Sunday 13 July 2014

Stockport, Greater Manchester

It had been years since we had been to Stockport and was a glaring omission from Life in Northern Towns.

I’d heard things weren’t going too well in Stockport during the recession with a significant number of shopping units empty.  In the end Stockport became part of the Mary Portas Pilot to revitalise the high street.  I’m not entirely sure whether this has been successful from the articles I found online about the project and also from my visit I’d say the debate is still out on this one.

Anyway, back to the trip.  Getting to Stockport from North Manchester is relatively straightforward as you hop on the M60 and get off at Junction 1.  However getting past the queues at the Trafford Centre are becoming a real pain at the weekends and I would suggest going clockwise (past Oldham / Ashton) instead.  It can be slightly longer, but definitely quicker.  If you are coming from central Manchester then there is always the A6 to contend with.  Personally the A6 to Stockport can suck the life from your soul as you have to negotiate lots of traffic through Longsight and Levenshulme.  I think Princess Parkway is quite a good alternative as you can pick up the M60 and head for Stockport that way.
Parking in Stockport is fine as there seems to be plenty of it.  We parked near the Merseyway shopping centre in a pay and display car park - £1.60 for 2 hours or £2.40 for 3 hours.

Stockport is dominated by the massive, red brick railway viaduct that spans the town centre.  Built in 1840 apparently it’s one of the world’s largest brick built structures.  This may go some way to explain why Stockport is a split level town – in the valley the Merseyway shopping centre and bus station, on the hill the rest of the town. 

The Merseyway shopping centre is a fairly standard, uninspiring shopping precinct.  Partly covered and home to the usual high street suspects.  Apparently there were plans to redevelop the place, but that went wrong with the recession in 2008.  Shoppers tend to fall into two brackets – family and teenagers.  In the main shopping area it seemed reasonably busy for a fine summer’s day.  However when we ventured further afield we seemed to head into ghost town territory. 

Underbank seemed to be the more interesting area both shopping-wise and architecturally.  Whilst Merseyway shopping centre is just a bland mass of 60s concrete, Underbank has many old buildings and has a bridge dating from 1868 crossing over it.  In some respects it reminded me of the bridge in Chester that spans the shopping area, but a more simplistic version.  Winter’s Holt’s Pub was very old school in its design.  We did find some vintage shops along here and had a quick browse.  A couple of young women were deep in conversation discussing why the parents of one of them had split up.  Sadly there wasn’t too much to browse so I couldn’t eavesdrop on the rest of the conversation.
We found ourselves lost in Stockport and at one point had to avoid a passing drunk who was wobbling down one of Stockport’s many steep streets.  We eventually found the indoor markets along with more vintage shops.  The main indoor market was a Victorian covered market made of wrought iron and glass painted black and white.  The stalls were a mix of the traditional and interesting, plus they had a café that was full of people.  There was one stall that caught my eye where a lady was making some fab celebration cakes.

Across the outdoor market was the indoor produce market, again with its own café.  It was beginning to close up for the day, but it’s great to see local produce being sold here.  I also liked the fact one stall was a dedicated pop-up stall, which is great for people starting out new food business ventures.  However it wasn’t the food that impressed me most about this market, but the vintage shop you can find at the top floor of the market appropriately called “Room at the Top”. 
It wasn’t just a vintage clothing shop, but it sold all sorts of vintage paraphernalia.  I’ve been looking for wall art for our house, but I was struggling for inspiration.  Little did I realise until coming to this place that vintage art exhibition posters would be perfect for what I needed.  Whilst I didn’t buy any posters from there, it has led me on an interesting journey trying to find some.  I did spot a dad trying to help his teenage daughter to find a 60s vintage dress for her school project, which was rather sweet to see.  Neil was very pleased to find copies of old Record Collector magazines and bought a batch of 31 for £10.  There were so many things here I could have bought if my budget allowed.  So I wasn’t surprised find out the place had won awards and definitely one to visit.  If you are really keen on vintage, every 2nd Sunday of the month the Vintage Village pops up at the main market hall and Room at the Top also opens that day.

As ever we headed for the Charity shops, however they weren’t that exciting for Neil.  I think with the proliferation of vintage shops in Stockport, the charity shops are regularly trawled by people who know their stuff and pick up the interesting finds.
Weirdly in Stockport we found you could do a tour of the World War Two air raid shelters in the town.  I did think from the amount of post war buildings in the town, there must have been lots of buildings destroyed in this town during the war.  I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable doing the tour as I’m not one for confined spaces, however I’m amazed at the foresight of the Council to open up these shelters as they are a unique aspect of social history.  Also another oddity in the town was the Hat Works Museum, however time pressures meant we couldn’t visit but I’ve heard good things about this place through friends.

Stockport is a surprisingly interesting place when you get out of the main shopping precinct.  Not only because of the shops, but also because of the architecture which transports you back in time.  It’s also interesting how the vintage thing has exploded here; whether that is down to the Portas project or cheap rents is another matter.  However I don’t think the Portas Pilot has really addressed the whole empty unit problem in Stockport.  It has probably mixed up the type of shops available in the town, but I do think the layout of the town doesn’t help matters.  Recently I’ve recovered from a broken foot and I now realise people with mobility issues would struggle to access parts of this town.  To be frank you’d be limited to the main shopping precinct as it’s on the flat and close to the bus station. The biggest problem for towns in Greater Manchester is the Trafford Centre.  It just draws away punters from the local towns as it offers a total shopping experience with the added bonus of free parking and it’s sheltered from the frequent Manchester rain. This is a knotty problem Stockport has to address and I don’t think it’s an easy one to solve despite the Portas Pilot offering some hope.

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