Standish - the Lancashire town where the owl's talons gauge its fortune


We take a look at a town where fortunes were judged by the talons of an owl. Marin Pilkington reports

The population of Standish may indicate otherwise but it is truly a village – officially and in its community feeling. Somewhat paradoxically, that latter quality now seems to be turning it into a town – albeit a close-knit one.

‘It’s definitely a village not a town – I got into trouble about that when I first came here,’ says Andrew Holliday, Rector of St Wilfrid’s. ‘It was village-sized until the 1970s when its accessibility and the road link to the M6 and the M61 helped it grow. It is perceived as a town as it’s home to some 17,000 folk. But it has, at the heart, a village atmosphere and spirit. People here are born, live and die in Standish.’

One of the settlement’s main shopping and eating attractions, Chadwick’s, symbolises Standish’s rootedness. ‘The family has been in this business in Standish since 1761, as farmers and butchers, though we’re not in farming anymore,’ says John Chadwick.

His father Noel established what was originally just a butcher’s but now boasts a deli and a cafe-restaurant. ‘We are now Chadwick’s Family Emporium of Fine Foods, with the delicatessen and English wines and the restaurant, but the butchery is still the main part of the business. And our meat is from the area, we want to give our customers the very best.’

John’s son Paul is carrying on family tradition behind the extensive butcher’s counter.

Craig Winnard, a local estate agent, casts a professional eye over his hometown. ‘It’s classed as a village but the amenities are so good it’s really a small town. It has expanded quite rapidly over the last few decades with several new housing developments built.’

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Some are now murmuring about growing traffic congestion, but that doesn’t dent its attractiveness. ‘A lot of people aspire to live in Standish. Sales have crept back up – the market here is recovering. It’s thriving and it’s definitely a nice place to live.

‘We have the full range of shops and the schools are good – Standish High and three primary schools, all of them performing well.’

Standish High is in fact doing particularly well. ‘We are the highest performing school in Wigan in the league tables just out,’ says head teacher Lynne Fox. ‘The school has 1250 pupils - it was originally built 30 years ago for 800 but because of its popularity and success it has grown significantly.’

The innovative ideas needed to inspire children to such success are embodied in the High School’s ‘language street’, a mock-up of a shopping thoroughfare. ‘It helps us promote languages in a way that may be a bit different from most other schools. It reinforces the language-learning for the children in a context that makes it more real,’ Lynne explains.

Another linguistic feather in the school’s cap is the €25000 Comenius Project money won in a highly competitive bidding process by teacher Samantha Owen. The project links Standish with schools in France, Italyand Germany. ‘The funding makes it accessible, so we can give the experience to students who we think will really benefit from it, not just first-come-first-served based on money,’ says Mrs Fox.

Eight children recently travelled to Grossumstadt in Germany on the programme, and in April students from there, Finale Emilia in Italy, and Anglet in Southwest France arrive in Standish to return the compliment. Trips to Italy and France will follow, the last gathering in April 2014 a ‘Eurolympix Games’ encapsulating the theme of the collaboration, sport and languages.

The villagers can be equally proud of the magnificent church at its heart- St Wilfrid’s is the only Grade I listed building in Wigan. ‘This is the second or possibly the third church on this site,’

says unofficial church historian Alan Stone: ‘The earliest records date from when Henry II was on the throne. The church fell into decay around 1540,when a meeting was held in Standish to decide on its fate. It was agreed that a special levy would be imposed to pay for rebuilding. The people provided labour to help the masons, plus hens and sheep to feed them.’Those Tudor workers did a fine job, the ceiling is particularly magnificent.

‘It is made from local oak,’ Alan adds. ‘It was one of the last parts of the church to be constructed, done in the mid-1580s, with carvings on the beams of the Lancashire Rose, and there are the initials of some local notables and of the carpenters up there.’

When the current rector speaks of the village spirit he is probably not referring to one of his predecessors, but The Owls at Standish, the restaurant that stands on the site of the former rectory, is reputed to be haunted by the ghost of a long-dead cleric. Receptionist Debbie Marshall says: ‘I have never seen the ghost, but have heard plenty of rumours in the 13 years I have worked here.’ Co-owner John Hough is relaxed about the spectre. ‘It’s said to be an old rector hanging around. I only ever noticed it once when the cups and saucers started to rattle for no reason.’

Another Standish soul that can’t bear to leave this village?

The Coppull and Standish Brass BandThe pits may be long gone, the last open cast mine closing in the 1960s, but the brass band still exists, though circumstances mean it is shared with neighbouring Coppull. The band’s history can be traced through many incarnations and homes to 1873, with coal in its blood since the end of WWII. ‘We were closely linked to the pits,’ says band-member Martin Trundle. ‘Though these days we draw from across the community, all sorts of professions and occupations.’ That mining heritage means it competes in the annual mineworkers’ championships in Skegness and last year and this it was victorious in its section, adding to its greatest achievement yet in the National Brass Band Championship Finals in 2004.

Places to EatThe Owls at Standish sits a little beyond the village in lovely countryside. It has been attracting customers for nearly 40 years with high quality English food. Chadwick’s stands on the High Street, and though the restaurant opened in 2000 the family business can be traced back to 1761. Of more recent vintage is La Mama in the centre, highly recommended by Craig Winnard, and the restaurants at both Ashfield House and Kilhey Court country house hotels merit mention too. Not bad for a village!

The Standish OwlsOn signs, letterheads and even sculptures, you’ll see an image of an owl and a rat. Alan Stone explains their significance: ‘That’s the crest of the Standish family, who had the power here, they held the benefice – the first rector was Alexander de Standish. There are two versions of the crest: the owl carrying the rat with its talons up signified good times for the family; and with talons down it signified bad times.’ Never a good time to be a rat, though.

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