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How Edge Hill University transformed the town of Ormskirk

PUBLISHED: 00:00 17 October 2018

Edge Hill University has been based in the town since the 1930s

Edge Hill University has been based in the town since the 1930s

Archant

Having 10,000 students on the doorstep is helping this West Lancashire town centre to thrive

Ruth Owen and chef, Nathan Booth at The Chapel GalleryRuth Owen and chef, Nathan Booth at The Chapel Gallery

Ormskirk, for Lancastrians at least, has long been known for the tasty potatoes grown in its loamy soil and the gingerbread made in the town since the 18th century. These days, in the county and beyond it, the name of Edge Hill University is likely to pop up when the West Lancs market town is mentioned.

‘The institution has been in Ormskirk since 1933,’ explains Roy Bayfield, its director of corporate communications. ‘At that point we were a teacher training college – we originated in 1885 in the Edge Hill District of Liverpool. Until the 1970s training teachers was all we did, but since then we’ve steadily added subjects and now, as a university, offer a full range of courses.’

The next addition is a medical school, due to begin training doctors in 2020. It is a move that is likely to increase the number of full-time students, currently totalling around 10,000.

‘Along with the course development has come the physical development,’ he adds. ‘Starting from the 1930s college building, the site has expanded to create the mile-long campus we now have, while retaining the green space – we don’t want to turn it into a concrete jungle.’

Church Street on Market DayChurch Street on Market Day

The university, with alumni including broadcaster Stuart Maconie and stage and screen actor Jonathan Pryce, is equally determined to be part of the community, with facilities like the sports centre, pool, fitness suite and walking and running tracks widely used by locals. As befits a centre of learning, Edge Hill plays its part in boosting the cultural and intellectual life of the area too.

‘Last year saw a major effort to get big name speakers on campus,’ says Paula Keaveney, a senior lecturer in politics and public relations. ‘We had John Bercow, the Commons Speaker, and Caroline Lucas of the Greens, and this October former minister Nicky Morgan is here – all part of a thread about women, voting and democracy. It’s great for students, but also for locals having this on the doorstep instead of having to go to Liverpool.’ Offering the innovative is part of the institution’s DNA, as Paula explains. ‘Edge Hill was the first non-denominational teacher training college for women, quite a radical idea when it was established.

‘The university is still constantly changing and developing – expanding academically as well as with all the new building, with more and more subjects coming on-stream during the last ten years.’

Sitting on the edge of the town, the beautiful campus – packed with wildlife including an ever-present flock of ducks – doesn’t feel at all disconnected. Jack Topping, who graduated in sociology this year, says: ‘The university mirrors the town, a community where people know one another and it makes the effort to make you feel included whether you live on campus or not, with lots of events here and plenty of good places to go.’

Roy Bayfield, director of corporate communications at Edge Hill UniversityRoy Bayfield, director of corporate communications at Edge Hill University

‘A free bus runs between the campus and the town and only takes five minutes,’ says current student Harry Groves. ‘It brings the town and uni closer together.’ He made a conscious decision to come to a campus university. ‘I didn’t want to be in a massive city with miles between classes and your accommodation – and the landscape here makes it a nice relaxed place to live.’

There’s interconnectivity between the town and the university in many spheres. ‘We do a lot of work with local business,’ says Roy Bayfield, ‘the Productivity Innovation Centre in our Tech Hub Building has already worked with 27 Lancashire businesses to help them develop.’

Arts is another area where town and gown collaborate, the university providing cinema showings for students and locals alike, and its Arts Centre offering theatrical and musical events. It’s a two-way street – The Chapel Gallery in the town centre offers exhibitions attractive to academics and students, and draws on academic expertise. From October 6th to January 19th it’s running Opening the Gates: For better or Worse, the impact of WW1 on Women’s Lives. ‘This year is the dual centenary of the right to vote for women, and the end of the First World War – the two being directly linked,’ says gallery officer Ruth Owen. ‘The exhibition explores that; the roles women took in both world wars and the impact on women’s lives today.’ Edge Hill University’s Creative Writing department and The Chapel Gallery are commissioning six writers to create work exploring the notion, “for better or worse”, focusing on how those conflicts have affected contemporary women’s lives. Especially interesting for locals will be the archive material, including letters and photographs, that picture the lives of West Lancashire women like suffragist Harriet Mahood, and Ellen Preece who was killed working in a munitions factory.

The council has backed campus expansion, and worked with developers providing purpose built accommodation in the town, and a growing university brings other positive economic effects. ‘Edge Hill does make a big difference to employment with a high proportion of the staff coming from Ormskirk,’ says council leader Ian Moran. ‘Ormskirk is bucking the trend for town centres too, with the night time economy doing really well with lots of coffee shops and places to eat used by both students and locals, now attracting people from places like Liverpool and Wigan too.’

Edge Hill University students, Harry Goves and Jack ToppingEdge Hill University students, Harry Goves and Jack Topping

There are plans now to convert the old bus station to student accommodation with a performance arts venue on the ground floor. And the town has already managed to replace old retail names that were lost. ‘We’ve had quite a few niche-market, boutique-style shops opening here,’ Ian adds, ‘The other day a bagel shop opened. A bagel shop in Ormskirk! Who’d have thought it?’

Six reasons to visit

West Lancs Council Leader, Ian MoranWest Lancs Council Leader, Ian Moran

Make for the market – a proper open air street market is held every Thursday and Saturday, right in the town centre as it should be. The pies are recommended.

Check out the town’s booming café and eaterie scene, growing to meet demand from the ever-expanding university.

Visit the unique St Peter and St Paul Church, the only one in the country with both a tower and a steeple at the same end of the building. It’s also noted for beautiful stained-glass windows.

Visit The Chapel Gallery on St Helen’s Road, where there are art exhibitions and family events year-round, and a fabulous new bistro/café headed by chef Nathan Booth that’s worth a trip in itself.

Eat the town’s celebrated gingerbread – made here since at least 1732 at one of several outlets baking it still. In July, there is the annual gingerbread festival.

And talking of festivals, Ormskirk has the North’s biggest free classic car event, Ormskirk MotorFest, held every August.

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