The spirit of Batley is thriving with a campaigning group and a new festival
The heart of a former mill town is beating as strong as ever with a campaigning group and a new festival as Tony Greenway discovers. Photographs by Joan Russell
Batley — the former textile mill town near Leeds — is a creative and enthusiastic sort of place. It’s had to be in order to survive, much less thrive, especially with the demise of its shoddy trade and coal mining industry. If it’s ultimately the people who make a place what it is, then Batley’s townsfolk are making the most of what they’ve got.
If you’re of a certain age and from Yorkshire, you’ll know Batley because of Batley Varieties, the club created and owned by local entrepreneur Jimmy Corrigan, which left an indelible mark on the region.
It wasn’t so much a question of who played here, more a question of who didn’t. In the 1960s, Batley Varieties was the northern venue to visit, with Louis Armstrong, Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Tony Bennett and the Bee Gees all gracing ts stage, among countless others.
Batley’s time as a centre for both textiles and star turns has long since past, but its grand Victorian mill buildings haven’t decayed. In fact, they’ve been revamped and put to good use.
It’s well-documented that Batley is now the home of Redbrick, a designer furniture outlet and temple to all things stylish, housed in a restored textile mill and showcasing one of the few Heal’s stores outside London. Another restored industrial building has been turned into The Mill, a commercial success story with 40 shops spread over four floors.
The town’s resourceful tradition continues. Even the old Batley Varieties continues as the Frontier club — although the bill is rather less stellar these days. Scratch the surface and there are still creative people doing surprising things in Batley. Take Michael Tuero, a Canadian who runs a classic car restoration business in the workshops of the former Yorkshire Motor Museum (which opened in 1996 but closed some years ago) at Alexandra Mills.
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When I talk to Michael he has a variety of classic cars in the Motor Museum workshop including a 1959 Austin Healy Sprite 492 DTG, a 1990 Mini Cooper, a 1938 Daimler saloon, a 1913 Rover Tourer and a 1967 Jaguar Mark II. This is incredibly specialised work; so why is Batley a good place to do it?
‘It’s home to me,’ says Michael. ‘I get out and about walking, cycling or in the car and the scenery around here is intriguing. We’re not far from wonderful countryside and it’s possible to see an amazing wealth of landscapes in just one day. If you’re going to go out in a classic car, you want to see as much as you can.’
Then there’s Batley Smile, an ultra-positive community project and campaign group with its own website, which ‘seeks to promote the economic, political, social and cultural life of the town of Batley and to rejoice in the vibrancy, diversity and talent of its people and community.’
Its aims include encouraging involvement in the life and development of the area; attracting people from outside Batley to visit and ‘to positively influence the views and actions of both public and private sector organisations’ towards Batley.
‘Batley is a traditional, post-industrial part of Yorkshire that brings with it its own demographic,’ says Andrew Sloman, town centre manager. ‘It’s benefited from large scale immigration and is a vibrant, ethically mixed area that is proudly and avowedly working class. It still has a market on a Friday; and while it isn’t as grand as it once was, it still holds its own.’
There’s no doubt that the recession has taken its toll on Batley, however, which — like most towns up and down the UK — has empty units on its high street. ‘But it has retained enough of its shopping offer to make it a viable centre,’ says Andrew.
‘We have very good bakers, a traditional florist, an independent optician, a chemist… you can get most things on Batley high street. Batley town centre is an attractive place. Stand outside the town hall and look around. There’s a cobbled square, the library, the police station and Roberto’s Italian restaurant.’ And, he points out, Batley does have a manufacturing base because Fox’s Biscuits is still based in the town.
Andrew Marsden, a local lawyer and member of Batley’s Business Retailers Association, echoes Andrew Sloman’s sentiments. ‘Batley has changed over the years, like a lot of places have,’ he says. ‘To say it has a village feel would be overstating it. But it has a local community feel. Walk down the high street and, all the way along, you’ll see little groups of people talking to each other. They’re not rushing past. They’re friendly, relaxed and they give Batley a laid-back atmosphere. You never get from one end of the street to the other without meeting at least three or four people you know.
‘It’s a place with a strong sense of community and identity. Batley people are proud to be Batley people.’
That Batley spirit can produce wonderful things. In September, the very first Batley Festival took place around the town (in the market square, Memorial Gardens, library and art gallery), supported by the council, and organised by a group of community activists.
This was an event which took volunteers a year to organise and included street entertainers, children’s activities, music performances, exhibitions, crafts and food stalls and a variety show in Batley Town Hall in the evening. The festival will return in 2013, on September 21st, and it is hoped that it will become an annual event (there is no festival website yet, but you can email email@example.com for more information).
Amanda Oliver, chair of the Batley Festival Organising Committee, was delighted with the reception the event received. She had said at the outlet that she wanted to spoil Batley and give everyone a fun day out — and that’s what they got.
‘It was a massive success that brought all the diverse communities of Batley together,’ says Amanda. ‘We had some brilliant feedback. For example, someone who has worked in library for the last 20 years says he had never seen it so full on festival day. The Market Square is a great venue for a festival because it’s right in the middle of town with all its shops and cafes. One retailer took three times his normal takings.
‘The festival also broke down barriers and perceptions about how people enjoy themselves. For example, we had a dance in the town hall and all the older 1950s and 1960s rock ‘n’ rollers came — but the young kids absolutely loved it, too. It was one of the most popular parts of the day.‘Plus it brought the voluntary community together. You don’t realise the good work that goes on here behind the scenes.’ That is Batley all over.
Getting there: Batley is seven miles south of Leeds and Bradford and easily reached from the M62 motorway. Trains run from Leeds and Manchester
Parking: Free on-street parking and in the Market Place
What to do: Shop and have a meal or a drink in Redbrick Mill and The Mill. Visit Batley Art Gallery located in the Market Place, which features local contemporary and art, craft and photography or take a trip to the Bagshaw Museum in Wilton Park