The Stranger in Skelmersdale

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.

“The Stranger in Liverpool” – my precious 1820 guide for visitors.

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-plex 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 their 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

20 Replies to “The Stranger in Skelmersdale”

  1. Very interesting as always. There’s something about Skem, one of those liminal, not quite definable paces. I first heard about it when visiting SFX church in Liverpool for an exhibition. I later went there twice to visit, as opposed to driving through. The first time was to find a Catholic shop!
    We were recent (then) transplants from Bristol – from where at Christmas we sometimes went to Buckfast Abbey monastic shop for Christmas presents- jams, soaps, candles, beers from monasteries and convents around Europe.
    It was closed, the Skem RC shop. Sigh. The other time was also fruitless. More recently I met a woman called Hilda who was at last finding the strength to clear her adult, deceased son’s flat there – she was donating his clothing and other useful items to be sent to refugees – a cause at last making it tolerable. She seemed to have some of the old v new feeling you mention, though I may be misinterpreting.
    Sorry, that turned out rather long!
    Oh – and we had a dark blue Cortina too after a pale lemon and a white one! ;-)

  2. Thanks for another trip down memory lane. I did things backwards. I went to school and most of my childhood friends lived in Skelmersdale (we lived over the hill in Up Holland) then I moved to Liverpool. Everyone else in the town went the other way.

    One thing that is a little odd is that in the picture Skelmersdale – 37 the photo in the bottom left is a mirror image of what it should be. The gray buildings at the bottom were my old high school. If they were at the bottom of the picture the concourse should be to the left and it is to the right.

  3. A sense of place gives this Happy Nanna a new sense of purpose. How was Christmas in Skelmersdale, I’m about to find out later today. Before I left to spend Christmas with my family now living on the Isle of Man, preparations were immense. The local community centres recognising the sheer horror of austerity and universal credit on some local people have swung into action. The large local firms that surround Skelmersdale donated staff time and resources to put together and deliver food parcels and Christmas presents to those in need. Christmas dinner at Evermoor Hub was served by the Mayor and Leader of West Lancashire Borough Council, among many other volunteers. We helped last year and I think the volunteers got as much out of the day as the people who came for lunch.
    The need to help others less fortunate (a recognition of there for the grace of God go I) is particularly noticeable in Skelmersdale.
    So what am I doing to help? I became the Labour councillor for Birch Green in 2016, full of ideals to change the place for the better. But the wheels of local government run very, very slowly and it has been a learning curve to find that out. My main action is to get the Zone, featured in the article to be fully open for the use of all of the community. The Library, safe from further cuts for the moment, remains a beacon of hope and determination. The asylum seekers in Skelmersdale call it ‘The Book House’ but it is so much more than that. People meet, people learn, get in touch with family on the other side of the world and people read. It is everything a library should be and yet so much more.
    Which leads me on to what Skelmersdale is going to be, Everything a new town should be, but so much more! Thanks again Ronnie for such a great analysis of my town.

    1. More than glad to have helped Claire. Our day out in Skelmersdale was one of the highlights of my year. Good on you for focussing on the Zone, that needs using. And I love the library being called ‘The Book House.’ A precious place, as is the whole place x

  4. Can you share some of your photos of skem to our memories of skem page, on Facebook, I started this page up a few years ago now, we have close to 6500 members, would like to see some photos we don’t have on our page, thanks, Rob,

  5. Amazing that you took this time with Claire and Ron to discover our town. Many of us are proud to call Skem home! I work in the library. Your comments sum up what we hope the library is to our community. My colleagues will appreciate your words.

  6. Nice lot of pictures but one thing missing. The people. Considering that “they” have had 50 years to sort it out it’s a mess. I do not know who “they” are and don’t blame one group.The Concourse used to have three floors. Now only two levels are used and they have empty stores and stalls. They are knocking down two large secondary schools because they are no longer of any use, not enough children. No people again.
    The new town started well but never achieved its full potential.
    I’ve spent the 50 years around Skelmersdale. In that time it has gone from :-
    1/ A friendly village.
    2/ A fresh town.
    3/ A run down town.
    As with everywhere there some nice bits but the main look is shabby.
    Jeff. Turner.

    1. Thank you Jeff. I can see that you really care about your place and hope you’ll now be able to use some of the anger and energy you have to join in with helping Skelmersdale become all it could be. As you say, the place needs its people, all of them, including yourself.

  7. It is shocking how st mowden can get away with taking so much money and not delivering the the new project.why are mps doing nothing about it.it is fraud at the end of the day and they should be charged for it.if it was one of us we would be charged and sent to court straight away

  8. Moved to skelmersdale in the 70s from Liverpool it was a beautiful town full of open spaces. houses and jobs went hand in hand you could get both easily..until the grants ran out and the likes of Courtaulds and other big manufacturing factories moved out and left behind houses made from substandard materials and people with no hope of getting a job stuck there. I had 4 children while I lived there and they had a wonderful childhood with all the green spaces and football pitches, but by the late 80s the decline in the town was there for all to see and so I moved out to live in Wirral, I still have family in skelmersdale, but I needed to think about my children’s future schools were inadequate and the was nothing to do there, swimming pool had closed, cinema had closed, sports centre was a shed, and so left, thankfully they are all doing well, now in their late 30’s early 40’s they would not have had the opportunities they had if I had stayed. The surrounding area of Skem is still beautiful but I’m afraid the estates are run down and scruffy especially Digmoor, the shops there are an eyesore. Its a shame that such a beautiful place has been left to rot,

    1. As you will have gathered from what I’ve written I think Skelmersdale still has a lot going for it. 45,000 people live there and can, in my opinion, make of their place what they want with sufficient will and co-operation.

  9. I moved to Skelmersdale in 1968 when the town Was being built.
    There was many Factories, lots of work. Dunlops, Courtaulds, Thorn colour tubes, B O C, and many more lasso everything was new, a place you can be out exploring This New town but most of all Very clean. Each week the streets were clean with small driven street cleaners. Yes it was brilliant. Ok.No youth clubs only The point Six no sports center as it was a builder’s site for storing materials, it was later on it became a sports center. No “NYE BEVEN” Pool, Concourse didn’t excist. Yes Skelmersdale WAS a nice town.
    I left when it turned into a horrible place to bring up CHILDREN.
    Drugs, high crime, anti social people who bring up their own to be anti social.
    Having kids by different fathers which is no a status symbol to get a house, suck on the benefits system. Now a town of no moral inclinations of getting off their LAZY ARSES.
    YES THERE IS WORK AND STOP WHINGING AND START GIVING BACK.! AND LOOK FOR WORK.
    I now live in Kent 1997 and God it’s the best move I have done. A better quality of life, no nasty shits wannabe here and loads of jobs. Get on your bike and look for work. Oh there’s no work in Skelmersdale. What a pathetic lame excuse that statement is.
    Those of you who may recognize my name HI and hope you are well?as I am.

    1. Sorry you’re feeling so angry and abusive Robert. I’d have thought your strange statement about Skelmersdale being ‘a town of no moral inclinations’ would be particularly offensive to the many people there who are clearly living decent lives and contributing to the general wellbeing of their town in so many ways? In which case they’re probably as glad as you are that you’re far away now in Kent.

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