INDEX

INDEX

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

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 That 'tall, slender, metal chimney-stack' at British Salt, for example, has gone and been replaced by another chimney of a different design.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.
Reformatted and re-published 16th July 2019.

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

*Actually it appears that the Nigel & Bill saga actually started earlier than this, in 1985 -Ed

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

THE ALHAMBRA - NINETY-NINE YEARS OF ENTERTAINMENT!


(Photo: The Local Data Company)




This was going to be a simple little diary entry called 'Going to the pictures - 1960-style' based on the press cutting above. As we went in search of photos and information on The Alhambra it suddenly occurred to us that the building celebrates its hundredth birthday in 2020, which is just a year away. So this has turned into something more than just a little look at what was on at the pictures in July 1960 - though we'll still be doing that, of course. Many thanks to all those who have contributed to this article. If you have memories, mementos and photos of The Alhambra in any of its guises, it goes without saying that we'd love to see them - Ed.

THE ALHAMBRA - NINETY-NINE YEARS OF ENTERTAINMENT

by Dave Roberts

We're grateful to Rob Dykes who last Summer sent us this scan of an Alhambra Cinema ad from The Chronicle dated 9th July 1960.

This was, you may be surprised to hear, a Saturday. 

Our local newspapers were very different publications in former days, much more akin to regional newspapers, and carried items of national and regional news as well as stories relevant to Chester and Mid-Cheshire in the case of The Chronicle series and Warrington and Mid-Cheshire when it came to the Guardian series of newspapers.

And one of the most eagerly scanned sections of the newspaper in 1960 was the cinema listings.

For the week commencing Monday 11th July, Middlewich's Alhambra was showing, as can be seen, The Shakedown starring Terence Morgan, and Destiny of a Man (wrongly printed here as Destiny of Man, which may well have given some people completely the wrong idea of the scope of the plot).


On Thursday the programme changed and audiences could see No Time To Die (aka Tank Force)  in Cinemascope and Technicolor, supported by Gun Men From Laredo starring Robert Knapp and  Jana Dupui, another Technicolor film. 

You'll note that the films shown during the second half of the week are 'U' certificate, reflecting the fact that family audiences were more likely to attend the cinema at the weekend. There appears to have been no Sunday performance at this time.

Before we take a look at the films showing in Middlewich all those years ago, here are a few observations on the advert itself and a look at other cinemas with a link to the Alhambra.


It seems odd that, as late as 1960, the telephone number should be Middlewich 18. Perhaps the low number is accounted for by the fact that Middlewich's telephone exchange at the time was just across the road from the Alhambra, at the rear of the Post Office. The very first exchange, by the way, was in Brooks Lane and one of the first operators was my Auntie Cissie (Griffiths). The Wheelock Street premises are now a betting shop.


The advert also reminds parents of the existence of the 'Children's Club' at 2pm on Saturdays. This lays to rest another long-running Middlewich mystery. I was always told by locals that 'there were never any children's matinees at the Alhambra'. And yet I can always vividly remember going there to see a matinee performance featuring the (to me) staggeringly unfunny Three Stooges. I remember the foot stamping, the jeering, the throwing of missiles and the huge amount of cheeky remarks hurled at the usher, known to one and all as 'Torchy'.

The programmes are shown as being 'continuous from 5.15'.

Here's where we bring in our guest contributor, Colin Pierpoint for the first time:


'The words "Continuous from 5.15" are significant because it meant that you could stay in all evening if it said that, and see the films more than once. Usually there was a double bill, so you got about 3 hours before it repeated.'

And it was also quite usual for people to arrive late at the cinema and start watching a film part-way through. They'd then stay until the film started again and, when the point was reached at which they'd started watching, would leave, with the time-honoured phrase, 'I think this is where we came in!'


We're  told that The Alhambra was 'A Miles Jervis Cinema'. This was a company based in West Bromwich which owned a few cinemas in the fifties and sixties, mostly in the Midlands. 

Miles Jervis Cinemas  took over The Alhambra in 1960, the year we are looking at here, at the same time that they took over the Palace in Sandbach.

The Palace was somewhat similar in appearance to The Alhambra but, sadly, has not survived, being demolished in 1985 after several years of disuse.



The Palace Cinema in Congleton Road Sandbach, in the early 1950s. Although the exterior of this cinema, as built, was quite ornate it couldn't compare with the art-deco decoration of The Alhambra, which has survived to the present day. Ironically, it was Sandbach Cinemas, owners of The Palace, who ran The Alhambra in the 1930s. (Photo: Andrew Tilley)





By the 1970s, when The Palace was in its last days as a cinema, the ornate frontage had been altered and whatever charm the building possessed largely obliterated. The Palace, like many other former cinemas, served its time as a bingo hall before succumbing to the bulldozers in the 1980s. (Photo: Sandbach Photos Past and Present)

The histories of The Palace and The Alhambra seem, to a certain extent, to be intertwined. The Alhambra was opened in 1920 and was originally owned and operated by Clement Whitehead. Sandbach Cinemas, who ran The Palace in that town, took over the Alhambra from 1930. 
Clement Whitehead also operated the Star Cinema in a building still very familiar today.

Middlewich's first cinema, The Star, now the home to 'Triffic Togs' aka 'The Cabin'. The Star was, by later standards, rather primitive, with patrons seated on wooden benches and the projector on a platform behind them. There was no separate projection room. As the Alhambra opened in 1920 The Star can only have operated for a few years. Or were the two cinemas run concurrently for a time? Does anyone know? This building, before becoming the Middlewich institution it is today, also served time as an auction house and a car repair workshop.


The Alhambra around 1970 when the building was a bingo hall. And a very popular one at that. People were bussed in from as far afield as Stoke-on-Trent, Manchester and Liverpool. At this time the shop next door, adjoining Southway, was still owned by James Vernon and was selling furniture. Later it was to become one of the many premises in the town which has housed our Post Office. It was also, for a time, home to C.A.T.S. Opticians, which can now be found right across the road. The shop later sold wedding dresses and accessories and is, of course, currently the highly popular  Drinks & Bites At No 35. On the other side of Southway the off-licence (now closed) is selling the notorious Watney's Pale Ale. (Photo: Paul Hough Collection)






The bingo hall slightly later. This is the closest we can get to a photo of The Alhambra in its cinema days. The building was altered relatively little for its new role and rumours persisted for many years that the projection equipment had been left in situ. The proscenium arch was 22 feet wide and the cinema was fitted with a Western Electric sound system around 1930 when Sandbach Cinemas took it over.

Incorporated into the elaborate scrolled decoration beneath the curved frontage is a large capital W which, presumably, stood for Whitehead.




Here are some memories of The Alhambra from Colin Pierpoint, brother of Joan Pierpoint who was a well-known dance teacher in Middlewich for many years. 


The following account was first published on the Cinema Treasures website, and is reproduced with Colin's permission:



'I spent many hours in The Alhambra as a boy. 


We saw films like Oklahoma, High and Mighty (about flying), many Tarzan films, Errol Flynn swashbuckling, and Boris Karloff horror films.

For the latter there was often a suitable noise made by someone in the audience at the back. I remember seeing The Fiend without a Face (1958 version) with a good mimic of the man who lost half his brain, from the audience.


The projectionist sometimes put the reels out in the wrong order, which made the Tarzan plot confusing.

 
Another peculiarity of the Middlewich Alhambra was that there were two ways into the auditorium with different prices. The cheaper seats were up a ramp from the ticket desk. If you paid more, the customer went up the stair to what you expected to be the circle. However, it came out at the same seating but further back! 

There were a lot of US American service men (and possibly women) in there during the second world war because there was an air base at nearby Byley.
They were very annoyed to pay more for the same seats.

Another feature of  The Alhambra in the 1950s was Tommy Wilton. He was a socially disadvantaged man who they let in every evening free of charge. 
He sat in the front row.

When he got very excited during car chases and cowboy fights, he would jump up and down in his seat. The programme was changed twice a week and Tommy attended every night, so when he already knew the plot he would stand up to tell the audience what happens next! 



When cinemascope arrived, both sides of the picture were projected over the wall and exit doors.



Eventually they got the right lens for the screen size.' 


Colin Pierpoint 8th January 2018.




Richard Denton* says, 'The Alhambra was my introduction to the world of cinema. I loved the 'Allybarmy'. From Thunder Road and It Came From Beneath the Sea to Fess Parker in the Davy Crockett movies, and Brando in Mutiny On The Bounty.
I would go at least once a week, and often twice. In those days 'Pearl & Dean' were 'Pearl, Dean and Younger'. Whatever happened to Younger?


*Richard Denton is a member of the well-known Willing-Denton family, formerly of Middlewich Manor.

Colin Pierpoint: Yes, I remember the 'Pearl, Dean and Younger' advertisements. Many had a shaky overprint which said 'Only five minutes from this cinema!' The ads were followed by a trailer for the next presentation. If the trailer was in colour, people were heard to say 'Colour!' out loud, because it was so unusual an occurrence.


And Gay Sherry, who now lives in Australia, tells us:

I remember going there in my early teens to see the Dracula horror movies. My friend and I would dash home from school, make sandwiches and a flask of tea and sit at the back terrified, more often than not the only two in the cinema at the early showing!


So what were the films showing in Middlewich that week in 1960 like? Let's take a look at them.

After being released from prison, Augie Cortona sets up a blackmail operation, fronted by a model agency. When the authorities get wind of his activities, they send in an undercover police woman, but when she is recognised, the police need to move in on the operation, before Cortona can take his revenge. The poster alone must have been enough to bring the local Middlewich lads flocking to The Alhambra. And what, we wonder, did Tommy Wilton make of it?












The story of a man (Andrey Sokolov) whose life was ruthlessly crippled by World War II. His wife and daughters were killed during the bombing of his village, he spent some time as a prisoner, and his only son was killed in action only a few days before the victory...
Hardly a bundle of laughs, by the sound of it.




During WW2 in North Africa, an American sergeant serving with the British 8th Army is captured by the Germans but he hatches various plans of escape from the POW camp. Retitled No Time To Die in the UK. A British film, but made very much in the style of a Hollywood blockbuster. Middlewich will have loved it.

One of thousands of Western potboilers, a genre very popular at the time, both at the cinema and on TV. This one's about some Gunmen from Laredo.

So there we are. Your entertainment for the week commencing Monday July 11th 1960.





The Alhambra itself, as it was in 1937,  features in a film showing the Middlewich Coronation celebrations of that year. The film was made on 16mm film by the Mid-Cheshire Amateur Cinematography Society and was actually shown at the Alhambra shortly afterwards, on a projector placed halfway down the centre aisle. 

Imagine the excitement of some Middlewichians who were able to see themselves in the same cinema and on the same screen where they were used to seeing the Hollywood stars of the day.

You can see the film, which also features many other familiar Middlewich scenes,  by clicking on the link below.


A Salt Town Presentation



And here are some personal reminiscences of a trip to The Alhambra in 1963, on a day that has gone down in history.






We don't have a date for the closure of The Alhambra as a cinema, but we know it was open as late as 1966. If anyone can supply us with the dates that the cinema closed and the bingo hall opened, we'd be very grateful. The building was used for several purposes over the intervening years between its cinema days and its re-purposing as a Chinese restaurant. As well as the bingo hall, there was also a snooker club and, for a brief and controversial period in the 1980s, an amusement arcade.




This 1988 photo by Daniel Preston gives us a tantalising glimpse of the frontage of the building when the amusement arcade was providing entertainment to youngsters in a pre-computer games era, and incurring the wrath of adults who considered it the root of all evil and the cause of all trouble in the town. There were regular calls for it to be closed down. 






Bill Armsden's celebrated study of The Alhambra from 2012. Yet again the signage has been changed. The building has carried all manner of electric signs over the years but, in its cinema and bingo hall days, made do with the words THE ALHAMBRA in plasterwork above the door. Those words are still there and have helped ensure that whatever the building has been used for over the years, it has retained its time-honoured name. Even at night it's possible to see that the art-deco frontage itself was looking a little the worse for wear during this period. The shop next door was a bridal shop at this time. By 2013 it had become Drinks & Bites at No. 35









Yet another change of sign for The Alhambra. This photo from the Local Data Company shows the restaurant during the period it was closed. It has since re-opened. The frontage has been cleaned, tidied and repainted and now looks much as it must have done in 1920.



THE PRESENT-DAY ALHAMBRA






The Alhambra is a remarkable survivor. For nearly a hundred years it has served Middlewich as an entertainment venue and its current owner, David Cantona Lee is keen to bring all kinds of entertainment to this iconic Middlewich venue.

One intriguing and very appropriate idea is the possibility of once again screening movies at The Alhambra. The introduction of lightweight, high-quality digital equipment has meant that this is now a real possibility, rather than the pipe-dream it once was.
Cine-dining is becoming more and more popular all over the world and, who knows, Middlewich might become part of the movement.

It would certainly be very fitting for the building's centenary.


To find out what's happening right now at The Alhambra, check out their Facebook Page:


                  ALHAMBRA BAR AND ENTERTAINMENT ON FACEBOOK




Alhambra advertisements for New Year's Eve 2016 and 2018

Many thanks for coming with us on this little trip into the Alhambra's past. There is, of course, a lot more to tell and we just know that people will have a lot to tell us about their experiences of The Alhambra over the years.

But, for now......I think this is where we came in....




UPDATE - 29th MARCH 2019.
Photo courtesy of David Cantona Lee

The Alhambra was reborn as a restaurant on the 29th March 1999. Here's a photo taken on the opening night and featuring well-known local residents including the then Mayor of Middlewich, Fred Johnson. Please don't hesitate to get in touch and  help us put names to faces.

The Alhambra's twentieth anniversary as a restaurant coincided with the weekend of Mother's Day 2019.




UPDATE:

In July 2019, after another period of closure, it was announced that The Alhambra was to re-open as a branch of the Italian Restaurant chain Il Padrino.

Many Thanks To:

ROB DYKES
COLIN PIERPOINT
DAVID CANTONA LEE
RICHARD DENTON
CINEMA TREASURES
THE LATE BILL ARMSDEN
DANIEL PRESTON
THE LOCAL DATA COMPANY LTD
GAY SHERRY

First published 16th January 2019
Updated and re-published 29th March 2019 (the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Alhambra Chinese Restaurant)

Updated and re-published 10th July 2019.