When approaching Bolton town centre on foot from the railway station there are few clues to the town’s past as a powerhouse in the industrial revolution, albeit built on a resource provided by the misery of the slave trade.
However, as you arrive at the public library and museum, part of the Grade II listed Le Mans Crescent, adjacent to the Octagon Theatre, you would be forgiven for thinking you have stumbled upon a northern version of the Bath crescents – although of a later vintage.
A short walk to the main shopping areas of the town centre though, sadly point to a more immediate economic story of post-industrial neglect with little sign of the government’s stalled levelling-up policies. Look above and beyond the shuttered shops – Marks & Spencer recently announced the closure of its town centre store – and you can see the stunning architecture of this town but the street level tells a story of neglect and decline.
Famed local steeplejack Fred Dibnah’s smiling statue, marching down the centre’s Oxford Street, may have a cheerful face of optimism but the town appears to have echoed his own profession’s decline in the post-industrial age.
Proud Boltonians Sadia, Maria and Kayleigh spoke of their pride in their hometown, yet sadness at the decline they had witnessed.
“In Bolton we are like a family, I wouldn’t say it’s small but everybody knows each other. We are very close knit. Friends from Manchester love a night out in Bolton, it’s cheaper and there’s not a lot of drama, it’s friendly.”
However, Maria laments the retail closures in the city centre. “They are closing quite a lot of the stores, that means we are dragged to other places like Manchester or the Trafford Centre, to enjoy shopping, by the train or the bus”.
Kayleigh agrees, “To be honest I think Bolton’s on the way down. All the shops are shutting down. Bolton used to be one of the best places to come for shops but now they are all shut. I don’t even go shopping here now, I go to Manchester.”
Sadia adds, “A lot of young people are moving to Manchester. When we go on our work lunches, or at weekends, there is no one here, even when the sales are on.”
Bolton had just days earlier learnt that its bids for levelling-up funds had been snubbed.
The areas and buildings of Bolton including the historic Churchgate and the Town Hall all have the potential to rival the most picturesque of UK towns. However, flying visits, empty promises and the spirit of Thatcherism directed from Westminster are not what is required, as even the Conservative council leader Martyn Cox concedes.
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All images: Gary Roberts