Oldham and Trafford: Pt 1 – Oldham, Greater Manchester

Our next trip started in Greater Manchester once more, with another four towns to explore, from Oldham in the North East to Altrincham, south of Manchester. We stopped in Oldham first, and set out to explore the historic buildings, and noted Art Gallery…

Oldham:

Status: Oldham District, Greater Manchester (Historically Lancashire), Town, England

Date: 30/05/2014

Travel: Car, Metrolink (Anchorage – Oldham Central, via Cornbrook), Metrolink (Oldham King Street – Altrincham, via Deansgate-Castlefield), Metrolink (Altrincham – Stretford, via Sale)

Eating & Sleeping: Greggs

Attractions: Oldham Town Hall, War Memorial, Metrolink, Art Gallery, Tourist Information, Tommyfield Market, Spindles Shopping Centre, Town Square Shopping Centre, The Lyceum, Library & Museum, Civic Centre, Manchester Chambers etc

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The town centre was a little quiet when we arrived, but then again it was just before 9am, but it soon livened up. It’s only a short walk from the Metrolink Station, and we disembarked at Oldham Central, one of three stations in the town centre, the other two being King Street and Mumps.

The pedestrianised street shown above is the centre of the town, and leads in all directions to most of Oldham’s major attractions and important buildings. It also contains the main shopping centre, called the Spindles which also merges with the Town Square shopping centre, to great one large space.

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One thing about the Spindles Shopping Centre did strike me, the large Red Rose above the main entrances. Whilst Oldham is now part of Greater Manchester, it is traditionally a part of Lancashire, the emblem of which is the Red Rose, so it’s nice to see Oldham celebrating its heritage.

Inside the centre is an enormous stained glass roof, designed to celebrate a local musician called Sir William Walton (1902 – 1983, English Composer who also wrote 1st Symphony). The roof is one of the largest stained glass examples in Europe, and the variety of colours is fantastic.

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From here we walked through to the Market Hall, which sadly isn’t as old as it looks, as it was only constructed in the 1990’s, although the building itself is very ornate and could easily have been here since Victorian Times. The previous Market (Victoria Market), with a beautiful ornate front from 1908 burnt down in 1974, and was the third Market in the town, after the first in 1788 and the second in 1865 when the first indoor Market was built.

The area is known as Tommyfield Market, and is also the name of the current Market Hall, named after Thomas Whittaker, who owned the land the markets were held on many years ago. It’s a bustling site for traders and back in 1860, was the birthplace of an English delicacy, the Fried Chip. A stalled was opened at the market, and is said to have started selling deep-fried chipped potatoes, with a blue plaque (you can just see it on the right hand side of Frozen Foods) commemorating the fact that the first Chip to be fried in Britain was done so in Oldham. I am unsure whether this was opened by John Lees (see below) or whether John Lees saw someone else selling them and decided to use the idea, but in the 1860’s, the notion of fried Fish, pioneered in the South of England was combined with these fried potatoes and there are two claims to who created the first actual Fish and Chip shop. John Lees is one of the two, and is claimed to have sold them in 1863 at Mossley Market, in the nearby town of Mossley (also Lancashire), whilst an immigrant called Joseph Malin was selling them in London by either 1860 or 1865, with records a bit sketchy.

By 1900 Oldham had the most chip shops per head in the whole country, at around 1 per every 400 people. I have to say that Oldham’s part in the invention of the Chip Shop is one of my favourite facts, and one that was totally unexpected, but one I think we are all thankful for!

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From the Market Hall we moved round towards the War Memorial, Parish Church and Town Hall, along with a few other attractions in this part of Oldham before circling back around to the pedestrianised section.

Our first stop was the impressive War Memorial, commissioned in 1919, and designed by Albert Toft (1862 – 1949) as a permanent memorial to the citizens of Oldham who died in World War I. It was unveiled in 1923, by General Sir Ian Hamilton (1853 – 1947, British General famous for commanding the force at the battle of Gallipoli in 1915 – 1916). At the top of the memorial are five large statues, made out of bronze, showing five soldiers in the trenches, with the main figure giving a signal to advance to the others. A new feature was added after World War II, which consists of a glass panel with a large book behind it. The book is mechanised and changes page each day, listing the names of soldiers who died on this date during any of the years of the war. I think this is a great feature and the best way to make sure that no man is forgotten.

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Behind the War Memorial is the local Parish Church, completed in 1830, to designs by Richard Lane, an architect from nearby Manchester. One of the most expensive features of the Church was the crypt, which took up a full third of the £30,000 budget. The oldest Church to stand here was built in the 13th century, and the area had 7 holy crosses as boundaries posts. The Church was replaced by a new one in the 15th Century, before the present building took over. It really stands out across the town, as the Memorial and the Church are on an incline above the main streets.

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Across the road from both the Memorial and the Church is the old Oldham Town Hall, which typically was covered in scaffolding at the time, but available pictures online show how impressive the front of the Hall is. It is currently undergoing refurbishment, as it is being turned into a 1000 seat theatre complex, whilst retaining the old exterior. You can see what this will look like here.

The building originally dates back to 1841, and was built in a Georgian Style, although it wasn’t until 8 years later that Oldham actually became a borough, and required the use of a Town Hall. The year of construction also makes it one of the last purpose built Town Halls in the North West, and is based on the Temple of Ceres in Athens, Greece. One of the most famous visitors to the Town Hall was Sir Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965, UK Prime Minister between 1940 – 1945, and 1951 – 1955), who became an MP for Oldham in 1900 following local elections. It was here that he started his career, and would of course go on to become the most revered Prime Minister in British History.

Walking around the town, we came across a number of old and impressive buildings, spread across what we saw as the two main streets, one which ran past the Town Hall and one where the Trams run though, where we originally started. We moved down past the Town Hall first, and saw the first building, an old Bank Building which is now a pub.

Moving through to the second main street, we found the other 2 buildings pictured, with one being the HSBC Building, and the second being the Free Library & Museum. The quality of these buildings is very impressive, and good examples can be found all around Oldham, and judging by the architecture many of them will date from the 19th century, or early 20th.

The Free Library & Museum is particularly interesting, as it is one of the older buildings on the road, established in 1883. It contained a plethora of collections, including one of Natural History that was brought in during the 1930’s. Whilst the building was originally built as a Library and Museum, in the 1970’s an Art Gallery was built on the top floor, and the Museum sections moved out, into a new building next door. Today all three have been combined, in a new modern building, shown below.

Gallery 1

The Gallery is situated directly next to the original Library & Museum, and is a new modern building which opened in 2002. On the ground floor is a shop and a few exhibits, with the Library and Tourist Information on the 1st floor, and then the Art Gallery up on the 2nd floor.

The Art Gallery contains a number of interesting sculptures, including one section that amused us. There is a small replica Chemist Shop in the Art Gallery (which also contains a variety of sculptures) and you can don a Chemist’s coat and try your hand at weighing some parcels in the old scales. Another good exhibit is a panoramic of Oldham over 100 years ago, when the skyline was dominated by mills and houses for the workers, as Oldham came to prominence in the 19th century as a Mill Town, and soon became one of the most important cotton and textile centres in England. By 1909 Oldham was producing more Cotton than the whole of France and Germany together, and when it reached it’s high point in 1928 it was the most productive Cotton Spinning town in the World.

This is compared with a new panoramic from today, and it’s incredible how different the town looks now, with most of the chimneys gone, and replaced with modern developments. It’s a fantastic snapshot of two periods of Oldham’s history, and shows how it has adapted as times have changed.

In the main entrance to The Gallery, hang 7 large glass tubes, with different coloured lights inside. As it get’s darker outside, the light from them intensifies thanks to the Neon Gas contained inside, lighting up the area.

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In the square in front of The Gallery is a beautiful garden, with a tubular sculpture in the centre. The most impressive portion of it however, is the mural painted on the floor, which starts at the top of the steps. A waterfall cascades down the steeps and through a canyon and a forest down into a sink hole, all in painted form. It’s a staggering piece of work, and is very realistic. We just about managed not to fall in!

Behind the Mural is the sandstone front of the Oldham United Reformed Church, built as the Congregational Chapel in 1877. It fits in perfectly with the rest of the street, and the architecture just keeps getting more impressive as you explore the town. All of these lovely ochre buildings must have been painstakingly restored as the soot and pollution from Oldham’s time as a Mill Town would have rendered the fronts a much darker colour, as with Rochdale Town Hall.

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We left The Gallery and made our way up the street, following the tram lines. You can see the electricity lines above the road for the tram system. One building dominates this section of the street, and immaculately takes up a full block. The building in question is called the Lyceum, and dates back to 1856, when it opened as a Mutual Improvement Centre for the hard working men of Oldham, and included a Library, various educational classes and topics including many sciences, as well as music. In 1892 a Music School was opened, and later a School of Art and Science was added to the building. The Lyceum was gifted to the local council in 1986, who moved the music centre into the building. Today the building contains the Oldham Lyceum School of Music.

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We worked our way back around to the pedestrianised section, and followed it round past the shopping centres, to the administrative centre of Oldham. One of the two major structures here is shown on the right, and is the modern front of the new Bus Station, opened in 2001 as a replacement for three previous bus terminus’s, with services coming from different locations.

The Bus Station contains 12 stands, A – H and J – M, with the last 6 being added later in 2006 due to the large number of buses using the station, and with the countrywide National Express coaches also coming through.

Behind the Bus Station is a building called Manchester Chambers, with it’s impressive red brick front, and patterned walls. It contains a number of shops and contrasts brilliantly with the grey square floor and the silver Bus Station.

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Across the road from both of these is the 2nd major structure here, the Civic Centre, which is used as the headquarters of Oldham Borough Council. It is one of the more unusual local Government headquarters we have seen, as usually the Council use the local Town Hall, or a more general office building like the one in Newcastle. Due to it’s uniqueness, I really like the Civic Hall here and the white brick makes it look a lot more interesting than the usual concrete structures associated with recent architecture.

The Hall was designed by Cecil Howitt & Partners, and built in 1977. It comprises of 15 floors, at an overall height of 200 feet, and gives fantastic views over towards Manchester City Centre, as here we are the summit of a large hill, and just looking down the road off to the left out of shot you can see far over Greater Manchester, with Manchester being reasonably close, and some landmarks are distinguishable. Likewise, the Oldham Civic Centre is visible from many areas of Greater Manchester, adding to the many landmarks in the area.

This was the end of our trip to Oldham, but although we were heading towards the nearest Tram Stop, Oldham King Street, we discovered a few things of interesting on route.

The first was the public art installations along the path leading from the Bus Station down to the Tram Stop. The first picture shows a piece of art called “Here” designed by Andy Roberts and installed in 1993, and has different things incorporated into it including a Gargoyle from St James Church and a headstone from St Mary’s Parish Church (visible on the left of the artwork).

We soon passed another piece of artwork,  consisting of silver metal fins rising out of the pavement, but it wasn’t labelled. Oldham is a great place for Artwork, with The Gallery and all the artworks located on various streets. The final piece of Art we saw was very similar to the first, but there was no plaque to identify it, but I assume it’s by the same artist.

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At the entrance to the King Street Metrolink platforms, is a small stone post, commemorating:

“Site of former King Street Baptish Church a place of Christian Worship from 1862 to 2005 now continuing as Oldham Baptist Church in Chaucer Street”

I would imagine it was partly in the way of the Metrolink, and as it had already closed was an ideal candidate to be demolished. You wouldn’t know it was ever here without the post, and whilst it’s sad that an old building no longer exists, it helped a new modern project take shape.

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The new Metrolink line to Rochdale via Oldham opened in 2012, and adds to those already running from Manchester to Bury, East Didsbury, Altrincham, Ashton-under-Lyne, Eccles via Salford and MediaCityUK. Oldham is only around 15-20 minutes outside of Manchester by tram, and there are three main stops in the town centre, with King Street being the first. It then runs through Oldham Central and on to Oldham Mumps.

Oldham has no regular train stations, even though it once had 7. These gradually closed, and some of these original stations were named Central and Oldham Mumps, mirroring the new tram stops. Metrolink now provides a fast and easy way to get into Manchester, and is the major transport system in the town aside from buses.

Oldham is a fantastic town, with so much interesting history just waiting to be discovered. The Gallery is a great place to visit, and the old buildings dotted around the town centre all have a story to tell. Along with its sweeping views of Manchester and towering Civic Hall, Oldham is in a prime location, and thanks to it’s part in the creation of Fish and Chips, frying the first shop and opening the first Chip Shop, it will forever be an important part of Britain.

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