Arriving in Warrington – some thoughts on the out of town visitor

I originally intended this blog to be about buildings history – a particular interest of mine – more specifically, those that line the main streets in Warrington’s town centre; but it seems to be becoming more and more about the planning issues that affect those buildings and the regeneration projects that will impact upon them.

I recently started another spin-off blog, my take on the best places to live in Warrington for those looking to move to the area. It has got me thinking of how the town appears to the outsider, the things that are good and likely to appeal and the things that would definitely put people off.

Re-reading my overview of the town centre, it does seem as though there’s not much to attract at present and it so easily could be different. Warrington has the most marvellous history, (still) quite a lot of great buildings and those local people who are ‘old school’ are incredibly friendly, cheerful, down to earth, straightforward and decent, with a strong sense of community, who will go out of their way to help you.

With so much going for it, Warrington doesn’t seem to make the most of itself. One of the main things I’ve been thinking about, over the last couple of days, is the impression given to the visitor arriving in the town for the first time and at no point is it particularly prepossessing.

Arriving by car

I’ve covered travelling in from the South, in detail, in my first three posts; but I recently came in on a day when there was little traffic to block the view. The approach is still rather downbeat but there are brief glimpses of other, more encouraging, landmarks through the gaps in the trees to the right – the cabinet works tower, Holy Trinity clock – before the soapworks makes an appearance, hanging around in the view until replaced by the Telephone Exchange, which then dominates until close to Warrington Bridge, where wide roads predominate in an open, rather souless space.

The visitor from the West will come off the Sankey Way roundabout and then along the Liverpool Road and over the railway bridge at Bank Quay to Sankey Street. With very little effort this approach could be significantly improved, with the addition of mature trees and shrubs at spots along the roadside which currently have unattractive views.

Just off the roundabout, the road passes the back of the Bowling Green Hotel and a large modern office building on the right, and a Victorian red brick church on the left. Trees on the open grassy area between the pub and office building would give a sense of spatial closure at this point. Further tall trees would screen the numerous car parks and industrial buildings that line the rest of the road up to Sankey Street, and provide a link to Bank Park on the other side of the ring road. It would be worth while investing in ten year old trees for instant impact, rather than the little ‘lollipops’ usually favoured.

I recently travelled in from the North and it was a truly depressing experience. The approach is along Winwick Road, an ancient route that is now a dual carriageway. On the right hand side, a long spike of industrial estate runs all the way from the M62 into the heart of the town; on the left a vast housing estate lines the other side of the road.

As you get nearer the town, there is a sense of being hemmed in both sides by retail warehouses, then comes a run of rather grim-looking flats in a small estate and a soon-to-be-Aldi (because Warrington doesn’t have enough supermarkets). The Grade II* listed St Ann’s Church, now a climbing centre, is lost between the Rugby Stadium and a large glass-fronted Tesco, and then you are at the back of Townsend, with traffic everywhere coming in from different roads, fighting to get in the appropriate lane.

The approach from the East is initially quite a good one: turning off Kingsway into the Manchester Road, there are some very pleasant, nineteenth-century, forecourted terraces along the right hand side and the long tree-lined run of Warrington Cemetery on the left (which, for some inexplicable reason, now has the lower part of its railed sandstone wall painted bright white). St Elphins Park adds to the leafy atmosphere and the Quadrant office building, which I have always thought would be an ideal space for an art gallery, makes an attractive landmark in the view ahead.

Just at the end of the park, however, the terraces suddenly stop and a wide road with tall street lights appears to the right, with a row of large advertising hoardings where houses have been cleared. The road to the town centre, now Church Place, bears off to the left, past the Quadrant on the right and reveals the enclave of the Grade II* listed parish church on the left, unfortunately opposite a large Sainsbury’s which is embedded in an equally large car park. A row of weedy trees do little to screen this from view; the frontage continues past the churchyard, on to Church Street, and opposite a small housing estate with its back to the road. A vast flattened space next to a seventeenth century pub, on the other side of a wide traffic junction at the yawning entrance to the supermarket, also negates the earlier favourable impression.

Arriving by train

Arriving by train at Bank Quay there is no grand vista towards the town, as at Chester, there is no sense of having arrived somewhere delightful, as at York. The train pulls in, parallel to a vast soap works, and as you leave the station the smell of detergent fills the air. Standing uncertainly on the pavement you are faced with a wonderful, Victorian Gothic railway hotel in yellow brick, the Patten Arms Hotel, which looks promising, but, to its left, a surface car park edged with bright blue rails and a low level office building, alongside a small side road, give the impression that you have somehow arrived at the wrong end of town.

This is reinforced when you look to the right, the wide road curves round out of sight to the left and your view is filled with large advertising hoardings, low level railway buildings and short, scrubby trees, with the outcrop of the hotel to the left and the station to the right There is absolutely no indication that this is the direction to the town’s main shopping street; it is completely dismal.

Looking to the left, the same wide road heads off into a distance dotted with, slightly larger but still scrubby, trees and a few buildings; again, there is no sense it leads anyway important, let alone to one of the most beautiful parts of the town. Your vision to the left is filled with more large advertising hoardings and the soap works; to the right, the blue railed surface car park: it could not be more unappealing.

Running out of options, you may then try the side road between the hotel and the car park. This is closed to traffic by bollards, a visual barrier that also acts as a psychological one, for the side road seems like a back street – which it basically is at this point – for the hotel; adjacent, listed, red brick police station; and undistinguished office building on the left. This is Museum Street, an arrow straight road that leads directly to the Museum and Art Gallery and the heart of the town’s Cultural Quarter, though there is nothing in the surrounding space to indicate this.

This whole area, the vital first impression Warrington makes on its intercity visitors, has little to delight the eye, beyond the hotel, or draw the visitor onward to some definite destination. Indeed, there is no sense of connection to the town at all.

Visitors to Warrington alighting at the second of the town’s railway stations, Warrington Central, have a similarly unedifying experience. Despite being, as the name suggests, in the middle of town, when you emerge from the station your eyes are met by a vast expanse of surface car parks and general desolation, amidst which the listed King’s Head pub stands forlornly.

There are signs of life to your left, so you set off through a depressing underpass with large advertising hoardings, which presumably leads to the town centre. On the other side, the vast concrete apron of an immense, modern bus interchange, and another underpass; on your left, some dilapidated buildings, and then some very attractive ones, all listed, among them the original NatWest bank and the Prince of Wales pub, previously the Theatre Tavern (before they demolished the theatre for yet another surface car park). The wide road curving to your left, creates a visual and physical barrier between you and a spatially isolated, pleasant shopping street, leading up a slight incline ahead.