Head for real Christmas retail therapy at The Piece Hall in Halifax

PUBLISHED: 00:00 27 November 2018

The Piece Hall lit for Christmas (c)  Mark Bolton Photography

The Piece Hall lit for Christmas (c) Mark Bolton Photography

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Banish the loneliness of the digital world and head for real life retail therapy at a historic market place, says Richard Darn

Crowds fill The Piece HallCrowds fill The Piece Hall

High Street traders have had a tough time of it over the past few years. Computers and credit cards have become the ubiquitous way to shop, meaning once thriving town centres are being hollowed out at an alarming rate. So how do you fight back and arrest the decline in footfall?

Well one way is to encourage people to indulge in retail therapy in what is a destination in its own right. And that’s just what the magnificent Piece Hall in Halifax is doing this Christmas with a hearty offering of events to banish the loneliness of the digital world.

This Georgian masterpiece is widely regarded as the most important non-religious building in the county and dates to 1779. Once its 315 room were discrete alcoves where loom weavers struck deals. Now the same spaces house independent Yorkshire artisans, selling everything from fashion to home-wear and craft items to chocolates.

Last year it re-opened after a £19 million restoration and I’m pretty sure its founding fathers would be mighty pleased with the results. Priority is given to local makers and you won’t find any chain stores here. All of which makes it a great place to look for unique presents.

Not so horrible but glorious buildings in the town centre Photo: Joan RussellNot so horrible but glorious buildings in the town centre Photo: Joan Russell

A festival make-over will see a giant Christmas tree and Nordic Tipi erected in the spacious square, with a Christmas Fair and pop-up traders from November 30th until December 2nd.

Also in the wings is a return for the circus-style Spiegeltent which made its debut last year, providing a stage for a 24-day festive programme of family shows, live music, comedy and cabaret. Street performers, carols, brass bands and crafty workshops also feature in the glittering mix, capped by an awesome New Year’s Eve party. For details, go to thepiecehall.co.uk.

Halifax always struck me as a great place to celebrate Yuletide, with its historic streets worthy of a Dickens novel. This is highly appropriate because the great wordsmith did indeed visit the town in 1858 to read excerpts from A Christmas Carol (this year is the 175th anniversary of its publication). Apparently it was a sell-out audience (even though it was only September) and Dickens was paid £70 (£5,000 in today’s money) as part of what seems to have been a national book tour.

Whilst he was very complimentary about the people who turned up, he was less keen on the town describing it ‘as horrible a place as I ever saw’. Perhaps he caught Halifax on a bad day when the smog from the textile chimneys hung heavily over the valley, or it could be that he had overly Great Expectations.

There is a Christmas Fair plus pop-up traders in the square from November 30th until December 2nd Photo John Morrison/AlamyThere is a Christmas Fair plus pop-up traders in the square from November 30th until December 2nd Photo John Morrison/Alamy

But it must be conceded that wealth and poverty co-existed here, check-by-cheek in the 19th century. A person’s experience of Christmas varied accordingly. For instance the 2nd West Yorkshire Yeomanry hosted lavish ball at the New Assembly Rooms in 1869 (a White Christmas) with the Colonel of the Regiment bringing along no fewer than thirty guests from his stately home – they wined, dined and danced until 5am.

By contrast local man James Turner counted his meagre blessings: ‘Yesterday I bought the wife a Christmas box in the shape of two new aprons. The first thing I have had the pleasure of buying since we were married’.

However, there was one spectacular demonstration of charity: workhouse inmates were provided with a half-ton plum pudding, 50 gallons of beer and 300lbs of roast beef. Even Oliver Twist could not have asked for more!

Heading back to the Piece Hall I notice there’s a fascinating exhibition running that has been extended over the Christmas period until January 2nd 2019. The hall was the venue for a wholesale market for 100 years from 1871 and the show traces the trader’s stories through oral histories and fantastic photographs.

Piece Hall actually has a longer history supplying fish, meat and groceries to local shops than dealing in cloth. One of the more famous market workers was Shirley Crabtree, better known as the wrestler Big Daddy.

It was a different world back then, a long time before supermarkets and the internet ruled the roost, and the black and white images are a precious window into these bygone times. Make sure you catch this free exhibition in the Community Gallery.

All of which is a reminder that the Piece Hall has been bringing people together for hundreds of years - its restoration is one of the really ‘good news’ stories to emerge from Yorkshire in recent years.

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