Macclesfield - a culture of creativity

The Heritage Centre

The Heritage Centre - Credit: Archant

Macclesfield was once dismissed as being a cultural wasteland, but the town is now brimming with artistic ideas and creative energy

Art Fair Chair, Fiorella Brereton at Macclesfield Town Hall

Art Fair Chair, Fiorella Brereton at Macclesfield Town Hall - Credit: Archant

Ten years ago Macclesfield was branded the ‘least cultural borough in Britain’. Not exactly true, but it still hurt. The judgement, made by think tank the Local Futures Group, was largely based on Macclesfield having no proper cinema, theatre or art gallery and, by their measure, possessing just four per cent of the national average of cultural facilities. Westminster, at the top of the league table, was deemed to be 400 times better placed.

The report seemed at odds with the fact that the borough, enveloping much of Cheshire’s ‘Golden Triangle’, attracts some of the most affluent people in the country. It’s reasonable to assume they went elsewhere for their cultural kicks.

A decade later, in the aftermath of Macclesfield’s fifth hugely successful Barnaby Festival, there’s a growing confidence in the town that its culture – yes, culture – is becoming a real driving force in its regeneration.

Jane Munro, one of the founding members of Barnaby and instrumental in setting up the festival’s most popular and influential spin-off, the Treacle Market, said: ‘The important legacy of Barnaby is giving people a real go at having a great time in the town. Macclesfield is knee deep in creative people; the festival ignited something and gave people confidence.

Chair of Macclesfield Barnaby Festival Lynne Jones, Co-organiser of Treacle Market and Co-founder of

Chair of Macclesfield Barnaby Festival Lynne Jones, Co-organiser of Treacle Market and Co-founder of Macclesfield Barnaby Festival Jane Munro with artist, Hilary Jack with her InsideOutHouse - Credit: Archant

‘Positive things are happening and I am lucky to be in a town where brave and plucky entrepreneurs are using their skill and imagination and getting on with it. Regeneration has to evolve and it has taken time, but it will happen because more people are now ‘getting it’.’

There has been a Barnaby Fair since the 13th century, when Macclesfield was granted a Borough Charter. It’s believed the name of St Barnabas – an early Christian and later patron saint of Cyprus – was taken in recognition of the contribution Macclesfield archers and Cheshire bowmen made in the Crusades.

The annual June celebration of the saint’s feast day has changed through time, featuring festivals and fairs, parades, circuses and carnivals. In the early years of the 20th century the Barnaby fortnight came to be the local equivalent of textile towns’ traditional Wakes holidays. Mills closed for the duration, schools were out and the workers took their families on seaside excursions by train and charabanc.

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By the 1980s the tradition had all but died out, but in 2009 a group of like-minded folk came together to generate a vision for a festival of arts, culture and fun, based in the town centre and rooted in Macclesfield’s heritage and talents. It grew out of The Loop an ‘amateurish’ local online what’s-on magazine founded by Jane Munro, Jane Birch and Abigail Gilmore.

Members of Make it Macclesfield; Bradley Snelling, Micky Jones, Clare Haywood, Jane Munro, Lynne Jon

Members of Make it Macclesfield; Bradley Snelling, Micky Jones, Clare Haywood, Jane Munro, Lynne Jones and Mike Rance - Credit: Archant

Said Jane Munro: ‘We got about 10 people together in a pub one night and said ‘we need an arts festival’. Because we wanted to get it done and not just talk about it, we said ‘leave now or you are in’.’

It worked; Barnaby was reborn as a weekend festival first staged in June 2010. Now, after five successful years the festival, a registered charity, is delivered by an army of about 200 volunteers and has become an eagerly anticipated fixture in the town’s calendar. This year it spanned three weekends in June, bringing the town centre to life with almost 100 events, exhibitions and happenings covering art, music, comedy, performance, street entertainment, walks and talks.

After this year Barnaby will become biennial. The festival’s chair, Lynne Jones, said: ‘We want Barnaby to be the heartbeat of the town so we need to ensure we stage something that’s really creative, imaginative and different each festival. Developing relationships and partnerships with participants takes time and very often a year is not enough if we want to be ambitious about the quality of the ideas we wish to develop.’

She added: ‘We are pretty sure that a number of happenings will spring up to fill the gap years when Barnaby is not taking place because of the spin-offs from it we have already seen, like the Treacle Market, the Art Trail, Music Fringe and Big Weekend.’

Caroline and Toby McKenzie of RedWillow Bar, Macclesfield

Caroline and Toby McKenzie of RedWillow Bar, Macclesfield - Credit: Archant

Lynne is also a founding member of the Renaissance Project group looking at ways to bring new life to Grade Two* listed Georgian Christ Church in the centre of Macclesfield. The church, built in 1775, was the venue for Tim Burgess’ Acoustic Sanctuary, part of Barnaby Festival’s Big Weekend finale, featuring Macclesfield-born Stephen Morris, one of the founding members of Joy Division and New Order playing his first-ever town-centre gig.

Her vision is to see the magnificent building – ‘a lost gem’ – turned into a play and performance centre for children during the day and performing arts in the evening, but she admits it may be a long project.

Further evidence of the inaccuracy of that ‘cultural desert’ slur of a decade ago comes with the staging, from September 26th to October 4th, of the ninth biennial East Cheshire Hospice Art Fair in Macclesfield’s old town hall.

Established in 1999 and run entirely by experienced volunteers, the art fair attracts thousands of visitors from all over the region. In 2012, the event raised over £40,000 for East Cheshire Hospice, which provides free care for local people with life-limiting illnesses.

More than 100 local and regional established and emerging artists, as well as others from around the UK, will showcase work at the exhibition. Each artist donates at least 30 per cent from the sale of their work to the hospice, with many donating pictures worth hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of pounds.

The event’s chair, Fiorella Brereton, said: ‘We’re delighted to be launching our newly designed website to promote this year’s Art Fair in aid of the East Cheshire Hospice. We look forward to raising as much money as possible with the help of generous sponsors and everyone who visits the exhibition to buy art. The hospice needs to find at least £6,000 every day of the year to remain open – the government provides less than 20 per cent of the funds needed – so it’s vital we fundraise to help this important charity continue its work in the community.’

The Art Fair will feature ‘Five Go Mad In Macclesfield’, where five established artists – Anne Aspinall, Steven Bewsher, Chris Cyprus, Dean Entwistle and Ralph McGaul – have come together to create five significant works of art, using Macclesfield as their inspiration.

Local entrepreneur Clare Hayward, chair of Make it Macclesfield, is the first to admit the importance of the town’s burgeoning cultural scene to its overall economic wellbeing. She established the local interest company in 2011 to co-ordinate the activities of stakeholders in the town including local businesses, major companies, the hospital, college, football club, Barnaby Festival, developers, landlords, housing associations, Cheshire East Council and David Rutley MP. She said: ‘We’re committed to making Macclesfield a warmly regarded destination town, and our shared agenda is to ensure that those of us who live, work, play or visit Macclesfield have the best time possible.

‘Where a unique set of factors come together at the right time, there’s a great opportunity to enhance what a town offers and to develop and grow new ideas, scenarios and businesses for people living, visiting and working in the town.

‘In Macclesfield you’ll find a group of local people who are willing to give their time, energy, experience and intelligence in a way which is characterised by challenge, heart and commitment. It’s true that we are launching ambitious plans at a time when the economy is weak; and you could argue that now is not the right time. Yet I would reply that if you can engage the right energy and commitment, and get people behind a vision when times are tough, imagine what you can achieve when it’s easier. We have to look at what will be appropriate for the town in 15-20 years.

‘I am very optimistic,’ Clare added. ‘These are exciting times for Macclesfield.’

Among the ‘plucky entrepreneurs’ ringing the changes in Macclesfield are Toby and Caroline McKenzie whose Red Willow brewery has grown way beyond expectation since they founded the business in 2010. They have recently won contracts from Virgin Trains to supply their beers – Tilting Ale and Tilting Bitter – to the fast Pendolino service that links Macclesfield with London in 107 minutes and with Manchester in 13.

Said Caroline: ‘I used to be a research chemist at AstraZeneca and Toby was an IT director in London. He used to brew beer in the garage as a hobby and it became a kind of obsession so we decided to take the plunge. Our beers are all about flavour, we make the beers we love to drink ourselves.’

In September Red Willow – so called after the middle names of the couple’s two children – are set to open a bar in the town centre and join a growing and vibrant restaurant and bar scene. ‘Great things are happening,’ said Caroline. ‘There’s a real vibe about the place.’