The towns that huddle in Manchester’s shadow rarely hog the limelight. Rochdale, however, is bucking the trend. With its outstanding connectivity, fast-improving public realm and growing offering of both retail and cultural delights, the one-time industrial powerhouse is revving up once again…
Mid-August saw the tenth Feel Good Festival bring music, food and drink to the streets around the imposing grade I listed town hall that oozes Victorian Gothic elegance. Local businesses backed the event in numbers and transformed the centre with a riot of bunting colour, party sounds and the irresistible waft of sizzling street food. Family entertainment, street performances, local musicians in the pubs, and headlining act Razorlight promised much; and they all delivered.
Of course the sun helps. Organisers must have wept when a blast of all-too-familiar drizzle swept down from the Pennies, but the unwanted cloud and rain was soon bullied away and short-sleeved tops and funky sunglasses were the order of afternoon and early evening.
So much of Rochdale’s core is now pedestrianised, and for such festivals it’s great to see even more of the municipal core given over to the walking masses. It shows how things could be if cars were pushed aside, the public given confidence to own the streets as they did a century ago.
Rochdale is no newcomer to the scene. It boasts an entry in the Doomsday Book (circa 1086), and was for a time integral to the textile manufacturing revolution that centred on Lancashire. Decline is a dirty word, but such fate befell the town for much of the 1970s and 80s. Speak to some of the stubbornly downbeat souls and Rochdale still has little to offer its people. That’s simply not true.
For the last decade, many Rochdalians have taken the motorway to the Trafford Centre or followed the handy tram lines into the heart of Manchester to shop and drop at other indoor retail meccas like the Arndale Centre. That was understandable a few years ago, but the game is changing.
Stroll up and down central Yorkshire Street and two covered shopping centres (the Wheatsheaf and Rochdale Exchange) have plenty to offer. Nobody would claim that the arcades have everything, but there is more than many think. A new-build riverside development is also planned adjacent to the central tram stop, opposite the gleaming civic offices and aesthetically pleasing bus interchange just metres away. Big-name retailers have already signed up and promise the complete shopping experience craved by today’s consumers.
In 1844 the Rochdale Pioneers opened the first Cooperative shop in Toad Lane, and a delightful nod to the town’s history is preserved for all to visit in the conservation zone just two minutes from the main shops. Next door, the inviting Baum public house serves luscious food and lovingly crafted ales aplenty, so good that the venue was crowned CAMRA pub of the year in 2012.
That foodie reputation is spreading. New entrants like Cocka Doodle Moo bring a fresh twist to the high street eating experience with their meat shack theme and considerable drinks offering. Nearby, a chance underground discovery led to the creation of Vicolo del Vino. A real hidden gem of a wine bar, it’s tucked in a cellar opposite the all-too tempting La Mancha tapas bar in an area that will surely become the go-to zone for socialising. What is refreshing that many of the central bars carry products from local companies, such as the Serious Brewing Company that has been producing fine ales or over two years.
A stone’s throw from Rochdale’s increasingly vibrant wine and dine hub, the muddy waterways that once carried wool and milled cloths have also been revitalised for leisure. The River Roch’s banks and bridge, that were for many years cruelly covered in the town centre, have been lovingly restored and revealed. That means the one-time crown of boasting the widest bridge in the world has slipped, but the steady flow of water now breathes yet more life into the town and is a joy to behold.
Tot up the numbers and around £250m is being invested in the town centre. Alongside those dreamy plans that will become reality, a catalyst for growth came in 2014 when then MP Simon Danczuk and council leader Richard Farnell pushed through radical business rate reductions to inject much-needed trade into the commercial heart. New parliamentary incumbent Tony Lloyd has already shown enthusiasm and a commitment to maintaining that momentum, and those once unsure about the town’s ability to become a major player are gradually accepting that the bold ambition to revive fortunes was well placed.
Rochdale is supported by a cluster of affluent towns and villages that add much to overall mix. They continue to grow, with new housing and independent businesses appearing around the borough. Planners, however, must proceed with care. Get the mix right, with targeted growth and a genuine understanding of what the townsfolk need and want, and the area will blossom.
As the imposing town hall clock crept towards 11pm as the Feel Good extravaganza concluded, the stage area facing the beflowered Flying Horse pub fizzed with light and laughter. Razorlight delivered their chart-topping hit “Somewhere Else” to thousands of music lovers who bobbed, swayed and danced delightedly. Although city lights flickered in the distance, there was nowhere else these people would rather have been.
The Rochdale skyline is unmistakable thanks to seven high-rise housing units constructed in the mid-1960s. The future of the iconic Seven Sisters tower blocks remains unclear, but for now the old girls will be looking down on the mill town with immense pride.
As the festival crowds made their way home, many to the nearby College Bank flats and beyond, others packed the tram. Increasingly it’s heartening to see so many coming from further afield to satisfy their leisure cravings. It’s early days, but many have growing belief in the town.
Rochdale is undoubtedly up and coming.
Jules Hornbrook is a freelance writer covering Lancashire and Cheshire.