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What the locals really think of Oldham

PUBLISHED: 11:20 08 April 2015 | UPDATED: 17:01 24 October 2015

Looking toward Oldham Parish Church

Looking toward Oldham Parish Church

Archant

Once the biggest cotton-spinning town in the world, this community is now going through an industrious revolution, writes Paul Taylor

Glenn Dale in the Conservatory at Alexandra Park Glenn Dale in the Conservatory at Alexandra Park

In the vast acres of Alexandra Park, with its glorious Italianate promenade, stand statues to the politicians and industrialists who held sway when Oldham was the biggest cotton-spinning town in the world.

You wonder whether 21st century politicians are ever likely to receive such recognition. It won’t be for lack of effort as far as the modern day fathers of Oldham are concerned. The town is currently going through the biggest change for decades - a revival council leader Jim McMahon calls an ‘industrious revolution’.

David Martin at Oldham Coliseum Theatre David Martin at Oldham Coliseum Theatre

Fourteen years ago, Oldham was making headlines for race riots. Today, it’s making headlines as a town undergoing ambitious regeneration even in the throes of austerity.

The old neo-classical Town Hall, disused since the 1990s, is being turned into a seven-screen Odeon multiplex, with six restaurants. A new £15m leisure centre is due for completion in the autumn. New independent businesses are being fostered by start-up grants and preferential rental deals.

Fingers are crossed that the Arts Council and Heritage Lottery Fund may shortly announce funding to allow the town’s Coliseum Theatre to move to a new home on Union Street, beside a heritage centre - all part of Oldham’s ‘Cultural Quarter’.

Coronation Street star turned champion of northern food, Sean Wilson Coronation Street star turned champion of northern food, Sean Wilson

Perhaps most significant of all, the moribund Mumps area of the town centre is to be transformed with a Marks & Spencer store, 800 new homes and development of the palatial former NatWest bank building - a potent symbol of economic stagnation these past 20 years - into apartments, retail and leisure units.

‘We are trying to re-define what a town centre is there to do,’ says Jim, aged 34, who was named Council Leader of the Year last year by the Local Government Information Unit. ‘It will be far more of a social space - the cinema, the restaurants, the theatre, the heritage centre, the leisure centre.’

He wants more town centre living, more offices, more people coming and going through Oldham, for which the Metrolink, whose trams have been trundling through the town centre since the start of last year, can only help.

Oldham council leader Jim McMahon. Oldham council leader Jim McMahon.

But he also wants us to value what Oldham already has. It is one of the north west’s most diverse boroughs, stretching from huddled streets of terrace housing to the pretty and affluent villages of Saddleworth.

‘The lifestyle here is fantastic,’ says Jim. ‘In your back garden you’ve got the Pennine hills and to the front you’ve got Manchester city centre.’

Oldham also has more than its share of wonderful parks, such as the rolling 118 acres of Tandle Hill, Daisy Nook (a personal favourite of Jim McMahon) and Alexandra Park, the subject of a huge lottery-funded facelift ten years ago. This elegant Victorian park is common ground for a predominantly Asian community to the north and a predominantly white community to the south.

‘You don’t need to force community cohesion; it should happen naturally, and that is what happens here,’ says Glenn Dale, head of environmental services, at his office in Alexandra Park. ‘If you go to the paddling pool in summer, there are upwards of a thousand people there, and the interactions between the groups is massive, even sharing their picnics.’

Another proud Oldham boast is its love of theatre. Where does that come from? ‘Sheer luck,’ jokes the Coliseum’s executive director David Martin, before expounding a 128-year history of music hall then repertory theatre, in which such stars as Roy Barraclough and Oldhamers Dora Bryan and Bernard Cribbins learned their craft. The Coliseum panto remains so beloved that many people exit the auditorium and go straight to the box office to book for the following year.

And then there is Oldham Theatre Workshop, which fostered such acting talents as the late Anne Kirkbride, Sarah Lancashire, Suranne Jones and Anna Friel.

Another whose course in life was determined by the theatre workshop was Sean Wilson, who played Martin Platt in Coronation Street for 20 years until 2005.

‘They were very happy times,’ says Sean of his teenage years at Oldham Theatre Workshop. ‘David Johnson (the founder) was a lovely guy who had a vision and a working ethic which casting directors approved of.’

Today Sean, is a full-time foodie. He lives near Hartshead Pike, a windswept summit which looks down on both Oldham and Ashton-under-Lyne, and celebrates his love of this area in the name of his enterprise, The Saddleworth Cheese Co. It has products with a Lanky twang - Muldoon’s Picnic, How’s Yer Father, Smelly Ha’peth. And there’s more.

‘We are developing a brand of other products that go back to the north: pork scratchings, Lancashire sauce crisps, cheese crisps, Yorkshire puddings,’ says Sean. ‘It combines our love of the north and our entrepreneurial style.’

The impressive Gallery Oldham, opened in 2002, tells us about another local food triumph. In 1860, a stall on Tommyfield Market, Oldham, was, it is believed, the first place in the world to sell fried potatoes and fried fish together...the birth of fish and chips!

But the most popular permanent exhibit at the gallery is the Oldham Panorama. In 1876, a photographer called Squire Knott took a series of images which, linked together, formed a vast panorama of a town on the verge of its industrial heyday.

‘It is a unique thing,’ says Sean Baggaley, social history curator. ‘In the whole of 19th century Lancashire, you have not got anything like it.’

With its 110 mill chimneys and ugly tracts of disused land, the Oldham Panorama puts the ‘grim’ into ‘grim up north’. It is only because Squire Knott contrived to take the photographs in Wakes Week that this bleak scene is not also shrouded in smoke from all those chimneys.

A present-day photograph taken from the same spot shows just how much has changed. And Jim McMahon is here to tell us how much more the panorama of Oldham will change in years to come.

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