Sunday, 16 July 2017

THE VIEW FROM 1987 ('CHURCH and CHIMNEY')

Author's note: This article was first published in the Middlewich Chronicle in October 1987. To set the article in its period: it was twenty years since the open pan salt works had closed and fifteen years since the coming of St Michael's Way; the first Folk & Boat Festival was still three years away and the Heritage Society had been founded, by myself among others, only two years previously. The start of the Mid Cheshire Rail Users' Association's campaign to re-open Middlewich Station was five years in the future (although efforts to start such a campaign had already been made in the 60s and 70s). We were all still tickled to death that Middlewich could boast a wine bar and an Indian Restaurant (in fact there must have been more than one, even then) and we were getting annoyed at newcomers who tried to boost their social status by referring to our town as 'the village'. We were, of course, administratively still part of Congleton Borough, a fact which still sounds strange, even today. It is,  remember,  twenty-four years since this was written. I think it still stands up quite well, though bits of it are rather embarrassing. But isn't it odd how things taken for granted will change almost without us noticing? That 'tall, slender, metal chimney-stack' at British Salt, for example, has gone and been replaced by another chimney of a different design. We must be vigilant if we want to keep up with things. 'Church and Chimney' was the name I originally gave to this piece, and I'm glad to be able to restore it here. As you'll know if you've ever had dealings with newspapers, it is a matter of honour among sub-editors that, however perfect and fitting a title might be, they must change it. In the original newspaper, the title is 'Some dim and distant dream-time a mere twenty or thirty years ago'. Perhaps they were thinking of entering a 'clunkiest title for a newspaper article' competition? Those same sub-editors also inserted the sub-headings, which I've kept intact. So here we go, with a double nostalgia whammy - the nostalgia for 1987 when Middlewich was emerging as a pleasant 'dormitory town' and the nostalgia for the time twenty or thirty years before that when smoking chimneys were the order of the day - Dave Roberts July 2011


CHURCH and CHIMNEY

A nostalgic look at the recent past 
by Dave Roberts



Let me take you back to a time when Middlewich was something more than a massive housing estate with a church and a few shops in the middle.
A time before the great gash of the dual carriageway disfigured the town centre; a time before piazzas, Indian restaurants and Wine Bars; a time when Middlewich and its natural allies Winsford and Northwich formed a kind of mini Black Country dumped into the middle of lush, green, ever-so-posh Cheshire like some kind of joke.
I am not talking about some dim and distant dream-time, but a mere twenty or thirty years ago.

Field Day

Middlewich, then, was a very different place. L.S. Lowry would have had a field day. There were enough dreary, smoky vistas for a hundred sombre and dramatic paintings.
Just a few yards away from the very heart of the town sprawled the Pepper Street works of Henry Seddon & Sons, salt manufacturers. The square, brick-built chimneys of these works dominated the town centre and belched clouds of grey-black smoke over everything.
Keeping your washing clean was murder, but no one ever complained. This was a salt town, you see, and smoke and dirt were a part of life.
Venice had its bell-towers, Clydeside its cranes, Kent its oast-houses and Middlewich its salt works chimneys.
This was the natural order of things; the way things had always been and, we used to think, the way they always would be.
You could never accuse Middlewich of being a beautiful town but it had a certain style all its own; a character and atmosphere which largely disappeared in the early 1970s along with those gaunt, forbidding chimneys.
Some people are pleased to refer to this ancient Royal Borough as a ‘village’. Pardon me while I snort derisively. Let me tell you that when I was a little lad I thought that Middlewich was nothing less than a city.

Awe and Wonder


Filled with awe and wonder, I was trundled around its post-war austere little shops and might have been in Manchester or Liverpool for all I knew. I was perched on the railway bridge in Holmes Chapel Road to watch the black steam engines shunting wagons full of coal or salt, and concluded that Middlewich must be a great railway centre, like Crewe or Clapham Junction.
And I was taken once to Seddon Street to watch the only football match I have ever seen, and thought myself at Old Trafford.
The game was between Middlewich and, of all places, Congleton and all the days of my life I will remember the catchy little jingle the Middlewich Athletic supporters were singing:

Congleton Down The Drain,
Middlewich Pull The Chain!

Not exactly Shakespeare, of course, but it still has the power to cheer me up when the rates bill arrives from Congleton.
At that time, of course, we didn’t really know where Congleton was. It was just a town near Macclesfield, as far as we knew. We’d heard some talk about a bible and a new bear, but events on the other side of the county held no fascination for us. Certainly no one we knew had ever actually been to Congleton. After all, why should they?

pseudo-Borough

In those far-off days, long before the creation of the pseudo-Borough of ‘Congleton’ our civic affairs were looked after by the Middlewich Urban District Council, which boasted a Chairman with a greater aura of Municipal Majesty than any mere Lord Mayor. Contrast the present pallid name ‘Town Mayor’ with the resounding title, ‘Chairman Of The Urban District Council’ and you get some inkling of our sense of lost glories.
You could see the council’s initials everywhere. Even the grid-covers in the streets had M.U.D.C. stamped on them and, when I was really tiny, someone told me that the letters stood for ‘Mud Company’ and that there were men down the grids whose job it was to stir the mud all day long. It all seemed perfectly logical to me.
We were never sure what precisely the M.U.D.C. was for, but it was part of the town and part of our lives.
Two or three decades ago it was still possible to get an idea of Middlewich’s former importance from the smoke-blackened buildings and the general air of workmanlike and unglamorous efficiency.
The whole atmosphere of Middlewich shouted ‘THIS IS A WORKING TOWN’ at the top of its voice and there was an air of drab self-confidence about the place before the bulldozers moved in to rip its heart out.

Another tower

If you stood in Lewin Street and looked down towards the Town Bridge you could see a sight which no one in this world will ever see again. From this angle the Parish Church appeared to have sprouted another tower.
This tower smoked. In fact, it wasn’t really a part of the church at all; it just seemed so from that particular viewpoint. What it actually was, of course, was another of those tokens of Middlewich prosperity, a salt works chimney, looming over the heart of the town. If anyone tried to spoil the townscape in this fashion today, hands would be thrown up in horror, but then it seemed perfectly natural – the town’s two symbols side by side, church and chimney.
So much of dirty, old-fashioned Middlewich has gone, and quite right too. A lot of it deserved to be consigned to oblivion. The air is cleaner now, and so is the washing. Much has been gained but, in the process, many things have been lost; among them a sense of continuity and history.
The Urban District Council was abolished in 1974 and we are now governed from that obscure little town near Macclesfield. What was it called again?
Many of the little tumbledown shops and houses are gone. Some to make way for new developments but many – too many – to create those weed-filled, rubble-strewn waste grounds which no self-respecting town should have to put up with.
We are becoming a ‘dormitory’ town where the new breed of commuters can while away the evenings on the new estates after a hard day’s work in Crewe or Manchester.
Undoubtedly, Middlewich is fast becoming a more pleasant place to live in. In time the waste grounds will be built on; the wine bars, restaurants and bright new shops will spread and that other, older Middlewich will be just a memory.
I was walking around the town the other day reflecting on the changes of the last few years when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something which made me think that, maybe, the more things change the more they stay the same.
It was the tall, slender, metal chimney-stack of the British Salt works. Wherever you go in Middlewich you can see it, standing out on the skyline, a sort of modern, high-tech version of those old brick chimneys of former days.
Middlewich is still making salt, after all. A new generation of wallers is carrying on the old tradition up there in Cledford Lane.
Who know, there may even be a few ex-M.U.D.C. mud-stirrers still lurking in the dank darkness under Wheelock Street.
If you see one, give him my regards.

First published in The Middlewich Chronicle
Thursday October 8th 1987
© Dave Roberts 2011 

First published in 'The Middlewich Diary' 11th July 2011
Re-published 16th July 2017 to mark 30 years since first publication in the 'Chronicle' and fifty years since the end of open-pan salt making in Middlewich






Editor's note: Looking at this in 2011 I find it interesting to note the deliberately provocative language which I occasionally used: 'A massive housing estate with a church and a few shops in the middle' was never actually how I thought of Middlewich, but it would have been a good starting point for a discussion should anyone have wanted to take me up on it. And the digs at the old CBC were also a Roberts trademark of the time; a one-man campaign which later included the 'Nigel and Bill' sketches, also published by 'The Chronicle' (albeit in the 'Letters To The Editor'section). It never made the slightest difference to anyone, but, if nothing else, it gave everyone a bit of a laugh






AmandaLynne Music said...















I especially enjoyed the references to the rates bill and the Mud Company.






Dave Roberts said...















Actually, looking back into the archives, I find that the 'Nigel and Bill' saga actually began two years before this, in 1985, with the 'Congleton Borough Council Hanging Basket Sketch'. What larks!

1 comment:

  1. GERALDINE WILLIAMS11 July 2016 at 12:58

    What a wonderful stroll down memory lane Dave. We always interpreted MUDC as Mudcart....and didn't the Council relish its officious warning notices placed on all its public areas! We always called Winsford inhabitants 'Tatercakes'. Chipshops were personalised as 'Etta's', 'Huffies' (Hough's), 'Liza's' (Hopkins). Liza's (at the junction of Lawrence Gardens and Wheelock Street) back room was a stopping off point for policemen on night duty where they could enjoy a cuppa.

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