Stuck in traffic on a recent shopping trip to Warrington, I was reflecting on the changes to the area since I used to live here.
Coming from the perspective of one who was born and brought up here and then moved away, returning only through the nineties onwards for sporadic visits, my view on things is that of both insider and outsider. I am, as an article I once came across put it, ‘ethnographically embedded’ in a community in which I now walk as an almost stranger.
So. How does the town appear to the visitor, approaching as I was, from the South?
Firstly, having left behind the Cheshire villages of Lymm, Thelwall, Grappenhall and Latchford, and driven over the steep Black Bear Bridge, you follow a wide main road towards the town. To my mind this seems rather a lost opportunity. The bridge forms a natural punctuation point to say ‘from here you are approaching Warrington’; the road should be a gradual transition between the semi-rural suburbs and the town.
A little way over the bridge on your left, eighteenth century cottages and short, early Victorian terraces, segue into a longer, late Victorian terrace of substantial houses with forecourts and bay windows. This smooth transition to the urban is jarringly interrupted by an empty concrete space, currently a hand car wash, and rectangular modern terraces of three. They are set nicely back from the road but, only two storeys high, the effect is one of imbalance.
There are views opposite of Victoria Park, once the extensive grounds of a large house called ‘The Old Warps’; which I believe is still there and now a restaurant. Substantial three storey houses would have made the most of these and prepared the visitor for the town ahead.
The river runs parallel to the road now, with surface car parks on the left where Victorian terraces have been cleared. The wasted views look across to Howley Meadows, the old natural barrier which protected the town centre from flooding, now retail and industrial parks. Which flood.
Soon after, the road widens to a dual carriageway, with considerably taller street lights and an impressively large Victorian post office in red brick, with a splendid gable and stone faced venetian window, now a Co-op, alongside a terrace of dilapidated shops with attractive moulding at the eaves. This more strongly urban sense, is immediately dissipated by a brown and white, sixties looking, low level residential complex.
Another two, slightly smarter, Victorian terraces of mixed housing and shops around the opening to a little nineteenth century enclave, raise expectations again; but then comes a series of small one and two storey houses, clustered against each other in a long line, whose tiny square and rectangular windows shout ‘Council Modernism’ and seem to ignore the treelined view.
As you come into the straight, the town opens up before you in the shape of a grey concrete mass right across your view. It is the first thing you see and it dominates the sky line.
To your right, a small MOT garage and what must once have been an imposing Victorian pub: The Golden Lion Inn, in red brick with stepped gables, now rather run down retail showrooms. A terrace of three early Victorian houses and an interesting late Victorian red brick building, with stone arches over windows and doors and a brickwork band across the gable, stood next to the pub until quite recently. It can still be seen on Street View. I always rather liked the flat roof with the ornamental iron railing and wondered whether it was ever used as a roof-top terrace. There must have been wonderful views of the river at the back.
To your left, a tall hedge screening a small playing field; a smaller, single storey retail warehouse; and the Royal Oak Branch pub, link first marked ‘PH” on the 1938 map, though it looks as though it’s been there considerably longer. This is a substantial three storeys high and, with the old Golden Lion and the Co-op, one of the few buildings along the road to say ‘you are near a town’.
A small overgrown park, with a bus stop outside it, is the old grave yard of St James’s Church, which gave the street its original name. It became Knutsford Road on the 1907 map, at the same time as the grave yard was marked ‘Play Ground’.
As you slow down to meet the traffic lights at Bridge Foot, ancient crossing place of the Mersey since at least 1305, the vista opens out. You will be stuck here for a while, so this is your first impression of the town just ahead.