Warrington Revisited

I wrote this in May 2017; I was feeling very strongly after a shopping trip into Warrington and it all came out. I believe things have moved on since then, though.

I believe there is a Chinese curse along the lines of ‘May you live in interesting times’ and, as a result of my life becoming more ‘interesting’ than the lurid imaginings of an Eastenders script-writer, I’ve only gone into Warrington a handful of times this last year. The impression I brought away with me, each time, was of a town that is slowly, but inexorably, being dismantled.

From the advent of the New Town in the 1970s, and onwards, road widening schemes have taken out Warrington’s old buildings – many along the entire length of whole streets – replacing them, in the main, with corrugated steel clad, warehouse style ‘shops’ and their surface carparks. Immensely large roundabouts have, in turn, wiped out whole series of other streets, fragmenting what was once quite a decent sized town centre and now Church Street, the original core of the town going back to Anglo-Saxon times, which was cut off from the rest of the town centre by the vast roundabout that replaced Trafalgar Place and its surrounding streets, is being turned into little more than a residential suburb.

The wide expanse of Church Street sounded its own death knell: used for the town’s medieval fairs well into the early twentieth century, it proved ideal for turning into a large A road. Recently, large blocks of uniform flats that match this scale have been built along it, obliterating the burgage plots and dwarfing the few 17th century buildings that remain. Down a side street, modern suburbia’s doll’s house style detached housing is equally out of keeping: Church Street – a Conservation Area! – seems to have been completely abandoned as part of the town centre for planning purposes.

Work has started at last on the Bridge Street Quarter too, a development that we are promised will revitalise the town centre but, at the moment, seems only concerned with ripping apart the spatial geography of the place. The failed Times Square development from the 1980s, on the same spot, which was supposed to similarly rejuvenate that area, has now been demolished and replaced with a temporary surface car park (how Warrington loves its surface car parks; it would be interesting to find out what percentage of the ground area in the town centre they take up) as well as a temporary Market Hall for the traders to move into when the contractors demolish the 1970s building that replaced the grand brick and stone (demolished) Victorian Market Hall.

This new building – no prizes for guessing the outdated design – is a very large rectangular box, with a flat roof and coffee and cappuccino coloured cladding, that dominates the site and nearby buildings.  The adjacent Grade II* listed Friends’ Meeting House is separated from the construction site only by carelessly close metal fencing and seems to huddle, bewildered, in its vestige of Academy Place, all that is left of the eighteenth century enclave of the pioneering Warrington Academy since Academy Way was bulldozed through in the Nineties, demolishing several of its buildings in order to widen the road.

To add insult to injury – or very poor planning on the part of the developers – the view of the town’s skyline from the south, previously punctuated with the clock tower of Holy Trinity Church and the crenellations of Garnett’s Water Tower, is now completely negated by the vast horizontal block of the new multi-storey car park, a grossly out of scale brutal monolith that visually bisects these two historical landmarks.

Each time I go in to Warrington, I am struck anew by the sense of a town with the heart being ripped out of it – though the boarded up Victorian and Edwardian shops retain their dignity in a way that the more modern developments don’t. What annoys me, above all, are the missed opportunities: Warrington could so easily have been another York, buzzing with life and fat on tourism; there’s so much that could be done here, still – and it isn’t being done. Warrington should be the most beautiful town, crammed with independent shops in tree-lined streets and theatres (we once had four!), as well as numerous museums that demonstrate to the world our pride in Warrington’s place at the forefront of the nation’s industrial and technological history. Instead its planners are doing their best to eradicate our built heritage, break up the integrity and cohesion of the town centre, ignore and destroy everything that makes it unique.

It’s time we remembered, not what we have become, but who we were – and still are, underneath it all. And not just who we are, but what our town truly stands for. We need to seize back our long-held, long-ignored place in the history of this country and take pride in ourselves as inheritors of a tradition of innovators in all fields, that goes back centuries, not mere decades. We need to recognise, and celebrate, Warrington’s outstanding inhabitants who put our town on the map of history, in art and science and industry, in literature and philanthropy, throughout the centuries. The considerable achievements of Warrington throughout the history of our country is something we should be blazoning to the world.

In a discussion at The Traveller on Warrington’s early railways – Warrington was the first branch line in the country, and possibly the world, but where is our railway museum? – Noel Bushnell commented: ‘You live at the heart of a revolution that changed the way human beings saw themselves.’

We see ourselves as proud inhabitants of an ancient market town whose place in the history of Britain comes close to rivalling that of York. We see ourselves as descendants of innovators whose contributions to the industrial and technological advances that built our nation rival any city in England.

We call upon our Council to:

Re-establish the long defunct post of Conservation Officer

Stop the demolishing of Warrington’s historic built fabric and implement, not ignore, the Town Centre Conservation Strategies

Stop residential development of actual and potential leisure and tourist facilities

Invest in Warrington’s independent businesses and tourism not roads

It’s time for another revolution.

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10 thoughts on “Warrington Revisited

  1. Dear Victoria, thanks for the quote. At the risk of causing you more angst I have to report that I saw an old Portillo (2012 I think) recently and he informed his vast audience he was passing through Warrington on his way from Manchester to Birkenhead. But although he mentioned Warrington as an old Roman town, I’m afraid all he did in fact was pass through. I was looking forward to seeing some of your town on Mr Portillo’s otherwise admirable show, maybe even with a little more insight than Wikipedia. I mean, in a later show he went to Wigan and spent a lot of TV time there (Wigan Pier was the focus) — and Wigan is a town we old Queensland rugby league boys don’t have much time for.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmm, I need to work more on tone if you read it as representing angst. I was going for quiet fury against injustice, myself.

      Yes, Warrington’s much vaunted excellent transport links are frequently used more to bypass the town, as your example ably illustrates.

      If you click on the link to ‘whole streets’ near the beginning of the piece it will take you to a local historian’s photos.

      The roundabout that replaced much of Townsend, at the north edge of nineteenth century Warrington, has been named after Brian Bevan, who I believe is a compatriot of yours.

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      • Well I was trying to summarise in a word. However, there is a serious debate to be had about what is destruction and what is regeneration. I’m not saying which is which in Warrington’s case because I couldn’t possibly know anything about it. But I invite you to ponder what was there before the buildings now being demolished. Warrington i such an old place that its “village” fabric must have been turned over several times. As for Brian Bevan, I have been threatening for a year or more now to write a piece on the old game of rugby league from which I have long been separated — memories stirred by connecting with you and Warrington. With the 2018 RL season here now in full swing, maybe now is the time.

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        • There was very little there before the demolition of some of these buildings, surprisingly enough. The 1851 Town Plan shows a town very like York: a dense late medieval core around Market Gate with some eighteenth century streets on the periphery; and the eighteenth century development of Warrington Academy, in its second incarnation, linking Buttermarket Street with the original early medieval settlement around St Elphin’s on Church Street, with the town surrounded by orchards and green fields within a few minutes walk. A few factories on the outskirts and the outlines of new residential development indicate expansion to come.

          The first wave of demolition/regeneration, though, didn’t come until the late nineteenth/early twentieth century when the central area around Market Gate was largely remodelled, while respecting the medieval street plan, giving us some very nice Victorian/Edwardian buildings, most of which are either nationally or locally listed. The rest of the expansion in that era was on green field sites.

          Very little happened after that; as late as the 1950s Warrington was considered a very good example of a Georgian market town, with countryside within a three mile radius.

          The second wave of demolition/regeneration took place in the 1970s. Due to its proximity to Manchester, and the decline of its industries post Second World War, Warrington was designated a New Town. The policies of the time dictated out of town retail, industry and housing (all built on vast swathes of farmland) connected by a large amount of new roads, many of which literally bulldozed through Warrington’s then narrow streets (and all of which only exacerbated the decline of the town centre). Georgian and Victorian buildings were replaced with 1970s buildings and the town’s street plan ignored.

          What makes me really annoyed is that, although these policies are widely considered to have been discredited now, Warrington is *still* pursuing them.

          I’ve recently discovered, though, that other people have been getting annoyed too. The Civic Society has re-formed and there are numerous campaigns being set up by local groups to fight development of their green space. So perhaps the revolution I spoke of last year is happening, after all.

          Please do write your article on Rugby League! I love reading your pieces when I drop in and would comment if I had more time to think of something that would be a worthy addendum.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m glad to see some optimism shining through your despair. The key point for me in your explanation is “New Town”. I know intimately what that means. In 1971 I worked at Stevenage, the first of the new towns, and it incorporated all the “modern” thinking of the post-war world.That thinking is based on mechanistic views of what makes humanity tick. I’m afraid it’s still going on today, in the land of Oz.

    I don’t know how the need for renewal in post-war Britain could have been handled better but a booming population and recognition that two-up/two-down houses in uniform rows were no longer acceptable forced the spread over green fields. Industry too could no longer be accommodated in cramped, dark and dangerous workshops. The people, having survived the war, deserved better.

    The corollary, though, was that In places the social-reforming zealots swept away your heritage on the basis that history was nostalgia and Britain had to be forged anew in the “white heat of technology”, the famous phrase of a Huddersfield lad who should have known better. Even the old blood and grub of rugby league have been reformed out of existence.

    Keep at it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Angst and now despair. Crikey!

      I really do have to work on tone! (insert smiley face)

      I’m interested to read you worked at Stevenage – perhaps you could do another article, on the New Towns? I’d very much like to read your views/experiences on this, particularly why you think these policies are still continuing. Money?

      I completely agree about the ‘homes for heroes’ and Warrington’s largest housing stock post WWII *was* these 19th C two up two downs (though with the shift in demographic these now make excellent starter homes for single people); what I object to is the poorly designed, poor quality housing that, in the main, has been built since.

      I can think of several ways renewal could have been handled better; but, obviously, this is with the benefit of a hindsight as to shifts in wealth ownership, and demographic and environmental change, they could have had no access to at the time.

      Thanks for the encouragement! Could I encourage you, in turn, to write more for us – I’m really interested in your views on life and I’m sure others are too!

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      • Sorry about the tonal comment. I’ll just leave that alone in future. In my view it is not money driving planning policies but ideology, and that is not something I will dive into just now. Maybe I’ll give my Stevenage days a burst eventually but I haven’t been back there since 1971 so I don’t know whether the place has settled down into a proper town, instead of a London dormitory. All I know is the old village station has been replaced by one further down the line at the new town. Anyway, Victoria, flattery will get you everywhere with me. Thanks.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Not at all! – I was mildly ribbing rather than objecting. It’s very useful to be made aware that you’re not getting things across in the way you intended.

          Hmm, I understand the original ideology (in theory anyway); what I don’t understand is why it’s being clung to so much, when it’s been demonstrated both not to work in practice and to be not relevant to today’s needs/desires.

          Compliment rather flattery – no insincerity at all. Your posts are interesting and refreshingly well written, I always enjoy reading them and would like you to write more so I can read more. That’s all there is to it really.

          I’m a great believer in complimenting people when I see/read/hear/something I like or get good service from someone; with the world in the way it is, every bit of positivity people can pass on, however small, is really important these days.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I completely agree with your sentiments on the town. I am very proud to come from Warrington and I feel like the thing that made the town special, namely how down to earth and subtle it is, is being completly ripped apart. This is all supposedly in the name of ‘progress’, as the town council has seemingly made it their mission in life to raise the place to city status. Everybody I know in the town is happy with how most things are and it was a brilliant place to grow up.

    Changing the towns country from Lancashire to Cheshire was the start of this ripping out of the towns heart. I am only 20 years old so this change that happend in 1974 was long before I was born, however it has always seemed an anathema to me that a place which is so ‘Lancashire’ in spirit and style has been put into and subsequently gentrified by the richer and posher Cheshire.

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