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Why Accrington and Stanley are on the up

PUBLISHED: 14:00 12 January 2016

Rob Heys at Accrington Stanley FC

Rob Heys at Accrington Stanley FC

Archant

Accrington is not your stereotypical post-industrial town, as Martin Pilkington discovers

Accrington Stanley FCAccrington Stanley FC

Anyone taking a look at Accrington currently will find a community far from some clichéd image of a tired mill town. There’s real energy about the place that’s reflected in a resurgence at its celebrated football club, the plans for the regeneration of its town centre and the renaissance of its brickworks. But that’s not the whole story by any means.

‘It’s such an exciting time. This is our tenth season back in the Football League, a major achievement for a club with our budget,’ says Accrington Stanley chief executive, Robert Heys. ‘We’ve struggled and we’ve been the club that wouldn’t die, so it is great now that we’ve got a new owner with huge plans.’

That new owner is Andy Holt, a local entrepreneur who has cleared the club’s debts. At the time of writing, Stanley sit near the top of League Two, and with boosted finances can now deter advances for their best players. ‘It’s brilliant that things are changing, but there’s a long way to the end of the season – we’re not planning any promotion parties yet,’ says Robert.

What hasn’t changed is the club’s local spirit. Stanley, who delightfully play at Livingstone Road, are perhaps incongruously backed by the Ultras, hardcore fans who in 2004 decided to become the club’s noisy 12th man, though happily their behaviour is rather different from the Italian version. ‘The club is a big part of the town, and with involvement from soccer tots for two-year-olds to walking football for the over 50s a lot of the town is part of the club,’ says Robert.

The ornate Market Hall in AccringtonThe ornate Market Hall in Accrington

The local authority is seeking to be equally inclusive with Councillor Clare Cleary describing a collective and collaborative approach. She says it’s not “done to us” but “by us”.

‘We’re going to have a new town square, bounded by the town hall, market hall and the Burton Building, it’s the key focus of the project,’ says Townscape Heritage Officer Annette Birch. Referring to the town’s famous World War One heritage, she adds:‘The work will include some interpretation of the Pals, but not another war memorial. We’re looking for something more innovative, more creative.’ Possibilities include a stained glass window for the Town Hall, and a timeline sculpted into the square’s paving, telling the Pals’ story as well as the contributions of those who stayed, and the story of how the town recovered from its heavy losses.

‘The town survived after the war, even after all that sadness and devastation it flourished, and we want to recognise that strength too,’ says Regeneration Manager Helen McCue-Melling.

But the work is about the present as well as the past. ‘There’s a strong bond still with the Accrington Pals, but it’s not just about them - this will be a fantastic new event space for the town,’ says Clare Cleary.

Half a mile from the centre another of Accrington’s resources is also undergoing restoration work. The Haworth Gallery is a superb Arts and Crafts mansion left to the town in 1920. In 1933 it was given what constitutes the world’s largest public collection of Tiffany glass, but it’s not what’s inside but outside now benefitting from Heritage Lottery Funding. ‘We have here a combined stables block and motor-house, one of only two left in the UK,’ explains Yvonne Robins.

‘When the house was built in 1909 cars were a relatively new luxury, and there were few petrol stations, so it also had a petrol store, again one of just two such remaining.’ When restored the buildings will provide 11 studios for contemporary artists. Exhibitions of local work in the gallery showing there is no shortage of creative talent in the area to fill them.

Shops in Accrington

There’s some innovative drive visible in the town’s retail sector, too. An old East Lancs mill town may not seem the most natural environment for a Fairtrade, Ethical and Sustainable cooperative, but The One Planet Shop on Abbey Street is thriving, its shelves crammed with wholefoods, organic ingredients, craft items, beauty products, and household goods, all ethically sourced.

‘We just celebrated our fifth anniversary,’ says Kerry Gormley, one of its founders. ‘We have quite a few local and regional suppliers like Stag and Wolfe cosmetics, and Hubble Bubble Organics in the shop, and we get out into our community doing local project work, with a school liaison officer explaining what the shop is about, the current focus is on waste reduction.’

If it’s surprising to find The One Planet Shop in Accrington, then coming across The Weird and Wonderful over the road may be shocking – after which it is decidedly intriguing. Norman Wright’s emporium of the extraordinary supplies goods for those with a taste for adventurous interior decor. Intricately carved pig skulls from Bali vie for attention with prosthetic limbs, antlers, religious statuary, anatomical prints, ape skulls, a buffalo head, stuffed animals, and mineral specimens. And there’s odder stock he’s not allowed to display. ‘We’ve got human skulls, but you can’t have them on show,’ he says.

Norman is quick to explain that having a strong online presence, and after two years of trading a growing reputation, he is offered things by people like retired doctors and a network of antique dealers who know what he’s looking for, and he quashes the idea that the adjoining barber’s shop might help Sweeney Todd style.

‘The power of the net is fantastic,’ he says. ‘Most of our sales are online. We don’t get a lot of passing trade, but the shop makes a great living photo booth for everything here. People do come down to check out stuff they’ve seen online. There’s a tattoo shop upstairs too, so some people have done the treble – a haircut, tattoo, and purchase say a set of antlers – there’s a bit of a community around it.’

On reflection maybe the Weird and Wonderful is right at home in Accrington, a place that has always shown real character and never been afraid to put itself forward, as it continues to.

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