Bolton is a celebration of old and new

PUBLISHED: 00:00 10 October 2014

Smithills Hall

Smithills Hall


A blend of traditional and modern is ensuring the town continues to thrive, as Martin Pilkington reports

Ann Marie Elliott-Clark (Friends of Smithills Hall Volunteer) and Christine Collins, Historic Halls Manager holding a watering pot in Mrs Ainsworth's Drawing Room at Smithills HallAnn Marie Elliott-Clark (Friends of Smithills Hall Volunteer) and Christine Collins, Historic Halls Manager holding a watering pot in Mrs Ainsworth's Drawing Room at Smithills Hall

Bolton is changing. Shoppers in the Market Place Shopping Centre, for example, can’t help but notice major construction work underway there. But it’s changeless too, certain landmarks rooting the town in its rich history.

Those Shopping Centre developments are linking magnificent architectural reminders from that past with amenities planned for future generations of Boltonians. ‘The original building with its 19th century ironwork is listed, so nothing of that will be touched,’ explains Nikki Wilson-Cook, the centre’s manager. ‘And we are uncovering and showcasing Victorian vaults from 1852. The atmosphere and architecture are just perfect for the restaurants and bars and artisan brewery we’ll have there.

Far from Victorian, however, will be the vast nine-screen cinema complex being added. ‘We’re spending £15 million to introduce a new cinema concept, called ‘The Light’ – the organisation works with the community to find out what they want to see; and they use the screens for educational purposes and conferences, and for live feeds of operas or bands. This will transform the night-time economy of the town,’ Nikki concludes.

Change in Bolton seems continual. In February a year’s work on the Ashburner Street outdoor and indoor market was completed, £4 million invested on improvements to the complex – there’s even a coach-park now. And what is sold within it reflects changes in the community too. ‘We sell the fish traditionally popular here – like cod and salmon – but we always have a huge selection of others like snappers and trevally for people with East Asian or Chinese roots,’ says Michael Evans of MPJ Fish Supplies. Something not on his stall every day is a 170kg tuna, just a few steaks and the giant head left on the counter from a mighty creature caught – unusually – off the Faroes.

Roddy GauldRoddy Gauld

Further and Higher education are undergoing transformation here too: a decade ago Bolton Institute became The University of Bolton, new buildings underscoring that changed status. And a much-anticipated University Technical College, for which £10 million of government funding has been approved, is in the pipeline.

The Octagon Theatre sits comfortably between the old and the new, and between town and gown. ‘It’s important to us that as well as being a theatre we’re part of the town, as we have been since November 1967 when we opened,’ says Octagon chief executive Roddy Gauld. ‘It came out of the remarkable endeavour of a college lecturer and a group of students who originated the idea and many of the plans to create the first flexible theatre of its kind in the UK.’

The theatre is currently exploring a moment from the town’s past of a century ago, the play Early One Morning by local writer Les Smith telling the tragic story of Bolton lad James Smith, shot as a deserter after suffering what we’d now call PTSD. But Bolton’s history goes far further back.

Christine Collins is fortunate enough to manage the two most celebrated landmarks in the town, Smithills Hall and Hall i’th’Wood. ‘Smithills is Grade One listed, one of the region’s finest historic halls, that tells an 800-year story of Lancashire life, a blend of medieval, Tudor and Victorian building, once the home of the Barton family who were aristocratic landowners, and later the Ainsworths who were industrialists, the last family to own it.’

Nikki Wilson-CookNikki Wilson-Cook

Set within splendid grounds maintained by the Friends of Smithills Hall it reaches deep into the community, used in the school holidays for children’s activities, hired as a wedding venue, and even occasionally – as it’s said to house numerous ghosts – hosting supernatural evenings. It was even used to film Last Tango in Halifax recently.

‘Hall i’th’Wood, also Grade One, was called that as when it was built in the 16th century it had oak woodlands, now long gone, around it,’ explains Christine. ‘But it’s most famous as the home of Samuel Crompton who invented the spinning mule. Lord Leverhulme gifted it to the town as a museum and a memorial to Crompton.’

The two halls are on the outskirts of Bolton but another fabulous building is right in the centre – Ye Olde Man and Scythe public house, which dates back at least to the 13th century. Its most famous moment was in 1651 when the Earl of Derby was held there before his execution just outside. The Earl was the Royalist general who presided over the massacre of 1600 Parliamentarian defenders and civilians in 1644.

Smithills, Hall i’th’Wood, and Ye Olde Man and Scythe are familiar to nearly everyone in Bolton, but there are some hidden gems too. The most stunning such place is surely Barrow Bridge, a tiny enclave on the north west edge of the town built to serve a cotton mill. It’s not just the quaint architecture that makes it special says Jon Kurtz who lives in one of the stone cottages. ‘We sit on the bridge to drink a cup of tea and see greywags, dippers and even kingfishers. It’s a fantastic place, people who have never been are often surprised by it.’ Which could be said for the rest of the town too.

Michael Evans of MPJ Fish Supplies in the covered market. Photo by Martin PilkingtonMichael Evans of MPJ Fish Supplies in the covered market. Photo by Martin Pilkington

5 Things to Do in Bolton

1. Visit the Octagon Theatre – and not just because of the drama, there’s an excellent cafe too.

John Kurtz Photo by Martin PilkingtonJohn Kurtz Photo by Martin Pilkington

2. Watch the Trotters – Bolton Wanderers FC – at the Macron Stadium in Horwich. They’ve won the FA Cup four times, though the last triumph was back in 1958.

3. Enjoy the parks – the town has rich green resources with Leverhulme Park and Queen’s Park particularly notable.

4. Sample dishes from Cameroon or East Asian curries to Italian Pizza via pies, pasties and chips just by visiting the market on Ashburner Street, voted best food market in Britain in 2011 in Radio 4’s Food and Farming Awards.

5. Listen to the accent before it disappears as we all become Esturine Mockneys: Bolton should really be pronounced Bowton here.

5 Boltonians who Changed the World

1. Samuel Crompton, inventor of the Spinning Mule.

2. William Lever, first Viscount Leverhulme, industrialist and philanthropist.

3. John Harwood, inventor of the self-winding wristwatch.

4. Charles Holden, whose interwar London Underground station designs became universal standards.

5. Sir Arthur Rostron, Captain of RMS Carpathia, which rescued so many from the Titanic: strangely Stanley Lord, Captain of the SS Californian, who delayed helping the sinking liner, also came from Bolton.

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