The Champions of Piece Hall, Halifax
PUBLISHED: 14:38 22 March 2011 | UPDATED: 19:03 20 February 2013
Could an historic landmark in the heart of Halifax become a vibrant European-style piazza? <br/>Just watch this space, says Penny Wainwright Photographs by Joan Russell
The announcement by Calderdale Council in January that it was closing the towns famous Piece Hall market, held in the buildings grand open courtyard for as long as anyone can remember, has started a flurry of rumour and misinformation.
Shop-owners who occupy the retail units in the lovely colonnades of the building, say that far too many people think completely wrongly that their businesses are closing too.
Isobel Hampson, who has run her Creative Crystals shop for 17 years, says she has had customers and delivery drivers asking: When are you going then? despite the best efforts of the Halifax Courier and BBCs Look North to set the record straight.
It is only the open-air market which is closing, for reasons which Councillor Barry Collins explains: Theres been a sharp decline in the number of stalls and its clear we simply cannot afford to lose 32,000 a year on the Piece Hall market in these difficult times.
He and his colleagues might take comfort from the fact that trying to make the Piece Hall commercially viable isnt anything new. As long ago as 1815 extra income had to be raised through lettings, such as political and religious meetings even a firework display.
The Piece Hall was created in 1779 to be a more secure and weather-friendly alternative to trestle tables in the street where clothiers had traditionally sold their pieces of cloth (a 30yd length of woollen fabric produced on a handloom). Despite its magnificence, the building was designed to be open only for strictly two hours of trading every week, but the wool trade had become big, international business with huge sums involved.
Its nothing short of a miracle that this architectural gem has survived: rival trading towns like Huddersfield, Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield have either demolished their cloth halls to make way for new developments or have only the remnants left.
In Halifax, the small sale rooms are still in use after more than 200 years, though some are knocked through to create more space and todays traders open for a good deal more than two hours a week.
Shopkeepers dont feel the market closure will affect their trade too badly it might even be to their benefit, giving them more exposure but they all stress the need to encourage more visitors. We need some events in the square to bring people in, and not charge people for entry, says Isobel. For instance, there have been successful bus, motorbike and car rallies.
Kath Kilburn, a relative newcomer who opened her wool yarns shop, Three Bags Full, last summer, agrees. There was a Food and Drink Festival over one weekend in June. I had planned to open the following week but everyone said I shouldnt miss the extra footfall the festival would bring. Weve also had a vintage day with stalls, and a catwalk organised by one of the shop owners, which brought people in.
We could have re-enactments too for instance, the famous Blondin did a tightrope walk here in the 19th century anything really that brings the place to life. And the council should promote the premises for start-up businesses.
Megan Wilson, whose vintage clothes from her shop Purple Rabbit took centre stage at the catwalk show, suggests that Halifaxs monthly farmers market could be brought to the Piece Hall. I would like to see the space used for the community. Bringing in buskers would help. Im also planning to organise a 1940s weekend.
Pat Steer, who is not averse to dressing up for such themed events, found herself acting as spokesperson for the shopkeepers, largely because of her former job at Barclays Bank where she had had experience in giving presentations. For the past 10 years, shes been selling modern collectibles at her shop, Collect@.
How does she think her business will be affected by the closure of the open-air market? If it follows the trend of 2006 (when the market was closed temporarily for health and safety reasons) business should improve because well be seen. Sometimes people were disappointed with the market.
Pat believes the retail units in the Piece Hall are ideal for small independents. We can provide a specialised service and customers can have half-hour chats except maybe at Christmastime! If you are thinking of testing a business, these small units are ideal: you arent tied in to a long lease and rents are much lower than the high street.
These were among the reasons Kate Glanville chose the Piece Hall for her business, Little You. She makes miniature figures for wedding-cake decoration from a single unit thats also her studio. I came here because its a beautiful building, its cheap space and it gave me a nice address for the business, says Kate.
A big problem for us is that people dont listen. They think the Hall is closing. We contact the press and put on events, but we need Calderdale to back us.
An unexpected bonus for the council is that some of the traders play an unofficial social work role, too. These shops attract a lot of young people. Weve helped to put some kids straight because weve watched them grow, says Pat. We hold Yu-gi-oh tournaments (a Top Trumps-type card game) along with Legacy Comics next door and this gives kids somewhere to meet other people.
Weve worked with the council too, on general play days in the art gallery and were starting a tournament with the library. These bring young people in and they stay all day.
Youngsters will be flocking to the square on Easter Saturday when local community groups celebrate St Georges Day with activities for eight to 18-year-olds. Scouts, Army and Air Force cadets and a caving unit will be among those giving abseiling demos and the like. It should provide the kind of buzz that brings the place to life.
Calderdale Council has big plans for turning the Piece Hall into a vibrant European-style piazza. The shops will be redecorated and the top floor home to hi-tech and creative businesses. But whether or not it all happens depends on securing the money.
The councils application to the Heritage Lottery Fund for 7m towards the 16m scheme has been awarded nearly 240,000 to develop its proposal, to be submitted in November. If the bid is successful, we could be seeing the artists impressions of fountains, stone seating, pavement cafes and a moveable stage becoming a reality by autumn 2014.
Getting there: By train: 35 minutes from Leeds; the Piece Hall is only a few minutes walk from the station (northernrail.org). By bus: about 35 minutes from Bradford, just over an hour from Leeds (wymetro.com). By car: four miles from the M62, about nine miles SW of Bradford.
Where to park: Ample car parking near the Piece Hall at Eureka! or the Woolshops Shopping Centre.
What to do: Try hands-on exhibits at Eureka! Childrens Museum, choose from a lively programme of music and dance events at the Square Chapel Centre for the arts, and for art, music, drama and crafts at Dean Clough visit medieval Shibden Hall and its recently restored grounds.