One of my most treasured possessions and one of the very few things I’ve kept hold of in a life with few kept books and very little else in the way of belongings, is ‘The Stranger in Liverpool.’ My 1820 edition of a guide to Liverpool which takes the shape of escorting an unfamiliar visitor on a walk ‘around the parish bounds’ of the relatively small place we were then.
Yesterday I was ‘The Stranger in Skelmersdale.’ One day, 200 years after my precious book, of being taken on a walk round a nearby town that I hardly know at all.
I remember the moment I was introduced to Skelmersdale.
It’s a summer evening in 1965 and we’ve come out for a drive after our tea in the brand new family car, a dark blue Ford Cortina, ELV 397C. We’ve travelled out from North Liverpool into the Lancashire countryside. All winding lanes and old churches, where the most modern thing in the landscape is us in our car, until we arrive at what I remember as the crest of a hill where we are looking down into the huge bowl of a building site landscape:
“What’s that Dad?”
“It’s a new town they’re building down there. It’s going to be called Skelmersdale.”
After that my memories are few. Of riding through the brand new place most days on a Ribble bus, on my way to Wigan Tech, as the 1970s begin. A few years later some friends lose their home in Melling as the M58 is finally, and more than a bit late, built through there to Skelmersdale. Then in more recent years some contacts and one visit through my work with the School for Social Entrepreneurs. So, not much and definitely not enough to claim to know the place.
Which is how come I turn up here, late November in 2017, as The Stranger in Skelmersdale.
“I’ve been invited here by my friend Claire Cooper, who I’ve met a few years ago through her own interest in Granby 4 Streets. Claire lives in Skelmersdale and is a Labour Councillor for Birch Green. All I’ve asked is that she takes me for a walk round, so here I am with Claire and her husband Ron.
Our walking and driving will be mostly done in photographs, with the thoughts and reflections of me ‘The Stranger’ appearing occasionally in these quotes. So let’s go. Beginning with the first thing most people notice about Skelmersdale, the roads and the roundabouts”
“The roundabouts are huge with many exits. One even called ‘Half Mile Island.’ Another being ‘Thorn Island’ after Thorn-EMI one of the original employers attracted in early on by the development grants. Most of them didn’t stay after the grants ran out. But the structure of the place is still that there are factories, big schools – some closed – and some allotments on one side of the ring road, then houses, shopping centres and primary schools on the other. Now the greenery of the place has matured though, even in late autumn, you don’t see much but trees from the ring road. So initial impressions are that the place is big and empty.
Out of the car and inside the ring road there are loads of walkways and subways to get to the factories and schools. But walking and roads are mostly separate. After occasional crossing places, pavements stop. A frequent sight is people preferring to take direct routes along grass verges rather than the much longer routes around walkways and subways.
“Other than on the ring road sign posts around the place are not there or awful. Very occasionally original signs put up 50 years ago by the Development Corporation have survived, but contain no useful information other than ‘This was our logo.’
I am mostly disorientated and yet fascinatedly glad to be here. In this New Town that’s now over 50 years old. Let’s have a look round.”
“First then to the E-Rooms, a mostly musical place on a small industrial estate. A gathering place, an arts place and performing space with sound-proof studios where skills are learned, bands are formed and first gigs get done. A no doubt and no messing community resource, with tea and conversation.
And where I’m told about The Magnetic North who came here and played their beautiful album ‘Prospect of Skelmersdale’ – where one of them grew up – before it came out. Their album that contain that logo, the symbol of hope and newness, the sign of Skelmersdale.
Months ago when I bought the record was when I first started thinking about coming for a walk round. And here I am.”
The Stranger in Skelmersdale. Sat here in Liverpool telling the story of my Monday in Skem.
“There are seven estates in the town and the original idea was to have small shopping arcades dotted around them, as well as a town centre, which we’ll go to later. Now we visit two of these arcades.
Sandy Lane doesn’t look much from the outside, apart from the very sixties curvy entrance, but is light, airy and mostly full inside. Its roof being apparently a recent addition. The free car park outside is full, though more the cars of office workers than shoppers I suspect. Skem is a very car place where, I suspect, a lot of people don’t have cars.
At Digmoor shopping centre there are very few cars and not many shops. A café where we might have had our lunch has just closed down and the market space outside the shopping centre never has markets any more.”
“Nearby there is this spacious, downright useful and entirely volunteer run community centre. containing the local foodbank. We talk practical details, emergency food parcels, not far away Birchwood Junk Food, the hopes and expectations of the new town. And how nobody round here should be having to live like this in this day and age.”
“As we go around I see bits of and hear talk of ‘Old Skem.’
There was a railway to here, stupidly dismantled as the new town was being built. There was mining and the original village. And still some feelings of division? That Old Skem is somehow better?
Nonsense is what I keep thinking. New Skem is old itself now, a clear fact, and the place’s best chance for the future must lie in the people who are here now, all of the people, deciding what to do. Surely?”
“Near the ring road there are newish houses, some self-build where a Transcendental Meditation community has set up and a couple of spec build investments currently on site. Most homes though are the ones built by the Development Corporation and most are still owned and maintained by the local council or some housing associations.
Some houses have been sold off through right to buy and some of those are apparently now suffering in the hands of uncaring landlords. Though I do notice one house, clearly bought and worked on, stuccoed in yellow and, maybe, looking a bit like the place in a Pyrenean hill town some 60s architect might have once envisaged?
Anyway, there is little emptiness and the place is full of people, 45,000 of them. So where there are people there’s usually determination. And where there’s determination there’s usually hope and possibilities, I always think.
Let’s see how the middle of town’s doing.”
“The Concourse is the shopping centre at the middle of town. Distantly owned and not unhelpful, I hear, but obviously interested in shopping things like footfall and sales.
It contains a Market Place, a mixture of shops and the bus station. One of them, the estate agent’s, still carrying what looks like a version of that old logo on the front, did you notice? Nowhere near full but nowhere near empty. And essential this place, in its way, as somewhere to go. It shuts at 5:30 though and life at the centre of town apparently shuts down with it.
Not bad though and not as bleak as, say, the New Strand in Bootle is how it feels to me.
I hear talk of a new shopping centre being proposed somewhere near by St Modwen, the people currently building on Great Homer Street in Liverpool. It’s one or the other is what I think. If they build that this will die. It’s one or the other.
And we’re not finished in here yet. We’re still in a New Town after all.”
“There’s been A Project. Gathering together photographs of hope, expectations and early days. Whatever else you might think this is a very interesting place, not much like anywhere else and with a very interesting story. That’s not over yet. Let’s walk on.”
“The Concourse on this side is a more modernised object, waiting for an envisioned future that hasn’t quite arrived. This built on Atrium is designed so the shops can be closed off behind it while it gets on with its evening economy. Two large shop units await the arrival of popular brand-familiar bar/restaurants. While the way up to the next storey is closed off until the multi-flex cinema arrives to fill it.
Which it probably won’t until the ‘Waiting for St Modwen’ effect is sorted out, perhaps with some crucial intervening by the local council? Except there are two councils operating around here, District and County.
Talking of which…
“Here is ‘The Zone.’ An apparently all bells and whistles, up to the minute, cutting edge, blue sky thinking, youth orientated something or other. Which hardly anyone ever uses, though many would like to.
It’s right in the town centre, in between The Concourse and the library, and it’s a bang on downright useful looking people’s resource just waiting to happen. Except it hasn’t. The County Council own it. And European funding and regulations together with their staff shortages would seem to be why hardly anyone ever gets inside it.
Just sort it Skem is what I think. Find some way round the pointless rules and get it into the hands of your many people who will and do know so many things it should and could be used for. Sort out one building and who knows, you might unlock the future?
Meanwhile, one of the places where you can most clearly hear Skem’s heart beating is just across the way.”
“People from all the cultures and ages that make up modern Skelmersdale meet and read and learn here. The walls sing out with what’s happening now. And they glow with the founding dreams of the New Town too. I think it’s beautiful.
And I’m more and more sure that the town’s future, in some way that’s yet to be found, will come from embracing its past. Leaving behind that Old Skem and New Town division and embracing the fact that what this place is now is Skelmersdale New Town and that’s that. A monument to 1960s urban planning that’s now maturing into…well, what would you like?
As ever my trust lies with the people of the place. And the role of both local authorities here needs to be to untangle minor blockages like The Zone and help the people meet, talk and get their own futures moving. Not by taking on big name outsider celebrity designers and certainly not by flogging off the land and permissions to remote hedge-fund speculation.
But what would I know. I’m just The Stranger in Skelmersdale.”
“Leaving the library I’m more than pleased to see the School for Social Entrepreneurs are here and helping. Helping the people of the place to create there own future out of their own ideas.
Time for a final walk as the afternoon light begins to fade. Down by the River Tawd.”
“And look what this lime green bridge leads to, you’ll never guess?”
“Yes of course. It’s an amphitheatre. I’m so impressed I run up to the top of it for that better second look. You can see bits of the original terracing there where some of the grass has worn away. Like it’s the uncovering of something ancient. Except of course it isn’t. It’s Skelmersdale New Town. They built an amphitheatre here, of course they did.
If they can do that they can do anything.”
“Thank you then Skem. That was a great day in a fascinating place. Thanks to Claire and Ron for showing me around. You two and all the others I met and talked with clearly and fiercely love your place. Which is as it should be.
The opinions and suggestions here though are all mine. Based on one day’s acquaintance with your town. If they’re useful I’m glad. And if they’re inaccurate I’m sorry, but not too much. It was just one day and one visit.”
The Stranger in Skelmersdale