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Has Halifax become 'the Shoreditch of the North'

PUBLISHED: 09:15 12 March 2019

Chow Down food festival featuring  food pop-ups, ale, craft beer, cocktails, prosecco returns this summer Photo by @Kluens.

Chow Down food festival featuring food pop-ups, ale, craft beer, cocktails, prosecco returns this summer Photo by @Kluens.

@Kluens

A cultural revolution has been underway in Halifax — part of which includes a blossoming food and drink scene. Tony Greenway reports.

Chow Down at the Piece Hall Photo: @Kluens.Chow Down at the Piece Hall Photo: @Kluens.

A year or so ago, a DJ on radio station BBC 6 Music dubbed Halifax ‘the Shoreditch of the North’. If you tilt your head and squint a bit, you can sort of see what they meant. The town has a flourishing craft beer, coffee, bar, food, record shops, live events and music scene — not to mention a growing reputation for ‘cool’. It’s authentically urban and rather hip. Unlike Shoreditch, though, it’s not the slightest bit pretentious or pleased with itself. This is still gritty West Yorkshire, remember, which doesn’t really go in for smug self-congratulation.

The 6 Music tagline gained a certain amount of traction among the public and the local press — both good and bad — until The Man from the Daily Telegraph came to visit a month later and torpedoed the whole idea by wondering if the comparison with Shoreditch ‘was just a few years too early’. He also likened Halifax to ‘dropping in on someone who has redone their front room at great expense without having got around to the rest’. Ouch.

It might hurt to admit it, but there’s a certain truth to that. Pockets of Halifax are looking spick and span, while others still need to be lavished with care and attention. This is a town that has everything going on. Just not all of it has been joined up yet.

One pocket that’s undoubtedly looking shiny and new is the Grade I listed Piece Hall, which opened in 1779 as a place for handloom weavers to sell their pieces of cloth. Over the years the building fell into neglect; but the potential to open it up as an events and retail space was obvious. ‘Our ambition was to transform Piece Hall into a world-class destination, to strengthen the economy, enhance local pride and conserve one of Britain’s most significant heritage buildings for future generations,’ says Councillor Barry Collins, deputy leader of Calderdale Council. ‘We saw the project as the start of a wider transformation putting Halifax and Calderdale on the map, both nationally and internationally, as a must-see heritage and cultural destination.’

Artist David Murphy Photo: Anne PurkissArtist David Murphy Photo: Anne Purkiss

And that’s what has happened, by and large. After a £19million renovation, The Piece Hall re-opened in 2017 to a grand fanfare — and deservedly so, because it now looks terrific. On a sunny day, its broad, breathtaking open-air piazza and Italianate arches could fool you into thinking you were in Venice, rather than a former West Yorkshire mill town. It’s now full of independent shops and smart places to eat; and it’s attracting big music names, too: Embrace and Elbow will be playing concerts there in June.

‘The Piece Hall gives visitors a compelling reason to come to Halifax,’ says Nicky Chance-Thompson, chief executive of The Piece Hall Trust. ‘What it has done is use heritage as a currency for the future. There are other cloth halls in the world, but this is the only remaining Georgian one — and it’s beautiful and unique. And once you’re inside its walls, you have another experience: a food experience, a retail experience.’ Eateries include Elder and The Trading Rooms, a cafe called The Deli, Blondin’s Ice Cream Parlour and the Gin Lane bar.

The Piece Hall is not the solution to all of the town’s problems, says Chance-Thompson; but it’s an impressive catalyst for change. Take last year, when it played host to its first-ever Chow Down food festival across four weekends in the summer. This featured food pop-ups, ale, craft beer, cocktails, prosecco, live music, DJs, a Yorkshire farmers’ market and curated arts, crafts, prints and plant stalls, and was such a success that it’ll be returning this summer. Did the 2018 event exceed the organisers’ expectations?

‘It really did,’ says Matt Long, director of New Citizens, the Leeds-based music, food and drink operators who helped deliver the festival. ‘When we first went to the Piece Hall for a site visit we could see that the backdrop was just incredible. Putting that event together, creating something free and bringing in lots of interesting food and drink producers was really awesome. We were also quite lucky with the weather on those weekends — everything worked hand in hand.’ Long believes the food and drink scene in Halifax is ‘definitely changing — and we’re just adding to that change.’

Detail of The Blanket by David Murphy, the first sculpture commissioned for the Piece HallDetail of The Blanket by David Murphy, the first sculpture commissioned for the Piece Hall

Dean Clough — a massive former carpet mill turned arts and business complex — has been a cornerstone of Halifax culture for decades, and largely responsible for kick starting regeneration in the town. It’s now a place where visual artists, Northern Broadsides and the acclaimed IOU Theatre rub metaphorical shoulders with big corporates such as Covéa insurance and Swedish bank, Handelsbanken.

For a long time, though, Dean Clough’s food focus was limited. Not any more. In fact, things have changed dramatically over the last five years notes Vic Allen, executive director of the Arts Charity at Dean Clough (ACDC). These days, on-site eateries include Ricci’s Tapas and Cicchetti, Babar Khan Restaurant, The Loom Lounge, Engine Room Cafe and Kitchen, and Mill Bar and Kitchen. ‘There’s much more focus on the idea of Dean Clough as an urban village,’ says Allen. ‘That’s partly to service the 4,000 people who work here, but also to create a genuine, slightly out-of-town space that can accommodate everyone from people staying at the on-site Travelodge to those who are looking for different places to eat.’

Arguably, Michael Ricci’s two restaurants — one in the centre of town, the other at Dean Clough— are still the places to beat. The fact that movie royalty Robert De Niro went to Ricci’s Place on Crossley Street when he was in Yorkshire last November is a clue that its food is reliably first-class.

Yet there are lots of other less starry but equally popular Halifax food establishments, including Lanika, a restaurant on Pellon New Road serving Indian/Pakistani cuisine, which has a good reputation with locals; Cafe Passion, a small family-run Mediterranean-style bistro on Coleridge Street; Stump Cross Inn just outside town, serving good pub food; and — even further out of town — the restaurant at Holdsworth House, a Jacobean manor. Then there’s Shears Inn at Paris Gates, between Shaw Lodge Mills and Hebble Brook, which diners are fond of because its setting is rather idyllic.

For a decent lunch, Vic Allen has a quirkier recommendation: Babushka Russian Shop and Cafe located in Borough Market. ‘It’s run by Olga, who has more teas than you can shake a stick at,’ he says. ‘She makes everything fresh and does Russian cakes and borscht. It’s genuine. It’s the real deal.’ A bit like Halifax itself.

Nicky Chance-Thompson insists that the town’s growing reputation for food and drink, while remarkable, has to be seen as one part of its broader cultural scene. Piece Hall, the Eureka! children’s museum, Square Chapel, Northern Broadsides Theatre Company, Dean Clough and the Victoria Theatre have all given Halifax a cutting-edge cultural cache. ‘Take Square Chapel,’ says Chance-Thompson. ‘Artists perform there now who we wouldn’t have even dreamt of before. There’s been a big cultural movement here. And food is an extension of that cultural offer.’

The Blanket

The first visual arts commission from the Piece Hall Trust has been unveiled in the courtyard of the former cloth hall. Sculptor David Murphy was chosen from over 40 submissions to create a bold and confident response to the building’s history as a global centre for textiles. Commissioned in partnership with Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) and co-funded by the Arts Council National Lottery Project Grant programme, ‘The Blanket’ is a large-scale floor-based sculpture, positioned at the heart of the 66,000sq ft piazza. Steel tubes will be used to create a magnified weave, a shallow grid of intercepting and merging lines of subtly curved metal that together create a large ‘picnic blanket’. Visitors are encouraged to interact with the 15m x 8m sculpture and enjoy the Grade I listed surroundings.

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