Forever my ‘home town’

I was born in Congleton, but my family moved to Leek in North Staffordshire when I was seven, in 1956. I haven’t lived in Leek for more than 50 years since I moved away to university in 1967, and afterwards to distant parts across the globe. Despite not being a native-born Leekensian, I always consider Leek, the Queen of the Moorlands, as my ‘home town’. My deep memories of Congleton are really few and far between.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I had tickets to the RHS Chatsworth Flower Show, and rather than try and make it to the show in one day from our home in north Worcestershire (a round trip of almost 200 miles by the ‘fastest’ route) we decided to spend a couple of nights in Leek, and take in other visits to Biddulph Grange Garden on the way north, and return home via Lyme Park which is southeast of Stockport.

Leek was an excellent base for these excursions. And it was a great opportunity to see how the town had changed since we were last there in September 2011. 

Leek (from Ladderedge in the west) in the 1960s, with The Roaches and Staffordshire Moorlands beyond.

Many of the mill chimneys have disappeared from the Leek skyline, but four (maybe five) buildings still stand out: the tower of the Church of St Edward the Confessor on the left, the green ‘dome’ (now grey) of the Nicholson Institute (centre), and to the right the spire of the Catholic church, St Mary’s, the Monument, and the tower of St Luke’s. What a magnificent panorama! No wonder Leek keeps drawing me back, even if it is only once in a while.

I have included here just a small sample of the photos I took during this visit. There’s a larger collection in this album for you to enjoy.


One thing that struck immediately me on this visit: just how much traffic and congestion there is in the town now. We had traveled into Leek along the Macclesfield Road and Mill St en route to our hotel, the Premier Inn next to the Monument. We followed a long line of cars and trucks (some of them behemoths).

The roundabout was removed after 2013.

The roundabout at the junction of Derby St (Leek’s main shopping thoroughfare), Haywood St and Ashbourne Road has now been replaced by traffic lights. I couldn’t fathom how this change had improved traffic flow, except that it must be easier for large commercial vehicles making their way through the town, rather than having to navigate a rather tight roundabout. Through traffic is routed this way to and from Stoke-on-Trent. 

Removal of the roundabout was a cause célèbre among Leekensians at the time. I don’t know whether that has now died down. There does seem to be some nostalgia for it on a couple of Leek Facebook groups that I joined. Personally, I quite like the ‘new’ look around the Monument and the end of Derby Street, with the development of Sparrow Park and its seating areas. But we did find one aspect very confusing. Given the layout there and along sections of Derby Street, and the types of paving used, we often did not realize which parts were traffic free or not. Or maybe I was just having a senior moment.


Leek is about half the size of where I live now, Bromsgrove. But Leek seems to be thriving better than Bromsgrove. Maybe it’s the proximity of Bromsgrove to Birmingham. But the shopping in our High St is rather run down compared to Leek.

In another blog post I commented on the high number of pubs in Leek compared to Bromsgrove. It never ceases to amaze me when wandering around the town just how many there are. However, it seems some are not doing so well, like The Quiet Woman at the bottom of St Edward St, where there was a notice stating that the pub was closed until further notice.


I was interested to see renovation in some parts of the town, such as the opening of Getliffe’s Yard, off Derby Street. I had no idea it was there, and it’s now a haven for a number of upmarket boutiques and a very decent restaurant, Leek Café Bar & Grill, with a Mediterranean (Turkish) flavour. We had an excellent meal there on our first night, washed down with a couple pints of Efes lager.

It’s good to see how a number of mills, like the one on the corner of Shoobridge Street and Haywood Street are occupied once again. But it’s also disappointing that too many are empty, particularly the one that dominates Mill Street that is now in a bad state of repair. Is conversion to apartments not feasible? After all, these mills are a solid part of Leek’s industrial heritage.


I decided to go and look at the six properties around the town where my family had lived since moving to Leek in 1956:

  • 65 St Edward Street, until 1961/62; we lived above the shop
  • 56 St Edward Street, 1962-1963
  • 26 Market Place (an apartment above the former building society that’s now Costa Coffee), 1962-1963
  • 19 Market Place, 1963-1976; we lived above the shop
  • Greystones, Stockwell Street, in the first floor apartment
  • 13 Clerk Bank – my mother (as a widow) moved here in about 1986, until 1989 when she moved into a care home.

My dad took over a photography business at No 65 when we first moved to Leek, but when the lease came up for renewal (around 1960) he knew he had to find somewhere with better footfall. In the interim we moved across the road to No 56 (taking over from a retailer of fine china) and living part-time in a room behind the shop until we found the apartment at 26 Market Place.

Around 1962/63, my parents purchased and renovated No 19 Market Place, and stayed there until their retirement in the summer of 1976. They then moved into the first floor apartment in Greystones on Stockwell Street. My father passed away in April 1980, and my mother stayed on in Greystones for a few more years before the council found her a terraced bungalow on Clerk Bank. Suffering a stroke in 1989, she moved away to a nursing home in South Wales, and our direct link with link was severed.

Behind No 19 was a ‘court’ with a couple of cottages, that were no longer occupied when we moved there in 1963. After a year or so, the cottages were demolished, and Mum and Dad began to build their urban garden. No-one passing by in the Market Place would have guessed there was such a jewel hiding there. We decided to see how it looks today, and were disappointed that subsequent residents of No 19 had let the garden decline.

Leek town centre is very much lived in. We enjoyed strolling along the streets off Derby Street, like Bath Street or Ford Street. These seem very much like communities, and can be seen radiating out from Leek town center, a legacy, no doubt, of the town’s industrial past in silk weaving.


Another thing we liked were the ‘blue plaques’ placed on various buildings around the town by the Leek and District Civic Society. Two of the properties which we’d occupied have blue plaques: 56 St Edward Street and Greystones. No 56 is now a photography business once again.

At the entrance to Clerk Bank is a small sandstone cottage, with a blue plaque stating the the Leek and Moorlands Cooperative Society (LMCS) had been founded there in 1859.

By the end of the 1890s, the LMCS had moved to a new premises on Ashbourne Road, next door to the White Lion and across the road from the Talbot Hotel, now Leek’s Premier Inn. This building was being refurbished, and the plaster reliefs depicting some of the town’s trades then were looking splendid. In style and colour they closely resembled the reliefs that adorn one of the original buildings at the Leek School of Art, now the Buxton & Leek College on Stockwell Street. I have it on good authority that the reliefs are by the same architectural sculptor, Abraham Broadbent.


Before we left Leek to return home, we couldn’t resist one last stop: Leek Oatcake Shop on the corner of Haywood Street and London Street. Delicious!


One thing I’d had forgotten was just how beautiful the Staffordshire Moorlands are. One of the finest landscapes in England. Here are a couple of dashcam videos of part of our journey to the RHS Chatsworth Flower Show on 6 June, from the Premier Inn to the Longnor turnoff on the A53 (first video), and from there to crossing into Derbyshire at Crowdecote (second video).


 

Biddulph Grange – a masterpiece of Victorian garden design

Steph and I became members of the National Trust in 2011. Since then, we have enjoyed visiting more than 100 properties in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and a handful owned by the National Trust for Scotland.

One of the first properties we visited in 2011 was Biddulph Grange Garden, between Biddulph (in North Staffordshire) and Congleton (where I was born) in southeast Cheshire. And just over a week ago, we returned for a second visit.

My family had a long connection with Biddulph Grange, way before it was taken over by the National Trust in 1988. Before then, Biddulph Grange was an orthopaedic hospital, founded by Lancashire County Council in 1928 as a hospital ‘for the crippled children of East Lancashire’.

After the Second World War, my father, Fred Jackson, joined the Congleton Chronicle newspaper as a staff photographer. His work took him around the area, within a 10 mile radius I guess of Congleton, taking photos of local events and happenings for publication in the newspaper.

Every Christmas morning he would take photos of Santa visiting all the children on the wards at Biddulph Grange. Even after our family moved to Leek in 1956, Dad (accompanied by Mum) continued to visit Biddulph Grange at Christmas. I remember visiting on many occasions, and meeting the Matron (right), but I don’t remember her name.

During our 2011 visit, there was an album of old photos taken during the hospital years, and I believe many of them had been taken by Dad over the years. There was even a photo from one of the Nurses’ Balls, that Mum and Dad would attend each year (they loved ballroom dancing), and I found Mum among the large group of ball-goers.

The National Trust now looks after the Garden, while the house has been converted to private residential apartments. By the 1980s the garden had suffered from decades of neglect during the hospital years. Now the Trust has brought the garden back to its former glory, as envisaged by the couple who designed and built the garden in the mid-nineteenth century, James and Maria Bateman.

James Bateman was a wealthy landowner (and lay preacher) who bought an old rectory at Biddulph (he moved there from nearby Knypersley Hall) in the 1840s, and set about expanding it to the house we see today. Bateman and his wife were passionate gardeners. He was a keen horticulturalist, and collector of plants from around the world.

Assisted by Edward William Cooke, the Batemans built what has become a world-famous garden. Yet the Batemans did not reside at Biddulph for more than a couple of decades. It never ceases to amaze me how landscapers and gardeners in the 18th and 19th centuries spent all their energies creating gardens they would never come to appreciate in all the glory that we can enjoy today.

Bateman and Cooke’s garden takes you around the world—China, Egypt, and Italy, among others—but the garden is divided into areas and themes. Around every corner there’s something different to see and experience, glens to weave through, tunnels to duck into, and tree-lined walks (lime and Wellingtonia) to add to the broad landscape experience.

The resurrected Dahlia Walk is a real delight in late summer. During the hospital years it had been filled in, and once the National Trust had command of the Garden, it had to be excavated almost archaeologically to reveal its former glory. It’s certainly one of the highlights of the Garden, as are the various parterres below the house.

Here is just a small sample of photos of some areas of the garden which show the garden at two different seasons. Do take a look at this photo album for many more photos.

Another interesting feature is Bateman’s Geological Gallery, now refurbished by the National Trust.