This week saw Altrincham named as The Sunday Times’ ‘Best Place to Live in the North West of England‘ – picked from a shortlist of eight locations throughout the region and described as “suburbia meets utopia“.
Top on the list of reasons why Alty won was the town’s schools, green spaces and most importantly (for me anyway) the town centre’s regeneration – which they attribute to the arrival of Altrincham Market and Food Hall back in 2014.
The market itself has been in the town for over 700 years, as it quickly established itself as a key agricultural and trade hub in the mid 1200’s. By the 18th Century, the extension of the Bridgewater Canal stimulated further industrial activity in the town and it grew exponentially as a result.
Like a lot of post-war Northern towns in Britain though, the 80s and 90s weren’t particularly prosperous for Altrincham, and by the turn of 2010, 1 in 3 of its high street shops were empty – which was actually the highest vacancy rate in the UK at the time.
Around the same time, a Parliamentary inquiry into traditional markets in towns across the UK found that the number of them in decline was greater than those that were doing well – another clear indication of the rot and slump which had set into the country’s high street – particularly in old industrial areas of the North.
So, what did Altrincham do to reverse this downward trend? And can they be used as an example to other struggling high streets?
Firstly, a big part of the redevelopment of the town is centred squarely around the famous Market Hall, which was a disused shell of its former self until it was transformed into the food hall we know and visit today.
It was a venture spearheaded by Trafford Council who at the time were looking to “bridge the gap between the traditional and the new – taking what was and bringing it up to date“.
From thereon in, the Market became the centre of the town again, and the sole reason that people began to flock to Altrincham from the surrounding areas on an almost daily basis.
The council clearly looked at the heritage of Altrincham (the market) and decided that in order to re-vitalise and improve the town they needed to bring that bang-up-to-date – improving and adapting it to a new consumer who was looking for the ‘experience’ as opposed to the ‘material’.
It’s at this point where Altrincham started to become a microcosm of the wider food and drink scene in the UK, one which continues to this day. As trends and tastes wane and fluctuate, the town’s fiercely proud community of independents respond in kind.
One such area where the town reflected this is within the café culture that exploded into London at the turn of the 10’s, brought over from the metropolitan streets of Melbourne, and then transported up North by a small group of forward-thinking entrepreneurs.
Quickly establishing themselves in the city and suburbs, the likes of Caffeine & Co, North Tea Power and Coffee Fix in Gatley began offering up freshly baked goods, top-quality locally-roasted coffee and fantastic food to an unsuspecting public used to milky tea, greasy spoons and mucky tabards.
It wasn’t long until Altrincham became the home of Blanchflower, created and run by husband-and-wife team Phil & Claire Howells, a pair who kicked things off with Caffeine & Co in the city centre before moving on to Longford Cafe and finally – the move to Alty.
Since opening up in 2014, around the time the buzz was beginning with the Market, Blanchflower quickly established themselves as a key player in the town, and one which would help bring high-quality produce and exciting food developments, all packaged up in a decade-long heritage that began when Phil & Claire were operating from a tiny 5-seater espresso bar in Spinningfields.
As the years have progressed and the trends and tastes have changed, independent operators like Blanchflower have been able to successfully navigate and adapt their businesses much more effectively than the ‘big boys’ that you’d typically find on the UK high street.
As a result, with the arrival of COVID-19 last year, many of Altrincham’s businesses have in fact THRIVED during this time.
With the explosion in the number of outdoor street food markets around the world, with food trucks turning the streets of Austin into a veritable gastronomic car park, and the industrial estates of London into weekend must-visit destinations, once again Altrincham has risen to the revolution and welcomed a whole host of food vans and street food vendors onto its streets.
Directly opposite an M&S, you’ll find Unagi – sushi masters who operate from an old Airstream caravan, as well as One Central – a new shipping container village from the team behind the similarly successful Con Club just around the corner.
Reacting to the fact that people haven’t been allowed inside venues, as well as the restrictive social distancing guidelines, these unique food and drink offerings have been enthusiastically serving the people of Altrincham throughout the pandemic – and their popularity only seems to be increasing as we come out of lockdown and into summer.
Altrincham therefore has not only acted as a microcosm of the UK’s changing food and drink scene over the years, but also as a blueprint that many of the region’s high streets should follow.
Most recently we’ve seen the proliferation of some truly fantastic independents flocking to Stockport for example, attracted by great transport links, cheap rent and a population that’s sick and tired of eating at Greggs and Bella Italia every weekend.
Even though their Produce Hall venture was a bit of a dud, schemes like Foodie Friday have been wildly successful and the arrival of restaurant Where The Light Gets In has put the town firmly on the map.
Similarly there are many other new ventures hoping to replicate the Altrincham formula to help improve quiet high streets, with Food Halls planned for Urmston and Oldham, and even more turning up in the city centre over the next 6 months.
In order for these plans to work though, it’s imperative that they all stick to the independent as a lynch pin for success, the city’s smaller, more exciting and ultimately more adaptable operators who can help transform long-forgotten towns into exciting new destinations for all.