What the locals really think of Rawtenstall

PUBLISHED: 00:00 02 June 2015

Shopping in the sunshine; Diane Parkinson, Lyn Dawber, Kimberley O'Brien and Alex Finnerty

Shopping in the sunshine; Diane Parkinson, Lyn Dawber, Kimberley O'Brien and Alex Finnerty

Archant

The high street is cobbled and the town is served by steam trains, but this Rossendale community is looking forwards not back, writes Martin Pilkington. Photography by Kirsty Thompson

Robin Murton (Travelling Ticket Inspector) and Rory Lushman (Driver) at the East Lancashire RailwayRobin Murton (Travelling Ticket Inspector) and Rory Lushman (Driver) at the East Lancashire Railway

Rawtenstall once sent slippers around the world, now it wants the world to visit – and for locals to enjoy themselves too. A new wave of entrepreneurs and enthusiasts is bringing extra energy to the town.

‘We used to have a situation where people would come off the trains here, look through the doors and decide against venturing further. Now it’s a destination not just the end of the line,’ says Andy Morris, General Manager of the East Lancashire Railway. Since it extended to Rawtenstall in 1991, the ELR has attracted visitors aplenty, and with the opening in June 2013 of its Buffer Stops bar there it’s helping to extend their stays – and please the locals. ‘It has become an intrinsic part of the town’s offer, and not just for visitors - it’s predominantly used by local people,’ Andy adds.

A few yards from the station an even newer enterprise, The Mather Gallery, is similarly serving visitors and Rossendale Valley residents alike. ‘There’s a good amateur art scene here, but it was struggling for places to exhibit, which is why we’ve had so many asking to display pictures here since we opened,’ says owner Karl Mather. Works by local amateurs and professionals now hang alongside pieces by major national names. ‘Passengers from the railway pop in to browse, and often return with their car to purchase something’ .

Next to the gallery stands The Artisan, a bar, club and music venue run by former actor and musician Dan Solazzo, who took over from the previous management in December. ‘I used to come here with my wife. It’s a bit of the city in a smaller town, and I promoted lots of events here, so when I was offered the chance to take it on I jumped at it,’ he says. Its success reflects Rossendale’s revitalisation, the space already opening two additional nights a week. ‘We put on the sort of events I’d like to come to – ska, reggae, DJs, pop-up food things, open-mic nights – and get people of all ages.’

With nearly every table occupied on a weekday morning the clientele is similarly diverse at cafe and wine bar Do-Dah’s on Bank Street, Rawtenstall’s main shopping thoroughfare.

‘We have ladies who lunch, businessmen having breakfast meetings, shoppers in for coffee and cake, and loads of mums and toddlers – it’s like a crèche sometimes!’ says co-owner Jodie Clark, who opened the business with sister Suzanne Winfield in 2006.

‘We’ve managed to build it up through the recession. It’s a good location with lots of independent shops here, smaller places with character, though we’d like to see more done to bring in people from further afield.’

That’s one of the aims of major redevelopment underway in the town centre. The Valley Centre was demolished several years ago, and soon it’s hoped the police station and 1960s town hall, neither of great beauty, will follow.

‘That will free up the view to the old corn merchants and Baptist church, and we’ll also open up new gateway space to the town,’ explains Gareth Hayhoe of Day Architectural. ‘We’ll have a new bus station too, fronting the new square, with some leisure and retail elements, a nice place to sit rather than the current wind-tunnel.’

Initial plans for a flat grass-roof have been shelved in favour of a design that while modern has clues in the forms of metal and natural stone that link it with the town’s industrial and architectural heritage.

The public space opened up by earlier demolition has proved popular, so much of that will remain on the Bank Street side, but the idea is to bring bustle rather than tranquillity, clever use of different levels extending the possibilities. ‘There’ll be a series of smaller shopping units, and possibly a larger store, plus some residential units to keep a bit of life and activity in the town at night,’ adds Gareth.

‘For us this is key in that it fits in with the Rossendale offer as a whole,’ says the council’s corporate officer Katie Gee. ‘So, the bus station will include places for people to get tourist information, to promote the area as a destination - it enhances our visitor economy and that’s something we’re trying to push hard here.’

Museum not mausoleum

The Whitaker, Rawtenstall’s museum, gallery and now social centre, encapsulates the town’s revival. ‘This place was described as a mausoleum before we came!’ says Carl Bell, who heads the Community Interest Company that has run the amenity since 2013. ‘It used to open a few afternoons, now it’s six days a week and we’ve added a cafe with Max Endicott who’s a brilliant chef, are licenced for weddings, are about to start a cinema night, and have regular acoustic music nights.

‘We’re constantly looking for new ways to use what is a great space. It’s not a rich area, so we need to find ways to provide cultural activities here without excluding people on price.’

The park and land were donated to the town by industrialist Richard Whitaker at the start of the 20th century. ‘It’s a house of heritage and culture, but not a “don’t touch” place,’ says Carl. ‘It was given to the people, so should be used for the people.’

Never stumped

Rawtenstall Cricket Club was formed in 1885, and remains a significant social centre for the town. Its impressive ground saw major changes six years ago, with a huge new club house added. The First XI plays in the Lancashire League, there’s a Second XI, Development Squad, and Junior Section. ‘To pay for all this we have to be a business now as well as a cricket club,’ says Lindsay Butterworth, involved in its commercial and communications activities. ‘So we run events like a Ladies Lunch, Comedy Night and Golf Day, hire out the facilities and, with entertainment after the Twenty20 games, hope to get bigger crowds and more revenue. Another of our members, Victoria Barlow, is even doing a sponsored parachute jump!’

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