortium [a local group made up of individuals with involvement and interests across culture and the arts]. This isn’t about my view or the council’s view, this is about the community being able to feed in their ideas.”
Leanne teases events curated by theatre group Made by Mortals and local dance groups as some of the things visitors can look forward to as well as events at the town’s Cheetham Art Gallery. Local cycling groups will be involved in curating cycle routes, encouraging people to enjoy the countryside surrounding the town and the town itself.
These will coincide with some of Stalybridge’s more traditional events including the legendary Tameside Whit Friday Brass Band Contest, which takes in venues across Tameside including Stalybridge.
The event, which attracts bands from around the world, is referred to by multiple sources as “the greatest free show on earth”, which is conveniently also the slogan on the event’s website.
Financial realities and modest sums
The official Town of Culture programme launches on Friday 11 March alongside the return of the town’s popular Friday Street Feast. The street food event, which takes place every second Friday of the month between 5pm and 9pm, is a collaboration between Tameside Council’s market service and The Market Co. It comes up in every conversation I have.
The continental market event brings a range of street food, drinks and craft stalls to the town centre - from Malaysian curries to stonebaked pizza - and visitors flock in their thousands.
“What I love about Stalybridge is it’s still got that community market town spirit,” Labour Councillor Jan Jackson tells me. “I like to think you’re not just born and bred but you live the life of Stalybridge. I couldn’t foresee a weekend without visiting the town centre. There’d be something missing.”
Like everyone I speak to, Jan is excited about this year’s town of culture award but she’s also not getting too carried away. There’s a shared acknowledgement by everyone that I speak to that £50,000 is a minimal sum, especially when you compare it to other prominent numbers that are doing the rounds in the town.
Local dreams of an Altrincham-style food hall, a topic that comes up frequently, hinge on a £1.7m bill to fix the damaged roof of the Grade II-listed Civic Hall, almost triple the original £558,950 costing. The feasibility study alone cost £75,000 and remains unfinished.
When I ask people what they would like to see as part of this year’s programme, the results are varied. Jan would like to see walking infrastructure highlighted and hopes that initiatives surrounding this are aimed at all ages.
Jan and Conservative Councillor Liam Billington both touch upon the 2019 visit of The Exchange Theatre to the town with both admitting attendances didn’t necessarily match ambitions. Going a step further, Liam says that accessibility has to be a priority for this year’s programme.
“It can’t just be subsidising arts for the sake of it. People want escapism. I’m not saying put on Mrs Brown’s Boys but it has to be commercially viable.”
Hopes for the future of Stalybridge
Speaking to the team at Industry, the Town of Culture feeds into an overall excitement felt around the town. Businesses like Industry and Gladstone Barber & Bistro are new businesses that wouldn’t look out of place in Ancoats and the hope is that they can attract others of a similar ilk. Industry's founders have written to local politicians including the office of Andy Burnham to offer their facilities for events during the year ahead.
When quizzed on what they’d like to see as part of this year’s programme, they’ve got a few ideas. Family-orientated activities would be a priority. Tiff and the team feel like these are often overlooked. They speak fondly of pieces by Salford-based street artist Mr Eggs that have appeared across the town and a pop-up cinema also comes up in conversation, as do detours into wishful town planning.
“If I won the lottery I’d just buy everything down there [the empty shops in the West end] and just say ‘Yeah, do a year rent-free and do whatever you want to do’ and let’s get some independent shops and pop-ups going like a little record shop. That’d be so cool,” Tiff says.
This is a common theme. Although the walk from the station isn’t necessarily something the Town of Culture can fix, speaking to the people of Stalybridge you get the sense they want to highlight it. There’s a lingering hope that if this year of cultural and heritage celebration does anything, it shines a light on the potential of the town, highlighting to a new audience what investment could bring. Be that a new audience from surrounding North Manchester, nearby Yorkshire or beyond.
Councillor Jan provides the most positive outlook for the year ahead, encouraging the people of Greater Manchester to visit.
“Stalybridge is a town for all seasons. Every time you visit, you feel like you belong here even more. It’s like a magnet, it draws you in. The more people we can get from outside to buy into the spirit and buy into the community - the more people that talk it up, the better.”
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