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Why Bury is a hot spot for visitors across the region

PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 March 2017

The Rock

The Rock

Archant

Twenty-five years ago the suggestion that Bury could become a landmark cultural and retail destination would have earned more laughs than the big name comedians on stage at the town’s Met Theatre.

Clock tower in memory of Walter Whitehead Clock tower in memory of Walter Whitehead

Look for a point when Bury’s fortunes began to turn around and you may identify the arrival of the Metrolink service in 1992, or possibly the re-opening of the East Lancashire Railway five years earlier, the former making it easier to get there and the latter giving a great new reason to do so. Since then, and particularly since the millennium, it’s gone full steam ahead in attracting visitors and shoppers.

One of its principal attractions is the Transport Museum, located across the road from the ELR’s Bolton Street Station. ‘We’ve been here since 1972, but only in the current form from March 2010,’ says curator Sarah Kerrison. ‘We opened originally to try to raise money for the railway line preservation project.’

After time as a storage site and workshops for the ELR, the building needed major work, so it closed in 2000. A new roof, mezzanine floor for educational events and enlargement of the entrance to allow double-decker buses entry was possible thanks to generous support from the council, private donors and the lottery fund.

It paid off. ‘When we have enthusiast events, Burrs Country Park caravan site is full and hotels here are hard to get into,’ Sarah continues. ‘Culture is Bury’s biggest industry now with the railway, the Fusilier museum, the Met, the art museum... there are so many festivals and events going on in the town, it’s a brilliant place to live and work.’

Looking toward Market Street, Bury Looking toward Market Street, Bury

Those attractions and more are all within easy walking distance of one another, the Fusilier Museum just two minutes’ stroll from the transport collection. Paul Dalton saw active service with what is now the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, and now guides tour parties and educational groups around its Moss Street museum – what he doesn’t know about the 20th Regiment of Foot’s history isn’t worth knowing.

‘The regiment was formed to support William of Orange on his arrival in Devon in 1688,’ he says. ‘It has fought in just about every campaign since then. The Bury connection started in the 1860s when they moved up here, and in 1881 they became The Lancashire Fusiliers.’ His tour takes in the heroes associated with the regiment over the centuries, from General Wolfe at Quebec to World War Two VC winner private Frank Jefferson, with displays that illustrate their stories – like the regiment’s part in the 1812 razing of the old White House – after they’d eaten the meal left by the fleeing President Madison.

Across the road stands the newly refurbished Met Theatre which previously served as Bury’s Town Hall. It reopened in December last year after a £4.6 million refurbishment. Marketing and sales manager Nick Smale is rightly proud of what’s been done. ‘Artists previously had to change in what had been a kitchen, the stage in the main theatre wasn’t big enough, and the decoration was unwelcoming,’ he says.

‘The facilities are now up to the standard that contemporary audiences and performers expect. We’ve made the most of the grand staircase, adding an artwork chandelier by Liz West; the bar area is now open and stylish; there are excellent dressing rooms; the lighting in both theatre spaces has improved and we’ve got a new sound system.’

The Fusilier Museum The Fusilier Museum

The Met’s restaurant serves the town throughout the week, not just when there’s a show on. It’s run by the same company that has transformed The Clarence on Silver Street from a slightly seedy boozer to a Lancashire Life award-winning gastro-pub, now with its own brewery in the basement.

‘They renovated the place four years ago, top to bottom over the three floors, put in the speakeasy-style bar, and uncovered the beautiful tiles that had been hidden beneath old lino,’ says assistant manager Greg Longshaw.

‘People don’t want just a pub now, they want somewhere to eat, a place to meet friends, enjoy interesting cocktails and beers. After we opened the restaurant the owner of the Italian restaurant down the road said he’d never been busier – there’s a hub here now that brings trade in. We get customers from Manchester thanks to the tram, and lots now stay in Bury instead of heading out. And business goes crazy on market days.’

Yards from The Clarence is Kwoff, a high-end vintner’s opened two years ago, though its British beer shelves and trendy gin selection rivals the wines. ‘We get told this is just what Bury needed,’ says spirits specialist Chris Barnard. ‘The town has gone up in the world. Proximity to the East Lancs Railway and places like The Clarence helps bring people here – our trade has doubled over the last 12 months.’

Trade at the Mill Gate Shopping Centre is doing equally well. Under new owners it too has undergone a facelift, and in the last year-and-a-half the occupancy rate has risen from 65 per cent to nearly full. Mill Gate manager Marie Gribben explains why the town centre is booming. ‘The market pulls them in – on Friday and Saturday numbers go through the roof.

‘There’s a shared vision and commitment from all the stakeholders here – the council, market, both shopping centres – and not to promote the competition but in 2010 when The Rock opened, that gave the town an aspirational shopping centre to complement the traditional Mill Gate.’

Everyone in Bury points to the market as the town’s trump card. It transcends shopping and has become a cultural experience in its own right. ‘We’ve been having coach parties come to the market for about 10 years now,’ says markets manager Andrew Heyes. ‘We had about 50 coaches a year early on, now it’s 1500! We’ve had them from all over Britain, as far away as Portsmouth, and even Ireland.’

There’s not a stall vacant at the market, which like so many other sites in the town has benefitted from recent investment – £6 million in this case. ‘There’s lots to see in a small area in Bury,’ adds Andrew. ‘But the market is definitely Bury’s USP. We’ve won best market in Britain so often we need a bigger windowsill for the trophies now!’

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