Looking up at Bolton Town Hall from Victoria Square. There are a few people walking across the square.

This month, we sent photographer Gary Roberts to Bolton, to see if there was anything good happening there. It was a mixed picture.

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.

People walking to and from Bolton railway station over a modern arch bridge. It's daytime and the sky is blue with thin, wispy clouds.
Heading to the railway station

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.

Le Mans Crescent, a large neo-
Classical building completed in 1939, overlooking a paved civic square.
Le Mans Crescent

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.

A steak restaurant in Bolton, designed to look like an aeroplane.
You’ve had chips on a ship, now try…

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.

Looking up at the statue of Fred Dibnah in Bolton town centre. There is a 19th-Century building to the right, and a 20th-Century building to the rear of the statue.
Local legend Fred Dibnah

Proud Boltonians Sadia, Maria and Kayleigh spoke of their pride in their hometown, yet sadness at the decline they had witnessed.

Three young women wearing casual clothes, stood in front of some old buildings.
Kayleigh, Maria and Sadia

“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.”

Michael Gove MP stood at a podium, gesticulating while giving a speech.
Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove

On his recent flying visit to the Convention of the North, Michael Gove, whose job it is to ‘level up’ the country, spent just 15-20 minutes speaking to Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham.

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

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  • Gary Roberts

    A photojournalist and writer who covers conservation and social issues worldwide. Founder of worldwidefeatures.com. Education background includes BSc Zoology at Leeds University and an MSc at The University of Manchester in International development poverty, conflict and reconstruction. Gary studied and later taught photojournalism at Speos Photographic institute. His work has involved numerous conservation and social justice groups including The Fairtrade foundation, Oxfam, ABRU Animal Behaviour Research Unit, SOS Lynx, Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, TANAPA, and APOPO. Publications include UK National and International Press.


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