A recognised cultural quarter has been emerging in Crewe over the last decade. Now the planners must complete a complex jigsaw and deliver a masterpiece that establishes the town as a genuine destination.
The core building blocks have been in place for a century. The glorious Lyceum Theatre and grandiose Municipal Buildings have attracted plaudits for some time, especially following extensive refurbishment of the formal squares that accommodate them. Ditto the Market Hall, a little rough around the edges but bags of potential. More of that later.
There is another gem, albeit faded, just a few yards away. Christ Church was built in 1843, an investment made by the Grand Junction Railway company to create a focal point and align the moral compass of the town’s growing population.
Despite losing the roof of the nave in the late 1970s, and holding its final service in 2013, the building stands proud at the heart of a zone that has ambitions to be a magnet for cultural and community activities.
It can be in the future, but despite its tumble-down appearance it already is today.
The Steampunk church
Take the Steampunk Convivial that returns to Crewe during the late May Bank Holiday. That weekend, the lawns of the once magnificent church will be alive with other worldly visitors. Many will dress flamboyantly with a nod to Victorian fashions. Very apt given the period of history that heralded the arrival of both the town itself and, a few years later, the church.
A Time Travelling Tea Tent will pitch up outside the bell tower, possibly alongside the camper who has made the site his home in recent weeks. Maybe he’s keen to be part of the forthcoming quirky event! Steampunk is fun and a departure from the norm, a sign that Crewe and its people are prepared to embrace something a little different.
Seriously, the location should be used by the public. It’s no longer a place of worship. The Diocese of Chester still owns the land and buildings, and a little bird recently told me that a survey is due to assess what can be done with it all. Interesting.
For me, it’s a no-brainer. It’s a fabulous space, sandwiched between the Lifestyle Centre, what was the library, and the formal Memorial Square area. It has the potential to become a focal point once again, a beacon of glorious light, spectacular architecture and a hub for festivals and community celebrations. Imagine a glass roof over that central performance area!
To ensure that everything remains viable, it should also be home to one or more commercial operations that generate sufficient revenues to fund running costs. Yes that means a bar, restaurant, café etc, services that give people a reason to regularly gravitate to the cultural quarter alongside other events.
Bold new Crewe resource centre
The library is now part of the Lifestyle Centre. That recent addition to the Crewe skyline has been unfairly criticised. It’s a commercial success, offers a range of services, is easy to access and is a dramatic construction. I think it’s pleasing on the eye.
Shifting the library has left the old facility by the law courts deserted. Word on the street says it’s earmarked to be a resource centre, part of a relocated and updated Cheshire archive. Fine, but Cheshire East Council and Crewe Town Council should have much grander ambitions for what is potentially a major cog in the mechanics of future growth.
Let’s think big. There’s nothing wrong with archives, history and important documents that must be preserved. But look at the building’s footprint. It’s considerable. The scruffy car parking beneath the existing structure cannot be lost. There’s an opportunity for a much larger (but hidden) multi-storey unit. That would serve the Lifestyle Centre, drag space-hungry customers from the retail park, give town centre workers somewhere to leave cars, and serve the often-packed Lyceum Theatre in the evenings.
Don’t get me wrong, car parks can be ugly. I’d also rather see alternative modes of greener transport promoted. But I’m a realist. People still want easy parking. hand it to them on a plate. And periods of FREE parking at that. Give them a reason to come to and remain in Crewe.
Don’t stop there. Make sure any new building is alive. Create that elusive Crewe museum with a modern twist, a gallery, community workshop area, freelance office/desk space and maybe a conference facility. If we’re adding a few levels then let’s have apartments, quality ones, and bring more bodies into the centre. Anchor it all with a restaurant on the ground floor facing Albert’s Corner.
Respect for Crewe’s Lyceum Square
As with all schemes the dots must be joined up. Back in 2010 around £1.7m was invested in Lyceum Square. The result was beautiful; a paved surface and range of street furniture befitting one of the country’s finest Edwardian theatres.
In my opinion, this square should have become home to chalet-style craft stalls, in place all year round, becoming a quality Christmas market during December, with other “themed” makers-style markets throughout the year. Sorry, but the car boot style offers that crop up are not good enough and do not do this space justice.
Perhaps the transition from Crewe & Nantwich Borough Council to Cheshire East Council caused contingency issues, but so many opportunities have been missed. It has become a car park. That breaks my heart. Cars and lorries vandalise it daily. Shameful.
Like the Crewe Masterplan, the same needs to be extended to individual public spaces and then coordinated as part of the wider plan of action. Involve the Lyceum Theatre, have workshops during the summer months, stage outdoor plays, get the glass-walled café involved and have their tables spread across the square. Create a real café culture, safe and pedestrianised.
So get rid of the cars!
On that note, if nearby parking by the old library isn’t enough, then utilise the market “sheds” but create access from Vernon Way. Ideally, a new unit could front Lyceum Square with parking behind. Create a buzz. Get people into the area during the evenings.
Crewe’s majestic market hall
News that the Market Hall will finally be overhauled got me excited. Nestled between the theatre, Town Hall and overlooking both Lyceum and Memorial Squares, this historic building should be an integral part of any cultural Crewe evolution.
The possibilities are endless. Food, drink, entertainment and select stalls can easily work side-by-side, during the day and as part of the revamped night time economy. However, there has to be a mind shift.
The indoor ‘market’ as we know it cannot be a ramshackle collection of occasional stalls selling cheap goods that can be bought in any one of ten similar discount stores. It’s time to make a decision; that means looking forward, wanting better and believing that Crewe can become a destination for shopping, crafts, fine foods and drinks usually associated with other towns.
And people are the key. Get them into the town centre, eating and drinking before and after their trip to the theatre, as part of a shopping afternoon – walking over from the retail park, or from the core town centre when it’s been redeveloped. It can be done.
This is all possible, but it needs the council to believe it can be done and for the people of Crewe to demand that standards are raised and maintained.
Experiential is the new buzzword
The way events and festivals are staged and delivered is changing. Traditional carnival-style days have all but disappeared. The public want more, just as shoppers crave something a little different, something experiential for old and young alike.
Now it’s time to show what Crewe can do. Organisers, planners, financers and an expectant public must, somehow, all meet in the middle and establish a range of stand-out events that justify investment in what is the beating heart of the town.
For Christ Church to rise from the ashes, a benevolent phoenix might be required to help kick-start the project. The Diocese of Chester will hopefully remain part of the mix, with CEC also retaining faith in Crewe and acknowledging via further investment that it is the engine room of Cheshire. If others have the appetite, I’d happily be part of a crowd-funding exercise to get things moving and to breathe new life into the old ruin.
Steampunk (May 26-28), Cosmopolitan Food Festival (May 27-28) and TrAction (July 7) are all coming up over the next few months. They will all bring visitors into Crewe. I’d love to think that in a decade’s time we’ll see something happening every week in Cultural Crewe.
The people of Crewe and those tasked with implementing change must dream big!
Jules Hornbrook writes articles about Cheshire and Lancashire, plus content for business websites.