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.