Warrington: an underdog for Capital of Culture?

Warrington may not be the first place you think of as a cultural paradise. The town’s skyline is dominated by the Unilever factory and the town itself is overshadowed by its location between the large North West cities of Manchester and Liverpool. It’s understandable if Warrington is hardly known by some in the South of England and, certainly, negative press doesn’t help, such as when the Royal Society of Arts placed the town as worst for culture in 2015. Yet for all of that, Warrington is surrounded by three motorways giving it great transport links to the rest of the UK. The town also includes many historic buildings including the town hall pictured below, live cultural events, a ring of beautiful parkland and the UK’S first IKEA store!

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A direct non-stop train from London Euston will glide you up to Warrington Bank Quay in around 1 hour and 50 minutes. Although not a city the borough is home to just over 200,000 residents, similar to the population within the boundaries of cities; York and Portsmouth. Ten other contenders have put forward a bid for 2021: Coventry, Hereford, Paisley, Perth, Portsmouth, Stoke-on-Trent, Sunderland, Swansea, Wells and St David’s in Wales: the UK’s smallest city. The winner, to be announced in December, will be the third holder of the title following on from Londonderry in 2013 and the current holder; Hull. The Heritage Lottery Fund has announced a £3 million commitment to the successful bidder for 2021, and those recipients that follow to boost local heritage.

You may ask does Warrington have any history or is it just a new town created in the 1960’s? Yes the population may have doubled since then but the town has a long history going back to when it was founded by the Romans as a crossing point on the River Mersey. Warrington became a centre of manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution with steel (particularly wire), textiles, brewing, tanning and the chemical industries. The cultural quarter of the town centre includes the Parr hall for comedy and concerts, and Warrington Museum sharing a building with the Library which originally opened in 1848 as the first rate-supported library in the UK. A heritage centre for the village of Lymm within the borough has also been given planning permission. A number of well attended festivals, carnivals and walking days are held annually in the borough including the Warrington Music Festival, Stockton Heath Arts Festival and Lymm Transport Day. There are also 140 structures listed in the borough by English Heritage.

As reported in the local news of Warrington Worldwide, Cllr Dan Price, who is chairing the bid team said: “We’re bidding for City of Culture because we are ambitious for Warrington – and why wouldn’t we be? Not only are we transitioning to become a New City, but over the next few years, we’re spending more than £100m improving the town centre and culture is fundamental to this transformation.”

Cllr Price added “There’s a strong economic case for investing in culture. Hull’s brought in £30m of extra funding and more than double that indirectly – just imagine what could be achieved in a thriving economy like Warrington.

“We’ve got a lot going on – we’ve just not been great at shouting about it. The initial response has been brilliant and I’d encourage everyone to get behind the bid. Now’s our chance to tell the country what Warrington’s really made of!”

Warrington Arts Council secretary Dr Michael Murphy spoke after a City of Culture of Workshop at the local historic Walton Hall: “Warrington is a town of best-kept secrets.”

“The town is well-run and its economic progress and employment prospects are the envy of many other towns but now that we are bidding to be City of Culture, we need to show that Warrington has much more to offer than just rugby and meat pies.

Dr Murphy added: “We have a vibrant classical arts and music side, which has been largely hidden and we want to show it off.”‘

The time to increase the promotion of the cultural capital the town can offer has begun, aiming for a shift in how people view Warrington: both locally and nationally. Like many I haven’t always lived in town but believe it has a lot to offer visitors if promoted in the right way. The heritage including the golden gates of the town hall, the only rail transporter in the world that just celebrated it’s centenary, and the Barley Mow public house from 1561 are a few of many interesting structures within Warrington. A website and social media campaign has started and will increase over the near future towards the short listing. Warrington needs to keep up the ambition to show its strengths as it competes with the other bidders.