How much has Ramsbottom changed in the past 20 years?
- Credit: Archant
Martin Pilkington heads back to his former home town and spots plenty of new things on the menu. Photography by Kirsty Thompson
You turn your back on a town for just two decades and it changes almost beyond recognition – well, some aspects do anyway.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Ramsbottom was home for this writer, the food scene was what you’d have expected in a small East Lancashire town. Two great butchers – Walmsley’s and Topping’s, both still there – the odd takeaway and curry place, and Taylor’s chippie – another survivor with chips as crisp as ever, by the way.
But there was also what began life as The Village Restaurant, run by Chris Johnson and his wife the late Ros Hunter, whose pioneering work began to change the town into a major foodie hub. Later, the Eagle & Child became a dining pub, good enough to be a Lancashire Life award winner.
‘It’s now harder to park in Ramsbottom on Saturday night than it is in Manchester,’ says Sara Wilkins of The Eclectic Kitchen & Deli on Bolton Street. ‘It has become a real destination place with the likes of Baratxuri and Levanter opening up to add to the existing scene. We’ve lost some retail places, but a town has to evolve. There’s still a market, and the farmers’ market is bigger, which tells a story.’
Sara ran the farmers’ market until a year ago. She has her hands full now as her own shop evolves to more catering rather than kitchenware, with seating to be added for those enjoying the salads and sandwiches.
Stuart Rothwell runs The Vineyard on Square Street, the current holder of Portuguese Wine Merchant of the Year, though their stock covers the world, intriguingly so on the whisky side. ‘I and two colleagues set up the Ramsbottom Whisky Company as a club for fans of great scotch, supplying special samples to members,’ he explains. ‘And it’s not just from Scotland – we just did an Indian whisky which was lovely.’
His business opened in 2007. ‘I’m local, so chose Ramsbottom partly for that reason – it’s a nice town – but also because it’s growing all the time, and there are so many great food establishments that have made a name for the place.’
Laura Chepner opened Lolo’s Vegan and Raw Restaurant and Store last year, adding another new dimension to the foodie scene, and with a touch of style too. ‘I chose 1920s decoration instead of the clichéd things like bamboo and hippy decor because I wanted to be mainstream. It’s important that people see vegans as regular folk who deserve to have good restaurants.’
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Signature dishes like the ‘super raw salad’ and the hot and spicy Caribbean stew, a hearty platter served with dumplings, have attracted plenty of locals vegan and otherwise, but she also gets clients from Manchester and even London. ‘I’d expected a slow burn at first, but we have hit the ground running, and are turning away tables most weekends.’
Even newer on the scene is The House of Beer on Silver Street, run by Clint West, only open since February. ‘I did my research into specialist beer shops like this in the area, and chose Ramsbottom as there wasn’t one here. There’s a thriving local community too, plus tourists, and it has a reputation for food and drink,’ he says.
A glance at Clint’s stock reinforces that local message, with bottles on the shelves from the three craft breweries in the town, Irwell Works, Brewsmith and Ramsbottom Craft. Producers in Radcliffe, Bolton and Blackburn feature too, alongside greats from Belgium, Australia and Belgium among others.
If you prefer chocolate to beer (and let’s face it, that’s a tough choice) Ramsbottom caters for you too, with the Chocolate Cafe on the crossroads at the centre of the town, though the term cafe only tells part of the story. ‘First and foremost we are a chocolate manufacturer,’ explains Paul Morris, who with wife Emma opened the place in 2008. ‘We make all our own chocolate on site, using fino de aroma cocoa from Colombia. Secondly we’re a chocolate-themed cafe and third a chocolate shop.’ If you’re still pondering the chocolate or beer poser, Paul and Irwell Works Brewery have combined to create a brilliant solution – a beer enhanced with Paul’s chocolate.
Prior to opening their shop, Paul and Emma ran a business on the French Riviera. ‘We moved here for the weather,’ he laughs. ‘We looked at more than 250 properties over the whole of the North West but Ramsbottom, with its reputation as a food centre, was always in our heads as the first choice, then the right property came up. Nobody could understand what we were trying to do, though, and kept saying we should open a coffee shop.’
Their chocolate concept has definitely worked, with plans being put in place to move to a new location to double the cafe size and make even more of their manufacturing area as a tourist attraction.
In 2009 Paul started the town’s chocolate festival. ‘When we lived in France we saw that every small town had a festival of some sort that drew visitors, and helped local shops and eateries.
‘The council supported us, and based on the thousand or so shoppers to the monthly farmers’ market estimated we’d get about 750 people over the weekend. We got 10,000.’
This year Gregg Fletcher, of Ramsbottom Business Group, took on the festival organisation. ‘It has grown bigger and bigger over the years, and takes over the town for the weekend before Easter – just when people want to buy great chocolate stuff. It’s fantastic for the trade here. Our record attendance so far is 35,000.’
The town also has a cake festival in late June and a pie festival in October, so far drawing smaller crowds, but give them time. Beer, wine, great eateries, chocolate, pies, and cake. And you can get there by steam train.
Ramsbottom Now and Then
The retail scene has altered hugely, but some things have stayed the same in the town, as Andrew Todd, President of Ramsbottom Heritage Society makes clear. ‘The layout of the town hasn’t changed, it’s probably unique in the area, I can’t think of a town centre in Lancashire which is so unchanged. The buildings in the centre you can see now, with few exceptions, were what you’d have seen in 1900.
‘And the types of industry and trade are very different now by and large, but diversity remains a key feature of the place. Once it was the railway, soaps, chemicals, paper – we’ve still got a paperworks - now there are lots of small enterprises, one and two-man businesses.’
He notes changes in the people living there, however. ‘There are three Ramsbottoms in population terms - the old Ramsbottom with families rooted here for generations, some since the industrial boom in the late 18th century; then overspill Ramsbottom, people mainly from Manchester originally; then professional Ramsbottom, people who’ve moved here because it’s a good place, and an easy commute to Manchester.’
As Kevin Marren of Eccleston Homes can testify, the demand for houses in the town remains very strong, all 13 properties in their Jubilee Gardens development selling rapidly. ‘We were inundated with enquiries as soon as we put in a planning application,’ he says. ‘We’re about to announce another development here, and expect a similar situation.
‘It’s an urban village, the famed “sought after location,” with a lot going for it - a proper community, history to it, Many town centres have died because of online shopping and out-of-town supermarkets. Ramsbottom is the opposite, with its little cafes and specialist shops it’s a retail destination now.’
Rather neatly Ramsbottom’s past and present came together at the Jubilee Gardens site. When the cottage hospital that previously occupied the land was demolished a Victorian time capsule was found. With the help of children from nearby St Andrew’s School a 21st century one has replaced it. Which makes you wonder what 22nd century Ramsbottom will be like.