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A look ahead to the grand reopening of Piece Hall in Halifax

PUBLISHED: 00:00 10 July 2017

The stone-flagged central event and performance space is surrounded on all sides by shops, bars, restaurants and businesses

The stone-flagged central event and performance space is surrounded on all sides by shops, bars, restaurants and businesses

Joan Russell Photography

Chief executive Nicky Chance-Thompson gives us a guided tour before the grand reopening on August 1st.

Andrew Smith and Neil Emmonds survey the continuing work Andrew Smith and Neil Emmonds survey the continuing work

We’ve seen the shape of things to come in Halifax, and it’s square. But, where once the four sides and four corners were dark, dank and, frankly, uninviting, now you’ll find beauty and inspiration at every turn.

We’re talking, of course, about the iconic, Grade I listed Piece Hall, which is set to reopen on Yorkshire Day after a four-year, £19million revamp that has transformed a rather tired reminder of Halifax’ hard-working past into a stunning town square with a bright future as a major European venue.

The bell above the west gate, first rung to mark the start of trading on January 1st 1779, will ring out once again at 10am on August 1st to mark the start of a new lease of life for the Calderdale landmark – and for the West Yorkshire people who have waited patiently (in the most part) for its return.

‘They haven’t seen it for such a long time that I honestly think people will be a little overwhelmed by the building when they come back through those doors again,’ says chief executive Nicky Chance-Thompson, as we stand in the middle of the revitalised square watching a horde of hard-hatted workers polish the last stones and connect the last wires before the big reveal. ‘The uneven cobbles and bleak patches of grass have gone and, instead, they have a glorious European town square, surrounded by bars, restaurants and independent shops.

The familiar arches The familiar arches

‘This has never been a dictatorial process. People have told us what they want and we’ve done our best to fulfil their wishes. They’ve led; we’ve listened.’

What they are getting is a honey-hued town square of grand proportions with a stylish, stone-flagged central event and performance space, surrounded on all sides by shops, bars, restaurants and businesses.

The retail units will be about 50 per cent full on opening, with tenants including Harveys of Halifax, who are branching out with a stand-along homewear outlet, as well as a record store, a gin bar, ice cream parlour, chocolatier, deli, restaurants, cafes and a cocktail bar.

‘They’ve all been carefully curated to celebrate independence and to celebrate Yorkshire,’ says Nicky. ‘We’re taking our time to ensure we get the right mix of people, offering something for everyone.’

The Piece Hall will be open from the time people are heading off to work in the morning, and fancy picking up a coffee and a croissant on the way, to when they get back at night and want a bite to eat with their family and friends.

‘It’s expensive to open all day, every day, but that’s what the people want and our job is to meet their needs,’ says Nicky. ‘In the longer term, the whole town will benefit from increased trade and footfall. But, for us, it’s not just about spending money, it’s about spending time together, as a family, as friends and as a town.’

The opening ceremony has been specifically engineered so that the first people through the doors on August 1st will be babies, toddlers and children, many of whom weren’t even born when the Piece Hall was last open to the public.

‘Just imagine experiencing this building for the first time,’ says Nicky. ‘It’s going to be magical.’

Original features of the historic building remain in place Original features of the historic building remain in place

The transformation of the Piece Hall is just a part – albeit a pivotal one – of a package of improvements in Halifax that also includes the rejuvenation of the Square Chapel performing arts hub and the new high-tech central library.

‘This whole area is undergoing a massive regeneration programme that will provide a wonderful legacy for the younger generation,’ says Nicky.

‘The confidence to carry it out has come from the council and the people of the town. They’ve willed it to happen. My husband is Halifax born and bred, so I know that, for locals, it really is the centre of the universe.

‘And we’re sure the new Piece Hall, and the surrounding developments, will more than live up to their high expectations. It will have a tremendously positive impact on the town as a whole, making the place wealthier, healthier and a whole lot more interesting.

‘When it was first built, the Piece Hall marked a new beginning for the Georgians, and now its providing a new beginning for us.’

The Piece Hall will always be for the people of Halifax but, thankfully, they seem willing to share it with the rest of us, reaching our across Yorkshire, to major UK cities like Leeds, Manchester and London and further afield into Europe.

‘This is going to be a major international destination, with artists coming in from around the world and visitors following not too far behind,’ says Nicky. ‘Once people come here and stand in this amazing space, they’ll understand what all the fuss is about.’

Our tour ends in the top corner of the Piece Hall where, in hard hats, high-vis jackets and protective boots, we look out across to Beacon Hill from a newly-opened terrace that allows visitors, for the first time, to enjoy the awe-inspiring outward-looking view from this famously inward-looking building.

‘This is my very favourite spot in the whole place,’ says Nicky. ‘And it’s not just because it’s going to be a cocktail bar. It’s because it represents everything we’ve tried to achieve here; how we’ve transformed this building, opened it up and made it worthy of the passion and love it evokes in Halifax.

‘For me, the success of this place won’t be measured in money. It’ll be when I see the Piece Hall busy and bustling and alive again. That’s priceless.’

To find out what’s happening at the Piece Hall, visit thepiecehall.co.uk

Meet the people working behind the scenes at the Piece Hall makeover

A warm welcome

The new Piece Hall is staging a rousing series of free events over three weekends from August 18th to September 2nd to welcome the world back through its doors.

The Welcome Festival, which organisers believe will attract upwards of 30,000 people, will start with Andy Sheppard’s Saxophone Massive, involving 150 players recruited from across the town and wider region, and end with an incredible aerial show, The Enchanted Chandelier, which will see musicians and trapeze artists suspended 50m above the square to create a circus in the sky.

‘We’re setting the bar high for the kinds of performances audiences across the region can expect to see here,’ said head of events Molly Rigg. ‘We’re following in the footsteps of a host of amazing events that have taken place at the Piece Hall since the Victorian era. From hot air balloon launches to a tightrope walk from the world-renowned Blondin, we’ve taken inspiration from historic spectacles and look forward to making our mark in the future.’

A shared history

A new heritage centre telling the story of the Piece Hall – and Halifax – looks set to be a key new attraction when the building reopens on August 1st.

The Piece Hall Story, in the south arcade, will be packed with fascinating displays, information boards and artefacts, including spinning wheels, looms and a gibbet blade (used on those caught stealing cloth), carefully selected from Calderdale Council’s museum service collection.

‘It’s a tale of how the ambition and enterprise of our forebears changed Halifax forever, creating great wealth, but also hardship, as the town entered the modern age,’ said Robin Tuddenham, director of communities and service support.

‘We want to give visitors a flavour of what life was like in Halifax during the heyday of the wool trade, which has left a lasting mark on the town.’

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