Just past the Royal Oak Branch pub, the vista opens out as you slow down to cross the river. A single storey retail warehouse on the left, a single storey car hire office and associated car park on the right, form an unprepossessing ‘gateway’, with ahead a jumble of brown buildings, squatted over by the vast grey concrete bulk of the British Telecom offices and a large number of immensely, ridiculously, tall street lights.
There appear to be roads in all directions and clogged traffic everywhere, fighting to get into one of the four lanes ahead. To your right, a War Memorial appears incongruously sited, after a small road, running down to the river alongside, was enlarged to form a ‘Gyratory’ crossing point in the Nineties, to relieve traffic congestion at Bridge Foot. It doesn’t seem to have worked.
As you wait at the first set of traffic lights, just before the bridge, your second impression of the town is slightly better. The British Telecom building has sunk more into the background, and is balanced by a large, Art Deco cinema, now a nightclub, to the left, and the 18th century Warrington Academy, famous precursor of Oxford University’s Manchester Harris College, and now the newspaper offices of the Warrington Guardian, in the foreground.
I have disliked this building for many years, without really knowing why; it reminded me of a pink brick dolls house and always seemed somehow wrong. It was not until a year or so ago that I found out it was a replica; the original 18th century building having been moved from its site close to the riverbank, when Bridge Foot was widened in the Eighties. Despite still featuring on the engineers’ website (no longer available, but general idea here) as one of their triumphs, it was later conveniently found to be unsafe and demolished; this considerably larger and more commercially friendly replica being built in its place. Its bricks, though possibly reclaimed, are certainly not local and contribute to its artifical look.
An attractive looking, but distressingly dilapidated, three storey 18th century building opposite, on the right hand side of the view ahead, is built in the local Cheshire brick and glows a lovely orangey red. This empty nightclub is shown as ‘The Packet House Inn’ on the 1851 Town Plan and ‘Manchester Packet House (PH)’ on the one of 1890. (The Packet Stage itself, whereby travellers accessed the passenger ships up the river, to and from Manchester, was slightly opposite and shown on the map as late as 1907.)
Over its shoulder peeps the corporation clock, housed in the west tower of the 18th century Holy Trinity church. The facings on the dial were originally the customary black, but at some point it was decided to gild them. They catch the eye attractively, particularly in sunlight, but, unfortunately, it is no longer possible to read the time with any ease.
To the right of the empty nightclub is a large, Eighties office building in brick, with a larger metal roof like a hood. Straight ahead, an interesting looking shopping street leads upwards in the distance.
As you inch forward, the War Memorial, in the form of a tall stone obelisk, first shown on the 1928 map, comes more fully into view. Sited right next to the bridge on the south river bank, with a tarmac and grass enclosure, it has rather a bleak, unloved feel about it, isolated by the busy roads that surround it from any connection with the town. The tall spire of the parish church is just visible through the rather scrubby trees behind it and the whole area is dominated by the disproportionately oversized street lights.
The bridge ahead of you forms an imposing entrance at last: two square white pillars at each side, surmounted by black, cast iron lamps on short posts and a white waist high balustrade. This is the sixth incarnation of Warrington Bridge, first mentioned in 1305 and rebuilt in 1495 for a visit by Henry VII nearby. Such was its importance to the North/South route, that Warrington was made a Royalist garrison town during the Civil War, to which Parliamentary forces laid seige in 1643, later holding it for Cromwell. There is a strangely coloured statue of him near the Academy, at Bridge Foot, commemorating this.
Later visitors to the town described it as a ‘curious stone bridge’ in 1673 and ‘a fair stone bridge of four arches’ in 1695. It was presumably this that was partially destroyed in 1745, to prevent the armies of the Young Pretender from crossing the Mersey at this point.
Your vehicle creeps forward until you are actually on Warrington Bridge itself. Eighty feet wide and built between 1909 and 1915, it was the first bridge in Britain to use reinforced concrete hinges in its design. The attractive white balustrades, with substantial pillars at intervals supporting cast iron lamps, can be appreciated more clearly now, though slightly marred by a modern, utilitarian, low metal railing in brown, that separates the pavement from the road.
Looking to the right, the river appears choked by the stranglehold of the additional crossing, built to ease the traffic strain. To the left, what could be an attractive vista is completely cut off by a low level, high sided railway bridge, surrounded by surface car parks. Four Lombardy poplars seem to emphasise the bleakness.
For a town so old, there is a surprising lack of mature trees of any stature. Tall weeping willows along both sides of the river bank would screen the railway bridge from view and reposition the river, not as an inconvenience to be crossed, but as a feature in its own right.
As you finally shake off the traffic in front of you and move forward, the British Telecom building moves out of shot to the left, and an attractive shopping street, climbing slightly upwards, opens up in front of you.
Your approach, however, is cut off by the wide road that encircles it, your view up the street is bisected by an awkwardly placed traffic camera, and a phlanx of no less than eight sets of traffic lights at the base of the street, sets up a formidable barrier that seems to warn off the would-be shopper from any attempt at entry.