St Helens, Merseyside, England

In the middle of Merseyside, and a proud part of Historic Lancashire, is the town of St Helens, that is sometimes overlooked due to the close proximity of the major city of Liverpool and the well known town of Wigan. St Helens is a gem, and one of the most interesting towns we have been to in the North, with a great mixture of historical and modern architecture…

St Helens:

Status: St Helens District, Merseyside (Historically Lancashire), Town, England

Date: 14/05/2014

Travel: Stagecoach (Banks – Southport), Northern Rail (Southport – Wigan Wallgate), Northern Rail (Wigan North Western – St Helens Central)

Eating & Sleeping: Cafe Nero

Attractions: Town Hall, Beechams Clock Tower, St Helens Penguins, St Helens Parish Church, Old Bank Building, War Memorial, Town Library, St Thomas Church, Lowe House Church, Market, St Helens Needle etc

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We arrived at St Helens Central Station, which has recently undergone a complete refurbishment, resulting in the fantastic domed exterior pictured above. The big M in the centre stands for Merseyrail/Mersey Travel (which is used on all buses, trains etc in the Merseyside Area).

It is certainly one of the most impressive modern stations we have seen, and was originally opened back in 1858 as “St Helens”. At this point it was owned by the St Helens Canal & Railway, and replaced the two older nearby stations. Subsequent name changes went from “St Helens Shaw Street” in 1949, through to St Helens Central in 1987, which it remains today. The new modern exterior was opened in 2007, after ideas were put forwards in 2005. There are regular services to Liverpool Lime Street and Wigan North Western, as well as Preston and Blackpool North. The line here is being electrified, line many local lines in the North West, which includes the Manchester to Preston line which now runs via Wigan for the time being.

Leaving the station, we progressed into the main town centre, past the St Helens Hippodrome just down the road from the station. This old red brick theatre was built in 1892 and converted in 1903. It is easily visible as you leave the station.

We soon stumbled across one of my favourite structures in the town, and it provided the opportunity to get some epic photographs. I refer of course, to the St Helens Needle, pictured above. It is officially known as the Millennium Needle, and was commissioned by St Helens District Council. This beautiful metal spire stands 20 metres tall, made out of shining Stainless Steel. Around the top are a variety of small holes which allow light to shine through them. I like the second picture, as it almost looks like a like funnel stretching far into the sky, and the sky itself was perfect when we visited, and I don’t think pure blue would have worked as well.

It was installed in 2006, and a metal staircase winds its way around it up, up to the car park of the Hardshaw Shopping Centre at the top of the wall. At night, the whole area is lit up by floodlights and it must look spectacular reflecting the different colours. You can get an idea of what it looks like at night by visiting the website of one of the manufacturers, M-Tec, here.

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One of the areas I was most looking forwards to visiting in the town was the large square containing some of the most notable buildings, the impressive Town Hall, the stunning War Memorial and the Red Brick Library.

Starting with the Town Hall, which obviously dominates the picture, we were stunned at the shear size of it. It’s history begins in 1839, when the original Italian Style version was constructed. Sadly a number of fires (in 1871 and 1873) damaged it beyond repair and it was torn down, and replaced by the current building in 1873. This new Town Hall did originally have a steeple on top of the tower, however in 1913 the third fire struck and destroyed the steeple.

The building stretches the length of the square, and is similar in grandeur to many other Northern Towns and Cities like Manchester and Sheffield. It’s a fantastic building, and has retained its lovely rustic charm.

Over to the right is in the imposing front of the Library, built in 1896. It is a stark contrast to the rest of the square, however you get the feeling that you are crossing the years standing here. Outside the Library is the town’s War Memorial, in the shape of a small obelisk. It was constructed not long after World War I. The names of Soldiers from the town who fought in the war are listed on plaques around the outside, along with those from World War II above them.

The whole square is a very pleasant place to explore, and just off to the left, out of the square itself we found a familiar face…

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Queen Victoria (1837 – 1901, Queen of the United Kingdom) sits in all her splendour looking out across the town, and today she was enjoying the lovely sunshine.

The statue was created a year after she died, and was given to St Helens by Colonel William Windle Pilkington (1839 – 1914, the then mayor). There are many statues of our most prolific Queen spread throughout the United Kingdom, from Dundee to Southport to Weymouth.

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From the Queen Victoria Statue, we could see the next building of interest and made our way in that direction. I refer to the beautiful smooth exterior of  Beecham’s Clock Tower, part of a large building built in the 1880’s as the headquarters of the Beechams Pharmaceutical Company, started by Thomas Beecham (1820 – 1907) who has a small bust above the main entrance to the building.

Today the building is part of St Helens College, which has a number of new and interesting modern buildings, including the one on the right, which I think looks fantastic. The green exterior contrasts well with the Clock Tower. The College was founded in 1896, as the Gamble Institute by the then Mayor, Sir David Gamble (1823 – 1907, served three terms as Mayor). It became a Technical College in 1959 and today it is one of the best colleges in the country.

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As the town has expanded, it has almost merged with a few surrounding townships, including one called Eccleston, which is located just over the A58, which runs next to the College. The stand out feature of the area is shown above, and is called the church of St Thomas. Looking at the exterior, it appears very modern, however it was actually founded back in 1839.

Eccles means Church Farm or Settlement, although there is no recorded church in the township until the 18th century when the Portico Our Lady’s Roman Catholic chapel was constructed. One of the most famous children of Eccleston is Richard John Sedden (1845 – 1906) who went on to become the Prime Minister of New Zealand between 1893 and 1906, making him the longest serving PM so far.

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The St Helens skyline varies wildly from different areas of the town. For example, you can see the Town Hall Clock Tower from the station, and when you get there the Beechams Clock Tower then comes into view. We saw the Church of St Thomas from there, and then from St Thomas we could see, in the near distance, the above church, which looks more like a Cathedral you might find in the centre of Europe, leading it to be nicknamed “The Basilica of St Helens” in the local area.

The dome and the tower stand out across the local houses, and it made it very easy to navigate our way over to it. As I said before, it looks very European, and the building style is a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic. It’s official name is the Church of St Mary, Lowe House, and it serves the Roman Catholic population of the town. It looks a lot older than it actually is, as it was only founded in 1924. It takes its name from the house that was once built on the site, in 1793.

The Archbishop of Liverpool himself, Frederick William Keating (1859 – 1928) laid the foundation stone of the church. Three years later, in 1927, the new building opened, built a design by the Irish Architect Charles B. Powell. The main stand out features are the dome and the tower, and in the tower the Nave, Sanctuary and the Transepts meet up in the Octagonal Tower the dome sits atop. At the very top of the dome is a 16 feet tall cross, made out of Copper.

It’s a remarkable construction, and something I wasn’t expecting to find in St Helens. It gives the town a large scale sense of grandeur, and made for some great photographs.

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We started moving back into the main town centre to explore the pedestrianised streets, which usually contain a plethora of old and interesting buildings. As we passed around one of the large roundabouts, we noticed a large statue/sculpture in the centre.

It is called the Miners Monument, and local collieries had up to 20,000 workers by the 1970’s. Many workers died during the pit years, and this monument stands in tribute to all of them.

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We made it into the pedestrianised section, and my favourite building there is this one, the grand white front of “The Manchester and County Bank Ltd” sat on Church Street. We stopped for a break in a Cafe Nero directly opposite the building, and got a seat upstairs with a great view across to it.

Across the top of the building are the Roman Numerals “MDCCCCXIV” this translates as 1914.

M = 1000, D = 500, C = 100, X = 10, IV = 4. These together then make 1914. It was a branch of the Manchester and County Bank (established in 1862) when it opened, although the bank then merged with the District Bank (Manchester & Liverpool District Banking Company) in 1935. Today it is occupied by the Yorkshire Building Society. Its a great looking building, and still looks brand new. There are a number of old Victorian Buildings on these streets, as well as a few shopping centres including The Hardshaw Centre and Church Square.

Church Square relates to our next discovering, the Parish Church, sat right in the middle of the shopping centres and shopping streets.

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St Helens certainly has a taste for large churches, and this is the third one we have found today. The Church is a very important part of the towns history, as the original chapel here, St  Elyn’s (built before at least 1552) was the start of the town. The building lasted until 1618, and was the location where Eccleston, Windle, Sutton, and Par (the four townships) met up. A new hamlet grew up around the chapel and eventually became the town of St Helens in the 19th century.

A large church was built here before 1780, and extended over the coming years. It was known as St Helens Chapel, and was the Parish Church by 1852. It was eventually destroyed by fire in the 1920’s, and the current building was built. It presented an opportunity for a large church to really show off the importance of the town. World War I caused the price of stone to rocket, so brick was used instead.

The name St Helens also comes from the original chapel, as Elyn became Helens.

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We moved round to one of the newer buildings in the town, built in a similar style to the station. I love the rounded glass exterior, and the glass is done in such a way you are never quite sure whether it’s green or blue, but even so it has a lovely tint to it.

St Helens is historically a market town and there have been regular markets held here. St Mary’s has been around for a long time, and had the new front installed recently to update it. There are many stalls inside, and the entrance round the other side comes out back at the Parish Church.

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Opposite the Market is one of St Helens major attractions, the World of Glass. This fantastic building houses a large collection of Glass products, as well as Glass-blowing exhibitions and courses, and various galleries of art. The shop is free to enter free of charge and you can get a number of interesting souvenirs. St Helens had a major Glass industry, established by a company called Pilkingtons (founded in the town in 1826), and there were up to 30,000 Glass Workers.

The entrance to the museum is through the large kiln on the left. It’s incredible when you step inside, as the whole kiln is completely hollow and in it’s original condition. You can see straight up to the roof, up to the circular hole at the top (now glassed over). The echo is fantastic and it’s a very surreal experience. It gets you excited before you even enter the museum, and its certainly a great way to enter the museum.

It was at the museum that we noticed something. There was a large blue penguin sat at the entrance, and we realised we had seen a penguin at the station as well. We assumed that the station penguin was just an art installation, but after asking at the museum we found out that, much like the Superlambananas in 2008, there were over 200 penguins painted and spread throughout Liverpool, St Heles and the Wirral as a fund raising venture in 2009/10. Even though I am from the area I had only heard of the Superlambananas as I don’t get into Liverpool that often.

It’s a shame we missed them, but a few of them still inhabit the area. As I said there is one at the station, and the blue on at the museum. All of the penguins are made out of fibreglass, and based on the Emperor Penguin. The main penguins stood 5 feet tall,  with some smaller school penguins at 3 feet. Most of the penguins were sold at auction to raise money for Liverpool’s Year of the Environment, promoting the dangers of Global Warming.

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Our last stop in St Helens is the old Bank Building,  and the second of the two former banks after the Manchester and County Bank I talked about earlier. This one opened as Parr’s, later to become part of National Westminster in 1970.

Parr’s Bank was founded as Parr & Co in the nearby town of Warrington, and had 400 branches in 1914. Today the building is inhabited by a pub called the Counting house, however the building itself has been kept in great historical condition.

This was the end to our St Helens adventure, and we returned to the station to get a train home. It’s a fascinating little town, and easily accessible from local towns and cities, as well as having the advantage of being nestled between the major airports of Manchester and Liverpool. There is plenty to see in the town, and aside from what I have talked about there is also the Museum of Transport, reasonably close to the station.

If your in the area around Liverpool of Wigan take a trip to St Helens, and see what you discover.

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