If you are travelling by bus, you will be taken straight ahead, through the lights and directly up Bridge Street, once the main shopping street for the town and once considered the most attractive street in Cheshire, after Chester’s Eastgate. Looking about you with eager interest at the large Victorian and Edwardian buildings, you see only metal shutters and a distinct lack of people. This is lower Bridge Street, whose preponderance of nightclubs, bars and takeaways not only makes it a no-go area at night, for the majority of those over 25, but has effectively closed the street down completely in the daytime.
Just before the bus sweeps to the right, you catch a glimpse further up the street, a dispiriting clutter of notices To Let’ amidst which the Warrington institution that is the 100 year old department store of Hancock and Wood stands out bravely. Within a few seconds the bus has pulled up and deposited you at the bus stop on Academy Way, a wide road cut through the right side of Bridge Street in the late 1980s, presumably to divert the traffic when they pedestrianised Market Gate at the heart of the town. If you’re quick enough as the bus turns, you can see how the buildings on the left have been sheared though.
If you were looking to shop on Bridge Street, this is where the bus would drop you off.
Directly ahead of you, on the other side of the road, looms a 1970s open sided, multi-storey car park, made from great slabs of grey concrete, whose narrow stairwells are a mugger’s dream. Directly behind you, yawns the vast delivery bay at the back of the Market Hall, built at the same time. Between them, they render the wide road dark and gloomy and give the visitor the sense of being stranded away from the centre proper.
To the right, a low, glass covered footbridge connects the Market with the car park and effectively cuts off any view of the buildings behind. The recollection of all those closed shops gives you no incentive to return to Bridge Street anyway.
Turning to your left, the run down and half empty shopping development of Times Square faces a large retail warehouse, surrounded by a car park. In the distance, a church spire and church tower hold out the promise of a town centre further ahead, so it is most likely you will end up following in the wake of the bus, wishing you hadn’t got off.
Those in the know, do stay on, another two stops and are swept through to the large, new Bus Interchange on the other side of town, next to the even larger Golden Square indoor shopping centre, that drew most of the shops away from Bridge Street in its first incarnation in the 1970s and then added the rest of them in its recent expansion.
If you arrive by car, the prospect is even worse.
From Bridge Foot, you are channelled to the right along Mersey Street, parallel to the river. Close up, the attractive old building on the corner, built of the local Cheshire brick that gives the town such character, appears heartbreakingly derelict, its lower windows and doors covered by ugly metal shutters, and a large Job Centre seems to be extending the wrong sort of ‘Welcome to Warrington’. To the right a large retail park is marooned in a larger car park and over everything loom the immense street lights.
The dual carriageway, lined with offices and retail warehouses, seems to be taking you out of town, but then you turn left at a low white building, marked as a Primitive Methodist Chapel (seats for 200) on the 1890 Town Plan, and now, I believe, a Spiritualist Church. The vista ahead is briefly filled with another great, grey Sixties concrete building, New Town House, before you turn left again into the other end of Academy Way, lined both sides with office car parks. You are headed for the grey, concrete, multi-storey Market Car Park, opposite which you will have disembarked as a bus passenger. It is possible you may be drawn to the left, after your glimpse of Bridge Street earlier, but emerging onto its shuttered and empty lower end, you will be confused and at a loss.
It is all deeply, deeply depressing.
I was very interested then, to come across a plan to re-develop the area, on the council’s website.