Why Prestwich is so special

PUBLISHED: 14:46 14 November 2009 | UPDATED: 15:01 20 February 2013

Modern living

Modern living

There's a lot more to Prestwich than meets the eye, as Mike Smith discovered NEVER judge a place on first appearances.

To commuters travelling into Manchester along Bury New Road, Prestwich is a ribbon development strung along a traffic-choked arterial highway. To anyone who is prepared to explore behind the street-side facades, it is revealed as a town with fascinating buildings and desirable residences set alongside great swathes of parks and woodland.

I began my exploration in a pedestrianised square, just a stone's throw from the main road, where civil engineer Mohammed Altaf was explaining the mechanics of a modern dancing fountain to his son, Yaseen. He told me that the current fountain, with its curved concrete screen, is a modification of the original structure, which had a succession of vertical glass panels that have now been removed because they were deemed to be a health and safety hazard.

The square is at the heart of the central shopping area known as Prestwich Village, where old and new Prestwich stand in uneasy juxtaposition. Alongside the fountain, there is the Village Cobbler's Shop, housed in a small former blacksmith's. Paul Marmion, who has traded here for 22 years, is not a great fan of the new fountain. He would prefer some grass and a few flowers to soften the scene.

Paul's little shop is overlooked by Radius, a tall apartment block of a type more commonly found in central Manchester. The unexpected presence of this high-rise development in the centre of low-level Prestwich Village is explained by the proximity of the Metro station, where fast trams leave for Manchester at frequent intervals.

The controversial fountain is also overlooked by the town library, which contains a heritage museum in its upper floor, where current exhibits include reminders of wartime training camps at Heaton Park, which is Europe's largest municipal park and forms the eastern boundary of Prestwich.

During the First World War, trenches were dug in the grounds of the park, in order to give the public an idea of life at the front.

Experiences in the trenches are more effectively illustrated in the exhibition by copies of letters sent home from the battlefields of the Somme and by a copy of the dreaded Army Form B104, which coldly informed relatives of the death of a soldier in action.

This moving exhibition has been organised by Prestwich's enterprising librarian and adult centre supervisor, David Galloway, in conjunction with the local heritage society, whose secretary, Amanda Smith, offered to take me on a tour of the town's hidden beauty spots.

After passing the fountain, Amanda and I walked down the main road alongside a variety of local shops, including the Bath and Biscuit, a canine beauty parlour, whose owner, Sue Lundy, took up her present occupation as an escape from the stress of her former work in an accountant's office. Judging by the calm compliance of the dogs undergoing beautification, it would seem that her new serenity is being subliminally transmitted to her clients.

Amanda and I left the main road by turning down Church Lane, which heads for the Church Inn, the venue for regular meetings of Prestwich Heritage Society. In the best English tradition, the pub stands at the gates of the parish church, a Grade One listed building that is used for all the weddings and funerals in Coronation Street and stands at the head of a huge churchyard.

Elaborate tombs of local worthies protrude from an array of horizontal graves, which include some ancient table-like tombs that are used as seats during the intervals in summer concerts at St Mary's, when the churchyard becomes Prestwich's macabre version of Glyndebourne.

Beyond the churchyard, woodland stretches as far as the eyecan see and a path, flanked by woods noted for bluebells, leads down to a stream. As we completed our walk through this rural idyll, which is located just a few yards from the main road, Amanda entertained me with an account of her former job as an autocue operator in a television studio.

Our delightful tour ended back on Bury New Road, where there is a remarkable concentration of pubs owned by Holt's brewery. The Holts were great supporters of St Margaret's Church, which stands in Prestwich's leafy eastern suburbs.

Although their rival, Hubert Wilson, of Wilson's brewery, paid for the reredos and altar, the Holts financed the choir stalls and the elaborate rood screen, which now stands at the west end of the nave and is a memorial to Joseph Holt, who was killed at Gallipoli.

My expert guide around these beautiful wooden furnishings was Peter Edwards, who also pointed out the features that post-date an arson attack in 1985, which destroyed the organ and the Lady Chapel.

Although these new fittings, which are adorned with contemporary hangings by Graeme Willson, are uncompromisingly modern, they blend remarkably well with the original Arts and Crafts work. A new gargoyle depicts the foreman of the restoration team and a replacement stained glass window includes a figure of Jesus modelled on one of the apprentices!

Sir Edward Holt, who was twice Lord Mayor of Manchester, lived in a mansion that now serves as the Woodthorpe pub. James Bollard became its landlord two years ago after a 2.4 million refurbishment of this grand public house, which is a popular venue for dining, functions and wedding receptions.

Another large mansion in the same area serves a very different purpose. Called Nazareth House, it is a convent and a care centre with nursing provision. The Sister Superior, Sister Ellen, told me that 2007 had given cause for a double celebration. It marked the 25th anniversary of the Pope's visit to Nazareth House and the 100th birthday of Sister Jude, who lives in the convent.

By coincidence, my last appointment in Prestwich was with Carran O'Grady, whose sister is a nun. Carran, Bury Metro's local area partnership manager, has been charged with ensuring that public bodies work together to deliver local services and that there is proper consultation about up-coming plans for redevelopment of the central area of the town.

After praising the community spirit of its people, 'who know what they want and are not afraid to say so', and listing the town's many surprising assets, she said: 'I have come to realise that Prestwich is the North West's best kept secret.' Thanks to the local people who acted as my willing guides, I have come to realise it too.

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