How Bury transformed itself into a centre for heritage and the arts
PUBLISHED: 00:00 06 March 2018
Martin Pilkington reports on a Lancashire town that has confounded the pessimists.
When the Metrolink trams came to Bury in 1992 cynics suggested it would be neighbouring Manchester’s attractions that would benefit. The former mill town has confounded those expectations, however, thanks in no small part to its continually evolving cultural scene and a spirit of cooperation.
‘Bury has a really vibrant cultural offer now, with the three museums – Bury Arts, The Fusilier, and the East Lancs Railway Transport Museum – and the heritage railway itself,’ says Susan Lord, curator at Bury Arts. ‘And we all work closely together. For example, quite often between April and June we’ll have schoolchildren coming here to handle WWII objects, then they’ll ride on the railway as evacuees.’
The town’s art collection includes works by great names from the past like Turner and Constable, but with the 2014 opening of the Sculpture Centre contemporary art was given greater prominence, something rooted too in the creation of the Irwell Sculpture Trail. ‘There’s an exhibition in the Sculpture Centre running until June to mark the 25th anniversary of the trail,’ she says.
Cooperation between the various cultural centres will be demonstrated very clearly this year, as it has been recently with WWI commemorations, via events to celebrate the life of perhaps its most famous daughter, Victoria Wood. A statue of the writer and comedienne by Graham Ibbeson will be unveiled this spring on a site opposite the Arts and Fusilier Museums.
Meanwhile, a neon artwork previously commissioned by the BBC – the word Happy in her handwriting – is being recreated to be hung on the exterior of the Met Arts Centre, signalling a year of Happy events in the town, including at the Met Theatre. On June 2nd a Victoria Wood exhibition opens at the Art Museum.
Over the road at The Fusilier Museum, general manager Garry Smith shares Susan’s enthusiasm for the benefits of partnership. ‘We’re proud of our working relationships with the other centres, it creates a critical mass of activity in the cultural quarter here, where our building has been described as the fulcrum.’
There are some fascinating objects on display but the building itself, designed by the same architectural partnership that created Blackpool Tower, is worth more than a glance too, with contemporary additions like the Rose Window by artist Bridget Jones, leading visitors up to the Quartermaster’s Store area. That latter development allows the museum to display an extraordinary 90 per cent of its collection.
The Fusilier Regiment is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its current incarnation this year, with a photographic exhibition to tell the stories of veterans who have served since 1968.
Bury’s Tourist Information Centre is conveniently housed in the same building, with the ELR station Met Theatre, Art Museum and the famous market all a stroll away. ‘The big things that boosted the visitor side originally were the heritage railway and the market,’ says Cath Ashton at the centre. ‘The market gets coach-loads of visitors from all over the country every week, and quite often now they will do a little tour of the other centres before hitting the market. The area has got so much better as a cultural and visitor destination because people do work together well here.’
‘Working together makes it easier to bring parties in, and to help one another out. When the Met went through its major revamp we brought the box office here, and they did shows all over town – the library, the Minden Suite in the Fusilier Museum, even some of the bars and pubs.’ Her colleague Angela Warrington adds: ‘And we work with the railway too, of course.’
It would be impossible to think about Bury’s visitor economy without that railway, established by enthusiasts in 1987. ‘It’s an amazing organisation with just nine paid employees, but some 750 volunteers,’ says marketing manager Kate Walker. ‘We’ve got the museum a short walk from Bolton Road Station, after a massive refurbishment that’s a destination in itself, and the railway, so we’re a great day out even before you take the other museums into account.’
There’s always something new happening at ELR to keep people coming back. Tornado, the steam engine featured in Paddington 2, will be on display at the end of March and, if they can raise the purchase price, ELR will have the loco Wells to bring steam buffs here from far and wide. They may also be able to arrange a return of The Flying Scotsman.
Bury as an arts centre would have seemed incredible two decades ago. But the town isn’t stopping there, its hospitality renaissance epitomised by the success of the ELR ‘Dining with Distinction’ experiences. These fine food excursions on steam-hauled trains were recently voted the top Greater Manchester restaurant on TripAdvisor. Good food on the railways. There’s no stopping them.
It’s not only museums and galleries that are drawing Mancunians (and plenty of others) to Bury these days. Take Crowded House, a unique business idea launched two-and-a-half years ago by husband and wife David and Johanne Banks, and head chef Darren Jackson. ‘The three of us worked together on cruise ships, and used to talk about doing this over a few bottles of wine. The building came up, we had our business plan ready, so we did it,’ says Johanne.
Crowded House, on Manchester Road, has a beauty salon, hair stylists, and bar-restaurant so clients can be pampered and enjoy a relaxed meal with friends, or just use one of the amenities.
‘We’re passionate about not putting ourselves in a box,’ she adds, ‘So the restaurant takes no bookings, the dishes are based on the ideas of sharing and grazing, and you can stay as long as you like.’ The formula is working – they’re open seven days a week now, and already employ 45 staff.