Preston - a city with a vibrant culture and a tradition built around trade

PUBLISHED: 17:40 14 June 2013 | UPDATED: 17:36 21 October 2015




Preston has been a centre for trade for centuries and it still draws in shoppers from across Lancashire. Martin Pilkington reports.


Preston has been a magnet for buyers and sellers for many centuries and there is every chance a market has been held here since Roman times when one of their roads ran north-south right through the centre.

Some stallholders in the indoor market may not go back to Claudius, but they have deep roots. ‘It was my great-grandfather who started the business on Lancaster road,’ says greengrocer Craig Conway of H. Conway & Sons, whose son Harry now works on the stall.

‘We go back just over 100 years, and used to trade on the outside market. Then the covered market was built in 1972 and we’ve been in it ever since.’ They source as much locally as possible, but not always without incident. ‘When I was a young boy I went to Blackburn with my granddad – we used to buy a lot there – in his flatbed wagon. Driving back one day this wheel overtook us on the road and granddad said “that’s a good wheel, it’d fit our van, I’ll stop and get it.” It was our wheel!’

They survived the experience and Craig eventually took over the firm. His range has changed in his 34 years on the market, with ‘new’ veg like Chinese leaves and butternut squash.

One of his neighbours is Janet Nagla who has a cake decorating stall and recently catered for a strange innovation. ‘A new one was a divorce cake – they wanted champagne bottles with corks popping,’ she says.

J. Wisdom & Son has been in the market since it was built and owner Andrew Wisdom has moved with the times. ‘We have three grades of beef mince: standard, lean and super-lean steak mince for people on special diets. My dad started it 30 years ago in a small way after my mum became insulin dependent so we began doing food suitable for diabetics, and now it’s an area we specialise in, trimming all the fat off for super-lean cuts.’ The horse meat scandal had an impact on trade. ‘People know they can trust the local butcher. All my suppliers are local – pork from Preston, beef and lamb from from Cumbria and the Borders, poultry from Blackburn. When people shop in the market they have more direct contact - one phone call and I can find out within half-a-mile where my meat comes from.’

As with many of our towns and cities, Preston’s main shopping drag is dominated by the big brands, though one fabulous local institution is to be found here too – the ever-busy cafe Brucciani’s, all gilt and 1930s stained glass, which serves wonderful coffee.

For quirkier stores try some of the smaller thoroughfares, like Winckley Street or Cannon Street, the latter home to recent arrival Retro Rehab. ‘We do original and reworked vintage stuff starting from the 1950s and through to the 80s,’ says owner Shelley Taylor. ‘We shorten and make them more modern, so it’s vintage but with a twist.’

As with the parched pea stall and the market traders, Preston tends to follow the dynastic route, one such – actually two such with a pair of shops – is Halewood & Sons on Friargate, antiquarian booksellers since 1867, whose Mike Halewood is a renowned Sherlock Holmes expert. Just breathing the book-dust laden air makes you feel well-read.

And on Lune Street stands Hellewell Menswear, another Preston institution. ‘It started in Preston in 1905,’ says managing director Dave Seed. ‘My granddad and another guy who used to work for Mr Hellewell took it over in the late 40s when he was retiring. Our range is classic and contemporary quality menswear.’ The clothes are what your GP might wear, but as they (just like policemen) seem to be getting younger the styles are becoming racier.

A place to keep fit

Town meets country at Preston and that means it enjoys excellent amenities for walking, from a stroll in elegant Avenham and Miller Parks beside the Ribble, 400 yards from the centre, or its challenging 21-mile Guild Wheel, a greenway circling the city for walkers and cyclists.

The Guild Wheel passes by those parks and another must-see spot, Brockholes Nature Reserve, easily accessed on four wheels too, its entrance by M6 junction 31.

‘The site is about 250 acres and has trails designed for people of different tastes and abilities,’ says Lindsey Poole of the Lancashire Wildlife Trust. ‘There’s a shorter trail that families do, following a free trail-guide with information on what to look out for, and the main reserve walk lasts about an hour-and-a-half.’

Brockholes has diverse habitats, with ancient woodland and wildflower meadows besides the eye-catching lakes with their buildings on a giant floating platform. The lakes attract birds from arctic terns to lapwings, with 38 species recorded as breeding there last year. It’s a haven for mammals too, says Lindsey. ‘We have brown hares on site, they quite often put on a display visible to people sitting in the restaurant, and lots of deer, and we’ve just had confirmation of otters in the Ribble.’ Entry to the reserve is free, but there is a charge for parking.

Guild’s girl

Anyone who enjoyed Preston’s Guild celebrations last year has only 19 years to wait for the next one! The Guild, an honour bestowed by Henry II in 1179, is the last of its kind in the UK, these days involving processions, street parties and civic ceremonies.

One unusual result of the 20 years between Guilds is that the winner of Miss Preston Guild holds the title for 20 years. Mary-Kate McKay is involved in a hectic schedule of fund-raising events, but has found time to win a place in the Miss England finals on June 16th.

5 places to eat

Preston has plenty of good quality eating places. They include:

1. Paul Heathcote’s Brasserie and Olive Press Restaurant on Winckley Square near Fishergate.

2. Contemporary style at DUK and Pond on Cross Street, tapas cuisine with a twist,

3. Modern British food by chef Russell Lee can be found at Fusion Room on Friargate.

4. The world’s best (and possibly biggest) naan breads are found in elegant East is East on Church Street

5. Tang on Fylde Road is fast gaining a reputation for superb dim sum.

For the most authentic Prestonian dish, parched peas, head to the Flag Market. ‘The business has been in the family since 1955,’ says Keith Roberts. ‘At least once a day I get asked “what are parched peas?” They have different names in different place, pigeon peas, carlin peas, black peas, officially maple peas. ‘We soak them overnight, boil ‘em up in the morning till they’re softened up, then season with salt and pepper and serve with vinegar. Nice healthy food.’ Tasty too.

3 cafes to try

1. Bruccianis in Fishergate is a fascinating museum piece

2. The Mystery Tea House in Cannon Street has hundreds of brews from across the world

3. Winckleys in Winckley Street serves coffee and Italian style snacks

Building a success

If you visit Preston by bus, enjoy its vast bus station while you can (if you can – its ‘brutalist’ design divides opinion), for the 1960s structure set for demolition. More positive work is planned for the largely Georgian Winckley Square, with the council close to securing £950,000 of funding for refurbishment. There is character waiting to be exploited in the centre too: the ornate building which houses the under-occupied Miller Arcade would not look out of place in Barcelona; and opposite is the former Gaumont cinema, its art deco interior hidden from view since closure 22 years ago.

A Historic Place

Preston has witnessed conflict over the centuries. Cromwell defeated a Royalist army nearby in 1648; the Jacobite uprising of 1715 was ended there by a general marginally less idiotic than the rebel one, and in 1745 Bonnie Prince Charlie stopped in Preston on his advance southwards and retreat northwards. And in 1842 soldiers fired on cotton-mill strikers and chartists, killing four. Two museums in Preston – both free to visit – have displays which tell the history of the city and the county respectively, though there’s more to them than that.

Preston’s former courthouse off busy Stanley Street has been The Museum of Lancashire for 30 years. ‘We cover the County Palatine to give an overview of its history but also to signpost other sites where more in-depth things can be found,’ says museum manager Charlotte Steels. Its timescale is similarly broad. ‘We go from stone age axe-heads and Roman and Viking objects, to Hilda Baker’s costumes and bits and pieces from comedian Dave Spikey even.’ Among its eclectic collection is an Edwardian coal-fired chippie range, a striking example of history made accessible.

Seeing the colours, an exhibition of watercolours including some with local subjects, runs at the MoL from May 25th to August 11th. There is limited free parking at the site.

The Harris Museum and Art Gallery on Market Square is both a beautiful building and a magnificent resource for the city. It has a fine display of objects from Preston’s history, the highlight perhaps items from the Cuerdale Viking hoard, though ‘Horace’, the complete skeleton of an elk from 13500 years ago, its spear-tip injuries the earliest proof of human habitation in the north west, runs it close. But the Harris is also a vibrant part of local cultural life as well as staging exhibitions of contemporary work by international artists.

Three to visit

1. Museum of Lancashire

Stanley Street, Preston, PR1 4YP.

Tel: (+44) 01772 534075

2. Harris Museum and Art Gallery

Market Square Preston PR1 2PP

T: 01772 258248

3. Brockholes Nature Reserve

Preston New Rd, Preston PR5 0AG

01772 872000

Getting there

It’s hard to miss - Preston is at the crossroads of the A59 and A6 and the M6 skirts its eastern edge. There is a mainline railway station and its a major bus terminus. If you are driving (satnavs set to PR1 2PP should get you to the centre of town) on-street parking is best avoided - there are plenty of carparks close to the centre.

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