31 May 2015

Stockport, Cheshire

Stockport, Cheshire. Well actually Greater Manchester for the last 40 years, although to historians, estate agents and most of its inhabitants it will always be Cheshire. But the town is not situated on the verdant, pastoral Cheshire plain with its winding lanes, white painted metal fences and sudden valleys of bubbling brooks that you see from your ‘awesomely’ expensive Virgin train to Manchester. It is not Cranford, where Miss Matty’s successors enthusiastically vote for George Osborne and the new workhouse. Rather it is the edge of the Peak District. Lyme Park, where Mr Darcy thrilled part of the nation with his televisual wet shirt dip in the lake, is just beyond the boundaries of the borough. Stockport’s hills and dramatic changes of level as it tumbles down to the Mersey are the essence of the special character of the town.

An ancient market town

A varied topography

But the Borough of some 300,000 people also embraces large tracts of another kind of Cheshire, Manchester’s Cheshire suburbs such as Cheadle Hulme and Bramhall, where I was married. These have little relationship with Stockport and, being 10 miles or so from Manchester city centre, were always a largely separate world, a sort of northern Surrey. Today they are ever more like exurbs, with an economy and society revolving around motorway junctions, Manchester Airport and John Lewis and its acolytes on the A34 bypass rather than connected to the vibrant life of the metropolis.

The old view – Hillgate

The view everybody knows – Wellington Road

Stockport is one of the satellite industrial towns to Cottonopolis as much as Lancashirian Bolton, Oldham or Rochdale but in places it also has the feel of an agricultural county town. If you drive through the town centre along the A6 Wellington Road, a C19th turnpike improvement, you miss all this. Stockport looks pretty ordinary and quite Southern with lots of very undistinguished office blocks and run of the mill commercial buildings, relieved by a blustering Edwardian Town Hall and some decent C19th public buildings. But if you follow the old road, Hillgate, you find some of the most unusual and rewarding townscape in England. It is rather like manyItalian towns with the old  town set above on the hill with the modern, less interesting bits down in the valley below.

The 1840s and the 1970s

The M60 thunders along the Mersey valley north of the centre and from it the view of the town’s backside is dismal. The prospect is enlivened by impressive sandstone outcrops and a bizarre pyramidal Co-op office block (originally several were planned). You also get superb views of the famous railway viaduct built in 1840. It strides across the valley on 27 brick arches with that wonderfully satisfying engineering simplicity. The frequent trains add excitement, at least for an ex train spotter, but it is a pity that the catenary gantrys bolted to this elegant structure are so clunkily inelegant. The viaduct straddles the earlier Wear Mill on the bank of the river.

The spectacular and the banal

Stockport Station – the dispiriting welcome

With Stockport you have to persevere beyond initial poor impressions. It is well served by intercity trains and its station has recently been revamped with a glassy circular entrance hall. Unfortunately the approach to the station from Wellington Road must take the prize for the most goddam-awful in the country. You have to run the gauntlet of a tawdry, tenth rate leisure complex where McDonald’s Drive Thru sets the standard. How any town could ever have thought this was an acceptable ‘gateway’ beggars belief. It speaks volumes of the lack of ambition, and power, of planning, which is all terribly depressing. A new public space with offices and an hotel is promised as part of Stockport’s new regeneration masterplan but don’t get your hopes up. The bus station provides an equally unprepossessing entrance to the town, basically rows of bus shelters in the shadow of the magnificent railway viaduct. But the location is convenient for the main shops and a new grander Interchange is to be built which would also accommodate future Metrolink extensions. It also promises to ‘improve’ the (non-existent) links with the railway station but how is not clear, which usually means this is an aspiration rather than a practical plan. Surely extending Metrolink from East Didsbury to Stockport Station is the answer.

The Mersey: could be a more spectacular farewell 

A heritage and community success story

Mersey Square, across Wellington Road from the bus station, continues your underwhelming introduction to the town. But this large space fronting the Merseyway Centre is more interesting than it initially looks. The Mersey actually flows underneath it, culverted in the 1930s, but you can still see it under Wellington Road, which begins to rise on a viaduct making interesting visual play with the magnificent railway viaduct beyond. Across the main road is the Hat Works Museum in an archetypal North Western mill with grand chimney – Stockport vied with Luton for that trade. Then the buildings rise up on the sandstone cliff behind the square, with municipal baroque steps leading upwards. Next to this is the Plaza, actually built into the cliff. It was designed in 1929 by the Manchester architect William Thornley and is one of the best preserved ‘super-cinemas’ of that period, creating a fantastical environment of neo-classical, Egyptian, Moorish and art deco motifs. The stepped art deco grey faience façade scarcely hints at the amazing interior. Closed as a cinema in 1965 it became a bingo hall but since 2000 it has been restored by the Stockport Plaza Trust which provides an enterprising programme of films and entertainments. A visit to the 1932 café-lounge is highly recommended.

Mersey Square...

.... is not really doing it

The Merseyway Centre opens up

Despite these positive elements Mersey Square is a bland place, certainly not helped by the horizontal blankness of the Merseyway Centre facades. The space is fragmented by confusing bus lanes which could surely be removed as part of the new Interchange. The Square desperately needs pulling together with a bold new landscape design, possibly opening up the Mersey again, and certainly introducing lots of greenery to what is a very bleak place. However although the Merseyway Centre is dull towards the Square, Ian Nairn with typical iconoclastic insight admired the way it was ‘plugged in’ to the streets around, and how well the vertical circulation worked. Designed by Bernard Engle in 1965 it has subsequently been extended, partly roofed over and generally dumbed down with superfluous tat supposedly to jolly it up, but you can still see why Nairn appreciated it.

Bridging Stockport – continuing the tradition

A street in the sky (and a nice old department store below)

Form, grid and tessellation 

Plugged in to the old fabric

The precinct was slotted in between the older streets, which largely retain their traditional buildings, and so it seems part of the wider town. Many elements of the original design were handled well: the lift and stair tower is an elegant campanile, the car park façade is interestingly modelled, the car park access bridges evoke the Stockport tradition of bridges and positively enhance the townscape. Even the service entrances are composed to provide interest to the street scene and are not just some yawning hole the architect has given up on. Originally the larger stores had entrances onto both the precinct and the street but many of the street entrances and shop windows have been closed, which would disappoint Nairn. This is especially unfortunate for the inter-war Baroque department store on Chestergate with its terracota, nice iron work and clock tower, now standing forlornly idle. The principles of integrating new with old can also be seen in later retail development along Warren Street, this time in that crude, quasi-industrial vernacular of loud brick, but although the details are poor the overall attempt to recreate a traditional street is reasonably successful, at least until it morphs into a giant ASDA with a brain dead retail park beyond. Some buildings are used to bridge the changes of levels between streets so you can take the escalator through Sports Direct and emerge in the Market Place above.

Urban surprise and anticipation – St Petersgate Bridge

A wonderful jumble

Townscape fun

The relationship between the market and the parish church of St Mary on the hill and the Underbanks area below is one of great townscape drama. The pièce de résistance is the iron bridge in St Peter’s Gate across the roofs of Little Underbank, quite a staggering sight from above and below. What are also spectacular are the stairs and ginnels up and down, which provide real excitement. Chestergate and Great Underbank, at the lower level and parallel to St Peter’s Gate, contain some of the best buildings including the Elizabethan timber framed Underbank Hall together with what Pevsner calls ‘bogus’ black and white buildings. Sadly the lavish Edwardian White Lion on the corner of Deanery Way, which the Buildings of England calls ‘a benevolent monster of a Jacobean pub’, is empty and boarded up. The architecture of Little Underbank is modest three storey Victorian with the odd flamboyant pub. The main event is the bridge and those dramatic flights of steps upwards. The Market Place is largely occupied by the 1861 iron and glass market – ‘nothing special’ said a sniffy Pevsner - well very special to Stockport. There is an earlier Produce Market opposite with a narrow but grand classical frontage. Around the square there is a pleasing variety of the sort of late Georgian and Victorian commercial buildings such as you might find in a prosperous market town. Behind the C19th brick façade of Staircase House are buildings of extensive earlier burgage plot development, all restored as a museum in 2005.

The White Lion – in a sad state

Another street in the sky – been doing it for years

Everything so well placed

Are we in Suffolk?

The exciting interplay of levels continues south of St Mary’s, between Churchgate, Lower Hillgate and High Street (which is a misnomer). The drama is accentuated by the towers and gables of Robinson’s Unicorn Brewery down on Hillgate, seen in wonderful juxtaposition with the tower of the parish church. Alleyways and stairs run up and down the hillside. This is an area of enormous character and potential, but much of it is very run down and clearly needing major intervention. More broadly this applies to Stockport’s shopping centre as a whole. On market day it seems reasonably lively but allegedly it has one of the highest levels of retail vacancy in the country. The Old Town area around the market was chosen as one of Mary Portas’s High Street Pilots with a small scale programme of improvement initiatives funded by Mr Pickles. However vacancy has subsequently gone up, but far from showing that Portas was wrong this rather exposes how dishonest and cynical the government has been about planning and regeneration, and what a disastrous Secretary of State Pickles was, the most damaging since Ridley. The main thrust of the Portas review has been ignored because dealing with declining high streets requires not token but substantive funding; not capitulation to the lowest common denominator of the markets but proactive planning, which is of course anathema. So places like Stockport, in the shadow of Manchester and struggling with competition from the motorway-based Trafford Centre and out of town John Lewis, as well as the internet shopping revolution, are left in a downward spiral.

Little Underbank – more intimate than Manchester

There are many ways ....

...  to climb this town

Civic Stockport continued – St Peter's Square

The Borough is trying to improve the area through some handsome street paving schemes and there is a free bus linking the Old Town with the station and bus station. St Peter’s Square has been intelligently redesigned, using all the standard ingredients – stone, fountains, trees, planting, street furniture and lighting but in a confidently low key way, reflecting the fact that this is always going to be a quiet space, which is just what is needed. The cantilevered seats are particularly elegant.

Municipal pride on Wellington Road

Very Barbican – Stopford House 

When you picked the wrong paint tin – Stockport College

St Thomas's Church – deserves more care

Stockport lacks a civic centre but its main public buildings can be seen on Wellington Road. The white stone Town Hall of 1904, in a somewhat unbalanced ‘free William and Mary’ style (Pevsner) is possibly more interesting internally than externally. The large extension ‘of uncompromisingly Brutalist design in mud coloured concrete’ is impressive, laid out around a grand gesture of open space (above the car park) with massive stairs and lush planters cascading down. Hardly used, the space has a sense of ruined grandeur (although actually well maintained) but for some reason the bureaucracy go to extraordinary lengths to stop skateboards and roller bladers, who might animate the place. Opposite the Town Hall is the Infirmary of 1832 with a long Ashlar front and Greek Doric portico and pediment, which ‘makes the Town Hall look very bumptious’ (Pevsner). Nearby is the ‘very free William and Mary’ Central Library of 1912, which reasserts some dignity against the McDonald golden arches opposite. On the corner of Greek Street is the classical War Memorial Art Gallery of 1925, most notable for its grand flight of steps. Opposite the dull, dolled up blocks of Stockport College is the picturesque St Thomas’s church, designed by George Basevi in 1822. Its west tower ends an attractive vista from Wellington Road but the surprise is the grand portico at the east end with fluted Ionic columns. Further south along the A6 is St George’s, the grandest church in Stockport with an extraordinary spire designed by Austin and Paley in 1896 and ‘even nationally speaking a masterpiece of the latest historicism’.

Nineteenth century suburbs – near Hillgate

Postwar high-rises their architect would no longer recognise, Lancashire Hill

South of St George’s lie the rich Cheshire suburbs, a very different world from industrial Stockport. Here big detached houses hide in larger gardens protected by automatic gates. Of course it is not all like this; we are not yet in the bling of footballers’ Alderley Edge or Prestbury, although George Best started this trend with his modernist pad in Bramhall, now much altered. Mrs Jonestheplanner, brought up in Cheadle Hulme, recalls an almost idyllic childhood of Famous Five adventures where comfortable suburbia quickly gave way to no-man’s-land fringes of countryside. These ragged edges have since been largely filled with standard builders’ estates and some of the grander houses have been replaced with blocks of flats The ‘village’ shops (which included the Bramhall shopping precinct wittily nicknamed ‘Lenin’s Tomb’) are now largely estate agents, café bars or beauticians. It is all very aspirational, smart and prosperous, a model for Tory Britain. But this suburbia is inevitably intensely anti-urban and unsustainable. Everything revolves around the car and there is no real alternative. From Bramhall there is only one train an hour into Manchester. The Stagecoach bus runs every half hour, takes an hour, and get this, in the evening is run by First which won’t accept Stagecoach tickets. There is a Waitrose near Cheadle Hulme station but John Lewis, Sainsbury, Tesco and M&S are all on the A34 bypass with the only public transport an hourly bus from Stockport.

That John Lewis slogan (again)

How we live today

However, instead of learning from these mistakes and planning for a more sustainable future, Stockport (and Manchester) seem determined to promote more decentralisation and suburban sprawl. Manchester’s big thing is the development of ‘Airport City’, an £800m Chinese investment in offices, leisure, warehouses and factories. So the airport, already served by rail from across the north of England, by Metrolink, the M56 and the M60 now apparently requires a new ‘relief road’. This will run through the fragile rural fringe of suburbia linking the M56 to the A6 in the Peak District. The business case is amusing, including creating 5,000 jobs, supporting lower carbon travel and providing shorter journey times for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users! And I’m a Dutchman, but our austerity government has of course funded it as ‘vital infrastructure’.

The belly of the place – To Let

The attraction of the Cheshire suburbs is obvious and development pressures on the rural fringe will become even more intense if the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ materialises. Meanwhile Stockport town centre declines; the market rules OK. What is lacking is a forward looking framework to shape a more sustainable future, the sort of thing Greater Manchester Metropolitan Council used to be quite good at, until Mrs Thatcher abolished it.

My ancient Pevsner is fairly perfunctory about Stockport. The revised Buildings of England for Cheshire by Clare Hartwell  and Matthew Hyde gives much fuller attention to the town and, published in 2011, is pretty up to date.


Colin Ferguson said...

I'd love to see you making pub recommendations again

Chris Matthews said...

Hahaha, think we were beginning to tire of that after Northampton – often finding ourselves at the opposite end of town to where the Good Pub Guide said we should be. At Stockport we had a nice pot of tea and sandwiches in the Plaza.

Ged said...

An update on Stockport. Work has begun on the railway station approach and the eyesore night club has been demolished and replaced with a building site. Sadly the latter stages of this work will see the closure of the only decent art shop for miles around but new landscape will surely be an improvement on what we have now. A hotel and office space is planned and seems to be well underway. The downside is that the town is building more office space when there seems to an abundance of it already.
George Osborne’s austerity juggernaut has forced the closure of the tax office and magistrate’s court (both new buildings) and the police station. The civic area between Stopford House and Hillgate is becoming a ghost town.
Stockport College is half empty. Their plans for a large campus were not financially viable; partly due to the aforementioned juggernaut’s impact on post 16 education and bad management by the college. There is speculation that part of the college will be demolished and sold for development. Another rumour is amalgamation with another local college that will free up a swathe of land in Cheadle for development and finance a rebuild of Stockport College.
Between the Merseway Shopping Centre and the M60, a new development is underway. Redrocks, named for the sandstone on which Stockport is built, will be a mixed leisure facility containing a cinema and an art centre. It will be great improvement on the soulless car park that was there.
There are still too many empty shops and the Castle Street area needs a lift. However someone in the Council seems to have a grasp on what should be done. There encouragement of smaller art-ey shops, cafes and restaurants and after a bad decade it is now possible to have decent pub crawl in pubs with good beer, food and character. The monthly Foodie Friday street food market around the Victorian market hall is deservedly becoming very popular.
Apologies for the length of the update.

Anonymous said...

Now that Red Rock in Stockport has (deservedly) won the Carbuncle Cup and the area immediately outside the station has been developed, I'd be really interested in an update on this article. I'd be happy to meet you if you come.

Chris Wallis said...

I agree with Anonymous. That's the most intelligent and expert assessment of Stockport town centre I've come across. Please come and take another look at what the new(ish) Labour council have achieved, and maybe suggest a way forward?