How the Better Barnsley initiative will invest £100m into the town centre

PUBLISHED: 00:00 28 November 2016

The Civic and Mandela Gardens

The Civic and Mandela Gardens

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It’s time we ditched old stereotypes and recognised how Barnsley is changing, says Richard Darn.

An attractive water feature in Centenary SquareAn attractive water feature in Centenary Square

People usually arrive in Barnsley with plenty of pre-conceptions. Back in the 1970s celebrated architectural critic Ian Nairn paid a visit for a BBC documentary and painted a bleak picture, which caused uproar at the time.

As a Barnsley man myself his conclusions were both hurtful and truthful.

Post-war neglect and serial planning mistakes were compounded with a new brutalist shopping centre and office development. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it instantly became an eyesore scarring an ancient market town. Nearly five decades later I’m happy to report that at least part of this complex is being reduced to rubble and replaced by buildings on a more human scale.

Locals are understandably wary of grand visions, but there’s been a broad welcome for the Better Barnsley initiative to inject £100m into the town centre, including sweeping away the mistakes of the past. A new public square is being created, providing a stage for events and also referencing the space once used by Barnsley’s historic open air market, granted its royal charter in 1249.

Barnsley's transport interchange in the heart of the townBarnsley's transport interchange in the heart of the town

Now doesn’t that sound a much better prospect than the high rise concrete it replaces? Already transformed is the area around the town hall with the new fountains looking particularly attractive. The Experience Barnsley Museum, backed by £2.6m from the Heritage Lottery Fund, is a wonderful place for young and old alike and takes you on a journey through the town’s 1,000 year history. Widely acclaimed it attracted 130,000 visitors in its first year. A new sixth form college has added bustle to the town centre and a replacement library is on the drawing board. All of which will play its part in attracting more inward investment.

Many large firms are already here (including the biggest cake bakery in Europe), whilst luxury horsebox manufacturer, Equi-Trek, which supplies boxes to royalty and the GB Equestrian Team, is relocating to Barnsley, creating up to 30 jobs. But some things have not changed.

A five minute stroll from Market Hill brings you into leafy conservation zones with smart Victorian villas which would grace the suburbs of any town in England. Given how lovely these areas look it puzzles me that it’s taken so long to get the town centre right.

The biggest eye-opener for visitors to Barnsley remains the beautiful countryside. Back in the 18th century Daniel Defoe thought the area one of the prettiest in England and to remind myself what he meant I took a short car ride from the town centre beyond Locke Park to gaze out over the Dove valley.

Wentworth Castle's newly restored Victorian conservatoryWentworth Castle's newly restored Victorian conservatory

Dominating the far hillside is the 40-acre Grade I listed grounds of Wentworth Castle, looking superb after a £15m restoration, which has also seen the magnificent Victorian glasshouse repaired and opened to the public.

Hidden away in these rolling Pennine foothills are other gems like the 700 year old ‘Minster of the Moors’, the Grade I All Saints Church in Silkstone, which occupies a lovely location on a rise backed by a verdant bank of ancient woodland. The village itself is on the old Manchester road and was once a staging post for pack horses bringing salt across the Pennines from Cheshire.

Not far away is Cawthorne, which is the gateway to a scenic stretch of countryside dubbed Little Switzerland (remember we are still in Barnsley). It is every bit the measure of more celebrated North Yorkshire villages which regularly make the top ten list of the most desirable places to live. The buildings and gardens are exquisite and homely cafes like the marvellous little Cawthorne Village Store tearoom make a visit so much nicer.

This area is booming. Nearby popular attractions include Cannon Hall, an imposing 18th century stately home that presides over landscaped grounds with lovely flower beds and greenhouses. Behind it Cannon Hall Farm with its shops, cafe and farm animals goes from strength to strength judging by the thronging crowds on my recent visit. Adjoining fields provide the location for the Underneath the Stars music and arts festival in July, the brainchild of folk singer Kate Rusby, who lives nearby.

The biggest eye-opener for visitors to Barnsley remains the beautiful countrysideThe biggest eye-opener for visitors to Barnsley remains the beautiful countryside

There’s another bit of hidden heritage that richly repays the effort of a visit. Two miles along a narrow public road is the amazing Gunthwaite Barn. Built in the mid-16th century this aisled building with huge timbers and Tudor doorways, is one of the biggest of its kind in the UK. I love it for three reasons: it is unexpected, little altered and still used to shelter cows, just as it did when Elizabeth I was on the throne. I hope they appreciate their surroundings.

So on balance Barnsley is actually loaded with positives. It’s time we ditched old stereotypes and consigned ourselves to the fact that it’s really rather good and likely to get better.

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