At first the sky was a uniform grey with no gaps or features. Later the cloud cover became more dramatic with storm clouds gathering – not exactly what you want on a holiday, especially when you have travel in mind. We caught the bus into town and there boarded the 182 for Rochdale. We subsequently discovered that this bus followed Oldham Road and passed our hotel, so we could have caught in there.
Rochdale is a ancient town, appearing in Domesday Book as Recedham Manor. The modern name drives from the river Roch which, in the central area, has been paved over. Known for woollen cloth and later for the manufacture of textiles by steam power, Rochdale is nevertheless not an obvious place to visit but for one thing.
This one thing was what we had come to see and our information was that it was to be found in the picturesquely named Toad Lane. Thither we went to find a very short road, occupied by a pub (one end of which seems to be disguised as an antiques shop) and a building covered by scaffolding. Where was our goal?
Rochdale is famous for the Rochdale Pioneers and has set up a museum in their honour. It was the Rochdale Pioneers Museum that we had come to see but, unfortunately, it was closed and undergoing refurbishment. We had had a wasted journey, it seemed.
Returning to the town centre, we discovered the Town Hall. This, and a few of the surrounding buildings together constitute what seems to be the best part of Rochdale. The rest of it is, to be frank, pretty dreary, a modern urban wasteland. It has to be admitted, though, that disappointment and the dull weather had a depressive effect on my mood.
Rochdale Town Hall is impressive. It’s also difficult to photograph because of its size and because the dark stonework is not shown to best advantage on a dull day like today. Designed by William Henry Crossland in Gothic Revival style, it was opened in 1871. It is today a Grade I listed building and generally considered an architectural treasure.
In 1883, the original clock tower, 240 ft high and including a wooden spire with a statue of St George and the Dragon, was destroyed by fire. Alfred Waterhouse was commissioned to design a replacement which, built in stone, was erected in 1888. It is “only” 191 ft high but that is dizzying enough when you try to photograph it from near the base.
There were many details to interest us on the outside and this encouraged us to go inside to ask whether we could take a look.
We were received kindly and asked if we would like to take a tour. We naturally said yes and waited while the receptionist phoned to arrange it.
This provided the opportunity to take a couple of photographs (see above) while our informant was on the phone. The upshot was that we were asked to come back later as the guide was not available just then.
Nearby is Touchstones, which combines the roles of art gallery, museum, tourist information centre and local studies centre. We thought we would go there while waiting for a guide to the town hall to be available. (In the event we became so engrossed that we did not return to the town hall.)
The museum contains sections on the history and life of Rochdale including of course, the Rochdale Pioneers. The textile industry is remembered and recalled by a power loom.
As you would expect, space is devoted to local girl Gracie Fields who, from humble origins in Rochdale, took the world by storm as singer, actress and comedienne.
Upstairs, past a pair of fetchingly painted sheep…
…and some rather pretty windows…
…we reached the art gallery.
This contains a broad selection of genres and works, mostly modern, some bought and others commissioned.
The art gallery also has a rather fine stained glass dome.
As we were on the point of leaving, Tigger spotted that there was a film about to start so we went to see it. A certain amount of time was wasted while the presenters, members of the Pioneers Museum, tried to get the equipment working. Once they had succeeded, there were two films – archive footage – one about the co-operative movement in Scotland and one specifically about the Rochdale Pioneers. After the showing, there was also a kind of lecture and discussion session which lengthened the proceedings so that by the time we emerged we had spent two hours there. I would happily have done with less for though the films were perhaps "interesting" from a historical and social point of view, they were not very good films and I am not convinced they gave a particularly accurate account of the events they claimed to portray.
Out in the street once more, we found that by watching the film, we had at least sat out the rain and that it was now a sunny evening, albeit with threatening clouds on the horizon.
Nearby, in a pleasantly landscaped public garden we saw what could have been thought was just a common or garden decorative fountain. In fact, it is a little more interesting than that. I think I can do no better than reproduce the explanation given on a board close by.
Before the Industrial Revolution, water for industrial and domestic use was taken from the River Roch, wells and springs.
A new idea came about when a small reservoir (little more than a pond) was constructed by Messrs Ralph and Samuel Taylor and John Clegg in 1760 near the bottom of the Parish Church steps. It was the towns [sic] first organised water supply and named Packer Spout.
– ‘Packer’ because it was a watering supply for pack horses and ‘Spout’ being the Anglo Saxon for ‘to pour forth and spew’.
As we had not had lunch, now seemed as good a time as any to combine lunch and dinner in one. On the advice of a local inhabitant, we went to a Wetherspoons pub, called The Regal Moon, which was once the Regal Cinema, and had a reasonable meal. Around 7 pm we walked to the bus station where after a few minutes we were lucky enough to find a number 24 going back to Manchester and we climbed gratefully aboard.
We did find a few treasures in Rochdale, such as the town hall and a few other quality buildings in the same area, while the Touchstones Museum and Gallery was certainly worth a visit. Had we had time to explore more widely, for all I know we might have found others. Perhaps once the Pioneers Museum is up and running again we will be tempted back but I think it unlikely.