Giant strides forward for Oldham

illuminate1ILLUMINATE – the first-ever late night arts festival we’ve held in Oldham town centre – was a sparkling success.

Now that the Old Town Hall is back in business and revitalising the area, exciting new opportunities are opening up that enable us to offer completely different types of events for the public.

And Parliament Square – the new public space adjacent to it – is a perfect new location to host these events given its central location, street furniture, space and vistas.

It just gives us a whole new civic focal point where families can gather and be entertained.

illuminate3Illuminate was the first of our new regular events designed to capitalise on this and we were delighted by the public reaction.

Even though it was a four-hour long ‘drop in’ show, it was busy throughout the evening as hundreds of people braved the wintry showers. The Old Town Hall and its Lightbox made the perfect backdrop for the array of spectacular performances of drumming, lighting, choreography and dance.

A major highlight was the children’s lantern parade and there were some great street arts to see including the Spark! illuminated drummers, Global Grooves’ carnival arts version of The Tempest and The Bureau of Silly Ideas.

Gallery Oldham held an installation of ‘Shakespearian curiosities’ in its gardens, plus a visit from an illuminated vintage bus and a Stomp to the Light dance display from Oldham Theatre Workshop. It stayed open late and it was great to see so many people milling around it on an evening.

illuminate2It was also fantastic to see Oldham Parish Church playing a central part.

In recent times this Grade II* listed church – which dates back to 1830 in its current form – has felt somewhat ‘left out of things’ on the periphery of a quiet area, but not now.

For Illuminate it was beautifully lit up with spectacular 3D projections accompanied by a bells and pipes soundtrack from the church itself. Outside an installation of sound, water and mechanics by Oldham artist Mike Green added to the ambience, and I know many people kept going back up for another look.

Tours were also held in the crypt beneath the church and there was a real sense that this jewel has finally re-entered the town centre ‘scene’.

illuminate5In that crypt, of course, lies the Oldham Giant, whose five-metre puppet persona was a main attraction for the evening.

Earlier that day I had the great pleasure of meeting Tom Scholes-Fogg and his granddad, John, who had travelled from London and Slaithwaite respectively to see Illuminate.

Tom had contacted me via email after the Old Town Hall opening event last year when he was astonished to hear how his sixth great grandfather – Joseph Scholes – had been brought back to life in puppet form.

Known as a “gentle giant”, ‘Dody’ was said to have been around 6ft 7in tall and 37 stones when he died in 1814. Instantly recognisable for obvious reasons, he was probably the best-known Oldhamer of his time: especially given his work as a military recruiting sergeant and his time as governor of the Oldham weavers’ workhouse where he stood up for the rights of underfed local apprentices.

Tom showed me some of the research he has been doing into this story and shared some fascinating anecdotes.

There were thousands of people at Dody’s funeral – he’s been buried three times, which is another story in itself(!) – but it was only able to take place after the windows of his Henshaw Street home were removed once the funeral director realised he just couldn’t get his casket outside. Once on the streets it had to be carried by several groups of 12-strong coffin bearers who constantly rotated, such was the weight of the task at hand.

illuminate4The Scholes family are rightly proud that their ancestor’s story is finally getting a wider audience and it was a wonderful moment on Friday night when Tom and John met up with locally-based Debbie and Amelia Scholes – four generations of the family – to have a unique ‘selfie’ with the Oldham Giant puppet.

Tom continues to research this story further so, if you have any information or anecdotes passed down amongst your family about him, then please get in touch and let us know via an email to presspr@oldham.gov.uk with the subject ‘Oldham Giant’.

Finally, if you want to see ‘Dody’ and others there are now regular public openings of the Oldham Parish Church and the crypt on every second Saturday of the month from 9.30am to 1pm. Group/party visits can be made by prior arrangement with the church, and light refreshments are also available. I can highly recommend a visit.

Next week, I’ll be returning to more serious matters as I blog about our final Council Tax proposals for 2017-8 and the continued crisis in national underfunding for adult social care.

Jean

History in the making: heritage in our hearts

Library1IT’S GREAT to be able to report that the full funding package is now in place for the Oldham Arts and Heritage Centre.
 
As a Co-operative Council partnerships across all sectors are vital to our borough’s future and this regeneration scheme is a great example of that.
 
Oldham Council has committed £8m in funding to this project and we have now secured a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £3.37m – plus an incredible donation from Sir Norman Stoller of £4m.
 
This means funding for this phase is complete and we can now get on with delivering this exciting vision.
 
The Arts and Heritage Centre is a vital project that will improve the town centre’s cultural offer – and it underlines our determination to put heritage at the heart of our regeneration programme.
 
It’s important that future generations will have the chance to go and visit a facility where they can be inspired and learn more about our borough’s past.
This new centre will tell that story.
 
From the Industrial Revolution and our time as the cotton spinning capital of the world right up to the present day, it will use objects, storyboards, installations, media and our museum and archives collections to being that journey to life in an informative and engaging way.
 
The project will also see a new lease of life given to the grade II-listed former Library building on Union Street, which is crucial.
 
We’re acutely aware of the need to bring empty buildings back into use within the town centre conservation area.
 
We are already working hard to support existing and new businesses into the area, but there are clear challenges in getting developers interested in coming forward with solutions for larger and older buildings like this one.
 
This venue will now undergo restoration work and be fully returned to public access as the new home to our heritage showcase with gallery spaces, public research rooms and meeting spaces.
 
It will also have new educational facilities that will include opportunities for people to volunteer and train, and join in local engagement and outreach programmes. The former lecture hall will also become a performance studio space for local groups.
 
Library2The brilliant old photo (above) shows the finishing touches being put to the building just prior to its opening.
 
You can also see a poster (below right) which advertises the library’s grand event on August 1, 1883, when it was opened by Sir John Lubbock MP accompanied by a large party of fellow MPs, three Dukes, two Earls and a Marquis.
 
I have no idea yet exactly who will open the new centre – work starts on-site early next year – but a clear early candidate to do that has to be Sir Norman Stoller.
 
His philanthropy continues to astound us and we are unbelievably fortunate to have his generosity continuing to create an incredible legacy for Oldham.
 
Not only is Sir Norman an incredible example to our young people of what you can achieve in life, he is also a magnificent ambassador for the borough.
 
Since establishing The Stoller Charitable Trust in 1982 he has contributed millions of pounds to good causes and in 2014 he added a further £50m worth of shares from his personal investments into the Trust.
 
We simply cannot thank him enough for again sharing in our vision to create something that will have a big impact and benefit to residents and visitors alike.
 
Library3Looking ahead our work continues with Historic England on what possible future uses and funding can be found for other old structures in the town centre.
 
Last October we successfully pushed for the conservation area to be included on their ‘Heritage at Risk ‘register.

That might sound like an odd thing to do on the face of it, but this is actually the best thing we can do to help protect and preserve those assets.
 
It allows us to now access specialist advice and gives us the status required for certain funding sources which would otherwise have been denied to us.
 
Historic England is given targets by Government to help remove areas from the register and to dedicate time and resources to help achieve it. 
 
There are good examples in Oldham already of what can be done.
 
Our Old Town Hall project, for example, is restoring the jewel in our civic crown – and schemes like the renovation of the grade II* George Street Chapel by Age UK show how new uses can be found that align with our wider regeneration plans.
 
I am determined that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past and ignore these problems.
 
If we don’t act now to explore the possibilities then the future could be grim for many of those buildings – and that’s something we cannot allow to happen.
 
Jean