Is Halifax transforming into one of the UK's upcoming towns?
PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 March 2017 | UPDATED: 09:18 14 March 2017
One of West Yorkshire's historic towns 'is knocking itself out' to become a major visitor destination, reports Tony Greenway
Famously, Charles Dickens wasn’t a big fan of Halifax. And that’s putting it mildly. After visiting the town in 1858 to give a reading of A Christmas Carol, he wrote: ‘It is as horrible a place as I ever saw, I think’. Charming. Who needs TripAdvisor when you’ve got Charles? It makes you wonder — or at least it makes me wonder — what Dickens might think of the old place now. After becoming the centre of the English wool industry in the 18th century, Halifax lost its mojo and went into decline as textile manufacturing faded. Today it has ditched its grimy Hard Times past for a gleaming service economy, although its industrial buildings proudly remain, and have largely been or are being redeveloped.
Take Dean Clough, for example, which used to be the biggest carpet factory in the world, and is now a thriving arts and business complex. Arts-wise, its home to Barrie Rutter’s Northern Broadsides and the acclaimed IOU Theatre, for example. On the business side, Covea insurance opened a massive office at Dean Clough for 650 of its staff last year and the RSA Insurance Group and Swedish bank Handelsbanken also have bases on the premises.
Yet, recently, Dean Clough has undergone something of a culture change: mixed in with the arts and shiny corporates are a growing number of buzzy bars, cafes and restaurants. Is the mill becoming a ‘leisure destination’ now? ‘We want to be a destination point and a leisure resource — a place to come to,’ agrees Vic Allen, Dean Clough’s arts director. ‘That’s about creating a quality environment with a social mix — a place that makes a stir and has a sense of excitement.’
Halifax doesn’t have a reputation as a tourist town. But, as Vic points out, it’s currently knocking itself out to get one. ‘There are the Piece Hall development, the Square Chapel development, the Eureka children’s museum, the Minster, the Victoria Theatre, the Comedy Festival, the Heritage Festival, and the Industrial Museum renovation,’ he says. ‘On the face of it, there’s a huge leisure resource developing in Halifax.’
Alison Metcalfe is deputy theatre director at the Victoria Theatre and a leading light at the Comedy Festival which, after a trial event in 2009, was launched in 2015 and has already built a national profile. ‘Last year the festival doubled its audience numbers and has been really well-received,’ she says. ‘We try to use as many different local venues as we can — not just the main stages — because there are fantastic little spaces around the area. We had a really great following for comedy in Halifax, so starting the festival was a no-brainer. It’s what people wanted off the back of the recession.’ If only people would take the time to look, they’d be surprised by Halifax, she thinks. ‘If you come here and give it a chance, you’d see it’s a nice little town. There’s a lot going on here. And when the Piece Hall comes on board that’ll be something else again.’
The Piece Hall opened in 1779 as a place for handloom weavers to sell their ‘pieces’ of cloth. It’s currently undergoing a £19 million transformation project which, says the council, will turn it into ‘a 21st century visitor attraction, with a state-of-the-art interpretation centre, a new east extension and a redesigned courtyard’. The work has been delayed, but it is expected to reopen this year.
The Square Chapel arts centre next door, meanwhile, is being similarly revived to the tune of £6.6million. It’s hoped that both will create a new cultural hub in the centre of town which, says David McQuillan, director of the Square Chapel, will be important for the night time economy. ‘There needs to be places for people to go. Halifax needs spaces like the Piece Hall, which never had the range of bars and restaurants that we hope it’s now going to have: a cluster of venues where people can go for a night out, or stay after work.’
The beating heart of Halifax is still the covered Borough Market, a sprawling mix of stalls and shops in a beautiful Grade II* listed Victorian building, which has seen better days. Illuminate Electrical Supplies is a market regular of long-standing, run by Wendy and Stephen Dill. ‘The building is absolutely splendid,’ agrees Wendy, ‘but it’s been neglected for years.’ Shopping has changed, and Halifax has changed with it, she says. People don’t walk about town like they used to, preferring to get in their cars or buy online. She doesn’t seem impressed by the thought of the Piece Hall, either.
Despite its run-down interior, there is something undeniably wonderful about Borough Market, where you can find everything from greetings cards and fruit and vegetables to beauty products, confectionary, shoes, cafes and food stalls. All life really is here. In contrast, out of the market and over the road is the glistening Westgate Arcade. It’s stylish, but a rather more sedate experience.
I ask Jamie Horsley, director of The Arches, a wedding and events venue at Dean Clough, what makes Halifax special. ‘It’s really diverse,’ he says. ‘Over recent years the town centre has undergone a lot of redevelopment which is changing it but it has struggled. What is helping at the moment are the quirky craft ale venues that are springing up. The Pump Room, for example and The Grayston Unity has a good following, too.’ Plus the people of the town — the Haligonians — are down-to-earth and proud of where they come from. ‘They have a great work ethic and a great sense of humour,’ says Jamie. Even Dickens wouldn’t have argued with that.