A day in Chorley - one of Lancashire's famous market towns


Martin Pilkington spends a day in one of Lancashire's famous market towns and pops in to see its good neighbour, Eccleston

Chorley’s position explains why it has been a market town for centuries - routes from Preston, Manchester, Wigan and Southport converging here.

Now it’s the M6 and M61, once it was a Roman road, the local historical society bidding for funds to determine its precise course. The market remains the town’s heart, with plans to extend it and to boost other shopping facilities.

‘The Flat Iron market has been established for hundreds of years, people know they can get anything and everything here,’ says Alistair Bradley, looking out over its canopied stalls. ‘We have full occupancy on the covered market and almost capacity on this market it’s so successful.’

On market day – and in Chorley that’s every day bar Wednesday and Sunday – the place buzzes. The markets have character and attract characters. The traditional food stalls do good business, but alongside them stand less conventional offerings – bird of prey displays perhaps the most unusual. ‘A lot of people now don’t want the overheads of a shop, so they like to dip their toe in the water with a market stall,’ explains Alistair, who is council leader.

‘We try and make a feature of the fact that it’s a market town to bring people in - Chorley is still a real town with a centre, not one of those soulless identikit places.’

Plans are progressing to revamp others shopping areas: Asda is building a major store opposite what was once the symbol of the town centre, the Big Lamp. A long-empty MacDonald’s is to be turned into a mini-arcade for smaller specialist retailers, widening the range of stores; and Market Street, currently closed to traffic, is re-opening to cars. ‘We’re going to have free-parking for half-an-hour to bring in shoppers who just want to pop into the bank or make a quick purchase,’ he says.

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Local landmarks

Chorley’s has two great landmarks - Rivington Pike looming at its southeast corner, and the lovely Astley Hall.

‘The building is a mixture from three or four major rebuilds,’ explains local historian John Harrison. ‘It starts Tudor, gets rebuilt in the Jacobean period, then again by the Georgians. You could say it looks odd – we’d say distinguished.

‘Around Astley Hall is where the first human settlement of this area occurred.

A Bronze Age burial site was discovered there in the 1960s.’‘Margaret, the last of the Charnocks who built the house in 1578, married Richard Brooke in 1665,’ says Amy Grundy, museum assistant at the hall.

‘They had the ornate ceilings done in 1666, and added the oil-painted panels in the great hall showing Columbus, Tamerlane, Henri IV of France, and many others – we think to show their knowledge of the world.

There are artichoke-designs in the ceiling to show their culture too.’ The building is a box of delights and is open 12:00 – 16:30 Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays between Easter and Christmas.

Eating out

The restaurant scene is healthy here too, recently established Skewers getting noticed (see our food section), the North African food of New Seasons offering something different, and The Cosmopolitan cocktail bar and eaterie.

Local artArtist Glynis Kidson has The Picture Shop on Pall Mall, an example of Chorley’s thriving independent and retail sector. Two of her paintings catch the eye, one colourfully depicting a local hero, another capturing the charm of Astley Hall. ‘For the Wiggins picture I worked from a series of different photographs. It’s oil on canvas and shows the end of the Tour de France with Bradley Wiggins in his yellow jersey flanked by other riders.

I just sold the first print today!’ Astley Hall is currently close to her heart, her solo exhibition there starting on March 29th.

Art lovers might also want to make the short hop to nearby Heskin Farmers’ Market and Craft Centre, home to Hepplestone Fine Art, one of the north’s top galleries showcasing many local, national and international artists.

A nice neighbourEccleston, west of Chorley, got national attention after the Olympics thanks to Bradley (now Sir Bradley) Wiggins having his home there. The golden post-box at the village’s Carrington Shopping Centre celebrates his achievements. ‘Cyclists from all over come to pose for photos by it,’ says chairman of the parish council Bill Mason.

Visitors who make their way here through the fine greenbelt surrounds find a village in transition, with several new developments added over recent years. But then change isn’t new.

‘Many years ago its main function was orchards,’ says Mr Mason. ‘Then it became a mill village with two mills, one of which is now the antiques centre Bygone Times.

‘The other is the Carrington Shopping Centre which is now being rebuilt along with a number of houses.’

The mixture of character, facilities and location make it attractive to newcomers. Bradley Wiggins is a case in point. He moved to Eccleston when the Velodrome was built in Manchester, it’s convenient for commuting. He visits the barber’s on the green to have his sideburns trimmed, I’m told, and goes in for a lemonade at The Original Farmer’s Arms pub.

For a village the facilities are exceptional. Mr Mason reels off a few.‘We have two primary schools, doctors, dentist, optician, chemist, post office, Co-op, DIY shop, bakeries, florist, solicitors, petrol station, and three churches.

‘And there’s Bygone Times, one of the biggest antiques centres inthe region.’ Mr Mason is himself a newcomer, though of long-standing.He moved to Eccleston in 1971, and wouldn’t live anywhere else now: ‘It’s just a wonderful village,’ he says.

Bygone TimesA converted textile mill at the other end of the linear village attracts visitors for more secular reasons - antique hunting. ‘We have at any one time between 250 and 300 stallholders. It varies between an individual cabinet or a few pictures on the wall to a large antique stall with furniture,’ says the centre’s manager Antony Sowden. ‘We’ve had grandfather clocks selling for £15,000 to everyday items going for as little as maybe 15p.’

Bygone Times draws coach parties from as far as Yorkshire and the Lakes. ‘It’s a destination shop,’ says Antony. ‘And we have the WWII shelter downstairs and the penny arcade as additional attractions.’

St Mary the Virgin ChurchOne landmark that hasn’t changed for centuries is the parish church ofSt Mary’s. ‘The church is dated to 1094 but there was one here long before that, in Saxon and Viking times,’ says church warden Keith Brindle.

The Norman building has immense character, not least because of the various mysteries and puzzles it contains, like the face carved crudely above one arch. ‘That’s said by some to be the Virgin Mary, by others to be a monk, and by some to be a sort of signature of one of the stone-masons who built the church,’ says Keith.

Chorley ClubsTwo of Chorley’s clubs demonstrate how easily past and future sit  together here. John Harrison of Chorley Historical and Archaeological Society tells us: ‘We’ve been going for nearly 60 years, and arguably it’s stronger than ever – we’ve about 60 members.’

The historians are bidding for £30,000 of heritage lottery funding to determine the course of the Roman road between Wigan and Walton-le-Dale.

Meanwhile Chorley Computer Club recently celebrated its 30th anniversary and the enrolment of its 1000th member. Secretary Ray Heaton says: ‘Every Tuesday we meet at St Bede’s Social Centre in Clayton-le-Woods. There are about 50 members, and we do presentations, help people with their computing problems, and get involved in other activities too – our late chairman Jim Vale had a pet project providing computers for Africa.’ It all adds up to a succesful community.

Currant trendsThe Chorley cake is a Lancastrian culinary gem. Peter Gronback, operations directorof Hall’s Bakeries in the town says: ‘We’ve been making these since 1933 when the bakery was established. They’re still very popular, in fact, they fly out the door. We’ve even talked about selling them online as well as through our shops and vans. It’s pastry and currants and sultanas with a few spices, the energy bar of its day. In the 1930s Joe Hall’s granddad would sell them and pies when the guys came out of the pits.’

To avoid a faux pas in Chorley, don’t confuse Chorley and Eccles cakes. Both contain currants but the latter uses flaky pastry topped with sugar, the former unsweetened shortcrust pastry without sugar – Chorley-born sugar-baron Sir Henry Tate would not have approved. Almost a health food!

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